Below is my sermon from July 23, 2017, focusing on Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. Parables can be tricky, in part because we’ve been conditioned to read them allegorically. But they weren’t always intended that way–they are stories meant to make us question, think, and consider. There aren’t always easy answers. But the questioning can bring out a lot of good thoughts, anyway.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In seminary, one of the highlights of the year was always the flag football tournament, known as Luther Bowl. Eight seminaries would send teams, some from as far away as Chicago and South Carolina, to Gettysburg to play for the honor of winning the trophy—a replica of the Book of Concord. If you didn’t already know this: people at seminaries are major dorks.
But the highlight of Luther Bowl was always the traditional match that started it all over forty years ago: Philly versus Gettysburg. We had our own trophy just for that game, a rivalry that is right up there with Oklahoma versus Texas or Ohio State versus Michigan.
As a highly competitive person, I loved it. I probably got way too into the football, but it was a lot of fun. By my third year playing, we had already lost the Gettysburg game for two straight Luther Bowls, and we had to win this one to avoid just like total embarrassment. The only problem was, the Philly-Gettysburg game was last on the schedule and we were losing players throughout the day.
A couple were hurt, but a bunch just had to leave for other commitments: weddings, church services, you name it, but when the time came for the big game, our team had only 12 players left for an eight aside game.
What happened, though, was that we played better—better than we had in our first two games, better than we had when we’d been able to get rest and have subs. Because those of us who were left were the ones who actually cared—the ones who’d been at practices, who pushed ourselves, who wanted, not just to win, but to embarrass Gettysburg. And we did: 38-13.
Once we had weeded out, you could say, the hangers on, we were left with a small team, but a cohesive, dedicated team. It’s why teams have cuts, because they don’t want to be pulled down by those who can’t pull their own weight. It’s why I’ve wanted, in many a group project in school, to cast off those who were slowing the whole group down.
It’s a concept that works really well for teams, and even for group projects, if the professor will let you do it. Get rid of the dead weight, and those who are left are able to perform better. And for good or ill, it’s also a desire we sometimes have with church.
It’s one of the things the church has always struggled with—the fact that, as an institution, we are imperfect. Some seem to truly feel the zeal and faith in their hearts and others seem to just be hanging around. It’s what leads to desires to purge the membership rolls, get rid of those who don’t really fit the bill. It’s not new.
There’ve been different responses throughout history. The Apostle Paul was more of a purge the rolls kind of guy—advocating in First Corinthians to avoid all those who do not live morally upright lives and to not allow them into the assembly.
A few centuries later, during a time of great persecution, some in the church renounced their faith and made vows to the emperor. After the peril was over, they wanted back in the church and those who had suffered didn’t think they should be allowed in. In that case, St. Augustine argued, in part based on today’s parable, that the church is not a selective club for the most holy, but a place where all are together.
The question hasn’t gone away; such is our human nature, our penchant for judgment and condemnation. For declaring the future of those we deem somehow inadequate in faith and Christian life. For assuming malignance in another as if our own actions are above reproach.
This parable ought to stop us in our tracks. Good and bad seed sown together. When the plants came up and bore grain, then the weed appeared as well. And the servants came and wanted to know how this bad seed got into the field. And they were prepared to go out and tear it up. But the householder said no. For in gathering the weeds, they would uproot the wheat—they must both grow together until the harvest.
Who do we think that we are? God? Yet many do. We do. A lot. We decide that we know who is worthy and unworthy, we draw lines of who is in and who is out. As much as we rush to judgment, as we rush in to pull up the weeds lest they infest the whole field, Jesus counsels patience. We do not know what is wheat and what is weeds. We cannot know, mostly because it is not our job to decide.
But also, the fact of the matter is, this is a parable. It’s a story that is meant to make us rethink our assumptions about God, about each other, and about ourselves. There is no one-to-one comparison. We are all both wheat and weeds at different points in our lives. We all have the capability for producing good fruit, and yet we all often let that good fruit get entangled by other cares and issues.
Perhaps Jesus’ preaching patience frustrates us. I know it frustrates me at times. We want to tear out the weeds, we want to fix things and make them as close to perfect as we can. We want to get rid of whatever holds us back, but we can’t. The most honest part of this parable is that the field is imperfect. There is good and bad intermingled together, intermingled in the church, intermingled even within ourselves. And to try to separate it would mean the loss of some of the wheat.
We live in this confusing time that Paul writes about in our Romans reading today. This time where we wait, with eager longing for what is to come. We have experienced the inbreaking of God’s kingdom or reign, the inauguration of a new era of hope and possibility in which we, Jesus’ followers, are to be a sign, witness, and foretaste of what is to come. At the same time, we live in the “not yet.” While God has broken into our lives and creation and bridged the gulf of estrangement between us, God’s reign is not fully here yet.
Having patience for that reign to be fully realized is not the same thing as having passivity until that moment comes. On the contrary. This parable teaches us that judgment is ultimately in God’s hands, not ours. It is not up to us to exclude anyone from God’s redemptive power. In the long run, it’s a freeing thing: Trusting that God will redeem the world frees us to take responsibility for the care of our corner of it. We aren’t in charge of defeating evil and death, that’s God’s job. But we can take care of our neighbors, speak out against injustice, and support those in need.
May the God of both the wheat and the weeds bless us with patience and compassion—for others and for ourselves, as we seek this work of growing and producing good fruit. Amen.