Sunday, July 20, 2014
TEXTS: Genesis 28: 10-19a; Matthew 13: 24-30
A story on All Things Considered last week reminded me that a weed can meet a need. Archeologists studying a prehistoric burial ground in the Sudan discovered evidence in the dental plaque of the remains of a pre-farming society that these people survived, in part, thanks to a weed. The purple nutsedge, which looks like grass with tiny potato-like nodules along the roots, was a staple in the diet of some early hunter-gatherers. It grew everywhere. Still does. And though it tastes like dirt, it provided starch for energy and an essential amino acid and created antibacterial chemicals in the body that might explain why the early “weed eaters” had relatively few cavities.
Purple nutsedge continues to flourish. By the 1970s it was named the World’s Worst Weed. It is pervasive and invasive and can only be eliminated from crops by pulling each weed up by hand. (Sounds like the very problem our parable references, doesn’t it?) But let’s give this weed some credit. It once provided “snacks that people were munching on for millennia . . . while plodding along the route to development. At the very least, it helped them avoid totally horrible teeth.”
There is a weed we may need. And I don’t mean what they’re selling in Colorado.
Let’s look again at the story I’m renaming “The Parable of the Wheat and the Purple Nutsedge.” Jesus used the threat of weeds among growing wheat to help us think of our response to evil. When a grain field becomes infested with weeds, it might seem the work of an enemy. Yet we can’t efficiently uproot the diabolical nutsedge without destroying the good plants, too. It’s like the wartime dilemma of targeting an enemy who is embedded among innocent civilians. To bomb an enemy leader hidden among children is to intensify rather than lessen evil’s effect. (Setting aside for now the basic moral questions about war.) Jesus says we sometimes have to let the weeds and the wheat grow together until it’s time to harvest the wheat.
Let’s not read this as Jesus being “soft” on evil. He named his enemies “snakes” and criticized unrighteous practices and certainly paid the price for calling it as he saw it.
But in this parable he may be speaking both theologically and practically. It’s not possible to completely and neatly separate the evil from the good that reside together inside an individual or an institution or a nation or a system. Practically speaking, you can’t surgically remove the bad from the good. Theologically speaking, you can’t dichotomize people or ideas or systems.
Jesus cautions that sometimes we have to let a situation develop until we understand it and before we can eradicate the evil weed. (Again, not what they’re selling in Colorado!) Jesus elsewhere warns us against pointing out the speck in someone else’s eye when there’s a log obscuring our own vision.
We who advocate for justice, protest on behalf of the marginalized, and speak truth to power . . . we who work to dismantle oppressive systems . . . we continue to remember the complexities of social problems. Let us neither oversimplify social problems nor be incapacitated by the complexities.
So here’s a spiritual exercise for us to try:
Think of something within you that you wish you could eliminate: some habit or tendency or failing or weakness that you believe prevents you from growing into the fullness of your human potential. This trait might actually be seen as the shadow side of a strength within you that doesn’t need to be eliminated.
If you need an example, I will confess that a weed I’d like to pull from my life is my tendency to talk too soon or too much. But this shadow side of my personality is connected to a strength: willingness to lead and a passion for justice. I must keep monitoring the shadow side of that trait. Growing together in me are both the desires to help and lead out along with the tendencies to overdo, to monopolize a conversation, to inject my opinion first. The good and the bad of me are intertwined. Over time, I hope and pray, the strength will live and weakness will disappear.
I invite you to silently acknowledge a shadow trait in your life.
Now link that trait to a strength and give thanks for the strength.
Next, you may want to resolve to monitor that trait that is the flipside of one of your strengths. Realize you don’t have to eliminate a part of who you are but be aware of circumstances in which the shadow side comes out. Consider how you can cultivate your strong side of that part of your personality.
Next think of a more systemic example of “evil.” Recall a time when you were involved in a situation or relationship or an institution that had great potential for good yet its very strength made it vulnerable to problems.
How did you handle that situation or relationship or involvement in a group or institution?
“We have met the enemy, and they are ours,” said Commander Perry after a naval battle in 1812. “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” said cartoon character Pogo, surveying his trash-strewn Georgia swamp.
“I have met the enemy, and he is my brother,” thought Jacob, no doubt, while fleeing the angry Essau.
You and I have met the enemy. And sometimes she was our sister or co-worker. Sometimes he was a political leader or neighbor. Or ourselves.
The ladder Jacob dreamed up connected earth and heaven, a reminder that the human and divine traverse a continuum. The weeds Jesus said grew among the wheat remind us that the evil and good are likewise not always such distinct categories. As we tell our children, making a bad choice doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. As we remind ourselves, no political party or leader is entirely right or wrong about every issue.
Maybe this second parable in Matthew’s Gospel, riffing off the first parable, is telling us we should not resort to the theological equivalent of Round-Up. If we resort to such an attack on “enemies,” we might despoil our own backyards. And that purple nutsedge just might have some nourishment for us.
My intention here is not to curb our enthusiasm for righteousness, dampen our convictions, weaken our resolve, or soften our demands that friends, strangers, and Mother Earth be treated kindly, fairly.
But let us be way of a tendency to polarize complex issues or blame another for a misunderstanding for which we, too, have some culpability. Let’s also consider that we can make strong, forthright support for just and peaceful ways—without attacking others who see things differently. Almost always we can do that.
And trust God that evil will not have the final say.
(The congregation may sing the Sanctus, pp. 74-75 in songbook, during this period of prayer.)
Prayer station 1: STONE PILLOW, STONE PILLAR
Choose a stone from the basket. First hold it as you pray silently for one who needs a good night’s sleep tonight—a sleep that will comfort, give strength, restore hope, ease anxiety. Next place this stone among or on top of the pile of stones to the right of the basket. Place a drop of oil on it as you offer a silent prayer for the new “Beth-el”/House of God we will move to in two weeks. Think about your hopes for Open Table as you pray. We’ll bring these stones with us to All Saints for our first service there and use them for a prayer at “Beth-el.”
Prayer station 2: BURNED BETHEL
This print of the original oil on canvas by John Biggers, “Shotgun, Third World,” 1966, is housed in the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. A community watches from across the street as their neighborhood church burns in the night. This church was their “Beth-el.” Their facial expressions are hidden from us. The cause of the fire is unknown. But you might imagine a story about this faith community. And your response can be your prayer for our world.
Prayer station 3: RECEIVING AS WE MAKE PEACE WITH OUR ENEMIES
Imagine that you are receiving the Sacred Cup from one you might consider an enemy, that is, someone you feel is doing harm in this world. Maybe this person who holds the chalice for you is a leader in a political party not your own, or is someone who has hurt a friend of yours, or has mistreated you. Now imagine that person has “a back story” that you cannot possibly know. Are you able to receive something from him or her that can strengthen you rather than poison you with bitterness? Can you work against evil without enmity in your heart? At this table of reconciliation, take a wafer, dip it in the common cup, and eat in an act of radical faith that we can love even our enemies.
Prayer station 4: GIVING FOR THE WORK OF THE CHURCH
As you contribute financially to the work of Open Table, pray that the seeds you are sowing with your monetary donations and your contributions of time, skill, and effort will yield a harvest of goodness.
FORMING A SACRED CIRCLE
BENEDICTION May you leave this place saying, as Jacob did, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” May you hear God saying to you, what was said to Jacob: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”free