The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
My paternal grandfather–”Grandpop” we called him–was both a Methodist preacher and a South Carolina sharecropper. In the 1920s he came north, looking for a better life for himself, his wife and nine children. He found employment in a Pennsylvania steel mill as a laborer and settled into the gritty rhythm of life in a small industrial town.
But Grandpop was a farmer at heart. So, from those early years of his northern migration until his death, he had a sizable garden. In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, urban farming–or gardening–was for many working poor a means of supplementing a growing family’s food supply. But nurturing things to grow and working the soil with his hands was a spiritual activity for my grandfather. Most who knew him thought of him more as a farmer than a steelworker.
I was five years of age when he died. But I remember him well–a large man for his day–over 6 feet–with large facial features and giant hands. Yet, I remember how gentle he seemed, his warm smile and how he would caress my little hands in his. I remember this old farmer leaning on a cane, walking through his garden, tenderly checking his plants–holding them much as he had caressed my little hands–carefully inspecting each plant and skillfully pulling away weeds from the plant. It was clearly a spiritual activity, even to my young eyes.
Years later, at family reunions, I recall my father and his brothers telling boyhood stories of compulsory labor in what they called, “The Garden.” They told of being sternly scolded for their “style” of garden tending. A rather hurried style that often included pulling up plants as well as weeds because the roots were intertwined with the weeds. Or pulling up plants that appeared to their eye to be weeds. They joked that the old man just didn’t seem to understand that the pending ball game (which had probably begun without them) was much more important than tending a bunch of vegetables (many of which they didn’t like). Often in exasperation he would say to his young laborers: “Just let the weeds alone! I’ll separate them later.”
The first hearers of the parable in today’s Gospel reading were people of a farming culture. It was a mystery to them just how, but the weeds seemed to appear overnight, even when they had used the best seed and good ground. But they accepted that no matter what they did, weeding or hoeing was a necessary part of crop raising. They understood that without skill some weeds cannot not be separated from young plants without destroying the plant.
Even those in Jesus’ audience who were themselves day-laborers or slaves knew that the word di-da-nia specifically referred to a common Palestinian weed that is wheat-like in appearance, especially to the untrained eye, and is stubbornly rooted. It is often only at the harvest cutting that one can clearly see which has borne grain and which has not and is, therefore, a weed. Thus it was easy for them to hear the common wisdom in the words of the Master farmer (perhaps easier than it was for his fisherman disciples): “Let the wheat and the weeds grow together until the harvest and I, at the right time [even a time which seems late to the human mind], I will direct the separation.
The Master farmer, wise, patient and caring for the ultimate welfare of the garden, is God. We the Christians are the laborers, always inexperienced and always dependent upon the wisdom of God as we tend the garden of our society.
This parable teaches us that evil exists. A definition of evil for our purposes today is that which by design (not misadventure or occasions of disobedience) and intent seeks to destroy or retard the good will of God for the world. It is that which is often beyond our comprehension, our individual human powers alone to conquer or correct.
It sometimes comes as a shock to us to find that the world in which we live is not perfect: The family into which we are born, the country to which we have pledged our allegiance, the political party or profession from which we have drawn our ideological pride and identity or the faith community in which our souls have long been nurtured. We know it, but each time we discover it again it is a painful surprise that these treasured institutions and communities are not perfect. And we come to understand that there is a degree to which they cannot be made perfect by our best efforts alone, that there is something spiritual at work that cuts to the best of our core beliefs, values and ideals.
I have no question that democracy as an ideal for human community–its responsibilities and opportunities–is inspired of God. As the declaration states, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” or as pledge we recited each morning in school, “with liberty and justice for all.” But we also know the garden of democracy is also a breeding ground for perennial injustice: racism, sexism and classism, to name a few exclusionary weeds. For example, individual liberty can also nurture an ideological and uncompromising obsession with individual rights to the neglect of the larger society’s welfare. I think not only of the incomprehensible evil that spoiled good communities such as Jefferson County, Colorado (Littleton) or Conyers, Georgia, but I think of the daily tragedies of needy and vulnerable communities around our nation, including parts of this city of Washington. Place where beautiful innocent young minority children (Black, Hispanic and Asian) are far more familiar with the sounds of gun fire than the chimes of an ice cream truck.
The right to bear arms, the media’s right to freedom of speech and economic prosperity blinds us to the contribution easy access to hand guns and assault weapons and gratuitous media violence make daily to American tragedies in our streets, schools and homes. No one contribution or sacrifice will solve the problem, but no one contribution or sacrifice can be exempt in making a good society a better society for all citizens, especially our children.
No arena of our common life and work is exempt from the evils that approximate goodwill but in the end bear no grain, no fruit to nurture the soul of a nation.
No institution of God’s garden is exempted from evil’s influence. Organized religion, especially our churches, are prized institutions of our society. They help us mark the great transitions of life, birth, adulthood, marriage and death. They guide and support us in our relationship with God and our neighbor. But the church can also be a place of pettiness and moral failing. It can be a place obsessed if not consumed with devastating internal fights about who’s in and who’s out. Places of endless debates about doctrine and religious practice. Fruitless activities that distract us from serving and witnessing to the world.
To often the church suffers from the sin of arrogance about the inherent sinfulness of government, social agencies and the private sector. Individually, we often forget that many who lead in these places are everyday Christians struggling to discern God’s wisdom in the cauldron of issues and complexities unique to the professions and arenas they serve. Institutionally, there is too often an arrogance that keeps us from joining hands with others who, in their context, labor for a better world, thinking that we alone must weed the garden of society.
No places of good are not exempt from evil’s seed, and as Christians we understand that it will take the Master’s wisdom, patience and courage both to live and to work for the good in an imperfect world. Therefore, as people of faith, we must trust God to give us the wisdom, patience and courage to face the ambiguity of evil presence among the good, or else we can destroy the good.
Tending the garden of our society is not only political, social and economic work, it is spiritual work as well (perhaps essentially so). For if something is essentially good, if it is based upon a vision inherently concerned about an inclusive community (e pluribus unum), about freedom and human dignity, if on the whole it calls for the best in the human spirit, then this is a good sign that it is of God and is thus about matters spiritual. Therefore, eradication of evil is ultimately the work of God, guided by God and ultimately done in God’s time. For without God’s wisdom we do not know how to separate the bad from the good. And we do not always know tare or weed from the good plant.
There are those who are consumed by the fire of their passion and are more obsessed with weeding than with the wheat. We must love the plants more than we hate the weeds. We must see the welfare of the crop as more important than the perfection of the field as the most important thing we can do. What I remember most is not my grandfather yanking the weeds but his caressing the plant, his caring gaze over an imperfect garden. Like God we must love the good, keep the vision.
“God Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
As Christians in any walk of life it requires of us patience, spiritual growth and the knowledge of what we can do and what we cannot do alone. We need one another and we need God. That is why the sacred drama of the Eucharist is so vital in the life of the Christian, especially in this place. We gather from different walks of life, different histories and perspectives. But we come seeking of God strength for the journey. Wisdom, courage and peace.