Sunday, July 23, 2017

God doesn't need your help judging others

Maybe you read the extraordinary story about what one of Jesus’ helpers did last week? Anthony Herb is a well-known atheist who lives in Phoenix. Last week someone threw a large rock through the rear window of his car. The rock had a message attached. It read, “God is good.”

We may never know who threw that rock but we do know Jesus told a parable about folks like him: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So, when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 

He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Collect the weeds first and bind them into bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’
Today Jesus is providing some gardening tips. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a well-tended garden where the gardener has planted good seed. Daisy’s, pansies, maybe a few vegetables like zucchini or peppers, carrots, some peas and lettuce. But a neighbor, an enemy, sneaks over in the cover of night and plants weeds.

Don’t remember a lot from a botany class I took years ago. I do remember the definition of a weed. A weed is a plant out of place, a plant somewhere we don’t think it belongs. A weed may have a pretty flower like dandelions for example but they don’t belong in your lawn or among the flowers or vegetables in your garden.
Sometimes telling weeds from the plants you want to keep can be difficult. No matter how pretty the flower, if it’s not the daisy or the pansy or the zucchini or peppers, carrots, peas and lettuce we planted…if it’s not one of those, it is a weed, a plant out of place and it is out. We know what we like and it’s not you! Pulled up by the root and tossed aside.

In this morning’s parable, Jesus is talking to his helpers. They are eager to rid his garden of the weeds. First, they wonder aloud whether Jesus himself planted those weeds. “Master,” they say, “how come there are weeds in your garden. Didn’t you plant only the best seed? How come there are so many weeds?”

Jesus helpers are eager to pull the weeds out of God’s garden. They think they know which plants belong and which plants need to be pulled out by the roots and tossed aside. BUT Jesus says, “No, no, no. That is not your job. Just let all the plants grow. When it comes time for the harvest, God will figure it out.”

My daughter Meghan is quite into meditation. She is an apple that didn’t fall far from her parent’s liberal tree. Recently she attended a two-hour meditation at her Denver church. As she came out into the parking lot, she saw a car with a bumper sticker that read “Don’t tread on me.” Well, we all know what kind of a person puts that sort of a bumper sticker on their cars. We know what they think, who they voted for. Right?

Meghan’s first thought was, “Why is someone like that attending a two-hour meditation service at our church? Someone needs to pull that weed out by its roots. Right?

As she drove home, it occurred to her the owner of that car…the “don’t tread on me,” guy…was no different from her. He, like she, was there to experience God’s love, to find comfort in a time of spiritual connection. One of them can’t be a weed unless the other is as well.

Steve Shive, the state presbyter tells of what happened when he searched for and found Wilbourne Markham, a beloved old high school teacher. Wilbourne was living in the same town in which they all went to high school. Steve wrote, asking why he hadn’t stayed in touch, why he had never shown up for a class reunion.

My dear Steve,
It occurred to me that at your age you might not have known why people were calling me a communist. I think you might have been in the third grade in 1963? Well in 1963 a parent who was a member of the John Birch Society and the White Citizens Council went to the Chattanooga School Board and announced that this teacher, it was me she spoke of, was teaching things which smacked of Socialism /Communism. She had a daughter in my civics class.  I was simply trying to help bring about peaceful desegregation in compliance with the Supreme Court decision: Brown vs The Board of Education of 1954.
At this time Martin Luther King was being attacked as a communist. Billboards had his picture on it with that inscription. If you sided with African Americans, you must be communist. The parent also had a very conservative Presbyterian minister with her testifying that my teachings were "definitely unChristian."  
This caused me to have to undergo a four and one-half hour public school board hearing. This was held in the commons of the Chattanooga High school commons. There were lawyers from the Tennessee Education Association there for my protection and the tape recorder was on. I had to face the School board, the superintendent, and the accusers next to me for hours answering questions about my teachings. Quite a task for a young teacher in his second year in the profession.  When it was over the superintendent stated, "We have seen an outstanding teacher go through this hearing."  However, the damage was done and I had to live with it.
I got support from many, but the episode took years to overcome.  I was reminded frequently when students would drive down North Moore Road and yell, "there is that communist," and when rocks were thrown through the windows of our house.  So, you can see why it meant so much to me for you to call to tell me what you did after nearly fifty years.  You will always be held in a special place in my heart.    Thanks again, Wilbourne

Jesus knows that telling the weeds from the plants is a rather subjective thing. The plant that some of Jesus’s helpers may not like could be one that Jesus loves, one for whom Jesus has great plans, one that when full grown has beautiful blossoms and bears great fruit.

Humans have a hard time telling bad from good. Plants out of place may be weeds just because of where we are in our own lives at the moment. Some plants may be out of place because that’s where we put them ourselves in our own prejudices and notions. Plants we think are out of place may be where God wants them.

God doesn’t want us making the choice. God doesn’t want us deciding what is a weed and what isn’t. Jesus’s helpers were eager to pull weeds. They asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘Nope; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and then God will make the call.

Matthew’s parable this week is in one sense a warning. Lest we think we have it all figured out how; that we are so good at judging evil from good, moral from immoral, right from wrong, virtuous from unvirtuous, that we can be in charge of quality control for God. C’mon on God, you are pretty busy with so many other things. Let me help you out a little. I know a weed when I see one. I can make your God-job a lot easier if you’ll let me be in charge of quality control.

In her book “The Worshiping Body: The Art of Leading Worship,” Kimberly Bracken Long recalls the 1984 film “Places in the Heart,” set in Waxahachie, Texas, in 1935. Its last few minutes depict a communion service in a small country church. The few folks in the sanctuary do their best to sing “Blessed Assurance” as they prepare to share communion.
But then something remarkable happens. As the bread and wine are passed there somehow appear to be some surprising people in the pews:
The bank president who tried to foreclose on a young widow; the white men who lynched a black boy after he mistakenly shot the town’s beloved sheriff; the players in the honky-tonk band and the floozies who followed them from dance to dance; Moze, the African American laborer who helped the young widow bring in a prizewinning crop of cotton . . . and the Klansmen who drove him out of town; and, finally, the sheriff himself and the boy who had killed him.
‘The peace of Christ,’ the sheriff says to the boy as he shares the bread and wine. ‘The peace of Christ to you as well,’ the boy whispers in return.

“Here, at the Lord’s Table,” says Kimberly Bracken Long, “life triumphs over death, love overcomes hatred, mercy overcomes guilt, and those who could not or would not live together in peace are reconciled in Christ’s name” and I might add, not because the human beings among them were able to tell the weeds from the flowers but because God could. We need to sit back, take a breath, and realize that while God has given each of us a job to do…it’s not his. AMEN

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