Let us pray. Proud people that we are, oh God, we bow our heads before you. Grant us humble hearts that we may receive what you have revealed, and do what you command for the sake of Christ our Lord. Amen.
Let me say what a privilege and honor it is for me to bring the Word of the Lord this morning at the National Cathedral. What an honor it is for me to represent the state of Georgia which has been my home and my family’s home for many, many generations.
Last September I began a new ministry at a lovely little church in Atlanta. It is a sturdy red brick edifice with a tall steeple and wide front doors. The church sits on a hill back from the street. There’s a lovely vista that pleases the eye. The lawn at first is level with the sidewalk, and then it descends and then rises. It’s pretty enough to be on a post card, or so I thought, until last spring came. I was expecting a nice carpet of grass to appear, but what showed up instead was everything but grass. Dandelions, thistles, crab grass covered the entire front yard. All that was missing were kudzu and seaweed. “Emergency!” I cried to the Property Committee. “Calm down,” a veteran of many springs in that congregation told me. “We’re going to mow soon, Joanna. And after that first mow, no one will be able to tell whether it’s weeds or fescue out there. You cut it close, it all looks green.”
I was new, so I tried to be nice, but I didn’t like it. Now I’m trying to talk them into sowing some good grass seed this fall and killing off the weeds by whatever means necessary. Robert Frost must have loved a wall, but there is something in me that does not love a weed.
One day Jesus told a story in which weeds were prominently featured. The weed was what we call a parable, a short narrative that uses the ordinary to reveal something important about the kingdom of heaven. In the parable of the prodigal son the forgiving father reveals the nature of divine love. The joy of the woman who finds the coin that is lost lets us see a mirror of God’s joy over finding those who are lost. In today’s parable a weed is not a weed. A weed represents the sin, the sinners, everyone and everything that works against the great purposes of God, and the sower of the seed, the good seed, is no one less than the Son of God, the long-awaited Savior of the World.
What happened in the story was this: The householder sowed good seed in his field. He went to sleep. During the night the enemy came and sowed weeds right in exactly the same field. No one knew it until spring came and the weeds rose out of the ground right along with the wheat. It was a mess. You could not tell where the good stopped and the bad began. The servants were distressed. “Where did these weeds come from?” they wanted to know. The master said, “The enemy planted them.” “Well then, do you want us to go pull them up?” “Oh no,” said the master. “If you do that, you might pull up the wheat as well. Just let them grow until harvest time, and then I will tell the reapers to collect the weeds first, tie them into bundles to be burned as fuel, and then we will put the wheat into my barns.” Notice the master is not worried at all. He knows that what he has planted will come to harvest. You know it, too. What our Lord has planted will come to harvest. Nothing can stop his Kingdom, even when it’s hard to tell where the bad stops and the good begins. What God is doing to transform the world is alive and well, growing in our midst. Nothing can stop the Sovereign Reign and Will of God.
One of the fabulous things about this little story is that in the end, the enemy—the one who planted the bad seeds—gets the weeds stuffed up his shirt! Not only did they have no ill effect on the wheat, but did you notice, they become free kindling for the master. In the arid fuel-scarce region of Palestine, even the weeds become useful to the householder. It seems that the worst the Evil One can do, even that will be transformed into energy to serve God’s everlasting purposes. I like that!
What I don’t like about this parable, I’ll just confess to you, is the master’s instruction to the servants. “Don’t mess with the weeds.” I really want to mess with the weeds. I really would like to put on my garden gloves and head out with my bottle of Roundup. I’m pretty sure I know what’s useful to God and what isn’t. Don’t you think you have some clarity about that yourself? Perhaps you belong to a Christian denomination that is divided these days. It’s hard to find one that’s not arguing about something. When you’re in the middle of one of those wrangles, do you ever think maybe it would be better if those other people who are so wrong-headed and argumentative would just go somewhere else? Let’s get rid of the weeds. There’s something in us that does not like a weed.
On a much more serious note, this human tendency to want to rid the area of that which we decide is no good has been carried to such vicious and violent extremes in recent years. Particularly since 9/11, this terrorism marches across the world. Fifty-four Londoners killed ten days ago. Fifty-four Iraqis killed in a Mosque in worship yesterday in a little village outside of Baghdad. Carried to its ultimate when human beings decide, “These others, they are God’s enemies, and we have been entrusted—mandated—to kill them and destroy them,” that can be an especially evil thing.
Surely, the Christian Church has a particular role to play in our world so polarized and filled with hatred because of religious excess. Surely, Christ’s people have a responsibility to bear witness to a higher and better way than ultimate destruction of the enemy.
As the great Georgian, Martin Luther King once said, “God’s goal in the world is not to destroy the world. God’s goal is redemption. And the road to redemption is the road of reconciliation.”
