Sunday, July 20, 2014

Pentecost 6A

After all the recent rain, the tiny weeds in my yard have grown super-sized, daring me to yank them.

I have a bit of experience in this area. When I was a kid I pulled a lot of weeds. Weeds in the driveway. Weeds in the flower bed. Weeds in the garden. Sometimes my mom watching from inside would come bursting out of the house yelling, “No! Not those! Those are radishes!”

To the uninitiated, it’s hard to tell the difference.

Weeds. No one likes them. The first impulse is to snatch them out by their roots. To get rid of them before they cause more to grow until they’ve taken over the garden. 

But while that may be good gardening advice, Jesus tells us to let them grow. To let them flourish. Because if we are too hasty in getting rid of the weeds we might take out some of the good plants as well.

And, if that’s true, the question is how to live with the weeds. How do we resist the temptation to get on our hands and knees and pull out those pests who are stealing much needed nutrients from the carrots without offering anything in return?

Maybe what’s harder to take in this parable is that Jesus says we’re to let the weeds grow WITH the wheat – not just putting up with the weeds – no, Jesus is saying that we are to live with those we are totally convinced are weeds. 

Jesus isn’t painting a picture of a gardener unsure if those little green plants growing by the rose bushes are primroses he planted or just a mysterious weed – but instead, it’s bold and brazen thistles growing beside your prized cabbages. 

And it might be best to leave well enough alone, he says. Especially when we realize he’s not actually offering gardening tips, but is teaching us something about each other. That life can’t be divided up as neatly as we might want it to. That our relationships can’t be easily packaged. That people are more than the label we slap on them.

A year after I finished my internship there, a young woman appeared at Zion Lutheran Church in Sault Ste Marie, ON. She was professional, competent, enthusiastic, and willing to serve. So, the congregation did with her what good congregations do –  they affirmed the gifts they saw in her and put her on church council. She said she had an accounting background so she was elected treasurer.

The next year, at synod convention, the pastor (Pr. Jim Garey) and Zion’s delegate were going through the financial statements and they noticed a discrepancy: the number that was reported in Zion’s annual report on how much money they gave to the synod and the number the synod reported as having received were two VERY different numbers.

Upon investigation, it turned out that this young woman, so professional, so competent, and so enthusiastic, embezzled thousands of dollars from the church.

She was a weed thriving among the wheat.

On the other end of the synod, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, the church I was serving as co-pastor my former spouse, we had a guy who was obsessive about two things: finances and proper governance. He’d been at the church for over 50 years and held probably every position there is to be had in the church - except for pastor and ELW president.

He liked things done a certain way – his way. And if you didn’t do things his way, he got angry - VERY angry. 

When he was treasurer, if he didn’t like what the council decided to spend money on, he would refuse to write the cheque. 

If he thought that the church wasn’t following proper procedure, as he understood it, he would stand up at the AGM and with all the sound and bluster worthy of Winston Churchill, would bang his fist on the table, and condemn the actions of an “incompetent council” and “ill-trained pastors.”

He’d been known to chase people off of church council and out of the church over the smallest financial disagreement.

And then there were the memos. The year that Rebekah, my former spouse, was on maternity leave with our daughter Sophie, and I was on my own at the church, I must have received over 300 memos from this man (literally - 300! in the space of a year), memos to me, memos to church council, and every so often, memos to synod office. 

Memos on how I didn’t follow “proper procedure” when developing a new program or project. Memos detailing mistakes he thought the counters had made. Memos on how church council made a “wrong” decision. Even memos to the bishop, correcting episcopal mistakes. Memo upon memo upon memo.

This guy was a weed. I was amazed that the church hadn’t yanked him out years ago.

However, this is the same guy who spent his Sunday afternoons visiting shut-ins. This is the same guy who would be the first one to greet church visitors with a wide smile and friendly handshake, making sure they received the best welcome the church could provide. This is the same guy who sat up all night with a long time member of the church who had no family, and who was dying, because, he said, “No one deserves to die alone.”

It’s funny how weeds and wheat can look remarkably similar. 

But it’s so easy to confuse the two, isn’t it? It’s so easy to divide the world into weeds and wheat. It’s so easy to place people into two camps. 

It so easy to want to designate people, to impose identities, to inflame differences, to turn people against each other, to encourage divisiveness as a way of maintaining comfortable entrenchments.

Dividing the world between weed and wheat creates conflict, which destroys communities, families, and lives.

Israel and Palestine. Russia and Ukraine. Liberal and conservative. Caucasian and people of colour. Rich and poor. Gay and straight. French and English. East and west.  Protestant and Catholic. Christian and muslim. I could go on, because that’s how we usually like things. That’s how we usually divide up the world.

However, I’m not naive enough to think that all human beings are, at the core, the same, that individual uniqueness doesn’t matter when held up against the great mass of humanity that is trying to just get through the day.

To ignore people’s distinct characteristics is to ignore the person God has made them. And to say that human beings are just “all the same” comes from a place of privilege, because I can downplay my uniqueness since I have never been told to hide my identity for fear of harm because of it. 

I’ve never been told that I was lesser than someone else because of who I am. I’ve never been excluded because of my background, skin colour, or gender. In fact the opposite is true. Because of those things I’ve had opportunities that were denied to others who were not like me.

To say that we are “all the same” robs people of the opportunity to wear their identity with pride, when they might have been told their whole lives, and with the lives of generations before them, that they are less than others, that some feature of their being diminishes them when ranked next to someone else, that they play a smaller role in the world because of their difference, that they are weeds among the wheat.   

So, this is not to gloss over important distinctions, but to celebrate uniqueness, and to resist the urge to impose weed status on someone who isn’t quite like us, especially when we just assume that we are wheat. 

It’s to remember that people are more than the label we give them or the label they give themselves. People are more than the sum of their worst deeds, and better than their best moments.

That’s why it’s not our job to separate the weeds from the wheat. Our track record is spotty at best.

Leaves the weeds alone, the gardener says. Let the weeds and wheat grow together. Don’t think you’ll be able to tell at first glance which is which. Don’t be so hasty to pull the weeds or you might find yourself with a handful of wheat.

So, which are you? Weed or wheat? I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll know that we are both. None of us is pure weed and none of us is unsullied wheat. We instinctively know that we have within us both the capacity for great kindness and tremendous cruelty.

We have moments of failure and occasions of greatness. We have times when we look with indifference on the suffering of others, and we have instances when we step up and respond to human need with overwhelming generosity. We have days when compassion deserts us, and we have times when love and care overflow.

We are inconsistent. We are weed. And we are wheat. Together. At the same time.

But God, the great gardener, who sows the wheat, tends the field, waters, lays down compost, looks forward eagerly to the harvest.

In others and within ourselves, weeds abound. But we hope for what we do not see – for somewhere beyond this mixed field of wheat and weeds stands a farmer, with weathered hands, cap over his squinting eyes, tending the field, and looking forward to the day when we will rest in his barns.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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