Sermon: Campfire Stories: While You Were Sleeping
Scripture: Matthew 13: 24-30
Date: July 5, 2015
Ok, let’s be honest here. This is just between you and me. Aren’t there some things that God included in creation that makes you wonder why He created them? Now I know I’m on shaky ground here. Take mosquitoes for instance. To what purpose did He create mosquitoes? I can’t see any positive value for mosquitoes. Their bites cause a great deal of discomfort and spread terrible diseases. They have ruined many a cookout and picnic. And to what purpose? Be honest. Haven’t you wondered why God created mosquitoes? And while we’re at it, flies and fleas would fall into the same category. And what about Hippopotamuses? What positive things do Hippos add to the planet? Now I’m sorry if any of you are Hippo lovers. But they are about the ugliest of all the animals. And they spend most of their time wallowing in the mud. I don’t know that they even have any tusks or anything else that poachers might find valuable. And no matter what Walt Disney presented – they can’t dance. So why did God waste time creating Hippos? Don’t you wonder about these things? Well, I feel the same way about Weeds. Weeds are the nemesis of any gardener. Now to be fair, God just created the plants and humanity down through history, has determined which ones are the good plants and which one are the weeds. It’s not as though scripture says that on the 4th day God created the beautiful flowers and on the 5th day, He created the weeds. Down through history, the categories have been drawn based upon beauty, and uses and other similar criteria. And so the beautiful plants with lots of flowers that have some good use, are the ones that we keep and replant, while the ones that aren’t always so pretty and can’t be used for food or anything else really we label weeds. But I have always found that at least in the early stages of development, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a plant is going to develop into a flower or a weed. Karen and I bought our house in November of 2012, after the flowers had died back for the winter. Now the neighbor told us that the people we bought the house from worked hard on the landscape and did a lot of planting in the back yard. So when the Spring came of 2013, lots of things started to sprout out. But I had no idea what were flowers and what were weeds until they grew and some of them began to produce bloom. So I had to let them all grow that first year, so I could get some sense of what was what. Things got pretty overgrown through the summer because I certainly didn’t want to cut out the good plants. One gardener, who was apparently having the same problem, wrote: To distinguish flowers from weeds, simply pull up everything. What grows back is weeds.
Perhaps you can relate to the woman who wrote: I don’t do windows because I love birds and don’t want one to run into a clean window and get hurt. I don’t wax floors because I am terrified a guest will slip and get hurt then I’ll feel terrible. I don’t disturb cobwebs because I want every creature to have a home of their own. I don’t Spring Clean because I love all seasons and don’t want the others to get jealous. I don’t put things away because my husband will never be able to find them again. I don’t iron because I choose to believe them when they say “permanent press”. And finally, I don’t pull weeds in the garden because I don’t want to get in God’s way. He is an excellent designer.
Well, I’m not sure that this is exactly what Jesus has in mind when he tells this story about weeds. In fact, in the interest of time so we can have plenty of time to serve and receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, which is, in a very real sense the solution in separating the wheat from the weeds, let me be so bold and direct to say up front that this is a story about sin and judgement and the Kingdom of God. Now we don’t like to talk about those things very much, but there I’ve named it. This story is what we would call a sequel to the story about the Sower that we talked about last week, in that it picks up where that story ended and builds a story from there. In this case, it focuses specifically on the seed that landed on the good soil and started to grow and thrive, but then overnight the weeds appear and begin to grow right alongside the good plants.
Now I imagine that the reason that Jesus tells this story might be in response to a question from one of the Disciples. Remember we said that when Jesus talked about the thorns and thistles that grew up alongside the good plants and so stifled their growth and muted their witness, that He probably had the disciples in mind. Well, it is not too much of a stretch to think that perhaps one of the Disciples figured out that Jesus had them in mind when He talked about “thorny Christians” and so might have said something like, “Jesus tell us more about those thorns, those weeds, that grow alongside the good seed.”
