My grandmother loved flowers: roses, peonies, daffodils. Most of all, she loved iris. She and my grandfather owned a lot next door; big enough to build another house on. My grandmother filled it with iris. One long perfectly straight row after another of every color and shape of iris one can imagine.
She spent the winter months scouring flower catalogues. And when her eye fell upon an iris she had never seen before, she would cry out with excitement “Oh, Gina Ruth. Come and take a look at this one. Isn’t it pretty?”
In the spring, when her iris bloomed, people came from all over her small town to take in the beauty of her flowers. The flags—the tall iris with multiple blossoms from one elongated stem—stood as tall as me when I was a girl. I’ve seen pictures of myself, only my head sticking out above the blossoms.
My grandmother tended her flowers all year long. After the blooming season, night after night; when the supper dishes had been washed and put away, she would take her low stool out into the yard. Sitting down among the rows of flowers, she would get to work: cutting the leaf blades into the shape of a fan; dividing plants when the clumps grew too thick to share the flowers with others; pulling weeds or attacking them with her cloven weed tool. She despised weeds. They tarnished her well tended beds; marred the perfect symmetry of her rows.
So: it must be genetic. In my neighborhood, everyone knows me as the woman who works in her yard. I like mowing the grass, edging, trimming shrubbery, planting flowers, shaping garden paths. I love yard work. I cannot abide weeds.
Weeds try my patience with their persistence: roots deep and hard to extract, or web-like and impossible to eradicate. Weeds can be so completely irritating and perverse. Just this weekend, I took my weeding bucket and my grandmother’s weeding tools and set to work; trying to reclaim my iris bed from some new, prolific, and dastardly weed. Weeds make me crazy.
Jesus tells a parable, and in it the workers have focused on the weeds; wondering if the farmer has made some terrible mistake; gotten some bad seed. Seeking the farmer’s counsel, the workers ask the obvious question: “so, exactly what would you like for us to do about all those weeds?”
“Well, whatever you do” the farmer replies “don’t pull them up. Doing that hurts the wheat. Let the weeds and the wheat grow up together. When the harvest comes, it will be easy to tell what’s what. Then the harvesters can pull up the weeds and burn them, and the wheat they can gather into barns.”
We can hear the parable on many levels: as a story about individuals or families, about churches or nations; all growing up together and in relationship. Good and evil, side by side, so entangled in the field of life that one cannot be uprooted without damaging the other.
Central to Jesus’ parable is the preciousness of the wheat. The farmer is clear: no harm must come to the harvest. The farmer refuses to lose a single, solitary grain of wheat to careless weeding or impatient tending. The farmer postpones the demise of the weeds to allow for the maturing of the wheat.
One possible message we might take from this story? Do not be a weed! Be wheat! For in the end, it is the wheat that God gathers into God’s self. Thinking that way promotes a focus on purity, on perfection; not necessarily on the best route to maturation. And yet the parable is clear. God values the maturity of the wheat at the harvest.
Sometimes, the most challenging weeds spring up in the lives of those trying with all their might to be wheat. Looking around, we notice that the same road that carries a family to church carries one who drinks and drives and causes death. Selfish, ruthless people become the head of the company; while conscientious, generous employees get a pink slip. Jesus dies at thirty-three, while Pilate lives a good, long life. Where do these weeds come from? And what, exactly, are we to do about them?
That seems to be how life is given; a mixture of good and bad, of competing impulses and desires; weeds and wheat, all mixed up together. Consider Jacob. We meet him this morning; a fugitive, his greed catching up with him. Emerging from the womb holding on to the heel of his older twin brother, Esau; they call him the grasper. The name suits Jacob.
Shrewd and cunning, quicker than Esau, Jacob uses his brother’s vulnerabilities to steal Esau’s rights as the first born. Not shy about manipulating his blind and dying father either, Jacob tricks the old man into giving him every penny of Esau’s inheritance. Esau is furious. Jacob flees.
When Jacob stops to sleep, God sends this deceitful, deceptive conniver a most remarkable dream. Jacob sees a ladder; one step in heaven and one on earth—with God’s messengers constantly on the move between the two realms. Even Jacob—weed that he is—realizes God sees a grain of wheat in him.
God gives Jacob a promise. Jacob recognizes with astonishment the sacredness of the moment; the import of God’s promise. God and Jacob will tangle again. And yet, in this moment, Jacob looks a lot like wheat.
We live with a willingness to receive from God the wisdom and love, the mercy and forgiveness, the grace and truth that lead to fullness of life. And at the same time, we resist and deny and avoid the grain of wheat that God places in us. We protect our inner weeds. We resist our maturing.
The same heart that seeks love and acceptance withholds affection and intimacy. The same mind that devises a formula for a powerful, healing medicine can justify unfaithfulness to a spouse and a series of deceptive lies. Life sows weeds and wheat together; in our culture, in our churches, in us. Our response? Get busy weeding!
God counsels patience. “Wait” says God. “Allow the weeds and the wheat to grow up together. You just never know what might happen.”
St. Paul repeatedly begs God to remove a thorny weed from his life. God refuses. Instead, God says “Paul, my grace is all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.” Hearing that, says Paul “I quit focusing on my thorny week and began appreciating the gift of it.” Later, he would write “For I consider the sufferings of this present time not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed…for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”
Apparently, weeds have something to teach us.
When I moved to Maryland from Texas, I brought primrose seedlings with me. I love the beauty of those flowers, petals lifted to the sky; a carpet of pink against a field of green. It irritated me how many weeds—vetch, dandelions, crabgrass—seemed intent on choking the life out of my few, tender seedlings.
Each year, I would pull every weed that dared to grow among the flowers; causing as much damage to the primroses as to the weeds. The flowers failed to flourish.
Changing tactics, I allowed the weeds and flowers to grow up together. The primroses gained enough strength and maturity to prosper over weeds. Now, they form a lush, beautiful border of pink that makes me smile whenever I see them; so healthy; so strong. It also embarrasses me a bit to see them. They remind me of my own willful, impatient weeding.
God knew all along what God had in mind for those flowers; and kept sending the weeds as teachers. The learning took some time; called forth patience, discernment, and a willingness to see and choose and behave differently. Be patient! Let the weeds and wheat grow up together until the harvest.
By patience, God does not mean passivity. Jacob becomes one of the patriarchs of Israel; Paul, a man of unsurpassed zeal for the mission of Christ. God calls us to work in the yards and fields of life to plant and feed and water; to tend life’s promise; to nurture the maturing of the seed.
It is so easy to focus on the stubborn persistence of evil weeds rather than the slower emergence of God’s maturing, deeper good. Growing older, I realize my grandmother faced tougher weeds than those that sprang up among her beautiful flowers. Every day, we meet someone ashamed or guilty, angry or undone, by the weeds of their lives.
And yet it seems that wheat shaped lives grow and mature, at least in part, by the presence and the challenge of the weeds.
God is always sowing good in us and in our world; scattering gracious, wholesome seed. And sometimes when the weeds seem thickest, God scatters the most. God’s future moves towards maturity: creation’s fulfillment; a harvest of hearts—rich in love, full of compassion, formed in mercy.
And God’s future will prevail over weeds of any sort.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Weeds Among the Wheat, Thomas H. Green.
“God so loves the wheat,” Garret Keizer, Christian Century, June 30, 1999.
The Message, Eugene Peterson.
Lectionary Homiletics, July 1999, “Pastoral Implications,” Donald D. Denton, Jr.