Sermon: Where Did These Weeds Come From?
Texts: Matthew 13:1-9, 24-30
Date: June 25, 2017
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
There’s been a rather startling development on the property we like to call “ours.” Some of the crows who live in the neighborhood are mad at me. When I walk down the driveway to get the newspaper, the ringleader—I’ll call him “Poe” the Crow—starts yelling and swoops toward me. Others follow to hang around and yell, but it’s Poe who really seems peeved. He lands on trees nearby and takes angry bites out of the branches as if to demonstrate what he’s planning to do to my limbs. When I move, he performs a swoop toward my head and goes to another tree to bite and curse me.
Poe is surprisingly scary. I have NO IDEA what I did to piss off the crows, which makes it difficult to make amends. I’ve tried taking a St. Francis approach, looking Poe in the eye and addressing him as “Brother Crow,” asking why he is so angry. He glares back at me, bites the branch viciously, and spits bark in my general direction. I want to say to Poe the crow, “Whatever you think I did, I am innocent! If you got to know me, you would probably like me. I just want to peacefully co-exist on this half-acre. Can’t we just all get along?” I get the distinct impression that Poe would like me to just GET OUT of his property and get out of his life. If he were in a Western movie and could speak English, he would be saying, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
I’m usually treated with courtesy, if not deference, wherever I go. (Thanks, middle class White privilege!) So this unjustified fury of the crows has given me a little tiny taste of what it is like for people who are met with furious rejection because of how they look or what they represent in some angry person’s mind. I don’t know why Poe and the crow gang want to get rid of me. We don’t know why Nabra Hassenen, a 17 year old woman on her way home from her mosque in Virginia last week, was murdered, or why the memorial that was erected in her honor was set on fire last Wednesday. The police are presently calling the murder “road rage” and the Muslim community is urging the investigation to treat this as a hate crime. The average number of hate crimes against U.S. Muslims per month have tripled since last November. There are voices in America calling for blocking Muslims from immigrating, and even more extreme voices calling for weeding out all the Muslims from the population. Unfortunately, it seems like the most vicious anti-Muslim rhetoric is backed up by “Christian” claims, symbols and references.
The belief that your kind of people is the best kind of people runs rampant in this world. Religion can either soften that or harden it. The belief that one’s faith is the only true religion often leads to a deeply disturbing level of intolerance. There is a notion of purity in most living faiths which can encourage and energize religious practitioners to be faithful, to avoid corruption of various kinds. The urge for purity is not in itself a bad thing. It can, however, be quickly shanghaied when it is applied to communities. That is, if people want to create or preserve a “pure” community (not just a pure heart) they can swiftly turn with malice toward those who are perceived as impure, corrupting influences. They believe that if these evildoers were chased off, weeded out, the community of good guys (the good seed) could live in peace and harmony. It’s a perennially tempting, attractive idea.
We who live in the 21st century have a fairly recent case history of where this kind of ideology can lead. In 20th century Germany there was a mass movement of Protestant clergy and laypeople who “celebrated the rise of National Socialism as a revitalization of Christianity. During the 1930s and 1940s, the ‘German Christians’ formed a mass movement of over half a million members with branches throughout Germany…As they merged Christianity with German nationalism, [they] praised both Hitler and Jesus in church services, rallies, books, pamphlets, hymns, and popular songs.” Church historian David Chidester notes that the German Christian movement was dedicated to a Christianity that was adamantly racist. Their 1932 statement of principles declared that “race” and “nation” were “laws of life that God has bequeathed and entrusted to us. It is God’s law that we concern ourselves with their preservation. Mixing of the races, therefore, is to be opposed.”
The German Christians got really serious about this principle with regard to the Jews. They opposed any domestic missions to Jews in Germany on explicitly racist grounds, asserting, “That mission is the entryway for foreign blood into the body of our Volk.” From the racist perspective of this German Christian movement, Jews threatened the “purity” of the German people. This was all spelled out before the Nazis took power in 1933. The powerful Christian symbols of the Madonna and the cross were employed to underline ideas of pure motherhood and sacrificial death on the battlefield. One theologian explicitly celebrated Hitler’s recovery of the “primeval powers, which created and formed our nationalistic consciousness: blood and spirit, blood and religion, German blood and Christianity.”
We all know where that kind of ideology led. “During WW II, the Nazi death squads, concentration camps, and killing centers caused the deaths of 15 million people. Slavs, Poles, gypsies, communists, dissidents, gays, lesbians and many others were caught up in the Nazi killing machinery. As their Final Solution to the ‘Jewish problem’ in Europe, the Nazis systematically murdered as many as 6 million Jews precisely because they were Jews…approximately two out of every three Jews who were living in Europe in 1939; and over 90 percent of the 3.3 million Jews in Poland.” Afterwards, theologian Franklin Littell wrote, “The murder of six million Jews by baptized Christians raises the most insistent question about the credibility of Christianity.” Ya think?
I’m bringing up this ugly history because it’s important to recognize that a resurgence of white supremacy in this country is not just a curiosity. It’s a movement that needs to be taken seriously, and opposed. Christianity is as vulnerable to the corruption of extremism as any other faith.
Suppose we could go back in time to the leaders of the German Christian movement, to sit down and discuss together the parable of the wheat and the weeds. If we asked the average believer caught up in that movement, “Which are you, the wheat or the weeds?”—of course they would say with confidence, “The wheat!” Nobody wants to think of themselves as the weeds, the impure element in the field.
