Living with Weeds

The wheat and the tares

Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 13: 24 – 30, 36 – 43.  The Parable of the Wheat & the Tares.  Focus on how it works to let both grow together in us and within others.

To put it mildly God’s methods of farming are unorthodox. God isn’t the least bit concerned with flinging seeds everywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s good soil or not God just seems to get a kick out of throwing seeds where ever the wind blows.

So I guess it should come as no surprise that when it comes to weeding God should be any different. Every gardener and farmer I’ve ever known has to pull up weeds. I used to spend the better part of my summers working on my Uncle’s farm doing just that in his bean fields.

We called it walking the beans. And beginning at 5:30 a.m., or at first light, which ever came first, when the bean fields were still wet with dew, my cousins Jay, Billy and I would be walking the beans picking out anything that wasn’t a bean.

I can’t begin to tell you how great it would have been if my uncle Bill had come in at 5:00 a.m. to tell us, “Boys, Don’t bother getting up. I’ve decided to let the weeds grow up along side the beans this summer.” Unfortunately that never happened so I guess the question becomes why would it make sense to weed a bean field but not a wheat field?

And the answer lies in the type of weed that our passage speaks about. It’s the darnel weed – a type of weed that grows in the wheat fields of Israel and Syria. It’s a very clever weed too, because early in its growth cycle it looks exactly like wheat. But there’s one big difference between their respective seeds. A darnel seed is poisonous and if enough of them turn up in the bread dough they can cause blindness even death.

So it makes complete sense that the field hands come to the boss and ask him if he wants them to go out and pull them out of the wheat field. But our farmer says: “No! Let them grow together.” And the question becomes why? And I think there are at least three reasons why it works for the darnel and wheat to grow together until the harvest.

The first reason has to do with the way the darnel weed survives. It wraps its roots around the wheat so that you can’t yank up the weed without yanking up the wheat. Better to let them grow together until the harvest says the farmer, “For in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at the harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them into bundles to be burned and then the wheat into my barns.”

Which brings us to the second reason for letting these weeds grow with the wheat. In first-century Palestine, lumber was hard to come by and the way you heated your home and cooked your meal either with manure or dried weeds. By letting the weeds and the wheat grow together, farmers had almost everything they needed to make bread: wheat for the flour and weeds for the fire. The only think needed was a little patience, a little tolerance for a temporary problem, until everything could be put to good use at the harvest.

Which brings us to the third reason our farmer waited until the harvest to separate the wheat from the weeds. Wheat seeds are heavier than darnel seeds. So what happens is the wheat bends over and the darnel stands straight up. All that a reaper has to do is come along and sickle away the taller standing darnel weeds and then gather the lower hanging heads of wheat.

It’s a brilliant solution to an ancient problem. How are we to respond to the weeds in our lives and in our world? We can do what we’ve always tried to do, which is to eradicate them, but when we do this we run the risk of killing off those qualities within ourselves and those in our midst, which are good.

On Good Friday Rev. Dale Buettner, the pastor over at 2nd Reformed shared a story that describes to a tee what Jesus is talking about in our parable. The story takes place in Hollywood, a culture not known for its forgiveness or love. Dog eat dog is more like it. And yet in 2011 it became for a moment a place where what Jesus is talking about in our parable was clearly seen.

The occasion was in honor of Robert Downey Jr. who was receiving the American Cinematheque Award, a big deal in Hollywood, and Robert Downey Jr. was allowed to choose who would present him with the award and he chose Mel Gibson.

To say that Mel’s reputation had taken a serious nose dive in recent years would be a huge understatement. An arrest for drunk driving in 2006 in which the actor – director spewed racist and anti-Semitic epithets was followed by public infidelity and a high profile divorce in 2009 which culminated in 2010 with tapes of a drunken Gibson berating his girlfriend in the most foul manner imaginable.

Robert Downey Jr.’s award ceremony took place a little more than a year after that final incident, the one that cemented Gibson’s place as persona non grata in Tinsel town.

Of course, Downey was no stranger to ostracism. In the 1990’s he became a bit of a punch line himself as someone notoriously unable to kick a violent addiction to drugs and alcohol. Arrest after arrest, relapse after relapse, people began to think of him not as an actor but as a junkie. Professionally he became a liability because insurance companies wouldn’t underwrite any film that he was a part of.

Eventually he got sober and his career slowly got back on track with the help of Mel Gibson. In 2008 he was cast as Iron Man and the rest, as they say, is history. Today he is one of the highest grossing actors in Hollywood. So the award coincided with the very height of his popularity and the very lowest point of Gibson’s.

Instead of using his acceptance speech to give the usual “aw shucks” to the crowd of adoring colleagues and a doff of his hat to his agent and family, Downey did something unprecedented. And this is what Robert Downey Jr. said.

I asked Mel to present this award to me for a reason. Because when I couldn’t get sober, he told me not give up hope, and he urged me to find my faith – didn’t have to be his or someone else’s – as long as it was rooted in forgiveness. And since I couldn’t get hired he cast me in the lead in a movie that was actually developed for him. He kept a roof over my head, and he kept food on the table. And most importantly, he said that if I accepted responsibility for my wrongdoings and embraced that part of my soul that was ugly – “hugging the cactus” as he calls it – he said that if I “hugged the cactus” long enough, I would become a man of some humility and my life would take on new meaning.

And I did and it worked. All he asked in return was that someday I help the next guy in some small way. It’s reasonable to assume that at the time he didn’t imagine the next guy would be him, or that some day would be tonight.

Anyway, on this special occasion… I humbly ask that you join me – unless you are completely without sin, in which case you’ve picked the wrong industry – in forgiving my friend his trespasses, offering him the same clean slate you have me, and allowing him to continue his great and ongoing contribution to our collective art without shame. He’s hugged the cactus long enough.

And this short speech offers the final and most important reason why God wants to let the wheat and the weeds grow together, because we human beings unlike weeds do in fact have the capacity to change who we are with God’s help. This story is a beautiful example of the fruit that is produced when we don’t try to cut the weeds down prematurely. When we give ourselves and others a chance to grow up.

Downey’s ability to extend mercy was the direct result of having been a weed himself. And his plea on behalf of Gibson was rooted in the humility about his own sin and gratitude for the love that had been shown to him.

It’s not easy being wheat, especially when there are so many weeds surrounding us and growing up within us, but what the farmer seems to know is that the only real solution to eradicating sin is by offering us love and mercy. You see it’s our job to bear fruit or wheat in this case, not to judge or try and eradicate sin even if it means living in a messy field at times. Our job is to go on bearing witness to the one who planted us and hopefully has taken root in us.

And the promise is simply this. By staying true to our roots and to the one who has planted us, we are to believe him when he tells us that in the final harvest all the issues of justice and righteousness will be taken care of so long as we leave the judgment in his hands.

Grace alone produces the fruits of change and transformation. It is pure gift. It is our only comfort, our deepest relief, and our greatest hope. It is the way of love. Amen



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