[the following contains portions of a sermon preached at Disciples Christian Church on Sunday, July 20, 2014.]
So much has happened in just the last few weeks.
I feel a little like John Stewart of the Daily Show returning after being away two weeks. On his first show back, Stewart provides a litany of all that has gone down during the show’s hiatus: The Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision. The escalation of war between Israel and Hamas. The unaccompanied children arriving at our border. And after he laments all of that, looking into the camera, he says: Who would have thought that the two happiest places in the world right now are Germany and Cleveland!
That’s it for my references to Germany winning the World Cup and the return of LeBron James to our town!
This text from Matthew is helpful this morning, and it may be one of the most useful texts in the gospel. Certainly not because of its lyrical quality or poetry; nor is it particularly quotable. But it is useful because it says with clarity that our lives are going to be filled with ambiguity.
The sower planted good seeds. He expects a good harvest. But now here come the weeds growing amidst his wheat. Common sense and experience says: pull up the weeds. Don’t allow the weeds to choke out the yield. Any experienced farm worker – even backyard gardeners – know this to be true. But, and here comes the ambiguity – the sower decides that getting rid of the weeds now is too risky. Risky for the good stuff. And so the sower waits – telling us to also wait. And he expects us to find ways to live it — with both the wheat and the weeds growing together until harvest time.
And this ambiguity is useful for us because?
I’ll answer that with another question. When was the last time you were faced with a decision in which the answer was simple. Black and white with no shades of gray. Easy peasy. All upside, no down. No smoke and mirrors. All rainbows. Has it been a while since any big decision has been that simple for you?
Can I get an Amen that nothing important is simple!
We can acknowledge together that life is harder than that. Sometimes it’s really hard. Most often the choices in front of us are rarely clear or easy, and the choices we’ve already made continue to have ripples that extend well in front of us. And to be honest, some decisions we’ll get right. Others we will get wrong. Still others we won’t know whether we were right or wrong for months, years, or even before we die.
What is useful about our text is that it sets us up to expect ambiguity. Doubt. Confusion. Uncertainty. Second-guessing. On our portion of the field that we tend. The question is not: What’s a weed – or who is a weed? It’s for us to listen to the owner of the entire field who asks: Who will decide? And the answer is: Not us. It is most definitely not us, as you heard at the end of our story when we arrived at a very clear explanation of who decides. With the weeping and gnashing of teeth (never a good thing!) and weeds burned up with fire, while the righteous will shine like the sun well into the next life. Apparently God doesn’t need our help in deciding which is which and who is who.
And so, what should puzzle, perplex, and frighten us about the decisions we make is not the uncertainty. That is a given. What should frighten, perplex, and puzzle us is when we think that should be easy. Or when we believe too strongly in our own decision making ability. When what we decide that what is best for ourselves is the only consideration. What should frighten us is when we are crystal-clear with certainty that we hold the truth in our hands. What should frighten us is when our minds are made up and not about to change. Or when we don’t look back on a decision. Or re-think our position.
And, what should scare the bejesus out of us is when we think we can clearly identify the weeds. When we know exactly who the weeds are. What should scare us is when we can see very clearly that the weeds are most definitely not us.
A few weeks ago I walked together with several others from this church in the Cleveland Pride Parade. It was my first. I was surprised to learn that Westboro Baptist Church from Westboro, Kansas would be there protesting. They are there every year, I’m told. Its founder and recently deceased leader Fred Phelps has made this very small church quite famous by showing up in ugly protest at funerals. Military funerals where they proclaim that these deaths are God’s retribution for our country’s moral decay. Protesting other funerals and events for persons they decry are living against God’s will. To make no mistake about their intentions, their church website is http://www.godhatesfags.com. If you can believe it, Westboro Baptist was even set to desecrate Dr. Maya Angelou’s funeral. Before her body was even cold, it was written, Westboro was front and center before the press announcing their intentions: Maya Angelou had a platform that she never used to glorify God. Same-sex marriage will destroy America.
Westboro Baptist Church thought Dr. Angelou — and so many others — were weeds, deserving not of our respect and love, but to be plucked up and destroyed.
