Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Tuesday Vespers

Matthew 13:36-43

I have heard that the saying goes, “If you’re going to plant kudzu, drop it and run!” Many of us here are from the southeast, where kudzu covers more than 7 million acres and counting. Once upon a time it was an exotic, ornamental plant brought to the United States from Japan for show. Kudzu’s vibrant green leaves and fragrant purple flowers enticed gardeners, and its deep and complex root system made it ideal for curbing soil erosion and improving topsoil. It was even grown as a crop to feed foraging livestock.

Kudzu does go to seed, but most of its alarming growth occurs as its vines put down new roots into the earth, the tree, the house, the livestock or whatever happens to be standing in its way. In 1953, kudzu was downgraded from a plant to a weed and now, instead of enticing people to grow it, environmental agencies encourage people to get rid of it. In Spartanburg, South Carolina, where my mother lives, there are designated “kudzu control sites” where individuals can experiment with ways to get rid of the vigorous vine.

A weed is defined by some as “a plant that does more harm than good.” A real farmer would never plant kudzu or mustard seeds or darnel, the wheat-like weed planted by the enemy in tonight’s parable. He would pull the weeds as soon as they sprouted, so as not to rob the crop of the soil’s nutrients, or risk the weeds going to seed and so threatening the next year’s harvest as well. Even in a garden, weeds can smother more delicate growth or steal precious sunlight and rainwater.

I am an amateur gardener, just learning to love digging in the dirt and planting things that grow. I spend a lot of time weeding, though, pulling up one green thing to make room for another. Every once in a while I come across something that I can’t identify, though - is it a weed or a flower I have not yet met? Some flowers grow more like weeds - it isn’t kudzu but wisteria that threatens to consume our backyard and perhaps even our house. Still other flowers, like lantana, that I have planted intentionally grow like weeds in other parts of the country. And some weeds are so beautiful I haven’t had the heart to pull them up.

Tonight, Jesus pauses in his telling of parables to return to the one his disciples, the eternal point-missers, call “the parable of the weeds of the field,” the parable we heard at vespers on Saturday night. Simply in calling the parable by that name, though, Matthew shows us that the disciples have missed the point once again, for the story is no more about weeds than it is about wheat.

Parables, writes, the Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor, are not like code or allegory. The are more like dreams or poems that whisper images in our hearts and imaginations. Let anyone with ears listen! He would have us hear what the whole story has to say to us, not just any one part. But, like the disciples before us, we tend to be selective listeners.

And so we hear the “parable of the weeds of the field” and wonder immediately, are we wheat or are we weeds, as though the parable were about us at all and not the kingdom of God. We wonder if we will be harvested by angels or burned in a furnace of fire, as though the parable were about judgement and not the grace it takes to grow in faith. Am I wheat or weed? Sinner or saint? Good or bad?Matthew doesn’t say so, but I suspect Jesus sighed and perhaps even rolled his eyes as he launched into his point by point explanation of his parable, which was exactly what the disciples wanted to hear. But let anyone with ears listen, he urged, and I submit to you it was because the disciples had closed theirs.

The truth is, in the fields that are our world, our communities, our families, our churches, our lives, in our own hearts, there is good seed and there are weeds. There is joy and there is pain, there is wonder and there is cruelty, there is dark and there is light, there is generosity and there is pettiness. Sometimes it is easy to identify the things that steal our nutrients, that sap our strength, that compete with our striving to grow. Sometimes it is easy (or so we amateur farmers think) to tell the weeds from the wheat. Sometimes the weeds look better, bigger, more colorful, more hearty. Sometimes the weeds and wheat look so much the same that we do not know whether we are choosing something that will bear fruit. If, then, we try to judge a growing thing, we risk uprooting the good along with the evil. We could even uproot ourselves.

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness, our psalmist said tonight. We cannot see what God sees in the big messy kingdom field, filled with wheat and weeds. Who knows - the One who turned water into wine, loaves and fish into a feast, and death itself into life may very well be able to love a weed into bearing fruit. Let it be until the harvest. Among God’s promises in this parable is the promise that, in the end, that which is good will be gathered to God, and that which is evil will be burned by fire. Whether the fire is designed to punish or to purify, though - who knows. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. Or to quote another southern wisdom saying about kudzu, “Love it or hate it, it grows on you.”

Listen to another parable, dreamed and pieced together by various preachers to tell a mystery. The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer who harvested the wheat in his field, ground it fine, and made it into flour. He then pulled up the weeds, mixed them with mud, and made them into bricks. With the bricks he built an oven, a furnace filled with fire, in which he baked loaves of golden bread. The farmer sold his bread in the marketplace, where a young boy with only a few coins bought five loaves which he carefully placed in his bag with two fish, and so it was that bread broken together was the final harvest from the field.... Amen.

Artwork: Kudzu blooming; Lantana in my front yard; "Heal Me," by Roger Hutchison; Jack Anthony, photographer.

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