Monday, September 28, 2015

Down on the Farm: Is This a Weed?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 13:24-30:

Before being appointed here to Mesa View, we served two rural congregations outside of Clovis.  We worshiped in House, New Mexico at 9 am, and then I quickly got into my car for a 30 minutes to drive to the larger of the two churches in Melrose, and that’s 30 minutes going much faster than the speed limit posted on the county roads because there was nothing in between except farms and ranches.  One day as I was driving out to House, I saw a man who was just standing out in one of the fields.  I thought it was a little unusual, and on the way back to Melrose he was still standing there.  Again I thought that was a little strange, but what do I know about farming?  Perhaps there was a perfectly reasonable excuse for what he was doing.  But the next week he was out there again, just standing there, and so now my curiosity got the better of me and I had to stop, and so I got out of the car and yelled over to him and he smiled and waved, and I said, “I just have to know what you’re doing?”  And he said “I’m trying to win the Nobel Prize” and I said, “The Nobel prize,” and he said, “Yeah, it’s pretty prestigious, and I heard that if you win one they give you more than a million dollars.”  I said that was true but didn’t really understand how he was going to win the Nobel prize, and he said, “we’ll what they say is that to win the Nobel prize, you have to be outstanding in your field, and since I’m the only one standing in my field, I think I’ve got a pretty good chance.”

Last week we began a new sermon series in which we are looking at what we can learn about growing our faith based on lessons from the farm, and idea I stole from Rev. Adam Hamilton, and today we continue with another agricultural parable from Jesus.  There are only two times we have Jesus talking about weeds.  The first is in today’s passage, commonly called the parable of the wheat and the tares, and the second is in the passage we heard last week in the parable of the sower.  In that passage, Jesus says that a sower went out to sow seeds and some fell on hard ground, and the birds ate it up.  Some fell on rocky ground, but the soil wasn’t deep enough for the roots to take hold, and so when the son came up the plants withered and died, other seeds were planted among the thorns, or weeds, but the weeds grew up along with the other plants and choked them out, and finally some of the seeds fell on the good soil and those seeds grew into a bountiful harvest.  Now the analogy that Jesus is making in that parable is that the soil is supposed to be our hearts, and the seed is the word of God.  And we should ask ourselves how prepared we are to receive God’s word, to have it take root in our lives.

It is my contention that we are all four of these soil types throughout our lives, that sometimes we are hard as clay and can’t receive the word of God, other times our faith is shallow and it withers, and sometimes we are fully prepared to receive the word of God into our lives.  Hopefully we are more often like the good soil than the hard soil, but I can tell you that that is not always the case in my own life.  And regardless of where we are, the way we prepare ourselves to be receptive to the word and to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to accept who and where we are and realize that only someone more powerful and stronger than we are can pull us out of the mud of life, then surrender our lives and begin to follow Christ.  Accept, surrender and follow are the first steps to discipleship.

In today’s story, we again have the sowing of seeds but this time, rather than being different types of soil and with only one type of seed, instead there is just one type of soil but two types of seed.  There is the seed that is planted by God, and there is seed that is planted by the enemy.  But, no one knows this other seed is there until the plants start growing up and they are able to make a differentiation, until that point they all look the same.   If you’ve grown a garden you know that when it first starts, sometimes it’s impossible to know which are the weeds and which are the real plants and so you can’t really pull them out until you know for sure which are which.

While from Jesus’ telling of this story there are no botanical descriptions given, some have said that these weeds, or tares, are the bearded darnel, which grows throughout the world, but is found particularly in the middle-east, which is why some speculate that this is the weed Jesus was talking about.  The bearded darnel looks a lot like wheat until it is time to harvest, at which time it’s easier to identify, because wheat bends over a little when ripe, whereas the bearded darnel keeps standing up tall.  But, just like we are all four types of soils in our receptivity to the word, we are also both types of wheat, (the holy and unholy, the potentially fruitful and potentially destructive) just as the disciples also were both.  And it’s not just Judas, who we might instantly say is the bad wheat, but what about Peter and his denial of Jesus, or even with the apostle Paul and his famous quote, which we also heard last week, that he does not do the things that he wants to do, but instead it is the things he does not want to do that he does.  And the same is true with the gardens and crops of our lives, “we do not grow the things we want to grow, but the things we do not want to grow is what grows.”

But the biggest problem with wheat, and also with a community, is that because wheat is planted close together, pulling it out will indeed harm the real wheat if you were to pull it out.  In addition, what the bearded darnel also does is to wrap its roots around those of the real wheat insuring that if you were to pull it out, you would pull out the good plants.  But the biggest problem with these weeds is not simply the fact that they threaten the wheat around them because they fight the other plants for nutrients, water and sunlight, but that, because of a fungus that grows on the bearded darnel, it is actually poisonous, and delivers a toxin to whoever eats it that can cause drunk like symptoms, hallucinations and even death.  While this is more common in livestock than in humans, there are recorded deaths from people accidentally eating bearded darnel.

