A Sermon for July 23, 2017

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Text: Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43

                           What’s in Your Garden?

I was raised an as an only child, though I had one brother three years younger than me. I say that I was raised as an only child because as the eldest, and a girl, I was supposed to be good and responsible and stay out of trouble. My brother on the other hand, was given free reign to pick flowers from the neighbor’s gardens and sell them to the neighbors at their own front door, climb on the roof of the house to get a better view, and crawl through all the culverts under the roads to explore where this vast underground network might lead. We each grew up as only children, side by side, treated so differently that you could not imagine we came from the same gene pool.

To outsiders it looked as if I was the good girl and my brother one step away from jail. But from the inside these distinctions weren’t quite so clear. My brother had, and still has a tender heart, light spirit and profound sense of humor that always made him more fun to be around than me. There’s a family famous photo of me at Christmas time giving my brother the evil eye for his shenanigans while he looks angelically into the camera. For the good kid, I managed to be pretty critical and judgmental of my brother until we became adults and worked all this out.

Jesus tells a parable, which, like all parables is a mystery, a puzzle. On one level it seems literal enough. Using an agrarian, or farming illustration once again that would have been familiar and easy to understand for his audience, it looks like Jesus is telling a straightforward story about a farmer who sows good seed that is infiltrated in his field while he sleeps, by weeds sown by the evil one. His field workers want to tear out the weeds, but the farmer tells them to let them stand. At the harvest time the good wheat will be separated from the fake wheat, and only by the master farmer’s hand.

Which of us, my brother or me, would be the wheat from good seed, and which of us the weed in Jesus’ story this morning? The first meaning of Jesus’ parable is that we humans can’t tell the difference, even if we think we can.

“A bit of botany is helpful in understanding this point. Matthew uses the Greek term zizania, which in modern botanical terms refers to the genus of wild rice grasses. What Matthew most likely refers to, however, is darnel or cockle, a noxious weed that closely resembles wheat and is plentiful in Israel. The difference between darnel and real wheat is evident only when the plants mature and the ears appear. The ears of the real wheat are heavy and will droop, while the ears of the darnel stand up straight.

“When the householder's slaves notice the weeds, their first response is to question the quality of the seed. "Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?" (13:27) When the master replies that an enemy has sown the weeds, the slaves are anxious to take care of the problem, to root those nasty weeds right out. But the master restrains his servants, saying that in gathering the weeds they would uproot the wheat along with them. He orders them to let both grow together until the harvest. Then he will send out his reapers to collect and burn the weeds and to gather the wheat into his barn (13:28-30).

In the clearest of terms, Jesus tells his disciples what almost every element of the parable represents: "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, or Jesus, the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels" (13:37-39).

In the clearest of terms Jesus also tells the listeners that it’s not up to us to judge what is good and what is evil. “Frankly,” Jesus says, “It’s none of our business.” When we’re critical or judgmental or all self righteous about thinking that our way of seeing the world, or living, or behaving is the good wheat, we might be wrong. The example of the kind of wheat Jesus is talking about looks very much like the weeds. When we start messing in other people’s business we’re messing in God’s business. God alone knows the genetic make up of wheat and we’re likely to accidently pull up the good stuff if we make it our business to pull up the stuff we think worthless. Or, as our office manager and master gardener Betty once said to me, “There’s no such thing as weeds. There are only plants that are growing in a place that you don’t want them.” God decides what flourishes in God’s garden, not us.

Like all the parables, Jesus’ message is multi-layered. What you see is not what you immediately get. He has to take the disciples aside to explain his hidden meaning, unclear to the average listener or to those whom he often describes as having no eyes to see or ears to hear.

While this particular parable sounds very black and white, you’re either a weed or wheat, that understanding is simplistic and inconsistent with other ways that Jesus teaches about the presence of evil. Instead of projecting evil onto people outside ourselves who think, feel, act or behave in ways that we judge contemptuous, Jesus most often asks us to look inward.

Theologian Elizabeth Johnson suggests: Jesus warns that if your hand or foot or eye causes you to sin (skandalizo), or scandal, it is better to cut it off or pluck it out and enter life blind or maimed, than to be thrown into the “fire" with body intact (18:8-9). Jesus doesn’t mean this literally of course.

This is language we call hyperbole, if you were paying attention back in high school English class. This way of telling a story is meant to jar us into recognizing the seriousness of anything that leads others or us into harm or sin. It seems to suggest that a skandalon, something scandalous, may be something within a person rather than the whole person. We know that it is not literally our hand or foot or eye that causes us to sin, miss the mark, or cause harm to others or ourselves. Sin comes from the human heart (kardia) the Greek word from which we get cardio, of the heart (15:18-20). In Greek, kardia refers to the inner self, the mind and will. No human is able to pluck out the inner self and leave the rest of the self-intact anymore than we can pluck out our heart and live.

I’d like to suggest this morning, that although WE can’t weed out undesirable aspects of our thinking, behavior or feelings, God can. At any time, the Master Gardener can and does transform and renew our bodies, minds and spirits. We pray every week to have eyes to see and to have ears to hear. We pray every week for increased capacity to love and forgive and express generosity and act compassionately. We pray every week for the vision to create lives not just of success but of significance. God’s action that makes this ongoing transformation possible is called grace.

Perhaps when Jesus says that the angels will collect all skandala to burn in the fire, he means that everything within us that causes sin will be burned away like the purifying fire of a jeweler that turns base metal into gold.

Whatever his intention, Jesus' parable makes clear that any attempt to root out the weeds, whether within us, or outside ourselves, will only do more damage to the crop. “Leave my garden alone,” Jesus says. “Tend to your own knittin’”, my grandmother said. “Mind your own business”, all our mothers said, or should have.

This parable is good news for all of us, isn’t it? We don’t have to concern ourselves with who’s in and who’s out. We don’t have to worry about other people’s sins. While we do protect ourselves from harm, it’s not our job to burn down the crop that seems unsuitable to us. Jesus couldn’t be more clear, “”Leave it be.” This makes it possible for us to get on with the business of kingdom life.

Knowing that we might have some bad weeds growing up inside us is a little like a woman I knew who was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer when her two daughters were in middle school. The medical profession did what they could and then told her compassionately to live her life. She wanted to raise her girls, to see them through college and married. With single-minded devotion, she took care of herself impeccably, changing her diet and lifestyle and following every medical development that issued hope of giving her a few more years.

It was as if she knew there were weeds growing inside her that might one day take over her garden, but she also knew that plucking them all out could shorten and impact the quality of her life, a risk she was unwilling to take. By allowing the bad cells to continue alongside the good, she danced at the wedding of both of her daughters, and lived to see both their children born into the world before at last going home to the master gardener of us all.

“Jesus makes clear that we simply cannot be certain who is "in" or who is "out." In fact, God's judgment about these matters will take many by surprise. Thank God it is not up to us! We can leave the weeding to the angels, and get on with the mission Jesus has given us -- proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God drawing near.”