A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
August 3, 2014
Psalm 139:1-12; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
We don’t live in the fanciest neighborhood in Little Rock, Janet and I. It’s very nice and well-kept. We like our neighbors, most of whom are retired, and they seem to like us. Judy Mobarak, one of our church members, lives next door, and the Gardners, Betty and Chuck, are a block to the west and down the street a bit. I enjoy it when Betty or Chuck come by walking their dog Maggie. She’s a long-haired Dachshund mix that they rescued. When Maggie sees me, she immediately comes over and rolls on her back. She loves my belly rubs.
Our neighbors take good care of their yards. The lawns are well-manicured and the landscaping, for the most part, is quite attractive. It’s a small neighborhood. We’ve been there twelve years, longer than any house we’ve occupied in all our years of marriage. And though we don’t know all our neighbors, it’s quiet and safe, and we enjoy living there.
Which is why I hate to admit that for several years we had the ugliest yard around. The grass on the south side of our house was just in terrible shape. Before it really got bad, I hired a well-known lawn company to come out and take care of it, thinking that if I gave attention to it we could still save the grass and bring it back to health. The fellow who drove the big white truck with all the hoses told me the culprit was grubs, and that grubs are blown in by the wind. I asked him why the wind had not evidently blown the grubs into my neighbors’ yards, since their grass seemed to be so healthy. He just shrugged his shoulders. I wasn’t trying to be a smart-aleck about it, but it seemed he didn’t really have the answer for my problem, and was just making stuff up… making stuff up that was going to cost me money.
After a couple years, I called the company. “I’ll give you this year,” I told them, “to get my grass back in decent shape. If something doesn’t change, I’ll have to let you go.” That fall it was worse, so I called them back. The young lady who took my call seemed honestly surprised when I told her that I was firing them. “Well, I gave you fair warning,” I told her. I’m sure it hurt her feelings.
After awhile, the only thing green on that side of my yard was the moss. I know my neighbors were talking about me. I was talking about me. So last fall, we bit the bullet and hired some folks to come in and tear it all up, add fill dirt, and re-sod that portion of our lawn. I won’t tell you how much it cost. It’s embarrassing how much it cost. But they did a good job, and now, when I’m outside, my neighbors come by and compliment me on how nice my lawn looks.
I also put in some new plants this spring, both perennials and annuals, to add some color to the new, green grass. The plants have grown – we’ve uncharacteristically had a lot of rain to go with our cool temperatures this summer, haven’t we? – and really look nice. But now I’ve noticed that the weeds have started to come up amongst the plants. I was sorely tempted a few Saturdays ago, before we went to Florida, to do some weeding, but it turned really hot and humid. And then I thought of this parable Jesus told, the one we read earlier about the wheat and the weeds, and I let the urge pass quietly.
“Do you want us to go and gather them?” the slaves ask the master, referring to the weeds that have been sown by the enemy. “No,” the master says, “let both of them grow together.” Sounds good to me, and that was justification enough for me to stay inside.
You know, don’t you, that you can use scripture to justify just about anything? That even goes for not doing yard work. I suppose, however, that I’ll have to take care of those weeds pretty soon. Don’t want the neighbors to start talking bad about me again. And besides, I planted Vinca and Celosia, as well as a few begonias… not wheat. There will be no fall harvest at 1302 Hunters Cove Drive.
But it is indeed a natural impulse to want to pull the weeds. And that goes, not just for yard work, but for life. When you see someone misbehave, or at least misbehave according to your standards, don’t you want to just put a knot in their neck and tell them to straighten up and fly right? Boy, if I were elected to be on the local city council, I’d go to Washington and tell those do-nothings a thing or two! I can pull weeds with the best of them!
Did you read a couple of weeks ago in the newspaper about a local police sergeant who was arrested for beating up on his teenage son? What did they argue about? About the boy not wanting to go to church and not cleaning up his room. Just yank those weeds right now before they get out of hand.
You know what the problem is with that, don’t you? According to the way Jesus tells the story, there’s always the chance that when you pull weeds you yank up some of the good wheat along with it. It seems there’s always collateral damage when that kind of thing occurs. After all, when men go to war, children die.
I’ve told you before about an experience I had in a previous church quite a few years ago. It was a young congregation, so young that they celebrated their fourth anniversary my first day with them… and I was their third pastor! One of the lay leaders, who was a retired supervisor, wanted the church to run like the corporate division he had led for a number of years. So he came up with a plan to keep the church rolls clean. He told me he had seen evidence of too many churches that kept “loose” records, and this new church provided the perfect opportunity to serve as a model of how to do it right. Get control of the situation from the get-go and it would prevent problems down the road.
This was his plan: If a member did not attend for a certain period of time – say three months or so – that person received a letter. It basically said something like this, “We have missed you and hope to see you again soon.” Back in those days, had we known what a smiley face was, he might have put one at the bottom of the letter. Nah, on second thought, that didn’t fit his rather stern nature. Another three months of absence called for another letter, one with a bit of a heavier tone to it. It went something like this: “We haven’t seen you in quite a while. Don’t make us come after you.”
