Sermon: Sunday, July 20, 2008: Time After Pentecost, Lectionary 16

Texts:  Isaiah 44:6-8  ;  Psalm 86:11-17  ;  Romans 8:12-25  ;  Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43


Has anyone here been to the Notebaert Nature Museum? I went about a year ago with my family. It’s down by the Lincoln Park Zoo, just north of Fullerton before you get to Lakeshore Drive. One part science museum, one part botanical garden, and one part zoo – the Nature Museum is filled with living things and hands-on exhibits designed to teach children (and adults) about the natural world we inhabit.

One of the Nature Museum’s most popular exhibits is the butterfly haven. Inside this small protected habitat there are over seventy-five species of butterflies and moths. To stand in the haven is to be in the middle of a swarm of a thousand pairs of beating wings, each so delicate and fragile that visitors are required to pass through special chambers coming and going to ensure that they aren’t taking any of the beautiful insects out into the world.

Butterflies are drawn to odd things. The paths of the butterfly haven at the Nature Museum are littered with rotting fruit, and the plants that form the natural habitat look like anything other than a well-ordered garden. Big bushy plants with broad leaves, and thin twiney vines hanging from trellises. In nature, butterflies are drawn to and feed on milkweed – one of the plants I absolutely hate the most. The environment is lush, but not neat or clean or well-ordered.

A neat, clean, well-ordered environment is how we were supposed to keep our front yard in the neighborhood where I grew up. Dandelions were supposed to be picked before they went to seed. You had to be ever vigilant about crabgrass before it took over your yard. Driving by your house, neighbors should get the impression that someone had rolled out a soft carpet of thick, even, and uniformly green grass over your property. Neighbors who failed to do so ruined the effect for everybody. One poorly policed lawn destroyed the desired effect, so people were diligent about watering in the evenings and pouring all sorts of chemicals on their grass in order to kill unwanted growth.

My dad kept up the best he could for quite a while, then we started hearing about the toxic runoff that all our fertilizers and pesticides were adding to the groundwater and he gave up. There’s something wrong, he decided, about lawncare that aims to create the illusion of natural beauty by infusing the earth with unnatural pollutants.

Today’s gospel reading presents Jesus trying to make a similar point about the ways that our efforts to weed undesirable people out of our midst compare to God’s natural selection. Jesus tells a story about a householder who sows good seed in his fields, only to have his land tampered with by an enemy who comes in the dead of night to mingle weeds among the wheat. After a season of growth the mischief is uncovered. The wheat and the weeds have come up together, and the householder’s servant want to know what to do about it.

“Do you want us to go and uproot the weeds,” the servants ask. But the householder replies, “no. If you try, you’ll pull up the wheat as well. Let it be, and when it’s time to harvest I’ll have my reapers take care of it.”

A little background that gives clarity to the story: there are three Greek words being used in the original text that help us to understand what this story is about. The first is the word we’re translating as “weed.” In Greek this word is zizania, and it doesn’t mean any unwanted plant – but a particular variety of plant that looks very much like wheat to the untrained eye. Further, zizania is a parasitic plant that wraps its roots around the roots of the host plant, so to uproot the zizania really is to risk pulling up the host as well.

The second significant word here is in the householder’s phrase “let both of them grow…” The word we’re translating as “let” is the Greek word aphiemi, which means “forgive.” So a more literal translation of the householder’s instruction might be, “forgive them both, so they might grow together.”

When I first read through these texts my attention wasn’t on these translation issues at all. It was on the very loud words that come in Jesus’ explanation of the parable to his disciples. “The weeds are the children of the evil one,” he says, “and the enemy who sowed them is the devil… Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…”

You don’t too often hear mention of the devil, or things that smack of fire and brimstone. Not anymore. At least not in mainline Protestant churches with liberal progressive tendencies. We’re not into all that – though I wonder if, by failing to talk about sin and judgment, we miss an opportunity to reassure ourselves and the world that may be listening at our doors of the mercy of God.

This is where the third Greek word comes into play. The word we’re translating as “devil” here is the Greek word diabolos. Like the Arabic word, shaitan, or the Hebrew name, ha-Satan, this Greek word has a double meaning. It is not only the name of a character in this story, but it carries the second meaning “to be hostile” or “to accuse.”