So the sowers servants come in the next day amazed that the weeds had come on overnight. And the sower says, “This obviously was not a natural occurring phenomenon. Even weeds don’t grow that fast. An enemy, the evil one, must have come while we were sleeping, and planted those weeds alongside the good wheat.” It seems to me that the implication of that statement should have been clear. And so the first lesson we learn from this story is that evil is often most active when we are sleeping, both literally and figuratively. Several times Jesus warns the Disciples to stay awake because the evil one comes like a thief in the night. In fact he tells the Disciples in the debriefing time around the campfire which again is the second part of the story that the weeds are the sons of the devil and that the sower of the weeds is the devil himself. Talk about hitting someone over the head – Jesus is saying that you, Disciples, are the good plants, the wheat, but that if we’re not careful, while we’re sleeping, into every life of every Disciple or Son of the Kingdom, some weeds will come, courtesy of the evil one. The Apostle Paul says it even more directly when he says to the Romans that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
And so having seen the weeds the servants of the Sower come to him and ask if he wants them to go out in the field, identify which plants are weeds, and pull them out and get rid of them before they completely choke out the good plants and ruin the harvest. Now those who heard this story must have thought, well, of course that’s what they should do. The good plants can’t possibly produce a good harvest if they are surrounded by weeds and thorns. Get rid of the bad seed so God can reap the good harvest. Isn’t that what we would do? In fact, I find myself spending more time dealing with the weeds in the flower beds than I do in preparing the soil, planting the seed, and gathering the harvest. And that often requires that I make judgements about which plants are weeds and which are flowers and sometimes, often times, I misjudge and pull up a good plant along with the weeds. But that doesn’t keep me from continuing to try and get rid of those that I judge to be from the bad seed. That’s just what good gardeners and farmers do. So we fully expect the Sower to endorse the plan and send the servants back out to the fields to get rid of the weeds. That’s their job. That’s our job as a Disciple, right. To identify and get rid of the weeds and thorns all around us. But you see, with this story Jesus is saying that it’s not the job of the servants to make these judgement calls. And according to the story, there are two reasons for that. First, it is very hard to distinguish between the good plants and the bad ones. Now the farmer’s of Israel, whose chief crop was wheat, would have understood that immediately. Now some translations translate the word that we call weeds as the word “Tares”. And so some scholars call this the Parable of the Tares, or the Parable of the Wheat and Tares. Because they say that Jesus, in talking about the seed that the evil one had sown is not talking about weeds in general, but the plant known as the Tare specifically. And the thing about the Tare is that as it grows it looks almost identical to the wheat plant. Often you can’t really tell the difference until you see the fruit that each plant produces. And so the wheat farmer in Jesus’ day would need to reserve judgement about which plants were good and which ones weren’t until the harvest. And at the harvest the sower will be able to tell which plants are tares and separate them out and then he would burn them, in an effort to destroy not only the plant but also the bad seed. This story says to us that in the end, we will not be judged by what we look like, or what we do while in the world (remember Jesus tells us the field is the world), but rather final judgement will come based on what we produce. Now that understanding would have been far removed from the Disciple’s and anyone else who heard this story, understanding of God. The priests would have called it blasphemy because they taught a very works oriented kind of faith. They had no concept of the grace of God. Their solution for the sinfulness of humanity was sacrifice and atonement, not forgiveness and grace. And truthfully grace makes faith much more complicated doesn’t it. It is often much easier to stand in judgement of our neighbor then it is to love them with the grace of God. When it comes right down to it, most of us think in terms of works righteousness. We just assume that if a person just makes it to the harvest, that they will be welcomed into the Kingdom because, after all, doesn’t God love everyone. They’ve lived a good life. They were nice people. But, I think the hard lesson of this story that the people of Jesus’ day didn’t want to deal with and we don’t either, is that God doesn’t separate the weeds from the wheat based on human understandings. The harvest is a reflection of the Grace of God. Because ultimately we all start out looking like weeds, and it is not how we grow that separates us, it is what we produce. The tares looked like the wheat up to the very end when the wheat produces the good grain. Ultimately the priests were not comfortable leaving the judgement in the hands of God, and so they developed this elaborate system that was based on law and works not faith. And when Jesus came and said, “we are judged by grace alone and not by