Saturday, July 19, 2014

Weeding the Kingdom of God

Crabgrass: the demon weed from the 7th circle of hell.
(Photo credit Michigan State University)
Let me tell you a golf story. Well, at least it takes place at a golf course. The summer after I graduated from college, I worked for the maintenance crew at a resort and golf course close to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I was primarily raking leaves for six weeks when my boss gave me a new assignment: weeding. Now being the son of a self-employed landscaper, I know the ins and outs of weed removal, but this was a different brand of weeding. See, there had been an infestation of crabgrass in the first cut of grass around couple of the greens—it’s called the “fringe”. My boss was baffled at how the crabgrass had snuck into the fringe of several greens, but she sure didn’t want it there for the big tournament in the middle of August. However, she also didn’t want any holes in the fringe where the crabgrass used to be. The first commandment in golf course maintenance is to keep greens smooth so that the golf ball can roll naturally. That meant that I had to remove each piece of crabgrass individually with a pocketknife and fill in each little hole that I had created with sand and a bit of grass seed.

         I spent almost two weeks doing this—kneeling on the fringe, using a pocketknife to remove individual blades of crabgrass, filling each little whole with sand—so that golfers would never know that somehow the crabgrass had been there. There was one day I spent 12 hours doing this. I called that number 11 fringe “the seventh circle of hell”.

            A landowner sowed good seed in his field; but while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well...

            If I started with a story about golf, then this parable from Matthew 13 is a story about weeds, which means, of course, that it isn’t. Jesus knew that to get through to his audience in 1st century Palestine, he had to talk about agriculture. And he knew how to tell good story, too. When he told this parable about the wheat and the weeds, I can picture the people, many of whom are migrant farmworkers, cringing at a story about weeds among the wheat. They’d especially cringe at the mention of this kind of weed, too. See, the word which is translated “weeds” or “tares” in English can also be translated as “darnel”, which looks an awful lot like wheat. In fact you can’t even really tell the difference between the two until they produce grain. It’s pretty important that you don’t mix the grain of wheat and darnel, too, because darnel has the tendency to attract a fungus that quite noxious when eaten by humans, even fatal at times. So you see, the landowner had quite a problem on his hands, and the poor slaves would have been the ones to painstakingly separate the noxious darnel from the useful wheat. Perhaps with a pocketknife, going plant by plant, for maybe 12 hours a day, for acres and acres in the hot sun. Yes, cringe I’m sure Jesus’ audience did.

            But you know what? Sometimes you just have to pull those weeds, you know what I mean? You can’t have crabgrass on the fringe around number 11 green, and you can’t mix darnel with wheat. You just gotta do what you gotta do.

            Let’s look at this allegorically, a little like Jesus did. Sometimes we can’t leave the children of the evil one among the righteous. After all, scripture also says not to associate with nonbelievers and people who are just gonna bring you down. In the church we call some moments like this “reform”. Martin Luther was a master metaphorical weeder. He was obsessed about whether he was a child of the evil one or one of the righteous, and the church as it was in the 16th century couldn’t resolve his anxiety. There are stories about how Luther as a young man would do confession with his priest, think, “Wow, that was a great confession,” and then immediately run to the back of the line so that he could confess the sin of pride.

            Of course Luther also looked around his beloved church and saw extreme corruption. See, back in Luther’s day the Vatican was building St. Peter’s Basilica off of people’s anxiety about the eternal life of their loved ones.  For a price, folks could get priests and monks and nuns to pray for the souls of specific people, thus shortening their time in purgatory and getting them into heaven faster. They were called “indulgences”, and it was the snake-oil fraud of the 16th century church. Luther saw indulgences for what they were, and so he boiled down Christian doctrine to his slogan “sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia”. That is, scripture alone, faith alone, and grace alone, and that’s how the Reformation began with some theological weeding.

            Methodists were metaphorical weeders when we began, too. John Wesley experienced a severely watered-down faith at Oxford in the early 1700’s, and so he too went back to the basics. Wesley often said that he was trying to emulate the early Christian communities of Acts and the New Testament epistles with the Methodist societies he helped organize. Like Luther, Wesley loved his slogans, too. Probably the most famous were his “3 Simple Rules”: do good, do no harm, and stay in love with God. And Wesley wasn’t afraid to weed out folks who weren’t putting a good faith effort into the Methodist way of life. Back in the day, if you wanted to go to a class meeting, you had to have a ticket, and I’ll be darned if you could get past good ol’ John Wesley if he had taken away your ticket. Call it Christian accountability, if you will. I, being a landscaper’s son, might call it Wesleyan weeding.

