"Weeds among the wheat"-Sermon for Proper 11, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
I still recall quite vividly a particular moment of self-doubt…questioning my own capacity and fitness for ministry. It was way back at the beginning of my time in ministry. Really the very beginning. I was all of 22 years old…a very recent college grad and newly minted youth minister. And, even with my limited experience, I knew that I was entering a particular sort of vocation that required courage and conviction…that would call me to lead by example…that I was being entrusted with the lives of impressionable young people, 6th-12th graders, whose spiritual and moral centers were still being shaped and formed. And, I was very aware of my limited experience as both a minister and just in life. I know now that is a very common experience for young ministers…but at the time I thought it was just me. Nonetheless, by God’s grace, I felt like we got the ministry started off in a pretty good direction, leaning on the examples of my own youth minister and my parents and grandparents who are and were all good and Godly people. I was really reading my bible, studying Christian writers, and praying daily for the first time in my life, seeking to be the young person and budding minister that God was calling me to be. Yet, I still had my moments…my dark nights of the soul…I remember sitting on the edge of my bathtub in those first few months of ministry…because the bathroom was the most private place I could escape to…and weeping…wondering if I was following God’s will for my life…crying out to God to make me the sort of person deserving of such a trust to be God’s voice of love and encouragement and example of holiness in the lives of these young people…to be enough…fervently praying to God to just be enough.
And, then the real crisis came. Again, I was just a few months into my new ministry…yet to arrive at my 23rdbirthday, and I was out with friends one evening when one of them pulled me aside for a private conversation. It began innocently enough. He was asking me about some of the differences between the Methodist Church which he grew up in and the Episcopal Church which I grew up in and was now serving in as a young lay minister. But the conversation began to shift, he began to question my fitness for youth ministry. We had been good friends since the very beginning of college, fraternity brothers, and he knew all the antics…all the stories…all the frat filled days that we had both spent as undergrads at the University of Texas, and he questioned whether I had the maturity, the wisdom, the biblical foundation, the ability to quickly grow up and become the sort of person who he imagined was the sort of person called by God into ministry. I thought he would be proud of my choice…but he was not. And his doubts…his doubts inme…hurt…they sent me into what Brene Brown calls a shame storm of epic proportions. I was back sitting on the side of the bath tub in tears and on the verge of applying to law school.
But, then I made a good choice. I shared it all with my mother, who surely was entirely aware of all the shortcoming and the brokenness but, also, all the beauty and the potential that made up my young life. So, she listened. She heard my confessions and profound sense of self-doubt without judgement…but with honesty and clarity. She helped me acknowledge the weeds that had grown up alongside the wheat that, indeed, existed in my life…past mistakes and poor choices and expressions of selfishness and hurtful actions…the sin that dappled my own life’s time-line. And then she reminded me that her own story and really most people’s stories are not that different than my own…that perfection is a life-long pursuit for all of us that is accompanied and empowered by repentance and reconciliation and confession and forgiveness. She helped me bring to God’s threshing floor my whole self. Yes, the good seed that bore within me good fruit that God might use it and multiply it…use my gifts, my desire to be his love incarnate in some small way…to build God’s own kingdom of love in some small way in my own life and in the lives of those entrusted to my care…but she also encouraged me to bring to God’s threshing floor the weeds that, indeed, have the potential to choke new life and inhibit new growth in both me and those entrusted into my care. And, further, she encouraged me to do so, believing with all of my heart, that the God of love would and will do the holy and, sometimes, hard work of separation...wheat from weeds…not by somehow magically erasing the past…but, instead, by naming our brokenness before God, not justifying it, but naming sin for what it is…for from that sort of honest rooting around in the garden that is our soul, God can work miracles. God can make our wounds places from which we find deep empathy with the woundedness of others…past mistakes become things from which we can really learn and grow from…pain we have caused others becomes profound motivation to seek reconciliation and a new and deeper level of commitment to one another…and inexperience, and even failure, becomes fertile soil for trying new things, thinking outside the box, and creativity.
