I grew up with grandparents who loved gardens. They were a staple of my life in Southeast Arkansas, and I loved the Summer meals with fresh vegetables.
My father’s father, my Daddar, had a vegetable garden for years. We could walk out and pick fresh squash, Vidalia onion (which my Meme ate raw like an apple), garlic, and even blackberries and figs.
Meme and Daddar had a dachshund named Muffy that would walk out on hot Summer days, pick a cucumber, carry it back to carport, lie down on her stomach, hold it with her front paws, and eat it! She loved vegetables too!
Having a garden was wonderful, and it was a lot of work. We never lost sight of the fact that it took a lot of work to keep the garden up. There was tilling and planting of course, and also watering during the frequent Summer dry spells. And, of course there was weeding.
I never liked weeding. I have learned that some people do like weeding; I am not one of them. I remember helping take hoe out to the garden to chip out the encroaching bits of St. Augustine grass near the edge of the garden and other green invaders deeper in.
It may not have been fun at all, but it was necessary to pull those weeds. Especially in the Summer dry times, we wanted every drop of water to get to the vegetables rather than be sucked up into the weeds.
But, weeding is tricky. One has to be careful when pulling out the weed’s stem and root not to accidently pull up an onion or a head of garlic whose roots are unfortunately twisted a bit with the dandy lion or grass.
We Southerners get this struggle with weeding. We understand the treasure of homegrown vegetables and the work entailed in caring for the garden.
We have a lot in common with people from first century Galilee in that sense. There is a pattern of life that appreciates—and in some cases depends on—tending gardens, nurturing the soil, watering and weeding.
This familiarity is why Jesus uses images of sowing and seeds, wheat and weeds to teach a very profound spiritual lesson. That is, you’ll remember, the brilliance of parables: take an image or practice that is so familiar and then approach it in a different way to suddenly illuminate a crucial spiritual truth.
Today’s Gospel might seem to be a bit much to hand, we might say. Maybe the parable makes it a bit uncomfortable.
Here we have a wheat crop that has been infiltrated by weeds. The farmhands want to go in and pull up the weeds, but Jesus knows how tricky that can be. The two roots are so intertwined that it’s impossible to separate them by force.
No, Jesus says, let them continue to grow until harvest. Then, you can separate them out. And he gives that wonderful apocalyptic image of separating out the wheat to put into the barn and gathering the weeds to be burned.
The image gets a bit heavy when we have the lesson’s deeper explanation that the weeds are the plantings of the “evil one” who are thrown into the eternal fire where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” You always know it’s going to be a good sermon when the text has “weeping and gnashing of teeth!” People pay attention!
A few days ago I walked into the kitchen and told Lisa and Evelyn that I was struggling with this text. I summarized the parable for them, and Evelyn looked at me and said, “Geesh, Dad, that’s a little larsh.” Even seven year-olds know apocalypticism can be hard to swallow!
But don’t dismiss it out of hand just because it makes us a bit uncomfortable. In fact, it’s the very discomfort that shows us there may indeed be a deep spiritual lesson for us.
Maybe the deeper lesson rests in the relationship between wheat and weeds.
When we first read this text, we see two types of growth, what seems to be an image of two types of people. There are those planted the farmer and those planted by the “evil one.” And they are mixed in together, these wheat and weeds, unable to be separated. Both are growing together until harvest time.
When we read this, I think it’s hard not to start wondering who around us is which: wheat or weed? It’s enough to make one a bit paranoid, isn’t it? Maybe we need a type of a retinal scan to help us sort out who can be trusted and who needs to be avoided.
In this vein, maybe the best we can hope for is that, at the end of the age, the weeds will indeed be separated out and burned for all eternity. But then, Evelyn’s right: that’s a bit harsh isn’t it?
But, we do know people in our lives—all of us do—who we would describe as “mean as a snake,” as my grandmother says. We all know people who we would describe as more crabgrass than fresh corn. Some people seem to be a bit more ‘weedy’ don’t they, in this crazy world we live in. But then, of course, some people could say the same about us—a bit more weedy. It’s complicated…
We live in uncertain times, where weeds seem to abound, and it’s tempting to try to find some schema that easily explains our situation and difficult circumstances—a quick test to sort everyone into helpful and easy categories of “wheat” and “weed.”
But, then again, one person’s weed is another person’s poke salad—it maybe poisonous but cook it properly and rinse it out and it’s good to eat. So, what do we do?
Maybe we look within ourselves and do a bit of reflection on our own complex nature. We can explore this text and see the whole world as the garden, with wheat and weeds growing all around. And, we can also look within our own heart and see ourselves as the garden.
And, within the garden of our own heart, we begin to see that we ourselves are a complex nature of wheat and weed.
We are complex creatures, with complicated motivations. And, spiritual growth is never an easy process.
When we reflect on our own nature, St. Paul’s words these few weeks from his Letter to the Romans rings true: what I want to do I don’t do, but the very thing that I don’t want to do is what I end up doing. St. Paul knew that, even as we are filled with the Spirit of Christ, we must come to grips with our own human nature—what St. Paul described as our “flesh.” Our flesh lends itself to times of shortcoming. It is only through the grace of God that we grow into the fullness of what God intends for us.
It is only through grace that we grow into the likeness of Christ—a journey that is at the very heart of the point of our existence.
We are always invited to participate in that grace which gives us life and nurtures our growth. And, in that process of spiritual transformation, the mystics teach us that the apocalyptic imagery is true: in the end the weeds will be burned away.
It is the weeds of our own ego, our own sense of strict separation, of greed, of pride…our own weedy nature will be burned away. As Evelyn said, “Geesh, dad, it’s a bit harsh isn’t it?” It is harsh, in a sense, but it is also the most graceful experience we can live: to be invited even deeper into the reality and life of God.
Come, Holy Spirit, purify our hearts. Cleanse us of all distractions. Burn away everything that separates us from the awareness of your all-embracing love. Christ Jesus, lead us into that space where we may be wholly yours. Amen.
The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Proper 11, Year A
July 20, 2014