Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost – July 19, 2020 – Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister
Isaiah 44:6-8; Ps 86:11-17
Rom 8: 12-25; Matt 13:24-30, 36-43
Early yesterday morning, I took my dog for a walk; then I washed my hands. Later, we went to Mount Royal Park; then I washed my hands. I bought a sandwich and brought it home; then I washed my hands. I took it out of the bag, discarded the wrapper, and tipped the sandwich onto a plate; then I washed my hands. Before bedtime, I disinfected my door handles, my light switches, and my kitchen counter. Then I washed my hands. All which is to say: I am keenly aware right now that there are certain things which belong in my home, and certain things which might do me harm, and I am doing my level best to keep the harmful ones out. And so I have a certain amount of sympathy for the owner of the field in Jesus’ parable.
And, really, who wouldn’t feel sympathy for this bloke? Anyone who has ever tried to tend a garden knows the dance of hope: Spring comes; the snow melts; the scent of damp earth rises. The flowers and vegetable plants begin to call your name. And so you come home laden with beauty, and you turn the beds and gently cushion the plants in the dark earth and you pour in water and you wait in hope, and: Whammo! Weeds! So many weeds! It’s maddening even if it’s just your flower garden, but this man, the landowner, was planting what he needed to grow in order to live. The more sun and nutrients the weeds took, the smaller the harvest would be. Little wonder, then, that the workers were troubled, that they wanted to remove the interlopers: that field was going to feed them, too. And so it’s a bit strange to hear the owner of the field refuse, saying, “Let both grow together until the harvest.” (Matt 13:30)
Few interpreters think this story is really about weeds. The most common exposition sees it as an image of the human heart: God made our heart. God filled it with good things. God poured in God’s own love. And yet, when God looked in us for a fruitful harvest, sin had appeared. The prophet Isaiah tells a similar story about Israel, how God had planted Israel with God’s own Torah law, but when God looked for justice, he found only a cry, and stain of blood in the soil of the land (Isaiah 5: 1-2, 7). Jesus himself picks up on this in his own parable of the wicked husbandmen, in which the landowner prepares the land and fences it and makes a winepress, but the husbandmen kill the landowner’s messengers rather than yield the fruit of the harvest to its owner (Mark 12:1-12; Matthew 21: 33-46; Luke 20: 9-19). All three stories point to something fundamentally broken in us: that life is gift, that every breath in our body is gift, that God’s love is gift — but we do not return the love which God and our neighbor deserve.
Most of us know this from our own lived experience. Any of us could speak of a time when we did not love enough, or well enough, or when we loved deeply, but not in the way that the other person needed to be loved. Most of us can speak of broken resolutions; of attempts to grow which fizzled out; of times when we looked in our own hearts and were horrified by what we found there. Who among us does not yearn, secretly or openly, to be better than we are: to be pure of heart and strong of will, to yield rich wheat, and no harvest of shame at all? We examine ourselves; we confess our faults; we ask for grace to do better — and so it is a bit disturbing to hear the landowner say, “let it be.” Is that really what God means? Does God not want us even to try?? It is unsettling, to say the least.
More unsettling still is the other way this parable can be read: not as speaking of impure impulses in our hearts and in our lives, but of impure people in our societies. We may not often speak of others as weeds, but certain politicians and influencers make no bones about describing whole swaths of people as vermin, rapists, thugs, undesirables — as beings not quite human. We make laws to keep such people under constraints: not only laws of criminal justice, but immigration codes designed to let in certain groups of people, and not others. In the 1950’s, Canada decided to admit large numbers of women from Caribbean islands to work as domestic servants — with the provision that if one of them became pregnant, she would be subject to immediate deportation. And a few years ago, the Chinese government hastily recalled some mummies from a traveling archeological exhibit because the preserved remains from several thousand years ago suggested that the population of a disputed region had not always been Han Chinese. Most cultures have an idea of purity, and devise quite creative ways to enforce it. In Jesus’ own time, the Samaritans were shunned, people half-Hebrew whose ancestors had intermarried with pagans; it was scandal when Jesus decided to speak with them, and even to make them welcome.
