Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Devils and Dandelions: Being Wheat in a World of Weeds - A sermon by Matt Haines

Proper 11, Year A- St. Andrew & All Souls' Episcopal Church, Portland
Not long ago, I was walking through my front lawn and saw a dandelion which had gone to seed. I was instantly transported to my childhood when I would take the cottony flower in my hand and blow with all my might. WHEW; it was so fun to watch those little white specks take air. I felt so powerful. One day though, my grandmother watched me do this and called me over to her. She explained that I shouldn’t do that. I argued that it was so fun. She agreed that it looked fun, but she explained that these little white specks were actually bad seeds. These seeds caused weeds which smother the good flowers and the vegetable garden, and even ruined the lawn. I felt terrible because I thought I was doing something harmless, but now I had helped to ruin things. She smiled and said "It’s ok; you didn’t know. Besides, you are a good kid."

Thirty years later I still wonder sometimes, "Am I a good kid?" We all ask that question don’t we? What does it mean to be good—what does it mean to be evil?

Jesus’ parable of the "Wheat and the Chaff" (MT 13:24-30, 36-43) uses similar imagery. There is a field and an enemy had come by night and seeded weeds therein. The followers of the "evil one" planted weeds which threatened to smother and kill the wheat. The servants in the parable wanted to help by pulling out the weeds in order to save the wheat. The master said not to for fear of destroying the good with the bad—a sort of agricultural collateral damage. Jesus warns against this method when he explains that his followers were to be the good plants and that the angels would sort through the harvest at the end. Our job is simple, be the good kid. In other words, be the good seed.

Wait a minute! Aren’t we morally obligated to pull the weeds to protect the good seeds? Jesus’ answer—‘no’! It doesn’t work that way. Pulling weeds in this context is murderous to the good plants as well, and frankly it is the work of others. It is the work of angels.

An unknown counter-protester at a Westboro Baptist
Church demonstration in February of 2008
PHOTO CREDIT: Terry Ross (
Used by Creative Commons License.
Some rights reserved.
I would like to offer a real world example of this—Pastor Fred Phelps. He is that Westboro Baptist preacher in the cowboy hat who would picket the funerals with graphic signs and slurs stating that "God hates___" (insert the blank with a slur here). He and his followers blamed gay people for every possible ill and misfortune. He saw his job as pulling out the weeds (gay sinners) to protect the wheat (the non-gay righteous). For the LGBTQ community, this man was perhaps the most self-righteous and singly destructive soul of the past several decades. He started by protesting the funerals of people who died of AIDS and told their grieving families that God was happy that their loved one died and that he was happy that they were now in hell. Then he focused on people who died due to antigay or transphobic violence and yelled to all in ear shot that "God hates___" (insert the blank with a slur here). He picketed churches and schools that showed mercy to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. (It became almost an honor for a while to get picketed by these fanatics. It meant that you were doing something nice.) Finally, he started picketing those soldiers who had fallen in battle. Their 'sin' was merely serving a country which tolerated certain people. "God hates___" (insert "America" here). This man and his church had decided that they saw evil weeds which needed to be plucked and they felt commanded to do so.

These misguided people felt powerful casting bad seed and pulling up the good. They claimed to possess the knowledge of good and evil. Incidentally, that was the original sin! Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge banished Adam and Eve. The evil one tempted them to be equal to God in this way. The second sin, fratricide, happened soon thereafter. We are in danger of killing our brothers and sisters when we appoint ourselves to weed the garden. We become like old Fred Phelps.

So what are we to do in the face of sin and evil? What do we do about the weeds? First of all, we need to stop blowing the dandelions we encounter in our daily lives (no matter how fun it is). We all encounter evil such as: gossip, rumors, suspicion, violence, oppression, injustice and prejudice. We have many opportunities to spread sin—we are called to stop. Remember that bit about wailing and gnashing of teeth? We must leave the dandelions alone!

As seeds of good we are called to be fruitful. We are wheat called to nourish the world. We are not to be the seeds kept in the barn of last week’s gospel. We are called to out-number the weeds. How do we know that we are indeed good instead of evil? In the Wisdom of Solomon we are given insight into this reality.
Although you are sovereign in strength, you [God] judge with mildness,
and with great forbearance you govern us;
for you have power to act whenever you choose.
Through such works you have taught your people
that the righteous must be kind,
and you have filled your children with good hope,
because you give repentance for sins.
- WISDOM 12: 18-19  
God judges with mildness: we don’t get to judge at all. The righteous are kind. If we are not kind, it is a pretty good chance that we are not sowing the good seed. We are either spreading weeds or pulling out good seed with the bad (Remember, we are supposed to be the wheat!).  God gives us hope though repentance. When we find ourselves being unkind, we need to repent. That is our hope.

Incidentally, some of the most beautiful ways I have ever seen this happen were grace-filled responses to some of Fred Phelps’ protests. Groups of people dressed as angels often came to these picketed funerals and surrounded the messengers of hate with their wings and sang hymns to drown them out, allowing families an opportunity to grieve surrounded by holiness. Bikers on Harleys—perhaps even a few "Hell’s Angels"— escorted the hearses of fallen veterans, drowning out hateful slurs with their engines of love and support. Notice how they did not pick the weeds; they planted more good seed to surround the weeds.

You may have heard that Fred Phelps died this year. He was a complex man. It turns out he started his career as well-respected civil rights lawyer. He had also previously run for public office as a Democrat. Yet, he turned in a different direction.

Late in his life, his church family turned on him. The church which he founded actually excommunicated him. His heresy--wait for it--was attempting to bring more kindness to the way church members and leaders treated one other. Is it possible he had some hope in repentance after all? The elders were unable to see any good seeds in him as they weeded their own weird little garden. As he lay dying, one of his sons--who had left the church years ago-- remarked that the church elders had taken away the only thing that brought his father joy. They held no funeral for him. You see, pulling weeds is tricky!

"Dandelion 2"
PHOTO CREDIT: lc shinazy
Used under Creative Commons License
Some rights reserved
When old Fred Phelps died there were a lot of mixed feelings in the communities which he had hurt. In fact, I have not fully been able to address my own hurt by his brand of Christianity. Yet I was touched by a certain response of people who understood how to sow good seed. These people simply stood outside the Westboro church with a sign. It read, "We’re sorry for your loss". How profound!

"We’re sorry for your loss". Kindness and mercy was offered by the very same folks this man hurt for decades. They could have felt powerful blowing dandelions in his lawn. They could have self-righteously pulled such weeds out of their community garden. Instead, they were examples of nourishing wheat. They planted seeds of love to surround the weeds and trusted in their own kindness, God’s merciful judgment and the harvesting skills of angels.

Looking around the world we can see that a lot seems to be going to seed. Evil is afoot and the weeds seem to strangle the good seeds. We know what to do. We are to wait for Jesus and the angels to sort out the wheat from the weeds. Meanwhile, we are to grow and become righteous and nutritious for a hungry world around us.

Jesus said, "Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"

Let us use our ears to hear! Amen.

Matt Haines is Integrity's Vice-President for Local Affairs and active in the Diocese of Oregon

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