Additional absences, or a lack of response to the letters, would be followed by phone calls or personal visits. If, after about a year the person didn’t respond or make an effort to return, and certainly didn’t contribute anything financially, his or her name was stricken from the church membership roll. Can’t have any weeds growing up in our wheat field, don’t you know.
The intention was good, I suppose. Giving that kind of attention to absentee members is what the church – any church – ought to be doing. But the motivation for doing it may not have been the best. It should not be the purpose of the church – any church – to keep its records clean. If you’re going to pursue inactive members, it should be because you care deeply for those folk and want them to be, once again, an active part of the fellowship.
That doesn’t mean we are to do nothing, that we simply stand by letting whatever will be will be. When bad things happen, what do we do? We immediately want to start pulling weeds. But before we put on our work gloves and head for the fields, maybe we better understand something. In our impatience we might make things worse than they were before. Why? Because, who determines who is a weed and who is wheat?
Jesus isn’t telling his disciples to do nothing… quite the opposite. He put a lot of stock in action. He called his followers to be those who wage peace, who share the good news, who bandage hurts and bind up wounds. Jesus called us to be out there in the world where the weeds are, on mission, doing his will.
It’s when we realize that our bandages aren’t enough and the good news is often overshadowed by the bad, it’s when the wounds are too deep and we don’t have the resources with which to heal them and we are overcome with despair, it is when have become weary in well-doing, as the saying goes, and it appears we have little or nothing to show for our efforts… that is when we start seeing the weeds and want to just start yanking. But again, who determines who is a weed and who is wheat?
That’s an important question for Matthew. Once again we find a parable of Jesus that is only in the first gospel. You won’t find it in Mark or Luke. And there is a reason for that. I remind you that Matthew’s readers, or his congregation, are struggling in a post-apocalyptic world where everything has been turned upside down and inside out. The Romans have put down a revolt against their leadership, and Jerusalem is in rubble. The temple has been destroyed, and the inner workings of the Jewish hierarchy has been scattered.
Now, these early followers of Jesus – who, to the Romans, just look like any other of the Jews – are trying to figure out how to be wheat. Everywhere they turn, as far as the eye can see, they are surrounded by weeds. How can they possibly have a harvest when they can’t see beyond the weeds? Jesus’ parable is the answer, as far as Matthew is concerned.
Jesus’ very first phrase is significant, and we tend more often than not just to read over it without taking note of it. It simply seems like a harmless lead-in to the parable, but it goes far beyond that. Jesus begins his story by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” It is important that we pay attention to that phrase. “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” Or, if I may paraphrase, “This is the way it is in the kingdom…” or “That’s the way things are done in heaven…”
Jesus is drawing a comparison. When he says this, we can be very certain that what he’s telling us is that the way it’s done in the kingdom of heaven is quite different from the way it’s done here on earth. By telling us this he is suggesting, I think, that we could use a little more heaven on earth. But the reality is, earth isn’t doing a very good job of resembling heaven. It is a full-time – it is an over-time – job to bring heaven to bear upon this sinful, weed-covered earth, and sometimes we who so desperately want to be wheat become discouraged by a lack of results to our efforts. What do we do? We put on our work gloves and double up on our weed-pulling.
It is one of the greatest features about Jesus’ teaching and preaching ministry. His stories, his miracles, his words and actions all serve to bridge the huge gap between earth and heaven. When Jesus healed a person’s illness or brought someone back to life, it wasn’t to show off, to reveal his power or superiority over other religious leaders. It was to show how things are in the kingdom. In the kingdom of heaven there are no illnesses, there is no death. Jesus was bridging the gap.
That is exactly what he is doing with this story… bridging the gap, revealing how things are in the kingdom of heaven. So he begins his parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” “This is the way things are done in heaven…”
When evil invades that which is good — which is what has happened with the wheat and the weeds — how would heaven respond? With great patience, Jesus says. With great patience and love and grace. To see the world with God’s ancient and loving eyes, to love the world as it is and not just as we want it to be… that is the key to bringing a little bit of heaven to earth.
The Irish call it “the thin places,” when heaven and earth come close together and there is very little discernible difference between the two. It is a mystical, not to mention very rare, time when that occurs. But when it does, it is the kind of moment you can’t help but savor. For it to happen, it requires that we live – patiently, redemptively, caringly – with the weeds.
To live amongst the weeds is to acknowledge that God is in control, and to understand that this is what he has called us to do: live simply, do our best to follow Jesus, and leave the rest to God. It is indeed the way of the kingdom, letting the wheat and the weeds grow together. After all, is it beyond God’s ability to eventually turn the weeds into wheat? I’ll leave you to answer that question for yourself.
Lord, we see weeds everywhere we turn. Give us patience to see with your eyes and not just our own. And then find us responding redemptively to your children… whoever they are. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.