A reflection on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
When my husband Dan and I bought our first house in 1987, on the NW side of Chicago, we were thrilled to have a place on our lot for a garden. In that small space we cultivated the soil, turning it over with a roto-tiller and mixing in good soil and fertilizer. Next we planted lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, brussel sprouts, and green peppers. Each year, for the seven years we lived in that house, we planted this garden. And each year we cared for it and harvested a nice little crop. In that garden, because of the way we had prepared the soil and planted the crops, it was easy to recognize what was a vegetable and what was a weed. We sold that house and moved away in 1994 so I could go to seminary.
Over the years of study and working I thought often of that little garden. I thought of the tender care we gave it, of the joy in eating my own homegrown baby bib lettuce, and of the lessons our kids learned from gardening. I thought of the simple job it was to weed that garden and keep it healthy, all because of the work we did to prepare it.
7 years later in 2001, after seminary and after my first job as a parish priest, I took a call as the rector of a church in the far NW suburbs of Chicago. Here we moved into another house that also had a plot of land that had been set aside for a small family garden. Only this garden plot had been abandoned for nearly four years. I had every intention of digging out the weeds and cleaning up the soil and planting a new garden. But every time Dan and I went out there to try and dig up the weeds we found it impossible to do. The weeds had grown so thick, the roots so entangled, that there was literally no way to pull it up or clean it out. So we hired professionals to come.
The first day the landscapers came they sent a young man with a shovel. He did the same thing D and I had done. He dug around and tried to uproot everything. But before long he gave up and left. The next day the landscaping company returned with a truck, a small bulldozer, and three men. They used the bulldozer to scrape up that pile of ingrown roots and weeds, dumped it into the truck, and had the three men smooth over the hole with new dirt. Dan and I laughed at how hard they had to work and the equipment it took to clean it out. Mostly we laughed at ourselves for thinking we could do it on our own.
A few days later we planted grass over the spot where the garden had been.
Tending to a garden is the theme of our Gospel reading this morning. But while Jesus uses the imagery of wheat and weeds, he isn’t really talking about plants. Some suggest he is talking about good people versus bad people. Good people are the wheat, bad people are the weeds. But I think that analogy has been used to cause more harm than good. When we humans take on the task of judging others it usually ends up misdirecting us focusing us on the behavior of others instead of ourselves.
We all have aspects of ourselves, places within us, that we could call “good” and aspects of ourselves we could call “bad.” We all have a bit of wheat in us and a bit of weed. So, I think Jesus is using this parable to help us take a good look at ourselves. In fact I always think that Jesus is pointing us to look at ourselves first and worry less about others. You know, take the log out of your own eye, or, the one with out sin be the first to cast the stone….”So, I think Jesus wants us to ask, “What am I doing?” Perhaps when he’s speaking of our spiritual garden, pointing us to look at our inner lives and how we express what’s going on inside by what we do on the outside. Do we live a life of faith? And if we think we are, then what does that mean? How do we show it? And, how is God a part of it all?
What it means to live a life of faith can become rather convoluted in our world today – so many mixed messages about what is important.….it’s easy to see how weeds and wheat get all mixed up – whether we are so busy we don’t take time to nurture the spirit, or whether our lives are so filled with angst we become bitter, or whether we yearn to just be quiet and rest instead of really following where God is leading us. Before long our lives can become like that second garden of mine, the one that was root and weed bound.
As Episcopalians we have some parameters that can ground us and help us stay organized, focused, fresh, and productive, like my first garden. First of all we have the promises we make in baptism. There are five things, found on pages 304-305 of the Book of Common Prayer, that we promise to do: 1. continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers; 2. persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord; 3. proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; 4. seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and 5. strive for justice and peace among all peoples, respecting the dignity of every human being. We respond to these promises by saying, “We will with God’s help.” We’re not supposed to live a life of faith all on our own.
Tending our spiritual garden, our faith life, life one always encounters a few interior weeds, places within ourselves that need cleaning up and clearing out, with a spiritual bulldozer, if you will. Looking at our lives through the lens of our baptismal promises create a good foundation for our spiritual lives and focusing our lives. Producing a good spiritual harvest only comes through the grace of God. We can live faithful lives, but only with God’s help.
So, we have these five things we promise God we will do, with God’s help. Embracing them and living into them is like creating a good foundation of soil for our lives and our faith. The next question is how? How do we do these things, seeking justice, serving Christ in all persons? This is difficult because there are so many ways we can about living into our baptismal covenant. But here again we have some parameters. The Episcopal Church and this Diocese have agreed to embrace the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. These 8 goals can focus our lives and direct out ministries in such a way as to work toward eliminating the weeds of our lives and the root-bound parts of this world, growing wheat instead. The goals are:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Develop global partnerships for development
As a congregation we are just beginning to look at these goals and how they can become a part of our lives, individually and corporately. For example, we’ve taken our first step toward becoming a green congregation, through using the low wattage fluorescent bulbs in our worship space light fixtures. This effort connects us to the MDG that asks us to be attentive to environmental responsibility. We’ll focus more on what it means for us to participate in “ensuring environmental sustainability” over the coming year. And on Sunday, July 27, next week, we are going to take another tiny step by helping some kids in Africa afford teachers and an education. Our children are busy making bookmarks and magnets that we can buy for a dollar or so apiece. The kids will then send the proceeds to an organization in Africa called JOT – Jesus Our Teacher. So be sure to come next week and help our kids help other kids.
Over the next year or so I hope we come to a deeper understanding and greater investment in the Millennium Development Goals. It may be that our primary ministries will be focused through our baptismal covenant and the MDG’s; shaping and forming us and our decisions in ways we can’t even imagine just yet.
I think it is quite possible that we can become like that plot of garden that the landscapers dug up and Dan and I converted into lawn. You see the following spring I noticed something poking its way up through the grass. Oh, I thought, more weeds coming through. But a few days later I realized that it was not weeds, but tulips. Planted deep in the earth, below the shovel of the bulldozer, these bulbs resided. That year, and each spring, the tulips would pop forth into the world, a dozen or so blooms of pink, yellow, and purple. Freed from the constriction of weeds and roots the tulips could find their way to the surface and bloom. A reminder that even in the midst of life choking weeds, spiritually or literally, new life exists. A powerful symbol that life, God, hope, is always stronger than anything that seeks to cut it off or choke it out. As we nurture and focus our ministries on the MDG’s we’ll find ways to move through the weeds of our lives, those areas that live outside of God’s desire for us. And we’ll find ways to respond to the weediness of the world around us, digging into the broken, stifled places, in order to produce some healthy wheat.
Or tulips, as the case may be.