And, then my mom ended with the good stuff…with the wheat not the weeds…by reminding me of the good seeds sown by the God of love in my life…sown, again, by my parents and grandparents and pastors who had, indeed, helped shape my impressionable young life…teaching me by word and example something of God’s love life planted and rooted deep within me. She reminded me of the ways these good seeds were already bearing fruit in my life…even if it was still at its beginning. She named the ways that she had seen my capacity to love my own loved ones fiercely…the hours I had spent in college organizing community service and hard but good conversations around race in a Greek system profoundly unaware of its privilege and practices of discrimination. She reminded me how my adult Sunday School teachers in middle and high school would ask me to be their substitutes when they had to be away…teaching my own peers bible stories starting in the 6th grade. She reminded me that I had wanted to be an Episcopal priest since I was a small child. She reminded me of my sense of humor and optimism and ability to communicate well and of my kind heart…all the countless seeds of love that had been sown by the God of love in the fertile soil that was and is my own one wild and precious life…to borrow a line from Mary Oliver. And, though the internal wrestling and all the doubts did not just disappear, my call to ministry did reverberate a little more loudly in my heart and mind, and it still does to this day…as I still, to this day, bring to God’s threshing floor all the wheat and weeds that make up my life…allowing God to do the holy, hard, and so very good work of separation…as my own pursuit of perfection continues as a work very much in progress…empowered by repentance and reconciliation and confession and forgiveness, some 24 years later.
And I tell this long story, if not obvious already, as a reflection on Jesus’ parable we hear from Matthew’s Gospel this morning often called the Parable of the Weeds. You see, it would be easy to think of this parable in “us versus them” terms…that Jesus is speaking today of two groups of people the wheat and the weeds…those good seeds, those good people, planted by God…and those weeds, those corrupted people, planted by the evil one. Perhaps even believing that we are among the group of good seeds planted by God, and that all those then with whom we disagree, who believe differently than we do, who look, live and love differently than we do are, in fact, the weeds planted by the evil one. And, further, that in the fullness of time, at the time of judgement, God will finally bring us all to his threshing floor and rid us of all those pesky weeds…that we, the wheat, might shine like the sun in the kingdom of God…and the others burn into nothingness in an unquenchable fire. And make no mistake, this parable is what New Testament scholars call a parable of judgement.
But, just speaking for myself, I think what I just described is an unfortunate misinterpretation of Jesus’ meaning. For like the Apostle Paul who uses the metaphor of flesh and spirit to describe both the brokenness and the beauty, the sin and the profound love, that exists in each individual human life, I think the line between good and evil, between wheat and weeds, runs not between different people…not between different groups of people…not between races, religions, nations, states, or political ideologies…but right through each and every single human heart. I think Jesus is speaking of what often feels like two people waring within one single body…the angels and demons fighting within our own souls to determine who will ultimately lead the way…in the individual life we live and in each choice that we make. You see, Jesus came to break down the walls that separate all of God’s children one from another, not exacerbate our deep divisions that lead to separation and heartache and, even, violence. And our very capacity to connect meaningfully, deeply, authentically with others…to be ministers of the gospel and healers…our capacity to live a wholehearted love-life…requires…nothing less than God’s hard but holy judgement…not between people…but deep within our own individual selves. Which is God’s own voice, that often shines through the trusted voices in our own lives like my mother’s was for me, that helps us recognize and name the wheat and the weeds growing up alongside each other in the fertile soil of our own hearts and minds…empowering us with God’s wisdom to judge between the two…to repent, grow and learn from the one, the weeds, and nurture with gratitude the other, the wheat…a life-long pursuit of perfection…that overtime, in small and large moments, we all might, indeed, even now, in the life we live and among the people we are called to love and serve, shine…really shine like the sun in the kingdom of God.
And, as much as I hate weeding...and I do…especially in July…this is the good spiritual soul gardening work to which we are all called…with God’s help…who is really the only one in any position to judge what’s going on within each of us. It is never too late to begin, whether 22 or 46 as in my case now. And this threshing floor sort of soul work that God wants to do within us and with us, judging between and then separating the wheat from the weeds, is what nurtures, sustains, and grows us all, as baptized Christians, more and more into God’s life-giving and love spreading ministry to which we, not just me, but we together are called. Amen.