Now the story takes on some more subtle undertones. The servants of the householder accuse some of the plants in the garden of being weeds, and would like – in very hostile form – to have them uprooted and tossed away. This would have the effect of destroying the good along with the bad, the wheat along with the weeds – not unlike pouring chemicals on your lawn that end up in your own drinking water – but the servants aren’t thinking that far ahead.

This kind of logic, sadly, is all around us. I don’t know if any of you are following this story but there’s a bit of news going around this last week that seems to have its root in reality. A story has been circulated that suggests that bar owners in Shanghai, China have been instructed by officers from the Public Security Bureau not to serve black people or Mongolians as the country prepares to be the center of worldwide attention when the Olympic games begin there in a few weeks.

Of course Chinese officials are refuting any notion that the orders came from the government, but even so – it would not be the first time that the Olympic games have been used as an excuse to uproot undesirables for the sake of public appearances. The city of Atlanta, home to the summer Olympics twelve years ago, made a massive effort to remove homeless people from downtown Atlanta so that they wouldn’t be shamed on the international stage by evidence of poverty in their midst. Like homeowners feeling pressured to keep up appearances with perfectly manicured lawns, cities like Atlanta or Beijing pour toxic prejudice on their own soil – their own people – and are left with toxic environments of their own making.

We need to be attentive to similar dynamics in our own backyard. Logan Square, as we all know, is an incredibly diverse neighborhood ethnically, religiously, economically and culturally. At the same time that Elijah’s Pantry reports rising numbers of people coming to St. Luke’s for food assistance, we’re seeing rapid expansion of new housing that could only be called affordable by people in the middle class. Long time fixtures of the neighborhood – grocers and merchants, are feeling pinched as new residents look at their storefronts and decide the
y look ratty, more like weeds than wheat.

When asked to name the number one issue facing our community, the students in Kelvyn Park High School’s ‘Social Justice Academy’ named gentrification. In a documentary Pat Kuhlman and I got to see a clip of at a recent LSNA community meeting, students interviewed people living and working in Logan Square and it is evident from what they heard that people living in and around us, people sitting here in church this morning, have strong feelings about that way that economic development is taking place in Logan Square. Young people in particular blend issues of race and ethnicity, class and wealth in their description of what’s going on and boil it down to a bottom line assessment that white people with more money are displacing people of color with less money in Logan Square. All conversations about the root causes of gentrification aside, we live in a neighborhood where some of our neighbors – families that have been here for decades – are being made to feel like weeds.

It’s a human impulse, and we could tell stories about the ways that each of us has been made to feel like a weed in any number of contexts. It has happened to some of you right here in this church – you’ve felt accused, by other members, of being out of place. A weed among wheat.

We even do it to ourselves. We look at ourselves in the mirror and see all our own flaws, all our imperfections. We feel like parasites, leeching life out of people around us – unable to provide for ourselves. We are our own harshest critics, full of accusations of the worst kind, pouring toxic batches of self-hatred over the soil of our own souls. That is the devil’s work in God’s fields. That is hell right there.

This may be why Jesus’ story has the landowner advising the servants to leave the weeds alone. Jesus knows that we are in no position to decide what is a weed and what is wheat, and that our own best efforts at doing so end up hurting us all. “Let both of them grow,” he says. “Forgive them both, so they might grow together,” or perhaps, “forgive yourself, so you might grow into wholeness; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers to collect the weeds and gather the wheat.”

The brothers at St. John’s Abby in Collegeville, Minnesota are producing a phenomenal new bible in the tradition of the illuminated bibles from the Middle Ages. The bible is a work of art, with each page done by hand with beautiful calligraphy and intricate, interpretive art filling the margins and framing the texts.

If you remember the story of Jacob’s ladder that begins in the 28th chapter of Genesis you’ll recall that Jacob dreams of a ladder stretching to the heavens with angels ascending and descending to earth. In the St. John’s bible the angels are depicted as butterflies lacing themselves around the ladder, bridging heaven and earth. God’s messengers walk lightly upon the earth.

Explaining the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus says that the reapers represent God’s angels. God does not send you or me out into the field to decide who is good or who is bad. God does not even ask us to make that judgment on ourselves. Instead, it is as the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption.”

We live in God’s garden, not knowing who is a weed and who is wheat. Our judgment is insufficient for those kinds of accusations. Instead God is sending judgment in the form of angels, treading as lightly as butterflies, alighting on the creeping vines and ugly milkweed of our world, our neighborhood, our congregation – our own lives – and adopting them into God’s garden.


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