            The slaves said to landowner, “Then do you want us to go and gather the [weeds]?” But he replied “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”

            Now, hold up. When Jesus breaks down his own allegory he identifies the landowner as the Son of the Man, which means Jesus. So that means Jesus is telling folks not to weed. Just when I had my pocketknife and bucket full of sand together, Jesus comes and tells me that should leave that crabgrass in the number 11 fringe. I’m honestly pretty happy about that because I hated that job, but what gives? Everybody knows that you can’t have crabgrass on the fringe, and it’s downright irresponsible and dangerous to have darnel among the wheat. So come, on, Jesus. What’s your game here?

            I’m gonna confess something here, friends. Sometimes I get a little over-exuberant about weeding. It’s just that I focus on one task at a time; I do that one task really well before I move on to the next task. So sometimes when I get to weeding I start yanking up every last little plant that seems just a little out of place. It’s my job, right? But here’s the thing: even though I’m a landscaper’s son, I didn’t plant this flowerbed. I don’t know exactly how it’s supposed to be, so that means I need be quite careful about weeding in someone else’s flowerbed.

            Dear friends, we are merely stewards of God’s great garden of creation. In the second creation account in Genesis, God put the first human in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. But the human didn’t plant the garden; God did. The human didn’t know what was supposed to be in the garden and what was a weed; God had to tell the human what to eat and what not eat, specifically that one tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even though our mythical ancestors were driven out of that first garden, we still inhabit God’s garden today. That means we better be careful about how we weed God’s garden.

            That means we better be careful when we go to further and further lengths to extract fossil fuels from deep within the earth. We build our oil rigs further into the ocean, and somehow we are still shocked when something goes wrong and 4.9 million barrels of oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico. We develop new technologies that hydraulically fracture shale formations, that is intentionally causing mini-earthquakes, to collect natural gas, and we are somehow still perplexed when people’s tap water becomes flammable. More people than ever before are burning these substances and emitting all kinds of gases into the air, and then we still argue about whether our climates are changing because we raced past the scientist-recommended 300-parts-per-million ratio of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We better be careful about how we are weeding God’s garden.

            Now Jesus specifically says that his allegory is about people, so we better be careful when we start weeding out people, too. In Gaza the Israeli army is currently trying to weed out Palestinian militants by shooting missiles and marching in heavily armed soldiers. In the United States many people are trying to weed out undocumented immigrants, including unaccompanied children who showed up at our doorstep to escape the poverty and violence of their home countries. In our churches, many people are trying to weed out LGBTQ sisters and brothers, that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folks, from leadership and from marriage. Dear friends, don’t we know that when we are weeding out people we are violently wrenching our fellow children of God from God’s garden of life? Or are we so blind that we insanely dig and tug and yank every last weed we see in God’s garden even though we cannot see the things that make for peace? Let anyone with ears listen!

            Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

            The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…what? A weedy field of wheat? A mustard seed? Maybe some yeast? Come on, Jesus, speak plainly! I don’t have time for these parables when there is so much darn crabgrass on the number 11 fringe.

            So let anyone with ears listen. When God gave the Israelites the laws in Sinai, God told them to especially care for the widow and the orphan and the stranger. We’ve got some widows in Gaza today and we’ve got some widows on the South and West Side today. We’ve got some orphans who are traveling to our borders for the hope of a better life. We’ve got 11 million strangers who live among us without any official documented status. How are we caring for them?

            And when the disciples tried to shoo away the little children who wanted to see Jesus, Jesus welcomed the children and blessed them. And when Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus said that the last will be first and the first will be last. And Jesus shocked the disciples by saying that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven…but with God all things are possible.

            So you know what? Let’s freely admit that we don’t know exactly what the kingdom of God looks like. It doesn’t make sense to us. It runs counter to so much of our middle class, American dream, and if I can’t just pull some crabgrass out of the fringe of the number 11 green, well, I don’t know what to do. Maybe we should just let the weeds grow up with the wheat and let God sort it out, because I just don’t know what to do. It’s such a big mess that only God can clean it up at this point.

            And so Jesus says, “Yeah, that’s the start of what I call repentance. Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”

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