It is so hard, isn’t it, to distinguish between weeds and wheat. What might appear to be good and pure turns out to have a terrible side. And the very one who presents himself as the saint of saints, is revealed to have another side.
Perhaps you’ve heard of an incident that took place at a traffic light in a city in Georgia, let’s say LaGrange. A man was in his car at the red light. It turned green. He failed to move. The woman behind him blew her horn. He still was unaware that the light had changed. She began blowing her horn even harder, pounding on the steering wheel. Finally, the fellow in the first car woke up and drove on through the light. The woman was, of course, caught by another red light. In the middle of her rant, she heard a tap on the window of her car. She looked up to see a police officer. “Lady,” he said, “you are under arrest.” He took her to the police station, finger printed, photographed her, put her in a holding cell. Hours passed. Later the officer came and unlocked the cell door and escorted her back to the booking desk. “Sorry for the mistake, lady. I pulled up behind you and I saw your bumper stickers. One read “Follow me to Sunday School.” The other, “What would Jesus do?” I just assumed you had stolen the car! Sometimes people who wear their piety on their sleeves or their bumpers are not as useful to God as they might think.
I remember the best Christian perhaps I have ever known, an Atlantan, a Roman Catholic, who was the founder of the shelter movement in Atlanta. She was not the kind of person you’d want to pour punch at your church reception. She cursed and smoked. She had a heart as big as Lake Lanier and the courage to match it. I remember the night she stepped between two men at our shelter who were in the midst of a knife fight and said to them, “Guys, you know better than this.” And that was the end of that.
A friend of ours, Jesse, who lived on the streets, died. Betti had Jesse’s remains cremated and expected someone, friend or family, to come and claim his remains. No one did. For weeks, she drove around with the ashes in the back seat of her car. Finally, she asked the rector of a downtown Episcopal church if Jesse’s ashes could be placed in the church’s memorial gardens. “Our policies will allow only the remains of relatives to be placed here,” he told her sadly. Betti answered, “Perfect. Jesse was my brother.”
I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to decide who is really pure and good in the eyes of God, and who isn’t. About myself, I have trouble. Some days I’m wheat and some days I’m weed, and I can hardly tell the difference. When I think I’m serving Christ most faithfully, it turns out that I’m really interested in myself. And those things that I don’t even know are useful to God can sometimes end up making the difference.
It’s hard to tell weeds from wheat.
I remember a child born in a congregation, a second child in a family, with more congenital birth defects than you could shake a stick at. She was in the hospital for months, in and out. Was she weed or was she wheat? She was golden wheat. It was hard to tell during those dark nights of anguish and worry.
God can turn almost anything into wheat. Just leave the weeds alone, Jesus said. God can take care of it.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel there is a wonderful story about the Last Judgment. You remember it. When all those who had lived appear before the Throne of the Lord, and he says to some of them, “You inherit the Kingdom.” “Why?” they ask. “Because you fed the hungry and you offered a cup of water to the thirsty.” “When did we do that,” they asked. And Jesus said, “When you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” It turns out that the righteous had been wheat, but not a single one of them had known it.
What do you think? Do you think that weeds can become wheat? The Bible thinks so. “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone, the new has come,” the Bible says. I believe that turning weeds into wheat is exactly the reason Jesus Christ came into the world.
I close with something that happened in Georgia just a few years ago. A Republican State Representative from Donaldsonville, a man named Dan Ponder, made a speech under the Gold Dome in which he implored the Georgia Legislature to pass a Hate Crimes Bill. He told them that all his ancestors in the 19th century had been owners of slaves. He told his fellow legislators that his great-great-grandfather had fought in the Civil War. He told them that in his third grade class when President John F. Kennedy had been shot, some of the kids in his class cheered. He told them that while he was in college, his college fraternity had ostracized six of its members because they were gay. He spoke of the African American woman who had raised him, who had changed his diapers, and taught him more than anyone else the difference between right and wrong. And then he told them of how one day when he was a boy leaving to go to school, this great woman had leaned over to kiss him goody-bye, to kiss him on the cheek. And he had turned his head, assuming his head, assuming that such a thing was not supposed to happen. He said, “My friends, I have regretted that event more than anything in my whole life, and on the day we buried the woman who taught me how to be a human being, I pledged that I would never again look in the mirror and know that I had let prejudice or hate or indifference negatively impact another person’s life. I finally figured out that the only way we’re going to make progress as a human race is when someone says, ‘No, I’m not going to act that way anymore.’ I urge the House to pass this Hate Crime Legislation.” And so they did.
Weed to wheat, just like that.
Thanks be to God who does this kind of thing all the time!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.