And what brings in these bad weeds, what allows the seeds to be scattered into our lives?  In today’s parable, it happens while everyone is sleeping.  In Matthew and the other gospels, when Jesus talks about sleeping, it usually has the connotation of spiritual sloth or neglect, after all Jesus chastises the disciples continuously to what? Stay awake.  When we are sleeping, when we are neglectful of our spiritual lives, then we are liable to be sowing seeds, or allowing seeds to be sown, into our lives that we would rather not have present.  Now some will argue that it is the devil that does these things, and certainly some can make that argument from today’s passage, but I’m of the belief that I am quite capable of sinning all by myself, I don’t need the devils assistance in doing it for me.  And here’s the absolute truth, Satan, no matter how you understand that term, cannot make you do anything, and when you try and place the blame elsewhere, say it’s someone else’s fault, do you know what will happen?  We will never learn from our mistakes because we have never taken personal responsibility for those mistakes, and we will also never be able to truly figure out what the weeds are in our lives.

What are the weeds that are destroying our spiritual lives?  What are the weeds that are growing up and choking our faith?  What are the weeds that are taking away our nutrients and water and sun?  What are the weeds that are distracting and distancing us from God?  What are the weeds that are destroying our crops and stopping us from bringing in the spiritual harvest that God is calling for us?  Sometimes we might not even know what it is because we might, in fact, think we are doing just fine and we don’t know that our fields are full of weeds until it’s too late, because we are distracted and not paying attention, or we’re paying too much attention to other people’s fields, and so we let things into our lives that we shouldn’t, and sometimes we can’t tell the difference, because the truth is that weeds are entirely in the eye of the beholder, based on what you want. I like to harass Linda that the state flower of Texas, which is the blue bonnet, is actually a weed, which she doesn’t find very entertaining.  Instead I should see it as Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a weed is “a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered.”  If you want to grow strawberries, then grass is a weed, but if you want a nice lawn, the strawberries growing there would be a weed.  What’s the difference?  Our intentionality.  The intentionality is the most important part.  If we just scatter seed and hope for the best, what’s going to happen?  We will invariably end up with some of what we want, but we will also end up with lots of weeds and things we don’t want.  We have to be intentional about sowing, cultivating, watering, yes even weeding, our spiritual lives in order to produce the harvest that God has called for us.

One of the prescriptions that we have been called to undertake as part of the Healthy Church Initiative is to set up an intentional path of faith development, not just for us as individuals, but for what it means about us as a community.  What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ?  What does that look like? What does it require?  What is the pathway to that, a path that doesn’t end but continues for our entire life?  As we begin to work on this, and doing it intentionally, it will allow us to keep from falling asleep in our faith, of having weeds scattered in our fields, or from allowing them to grow up.

But, as we as a congregation begin to try and answer those questions, do we have to wait before we make sure we are only growing spiritual wheat in our fields, rather than weeds, or to make sure that we are not sleeping and allowing the wrong things to grow?  The answer is no, and just like last week we went back to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and saying his covenantal prayer, I think we have to go back again to John Wesley and his general rules.

Does anyone remember what those three simple rules are?  The first is to do no harm. To do that we have to take a step back and evaluate everything that we do, everything we think and everything we say.  It is to recognize that everyone else is a child of God just as we are, to treat them as such, and to let God be the one who does the judging and the sorting.  The second step is to do good.  This is when we take a step forward and engage with the world, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving hope to the hopeless, walking with each and everyone one of God’s children through the journey of life.  This is a key one because if you are spending all your time doing the right thing, then you won’t have any time doing the wrong thing.  And the third and final rule is in Wesley’s language, attend upon all the ordinances of God, or as Bishop Reuben Job said, stay in love with God.

Wesley has six things to do to help us do that, and here is the good news for all of us today, we are doing several of them today.  They are attending the public worship of God, check, the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded, which we are doing both today through the reading of scripture, and then me trying to expound upon that word, participating in communion, although we only do that once a month, it was something that Wesley encouraged us to do as often as possible and to follow his example which was to take it usually 3-5 times a week, next is family and private prayer, which we will do today.  The other two are to search the scriptures, which you might do today, and finally is fasting or abstinence, which since the NFL has begun you could be practicing by being in worship.  But we need to also make sure these are things we do more than just on Sunday, because if we only do it once a week, then we are sleeping on our spiritual lives and we can be sure that we will begin growing weeds.

There is the old saying that you are what you eat, and you are what you watch, and you are what you read, and you are what you say, and you are what you do.  We are called to be ever diligent and attentive to the soil of our hearts, to prepare it for receiving the word of God, not to sleeping in our faith so that we don’t allow the wrong types of seed to take hold.  And that begins here.  It begins by gathering to worship God every week, it begins by reading the Bible every day, it begins by engaging in individual and collective prayer every day, it begins by searching the scriptures, it begins by participating in small groups, it begins to being a part of a spiritual formation class, it begins be serving in our community, and it begins by participating in communion.

Jesus says you shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God, and he says that whoever eats of this bread shall never be hungry, and whoever drinks from the cup shall never be thirsty.  The Christian life begins with accepting, surrendering and then following, and we continue on the path by being ever diligent in our faith life, in seeking to avoid situations in which we allow weeds to grow in our life which can grow choke out our faith, and we do that by first doing no harm, second doing good, and third by staying in love with God, and when we do those things then we keep our soil fresh, we keep it watered, we keep it filled with the right nutrients, and we keep from allowing the weeds to even begin to grow and we then produce the harvest that God has called for us.  May it be so in our lives my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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