The Rt. Rev. Sharon Zimmerman Rader: “Living With The Weeds”
Three weeks of doing yard work at our summer place on Lake Michigan should have provided all the understanding I needed to interpret this perplexing parable of Jesus about the wheat and the thistles. It had been nearly 10 months since we had been able to spend time working on that yard. I took it as some kind of sign that the text for this day at the National Cathedral seemed to converge so well with my early days of summer renewal.
An earlier owner of the lake property had been an avid gardener. All kinds of plantings had been done: rhododendron, chrysanthemums, ferns, poppies, hosta, perennials, evergreens, shrubs, and yes, English Ivy everywhere. Once this house and lawn had been an A stop on the community’s garden tour. But there has not been such an invitation since we purchased the property. The house is some distance from where we live in Madison, Wisconsin. Who has time to keep up the gardens, the shrubbery and the evergreens?
With an extended period of time to spend at our summer place this summer, I was determined to get those gardens in shape. Everything was overgrown, one plant crowding out another. Hostas grown too large overshadowed the smaller plants. Some plants had even become disfigured as they sought sun and nurture, which was prevented by the other more aggressive and spreading plants.
I reflected prayerfully as I attacked the yard and its gardens. What do I need to get rid of in my life? What needs pruning? Who and what weeds should I be looking for that could get entangled in the good seed that’s been planted? Are there places where the growth has been significant, yet probably not healthy for others?
It will be easy to get a sermon out of this text and my work, I surmised. There’s good and there’s bad all around the world. There are ideas that are wrong and ideas that are right. There are winners and there are losers (unless, of course it’s the All Star Game in Milwaukee!). There are the people who belong and are acceptable and people who are not like us and whom we don’t like. All I had to preach was how we are to figure out what is weed and what is beauty and encourage us all to go with the beauty. End of sermon.
But there was lots of work to be done on that yard, and I had more than ample time to reflect. There were times when I had some problems as I moved around that big yard. I’m not the world’s greatest landscaper/gardener. Sometimes I couldn’t tell the difference between what was a perennial and what was a weed. The weeds had grown tall and healthy and some of them even had very pretty flowers on them. One friend visited and asked why I had carefully cultivated all around a very large plant she declared was a noxious weed! And then there was the other problem of pulling out the weeds too robustly or pruning the trees and shrubs too starkly and ending up with the good plants either being pulled up as well or leaving such ugly holes in the whole landscape that, truth be told, it looked better before all my work.
I could sense another sermon coming on.
*You have to be pretty smart to know who’s good and who’s not.
*Everyone seems to have their own idea about how what they are producing is going to enhance the overall welfare of the community, the nation, the world, and yes, even the church. And once they’ve discovered what is best, they want to keep everything else out of their particular garden.
*Sometimes we cultivate something that appears healthy and robust and helpful—like estrogen replacement therapy—and then we discover that it’s not so lovely after all.
*And I wondered if there was some kind of lesson in this parable and my gardening reflections that could teach us something about being careful when we start weeding out all the bad corporate executives and hurt a lot of other people in the company even more.
Jesus used a lot of agricultural and environmental images in his teaching. Look at the rain, which falls on the just and the unjust,
The wind, which blows where it will,
The mustard seed and the olive trees. He used such familiar, seemingly simple imagery to get his followers to understand some very important messages. I kept weeding and pruning and carrying off loads of the cast-offs to the local dump.
I did get to thinking after while about what really is a weed anyway? The neighbors don’t want dandelions in their yard. But lots of people eat and enjoy dandelion greens. My grandchildren delight in picking those pretty yellow flowers and bringing their mother and me a bouquet. Dandelions aren’t so bad after all, I thought.
The English Ivy that has beautiful waxy leaves and was purposely planted for decoration and ground cover crawls everywhere, embedding itself into the brick chimney and up under the siding of the house. It even spreads out into the grass and kills it. Beautiful English Ivy isn’t always a good thing.
After the better part of two weeks at this yard work and reflection, I’d come to the conclusion that neither of the task of gardening nor the task of preaching was going to be as easy as it appeared. And then I remembered the last part of Jesus: lesson which taught his followers to let the wheat and the weeds grow up together. My growing backache resonated with that idea—but my middle class, American, judgmental, rational mind did not.
I weeded even more vigorously. Anthrax, terrorists, dirty bombs, smallpox, corporate greed, impoverished children, violence, overwhelming numbers of people with AIDS, poor schools, homeless families, destruction of whole species of plants and animals, clergy hurting people under their care, policemen beating young offenders…in the name of Jesus, none can be tolerated. Elsewhere in The Book we are taught our responsibilities toward each other and toward all of creation. God requires that we seek justice. We must get rid of these weeds.
Or must we? Jesus didn’t say we should get rid of the weeds. Jesus did say we should recognize them. And he did say to be careful around them.
Jesus also said—over and over again—that we live in a world where good and bad co-exist. His followers don’t have to spend all their time identifying and getting rid of the weeds. Rather Jesus’ followers might better spend their energies understanding the One who sent Jesus and the realm of which Jesus longs for us to be a part.
Robert Farrar Capon says that generations of Jesus’ disciples have not wanted to or done a very good job of understanding Jesus’ message here. Preachers, church leaders, and others are much more prone to wanting to read this little story of Jesus as a story about judgment.
But my friends, Jesus came to share gospel: good news. So where’s the good news in this parable? The good news is right there, plain as day, but oh so hard to see and hear. Because you see, this parable is not about my weeding task, or your rightness or wrongness, or even about what we’ve got to do to get into God’s realm.
This story is about God: God’s forbearance and patience, encouraging us all to pursue goodness and persevere.
It’s about God: God’s forgiveness and mercy, offering leniency and the possibility of making a new start.
It’s about God: God who does not create evil, but who knows both the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous, the terrorist and the freedom lover—and knows the difference between them.
It’s about God: God whose time and need is not our time and need but who will take care of evil at God’s appropriate time.
It’s about God: God who is not particularly interested in judgment. It’s about God: God who loves.
It’s about God: God who keeps moving toward us—weed and good seed both.
It’s about God who just won’t let us go.
And that my friends, is very good news. Therein is hope.
And let anyone with ears listen!