As we continue through Matthew’s 13th chapter this week, we find ourselves again elbow deep in soil in the Garden of God’s kin-dom. However, this time the seeds in the field are planted but while the gardener is asleep an enemy came and turned the gardener’s hard work into a nightmare. As much as I loved flipping through garden catalogs with dad, picking out flowers, and planting them, the bane of my impatient childhood existence was getting all the fun stuff home and then being asked to help with the weeding. Weeding. Takes. Forever…. It requires a firm, but precise hand so as to pull the entire weed up and not leave the root system behind to grow another day. I read the gospel reading and immediately heard my dad saying “Make sure you get it all!” I would tuck into my weekend of weeding flower beds while dad mowed the lawn. And that’s when the questions would begin. “Hey Dad! Is this a weed?” “What about this one? It has flowers.” “And this one?” Over and over and over again. Eventually dad would come over and point out what to pull up in progressively bigger portions of the garden so he could get to the work he needed to complete.
So who gets to decide what is a plant and what is a weed? It’s not as easy a task as it might sound. After all, bermuda grass can provide a lush green lawn, but if it makes its way into a garden and takes over does it then become a weed? Morning Glories look beautiful on a trellis or archway with their bright flowers, but if they seed near a garden they can quickly overrun what was planted there originally. Mint needs to be potted on its own AND elevated to keep it becoming invasive to other plant life around it. To a person with celiac disease or another form of gluten intolerance the wheat itself is a poisonous weed and the plant corn, or rice, or something else entirely. On the flip side of that, dandelions carry medicinal properties and make great fertilizer for plants because of how they take in nutrients from the soil. The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgment. And it’s God’s judgment to make, not ours.
As a people we like to know where it is that we stand, particularly in relationship to those around us. There’s a competitive nature, particularly in Western culture, to distinguish ourselves as different or better than another group creating a divide between us and them, those who are in and those who are not. But where do we think we get the right to judge someone as a grain or as a weed? It reminds me of something my mom used to tell my sister and I growing up. If you point at someone, three fingers point back at you. None of us is completely without fault. As Luther reminds us, we are fully sinner and saint simultaneously. We do not live in the polarized extremes, but somewhere in the messy and complex middle. We need to look at our own faults, our own weeds, long before we look at the faults of others.
After the grain and the weeds grow to maturity the angels harvest the weeds and bundle them to be burned in fire. But what does fire do in scripture? It appears to Moses in the burning bush, calling him to liberate enslaved people and to deliver them to the land of promise. Fire guides them along their journey through the wilderness. The Holy Spirit appears as tongues of fire land on each of the disciples to call them to the work of sharing the love of God with the world. The refiner’s fire removes impurities from within metal, leaving it more precious than when it started. Every one of these images of fire in the bible involves change and in each and every instance that change is met with resistance, or to use Matthew’s language, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Psychologists have studied that resistance and found that when change is experienced people subconsciously view it as unpredictable and therefore uncomfortable and wrong, and so we ramp up our current behavior in the hopes that things will return to the status quo. It’s something we witness in the news all the time with responses to calls to end racism.
The work to combat racism is hard, and it’s uncomfortable, but, beloved people of God, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable … for the sake of our neighbors of color and for the sake of our hurting world. The ministry that Jesus and the disciples engaged was uncomfortable too and this parable gives us steps to start our own work with:
Wait. Don’t be so quick to judge or label.
Slow down, and pause.
Lean in, and listen. Not just hear, but really listen. (We don’t always have to be the ones talking!)
Leave room for the in-between spaces, the messy middle.
Be open to grace.
Be open to change and being changed.
And in the messiness of all that important and necessary work to tend the garden is Jesus’ hope-filled promise that God is not going to abandon us to be overwhelmed by the weeds, even though it may sometimes feel that way. Fortunately, it is not our job to pull the weeds. Thank goodness for that! Our job is to tend to and nourish the garden to the best of our ability so that it flourishes, leaning on God and one another for help and trusting that the weeds will be dealt with.