our works” they cried blasphemy, lies. But if Jesus was a Blasphemer it was blasphemy against the ways of man, and not the ways of God. We will be surprised, I think, by those who end up in the weed pile when the harvest comes, as well as those that are deemed the good harvest. One pastor writes: One of the things that impresses me a great deal about the story of the work and ministry of the apostles recorded in the Acts of the Apostles is the way they went about their labors. Peter, James, John, Paul and the others did not go around smashing idols in public view, throwing over the statues of bronze and gold, and ripping up the hymnals or the synagogues. They did not organize letter writing campaigns nor stage mass demonstrations. Instead they went about showing people Jesus, telling the good news, and planting the seeds of the gospel in the hearts of the people. All the people. The Sower did not send the servants into the field to pull the weeds because he wasn’t confident that they could tell the difference between the good wheat and the tares. And so rather than place the servants in the place of judgement, He will take care of it in the end. And so, for now, let’s live by Grace, and recognize before we make any judgements ourselves, that there are within each one of us both good seed and bad, and that in the Kingdom of God, we are not judged by what we do, thank God, but rather by what we become, what we produce. And placing the harvest in God’s hands allows all of us the time to repent and be transformed and evolve into a beautiful harvest through the grace and love of God. Where human beings are often quick to make judgments concerning the weeds, God is patient and kind and slow to anger.
And then the farmers would have also understood the second reason why judgement was not granted to the servants and they were not allowed to deal with the weeds. Because when the wheat and the tares grew up side by side, the roots would often become interwoven. And, of course, everyone knows that no matter the condition of the soil, the weeds always seem to have the deeper roots. And wheat was a successful crop in Israel because it had relatively shallow roots that grew along the surface to maximize the absorption of any moisture. So, of course, the danger was that by pulling up the tares by the root, it would also pull the wheat out of the ground, thereby damaging the good harvest. Isn’t that what the evil one intends? Not to exalt the weeds, but to destroy the good plants. And so the point is that when the servants are quick to judge the weeds and pull them out, they run the risk of also destroying the good plants. The great American Theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote in commenting on this story:
Don’t be so judgmental about those hard to live with family members, about the problems with the job and your congregation, about the imperfections of your own life and the material possessions you have. I don’t care how many fights you have had with those people, how many problems the job or the church have caused you, there is still some healthy grain-bearing plant hidden in there. Open your eyes to the good in the midst of the bad! This is still a world in which God is in control. And this story tells us that in the end, He and He alone, will separate the wheat from the tares. That judgment is reserved for God, and God alone lest in our human understanding we throw out the good with the bad. And so Jesus tells us that all we can do as Disciples is let the wheat grow alongside the tares and not be consumed by the weeds but keep our eyes on the wheat and trust Him to separate one from the other in the end. I suspect that the Apostle Paul might have had this story in mind when he wrote: Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good. The great preacher Clovis Chappell like to say: everyone has the right to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but no one has the right to shut anyone out. And you know, I find that to be such a liberating message. I’m glad it’s not my responsibility to try and separate the wheat from the tares. I never liked to deal with weeds anyway. There is so much more joy in sowing the seeds and leaving the harvest in God’s hands. So let’s choose to keep sowing and nurturing the good seed until the good plants overwhelm and choke out the weeds and Jesus Christ is truly in every life.
You know, in a way this story is the perfect preparation for Holy Communion because it reminds us that, in the words of one preacher,
Jesus wasn’t overcome by our great evil – by our sin as human beings. When He came to earth, He did not engage in a grand weed-pulling program, seeking to eradicate all overt evil and human failure that he observed. He could have! The Son of God could have become fed up with the human race (both then and now). As the Lord of Lords He could have lost His patience with you and me. But He did not. Rather as the Lamb of God He went forth, quietly, humbly, giving Himself for us in sacrifice, upon the Cross. This was the mind of Christ – He humbled Himself and became obedient, even to death on the Cross. Thank God that He dealt with us, and deals with us today, through the Mercy of His Son, Jesus Christ.
And that when we are in danger of becoming overcome with all of the weeds of this world, that He still says to us, “Let’s gather around the Campfire, Disciples, and let me tell you a story about separating the Wheat from the Tares in the Kingdom of God.”