Pulling Up Weeds

A Homily for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Romans 8:12-25; St. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Merciful One who sows good seed. Amen.

One day during my childhood, while we were living in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I was surprised to see small, colorful pebbles laying in the flowerbed outside our house. What could they possibly be? (I’m not even sure I knew the word “fertilizer” at that age.) And, at least as I remember it now, a week or so later, the same flowerbed had small shoots of green emerging from the soil.

Aha! So those small pebble-looking things were seeds! (Wrong.) But what were they growing? I reached down, grabbed the greenery, and yanked. Low and behold, it was attached to a bulb! Those small seeds had grown into something bigger than my fist! (Wrong again.) Amazed, I took my discovery in to show my mother, who was horrified that I had uprooted her one of her new tulips.

But I come by my misadventures honest. My mom, at that same age, decided that she would help clear the dead leaves. And in rural Georgia in the late sixties, that means one thing: burn ‘em. She lit the leaves along the fence line and, just to be safe, went to fill a bucket with water. The fire advanced slowly, and mom came back to douse one end of the burn line while the flames advanced in the other direction. Back to the house to fill the bucket, back to the fence to douse the end of the line. It was a good system – except that the fire crept further and faster each time. The trips to the spicket and back became faster and faster, mom sprinting with her bucket, all the while my grandfather watching from the kitchen window.

One more story: A sower goes out. And unlike last week, this one is more careful not to lose good seed to the thorns or the rocky soil. But this time, an enemy comes at night to scatter some weeds among the field.

Everything seemed ok at first: in their proper time, the seeds sprouted and rose up. Until one day, a worker noticed something odd. Some of the wheat looked a little off. Within a few days, everyone knew something had gone terribly awry. There was darnel among the wheat – not just in a small patch but across the entire field. The household was the laughingstock of the town – either the famer was a dolt or the punchline of a cruel joke.

But when the workers offer to pull up the weeds, the farmer refuses – lest they damage the good crop while uprooting the weeds. Patience, he says. Let it be, and we’ll sort it out at the harvest when the time is right.

Church history is full of movements that wanted to uproot the weeds, to perfect the Body of Christ in this world by excommunicating their enemies, to pull the weeds out of the field. But who among us can say who is righteous and who is wicked? No, so much more often, we are like children pulling up the tulips, like farmhands who might, with the best of intentions, uproot the wheat along with the weeds. Our judgment is far from perfect.

And it is made more complicated by this truth: even the very best of us, those mythic heroes of Church history, are still simultaneously sinner and saint.

So who shall we throw into the fire? What good wheat, what tulips shall we uproot and burn along with what we think are weeds and dead leaves?

And how quickly shall those flames spread beyond our control? Advancing out into the field to destroy the very crop we were trying to protect or moving ever closer to the house?

We are, by our very nature, people who want simple, uncomplicated questions. We want to know that this parable is really an allegory, with an easy-to-follow one-for-one correlation between image and reality: that the wheat are the saints, the weeds are the sinners, that the fire is hell. And in our imperfect rushes to judgment, we mistake metaphor for reality. We miss the beauty of the Gospel: that sinners are called to become saints. We miss the paradox of the Church: that we are sinner and saint simultaneously. We miss that fire is not merely a means of destruction but serves a purpose. Indeed, if this story ended with the workers roving through the fields, pulling up every plant that looked just a little off, tossing them carelessly onto the pyre, it would be such bad news. If this parable is allegory – if there is no hope whatsoever for the weeds, and they’re destined only for the flames, then it’s still bad news.

But praise be to the Triune God! We look forward to a day when we will be judged by the Lord of Righteousness, who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!  The Lord our God is just and merciful! And for that reason there is hope!

Beloved, take heed. The sufferings of this present day, the attacks from enemies known and unknown, the weeds sown in our field, are very real. Creation itself is groaning. But something else is coming. These present sufferings are nothing compared to the coming glory, when our Righteous Judge will come and restore all things. On that day, the wheat and the weeds will be separated – and we’ll be amazed to see how the Lord of Life transforms and restores all things.

Amen.

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