And then, there are those children. Buses of children who have arrived in the US after fleeing violence and poverty, drugs and human trafficking in Central America. Some have come with their mothers. Many others unaccompanied. Babies. 6 year-olds. Teenagers. Some have traveled as many as 1700 miles. Arriving at the border in Texas, flown to San Diego, then put on buses to take them to a station where it will be decided whether or not to deport them. It’s the law, but you’ve seen the ugliness. Adults blocking the buses, yelling at these children. Go home. You’re not wanted here. Big, angry, white men carrying flags – and women not as big, but then, doesn’t every adult look big to a six-year old? Angry faces screaming at them in a language they do not speak or understand. Already away from home and all that is familiar, exhausted – now terrified.
If we want to talk ambiguity, we only have to look at the complexity of the solutions for what could be as many as 70,000 children coming into the United States this year. And it is up to our government to fix this in a non-partisan way. But this is also a humanitarian crisis, and it is up to humanity to respond. And to scream at a child? To have decided without knowing or communicating with a child his or her young life is a weed that needs to be ripped out of the ground here and tossed away across the border?
Last Sunday, David and I and about 50 other people stood on Public Square in protest of an Open Carry Gun event. We were part of a counter-event called Open Carry Guitar. What was that like? We saw probably 40-50 men and some women with guns in holsters, assault weapons strapped across their shoulders or down their backs. We saw a child with a loaded gun tucked into her stroller, if you can believe that. And yes, these guns are loaded. Their owners are quick to say: why would we carry a gun unloaded! This — downtown in our city where in just the first 5 months of 2014, a total of 52 deaths have been attributed to firearms. The numbers will only go up; they do not include June or July.
And yet, groups like Ohio Carry brazenly bring their weapons not just to Cleveland but to any town near you and in very public places. Knowing full well that 86 people die every day by gun and that 8 of them will be children. They have decided that their right (and it is legal to openly carry on the streets of any city in Ohio) to protect themselves. They bully anyone who chooses not to carry, believing their right to carry supersedes the rights of the 30,000 who will die this year by gun and the rest of us who do not want to run the risk of being unintentionally shot because a loaded weapon is unsecured, mishandled, and near enough to us to do permanent damage.
Are we determining who is wheat in this country according to the number of weapons owned, displayed, and carried? And those who are unarmed. Those who disagree. Those who die. They are the weeds?
This weekend the war escalated between Israel and Hamas with Israel’s decision to bomb Gaza. Many have died, especially among Palestinians. And, there was a Malaysian plane brought down by a surface to air missile in the Ukraine. Hundreds dead in both regions. I ask you. Who is the good seed, and who is the bad? Who gets to live and who needs to die? Will the amount of rocket fire determine the answer? My head aches from trying to be informed enough while my heart bleeds for every child and innocent adult’s death.
Our story is often called The Wheat and the Tares. A bit of ancient botany might be helpful. Tares are a particular weed, much like a rye grass. It is indigenous and plentiful in the area in which Jesus was doing his teaching. It’s a dangerous weed as the seeds are poison. The interesting thing about this weed is it looks exactly like wheat until the ear appears. Only then can you be sure which it is. No wonder Jesus warns us in this story that it’s best to leave the weed pulling to the One who is an expert at it. No wonder Jesus warns us not to entrust something so delicate to some overzealous weeding. It could be a fatal mistake.
We are faced daily with situations in which there are no clear or easy answers. We will not always choose wisely, and not everything will turn out just fine for us. I hope we know that our decisions need to include more than our individual wants and desires. The ambiguity and the difficulty level could seem overwhelming, but I hear in this parable a promise from Jesus that in the end, God will sort things out. That the world does not rest on our shoulders, but God’s. And if we were to sow love instead of hate and peace instead of strife…
Dear Lord, our lives are colored by ambiguity and we don’t always know the right or best thing to do. But we do know that your love is guiding us and that you have called us to live as your people in the world. When we face hard choices, give us eyes to see the best path forward and the courage to follow it. When we make mistakes, forgive us. When we are hurt by our choices, comfort us. When we hurt others, help us to reach out to them in love. And above and beyond all these decisions, remind us that you still love us and call us back to this place that we may be forgiven, renewed, called, and sent forth once more as your beloved children. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Peace and Blessings –
Pastor. Parent. Activist.