The particular weeds referenced in Matthew’s parable were probably darnel, a weed that looks very much like wheat as it is growing. One has to wait until the harvest time to distinguish easily between the wheat and these particular weeds, when the wheat heads get heavy and start to lean over, where the darnel heads stay light so the stalks stand upright. The wisdom in the parable has a very practical flavor; the listeners would have understood that time will tell which is which. Even at harvest time—which was frequently used metaphor for judgment day—it wasn’t up to the wheat to expel the weeds. That was the reaper’s role.
One of the brilliant insights of the parable is that trying to gather the weeds prematurely would result in uprooting the wheat along with the weeds. An effort to purify the field would harm the crop planted by the sower as well as the crop planted by an enemy while everyone was asleep. That certainly seems to have been the case in 20th century Germany, where a purifying impulse opened the way for a disastrous perversion of a nationalist church. Is it any wonder that so many European churches stand virtually empty these days?
The kingdom of heaven is like a field in which someone sowed good seed, and someone else sowed weeds, and they are all growing up together. And the householder advises the workers to let them all grow together. Let God sort it out at the end. This is excellent advice, I think, where communities are concerned. If the Bible doesn’t make us skeptical enough about trying to take upon ourselves the labor of weeding out the bad seed, let history enhance our skepticism about the wisdom of trying to create a “pure” community, church, nation, race, etc. That’s so not our work, if it involves trying to sort out whole classes of humanity and excluding those who we think have a weedy look about them.
The whole idea that there are some people who are the wheat and some people who are the weeds is itself an idea about which we should maintain a hearty skepticism. Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it so elegantly, writing after having been thrown in a Soviet prison: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
One of the commentators I read on this text suggests that we can bring this parable to instruct our self-examination. In the explanation of the parable later in Matthew 13, the storyteller says that the angels will collect out of God’s kingdom “all causes of sin” as well as evildoers. The gospel speaks here and there about stumbling blocks, which cause folks to sin. There are things within us that cause us to sin; we have weeds in our hearts and souls. When the angels gather up all the weeds to burn them, we might see that as a burning of everything within that causes us to sin, rather than the destruction of a whole sinner. That is a hopeful sort of idea, that we might—perhaps even before the Day of Judgment!—be rid of some of the ideas and habits that cause us to stumble.
Do you ever find yourself surprised by your own proclivity to sin? Listen again to the question the slaves ask in the parable: “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” They seem genuinely baffled. We might be baffled about where our tendency to hate, lie, cheat, snipe, judge, and so forth came from when we are such good people. Or where it came from when we’ve tried hard to raise good kids—like when we first catch our kids purposefully lying to us. Where did these weeds come from?
In the story, the answer is that they were planted by the enemy when everyone was asleep. Pretty devious. To me, this speaks particularly of some of the ugly ideas that we inherit, the prejudices that we learn practically in our sleep. I’m racist, at least unconsciously so. I don’t want to be, I don’t mean to be. In terms of my inner life, I might be asking, “Where did these weeds come from?” In one sense, the parable’s explanation of how those weedy ideas got planted into my being is very helpful. I didn’t necessarily adopt racist ideology consciously—those weeds were planted by an enemy while I was asleep. I want to show you a short video, one of the MTV “Decoded” series, because I think it’s a good example of how we inherit some sketchy ideas without thinking too much about them. Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKB8hXYod2w
I’ve used the term “Caucasian” about myself without knowing that it was a word with such a racist history. I didn’t even know that word might be a weed in my vocabulary field. I’ve just started reading a book, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. One of the points the author is making is that it takes some effort by white people to recognize how they profit constantly from white privilege and white supremacist ideology in our culture. “To identify, analyze, and oppose the destructive consequence of whiteness, we need…presence of mind.” By presence of mind, the author means a precise awareness of the present moment, an awareness of the existence and destructive consequences of the possessive investment in whiteness that surreptitiously shapes so much of our public and private lives. In terms of the parable’s metaphor, it’s a willingness to recognize that there are weeds planted into our subconscious and conscious minds; we didn’t make this stuff up, we don’t really want these ideas, but they’re still in the field of the mind and soul.
Inquiring “Where did these weeds come from?” is at least a start in realizing that we are not as pure of heart as we might like to be. As to whether they can be rooted out before the harvest day of death, maybe not, at least not completely. But knowing they are there affecting us in the way we think and behave is better than pretending that we are perfectly perfect. Pretending we are on the whole, pure, while others are not, is one of the dynamics that leads to prejudice, and prejudice gone wild like the Holocaust. We can’t just weed out the bad guys in the human community because the line between good and evil runs down the center of every heart.
We can’t even weed out all of our own imperfections; it’s probably naïve to think it can be done in this life. Yet at least knowing we have some weedy ideas and practices keeps us humble. It keeps us aware that we are all relying on the grace of God in this world and the next. And we can try to nurture the “wheat” side of our own souls, so to speak, giving our weedier ideas and practices less freedom to take root and thrive.
In the kingdom of God the saints and sinners are planted in the same field, and the workers in the field learn that you can’t try to weed out one set of people without destroying yourself in the process. In the kingdom of God we know that each of us has the field of wheat and weeds within ourselves—none of us are purely good or purely evil. In the kingdom of God the grace of God hovers patiently over all of us, hoping for a harvest of compassion and peace.