16th Sunday in ordinary Time
Sunday's Readings: Isaiah 44:6-8 | Romans 8:12-25 | Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Ok, I need to take a quick poll. Dandelions. Weed or plant? What say you? Let me see the hands of those of you who think dandelions are a weed.
And who among you think dandelions are a plant?
I must admit to you I’m agnostic on this one. Or, more accurately, I’m undecided, uncertain. Ok, truthfully, I’m a flip-flopper. I’ve gone back and forth.
Other years I’ve let them grow. I’m going to say that was intentional, not a sign of neglect, although you might be forgiven for interpreting it differently. But this year we treated our lawn with a fertilizer that was not nice to our usually prolific crop of dandelions. They still came up, stalks rising boldly above our wretched, beaten down, brown infestation of grass and dead moss with a quarry of boulders centimeters beneath the surface. But this year, the dandelions look sickly and pathetic.
In the spring when things began to turn green—including for that all-too-brief-but-shining-moment when our grass didn’t look like a brown carpet of death—the dandelions shot up like the Spring lions that they are. They were glorious! And I hated them! The only time of the year when what we loosely refer to around our house as a lawn looks green, and its pocked with these tall confident plants whose bright yellow heads dare you to try to pull them out. You see, they know that, like an iceberg, those tap roots, surely thousands of feet long, are impossible to pull out completely so that they won’t return next year.
Here are some fun facts about dandelions from a clearly biased source, the website mydandelionisaflower.org.
Now the Bearded Darnel, on the other hand—Lolium temulentum—is a devil of a weed. It is most likely the weed that shows up in today’s parable as “tares”—as in separating the wheat from the tares. The tares invaded the good plantings, sucking up precious nutrients and hogging scarce water. The roots of the tares surrounded the roots of other plants making it impossible to root it out without damaging the good crops. Above ground these tares look identical to wheat, until they mature and bare their seed. And these seeds or at least the fungus commonly found on the stem are poisonous. They can cause everything from vomiting to hallucinations to death.
Emerson claimed that a weed is “a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.” But the Bearded Darnel with its lack of virtues seems just capable of proving Emerson wrong.
But what are we actually to make of this parable of wheat and tares? What does it mean for us? Perhaps you are drawn, like I can be, to making some kind of absolute judgment: there are good plants and bad plants. Good people and bad people. Wheat and tares. Dandelions and grass.
But I wonder if that’s really where Jesus’ parable is going. And I wonder if we really think we can divide people up in that way. In fact, at the end of the parable Jesus suggests these may be more about the good and destructive acts we each are known for. Some 1600 years ago St. Augustine sermonized to his congregation a more complicated verdict:
O you Christians, whose lives are good, you sigh and groan as being few among many, few among very many. The winter will pass away, the summer will come; lo! The harvest will soon be here. The angels will come who can make the separation, and who cannot make mistakes. ... I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God; let us all through His mercy escape the evil of this world. Let us seek after good days, for we are now in evil days; but in the evil days let us not blaspheme, that so we may be able to arrive at the good days.[ii]
It is certainly true that Matthew’s community was in a tough spot. Things were hard for them, and they were wondering, as we would too, “If we are so right, why are we having such a hard time?” And this story was comfort to them. It gave them some sense of how to hold on even when things didn’t seem to resolve in a way that seemed fair or just.
“Give strength to your servant,” the psalmist sings. And the early Christians of Matthew’s community were looking for the same thing. They needed to be able to hold onto the strong and just God that Isaiah proclaimed. They needed to put the suffering of the present time in context in a way that gave life and hope.
But to take that parable as a suggestion that we’ve got it right and others don’t would be a mistake. The Romans reading reminds us we are all debtors. In fact the parable is a reminder that we don’t ultimately know how things are going to shake out. The story is not yet finished, nor is the God who tells our story.
Think about it this way.
We used to think of church as a place of belonging that is conditional upon belief and behavior. You believe the right things, which then drives a particular way of behaving, which then determines your belonging. Belief shapes behavior. Behavior determines belonging: belief→behave→belong.
But what is emerging in our practice is different, and I would suggest a better understanding of how we are formed after the way of Christ. Belonging comes first. The church is first hospitable, perhaps to a sacred and holy “fault.” Christian bodies are obligated to the notion that everyone who wants to come belongs by virtue of wanting, without regard to belief or behavior. Those follow as we are shaped into the life of Christ within the context of a practicing/believing community. So the order isn’t belief→behave→belong, but belong →behave→believe.
Let’s put it this way: Sometimes we don’t realize who we are until we’ve had a chance to become it. The Spirit of God shapes us for life. And I believe the church is the type of place where that shaping can happen.
But the danger is imagining it’s the only place. The danger is imagining we’ve got a lock on the wheat when, as anyone who has paid even minimal attention can tell you: “even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares.” And the truth is we’re all probably a mix of grass and dandelion.
But the good news remains. We don’t have to worry about the harvest. That’s God’s good work. We are simply to allow ourselves to be fertilized, to grow in God’s good soil, to give of the fruit we have, to trust in the God of the sun, the moon, and the stars.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taraxacum, accessed July 19, 2014.
[ii] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160323.htm, accessed July 19, 2014.
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