That scandal should point us to the true challenge in this parable: that whatever the story means, it is clear that the owner of the field cares a lot less about purity than we do. The workers in the field yearn for a monoculture of the earth — one crop, one culture, one language, one faith. But God did not create a simplistic earth. God created a web of great complexity — in our hearts, in the world, and in our lives. Perhaps the challenge is to accept that complexity, to welcome a great tangled skein of life which exceeds our capacity to comprehend and our ability to control.
Last week, I learned of the work of the Japanese ecologist Akira Miyawaki, who developed the idea of addressing ecological pressures by cultivating small urban forests. Miyawaki experimented with planting a large variety of native species very close together; the resulting plantings grew ten times faster than conventional forests, stored forty times as much carbon, and hosted one hundred times more biodiversity. In direct contrast to Western, monoculture forestry, it is the interplay between the species which gives the growth and promotes the flourishing of all.
What if God created all this complexity for a purpose? The parable challenges us to resist premature closure, not to make judgments which ought to be in God’s hands. Even the division into “good plants” and “bad” ones assumes a unitary purpose: they must be good or bad for something. Wheat is meant to be eaten; weeds, most likely not. But what we consider to be a weed — an unwanted plant, an undesirable person — may be good for something else. Many weeds which are toxic to eat yet have medicinal uses. It may yet be that the very plants and people we have driven from the land turn out to have the gifts to bring us through the challenges of a changing climate. Sarah Miles writes, “We’re being called to something harder than being conventional ‘Good Samaritans.’ To understand ourselves, individually and as a church, being rescued by strangers and foreigners, by the wrong people… Called to receive love from people we don’t know and have no reason to trust. And only then, in turn, being called to the second part – knowing it will change us in ways we didn’t plan and may not like.” 1.
Jesus compares this field to the Kingdom of Heaven; others among his parables support this kind of subversive reading. Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a pearl of great price — a pearl is formed around an irritant, something which troubles the oyster. The Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a mustard seed, a tiny thing which grows and grows until it can shelter the birds of the air. But mustard was an invasive weed; at the time of Jesus, it was forbidden to plant it in a garden. The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast which a woman hid in a batch of dough — but yeast is effective precisely because it is not flour. It is a contaminant which becomes the life of the bread. Over and over, Scripture gives us hints that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, nor our ways God’s ways. That God’s eyes see farther than ours, more deeply and more true. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
What, then, are we to do? Are there no standards, no way to tell what is right and what is wrong? Not so fast. God is our rock, and there is no other. (Isaiah 44:8) The parable makes clear that there is an enemy, whose work is evil. What it invites us to reconsider is our certainty that we see already who and what the Enemy is. Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, reminds us that “there are indeed moral universals…but they exist to make space for cultural and religious difference.” 2. Thou shalt not kill, for example, makes sense as a commandment only if we imagine differences so significant that they might make us want to kill. The moral universals open space for us to allow one another to live.
Indeed, it is that very forbearance which holds the possibility of allowing us to see past our apparent difference. Sacks writes, “Because we know what it is to be a parent, loving our children, not children in general, we understand what it is for someone else, somewhere else, to be a parent, loving his or her children, not ours. There is no road to human solidarity that does not begin with moral particularity – by coming to know what it means to be a child, a parent, a neighbour, a friend. We learn to love humanity by loving specific human beings. There is no short-cut.” 3.
St. Paul reminds us that our very salvation depends on hope — and hope takes the long view. He writes, “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom 8:19-21) Just as the landowner waits until harvest to see what is truly nourishing and what might need to be burned, so the creation itself waits to see who is a child of God. For the children of God are not born, but made: made by the gratuitous act of adoption by God before we could have deserved anything like love. Made, too, by our own choices, by the daily discipline of loving precisely what seems to be beyond love — in our world, in the people around us, and even in our own hearts. When we stand before God, one song will be on our lips:
My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh, and die?