Sermon by Jered Weber-Johnson - Jul 23, 2017

Year A, Proper 11

I’ve never been a big fan of grass. If there were a way to allow my yard to return to prairie without offending the neighbors – or infecting their yards with weeds – I’d do it. But, somewhere in the past two years I must have resigned myself to the reality that I was the keeper of a yard full of grass. And, in accepting this reality, I came to the awareness that my yard had serious needs. Thus has begun a two year battle between me and the Creeping Charlie. I’ve tried organic remedies, industrial strength, and even just straight up manual labor. Now, when I return to the house from the garage, no matter how hard or long the day has been, or where the sun is in the sky, I am prone to noticing the creep of Creeping Charlie, and pause for a moment to pluck as many of his invading vines as I can. I’m sure it must look strange to our neighbors, me on my hands and knees, appearing to pray to the grass. And, here’s the thing, as any of you who have attempted the same would know, pulling up weeds, especially Creeping Charlie, is tricky business. The vines thread themselves through the grass, attaching and entangling themselves in the sod, and pulling them is almost impossible to do without also tearing out some grass in the process.

Sound familiar? This morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew has Jesus using yet another agrarian parable – the wheat and the weeds. In his telling, an enemy sows weeds in the night, which are noticed when they sprout, and the farmer instructs his workers to leave them alone, to let them grow, that they will be sorted and sifted at the harvest. It is another in a line of parables from Matthew’s Jesus, wherein he creates strict binaries of good and bad, saved and damned – the good soil and the rocky soil, the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the weeds. And, if you’re like me, when you hear these clear binaries, especially applied to people, you might balk at such dichotomous thinking. We know – and we hope Jesus knows – that the world is more complicated than good guys and bad guys. We know that the seeds of faithlessness, cruelty, apathy, and greed can take root in any of us. Weeding out the complicated mix of good intentions and bad in each of us, never mind the world beyond us, is tricky business.

One of my colleagues, who works for the Episcopal Church in New York City wrote a small “confession” of sorts on her Facebook feed this week. She was at the Houston airport for an early morning flight home to New York. When her row was called to board, she found her way was blocked by a white woman whose row had not been called. My colleague is African American. She tapped the woman’s shoulder to let her know she was not only blocking passengers, but personnel who might need to board the plane before her. The woman looked annoyed but moved aside. As she wrote after the experience:

“My first thought: Here’s an entitled white woman who doesn’t care whether people have to walk around her. Sigh.

We got on the plane and of course she, her husband and their two toddlers (including an unruly, noisy boy of about 3) were seated in the row ahead of me. I got even grumpier. Was I being punished by God?

Instead God began to school me. The boy kept unlocking his seatbelt and a flight attendant – having shared a knowing glance with me – knelt to remind him to obey the rules. His mom explained apologetically that her son is mostly deaf and autistic. Oh. The flight attendant and I exchanged a very different look.

I leaned forward and asked the mom, ‘How’s the trip going?’ She turned with a huge smile of relief and said, ‘This is the kids’ first trip on a plane. It’s been a crazy day. And I’m sorry I must’ve looked lost when you asked me to move at the gate. I’ve had a thousand things on my mind. You know?’”

“Except I don’t.” my colleague continued. “I have no idea the commitment, sacrifice and blessing of raising a special needs child. No idea how much she juggles and how much she kicks herself for missing. Later she told me they weren’t returning from some Florida getaway (my easy original assumption), but they were scouting for a new, cheaper part of America to live in, so one of the parents could spend more time with their kids instead of both parents working 14-hour days to make New York City life possible. Oh.

And then she offered me her iPhone 7 earbuds, because she heard me mention to my seatmate that I’d left mine on a prior flight. I teared up. Who wouldn’t?”

My colleague was quick to notice the complicated mix of judgement and annoyance and the lack of empathy that resided just below the surface in her heart.

“My hard-working white sister, I am sorry.” she wrote “I don’t want anyone to prejudge and dismiss me, yet I did it to you with relative ease. And though I never spoke the words, I entertained the thought. I radiated the energy. I slid you into a box I don’t want to admit sits in my brain, and I assumed the worst. There’s hardly any chance I’ll ever see you or your family again, but thank you for sharing patience, humility and generosity with me this morning. Your kids are lucky to call you “Mom.” And I’m lucky to have met all of you – noisy, kind, a little scattered, human, white – on my flight home. Thanks God. Still listening …”

A reading of one of the most capable interpreters of the parables, Robert Capon, reminded me this week that perhaps the most significant word in this passage is the word “let”, as when Jesus says “Let both of them grow together until the harvest”. The word in Greek is often used as a synonym for permission and allowance, but is also translated to mean forgive. Rather than calling his workers to some act of vengeance or retribution, the farmer seeks instead to show forbearance. Despite the fire and brimstone – there appears to be still a movement toward grace  and forgiveness, a cautioning against immediate judgement, and a sense that God, in God’s goodness, will sort it all out in the end. There is even a warning that were we to try and root out evil, were we to place ourselves in the seat of judgement, we would do further damage instead of good, uprooting the good with the bad.

We are complicated – no doubt. Our worst intentions and are best are deeply rooted within us, and we are in desperate need of grace to sort it all out. Perhaps no story better illustrates that truth than the story of Jacob. In Jacob we have the ultimate example of the complexity of humanity. As we heard only recently, Jacob was a scoundrel and a cheat – ripping off his brother for his birthright, even taking advantage of his father, Isaac’s, blindness. Yet, he was chosen and blessed by God for something wonderful.

The great essayist and novelist Frederick Buechner describes this well in his book “Peculiar Treasurers”, writing:

“It happened just after he’d ripped Esau off for the second time and was making his getaway into the hill country to the north. When sunset came and nobody seemed to be after him, he decided that it was safe to camp out for the night and, having left in too much of a hurry to take his bedroll with him, tucked a stone under his head for a pillow and prepared to go to sleep. You might think that what happened next was that he lay there all night bug-eyed as a result of his guilty conscience or, if he did finally manage to drop off, that he was tormented by conscience-stricken dreams, but neither of these was the case. Instead, he dropped off like a baby in a cradle and dreamed the kind of dreams you would have thought were reserved for the high saints.

He dreamed that there was a ladder reaching up to heaven and that there were angels moving up and down it with golden sandals and rainbow-colored wings and that standing somewhere above it was God himself. And the words God spoke in the dream were not the chewing-out you might have expected, but something altogether different. God told Jacob that the land he was lying on was to belong to him and his descendants and that someday his descendants would become a great nation and a great blessing to all the other nations on earth. And as if that wasn’t enough, God then added a personal P.S. by saying, ‘Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.’

You see, that’s the thing about God, God’s love and blessings are not given to us based on merit. They are, as Buechner says, “on the house”. The grace that permits the weeds to coexist with the wheat, is the same grace that loves us and blesses us, sometimes in spite of ourselves.

Does that mean we should be lax in resisting evil or that we should flag in our pursuit of justice? By no means! Rather, we should persist in doing good. And, occasionally, the weeds might be really easy to pluck out. But, let us never forget the goodness of God and the grace of God and the mercy of God, and then strive to share these things with others first, just as they have been first shared with us. Again, as Buechner says, “God doesn’t love people because of who they are, but because of who God is.” And, unlike the complicated mix of wheat and weeds that defines each and every one of us, God is only good and God is only love. Let us strive to live in light of these things, and we too will shine like the sun.

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