NUMC Nameoki United Methodist Church 1900 Pontoon Rd.
Granite City IL 62040-2339

Sermon: Wheat and Weeds…

Date: September 28th, 2014

Preacher: Rev'd Mike Rayson, OSL

Church: Nameoki United Methodist

“He put before them another parable: “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 to him, ‘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 in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Matthew 13:24-30, NRSV

(** information taken from Wikipedia – not the greatest source for information, but good enough for the purpose of this story)  

Jim was born on May 13, 1931, in Crete, Indiana.

He was the son of a disabled World War I veteran, and a busy mother who worked several jobs to help keep the family afloat.

With his parents either disinterested in Jim, or away from the home working, he spent a lot of time alone in his home as a small boy until one day when he was about 10, a neighbor invited him to come to church.  And he did.

He started attending a small Pentecostal fellowship, but was interested in what was happening in all the churches in the little town of Lynn in Indiana where he was living at the time.  He was smart, observant, and soon started preaching what he was learning in church to kids his own age.  That didn’t seem to win him many friends.

His parents divorced, and he moved with his mom to Richmond in Indiana where he eventually after leaving school got a job at the local hospital as an orderly.   There he met a nurse by the name of Marceline and they married in 1949 when he was just 19 years old.

After graduating high school, Jim began attending Indiana University.

Then, after a few years in college at the young age of 22 he announced that God was calling him into the Methodist ministry.  As he started seminary, the District Superintendent and the Bishop of Indiana appointed him as a student pastor to Somerset Methodist Church in the suburbs of Indianapolis.

But Jim was eventually knocked back by the Board of Ordained Ministry in Indiana, and left Somerset Methodist Church… and he decided to start his own church… and the ‘Wings of Deliverance’ church began in 1955 under his leadership as pastor.

There’s nothing particularly compelling about Jim’s life story to this point.  Thousands before him and thousands after have taken similar steps in their lives.  Grew up, went to school, got married, furthered his education, went into ministry in the Methodist Church.

But… there was something a little bit different about this particular pastor.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds is not an easy parable to wrap your head around.  It’s a story that occurs in the context of the parable before it and the parable after it… in fact, there are 8 different parables in this one particular chapter of Matthew.

We’ve been here before on a Sunday morning at Nameoki… and it’s part of the same sermon.  Actually, we’ve heard the parable before it and the parable after it… now it’s time for the meat in the sandwich.

Prior to the parable of the wheat and the weeds is the parable of the sower and the seed… when the sower scattered seed on the 4 kinds of ground… the rocky ground, the stony ground, the thorny ground and the tilled soil.  Right after the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus goes on to tell the story of the mustard seed.  That little seed that, together with God, becomes something it can’t be… a huge big tree where birds come to nest in its branches.

So a farmer scatters seed in a field.  And under the cover of darkness, an enemy of the farmer came and scattered in the same field a bunch of weed seeds.

This was a common practice in Jesus time.  So common that the Romans had enacted a law against this very behavior.  It was a felony to scatter weeds in the crops of another's farm.  If you remember back to when we talked about the parable of the mustard seed, you may remember that Jesus is talking to a bunch of farming locals on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  So many people had gathered around to hear him teach this particular day that he pushed off from edge of the shore in a boat, and preached back at the crowds on the shoreline.

So here’s Jesus, speaking in parables, and he’s connecting with the locals that are listening to him.  The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his fields.

Those farmers listening are probably nodding their heads in agreement.  I mean who doesn’t want to hear of the beginnings of a good year of crop.  Good crops meant healthy incomes… the ability to live a good life.  The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his fields…

BUT… and the story changes in the ears of those listening… BUT while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.

Well knock me down and call me henry… the enemy did what!!!!  What a dirty rotten scoundrel.  As I mentioned earlier, this was a pretty low blow… and a common occurrence.  That’s why the authorities had responded to this practice by making it specifically illegal to do this to another farmer.

If I was in the crowd, I’d be ready for Jesus to go on and say… and the enemy was arrested, went to court, and was sentenced to prison where they threw away the key and left him there to rot.

The end… great story.  Justice for all.

But… well, Jesus likes to turn these stories upside down.  He likes to use metaphors that don’t sit well with his listening audience…  by getting this far in the stories, he has probably aroused the passions and hearts of these local farmers who are ready to hear the justice part of this story.  

It may be that even the very same thing had happened to them… where another farmer in dispute with them had come into THEIR field under the cover of darkness and sowed BAD seed among the GOOD seed.

Growing up on the farm, we grew wheat.  It’s a winter crop down under… with seeding in June when the rains come, and harvest in the summer of December and January.  Christmas down under falls at a rough time of year, because more often than not the farmers haven’t finished harvesting yet.  And often times, you’ll find farmers unable to come in off their tractors and harvesters to enjoy Christmas day because the most important thing is to get the crop in the silo before it spoils or spends too long in the fields.

Around about where I come from, July and August brings amazing views across sweeping wheat fields that have been planted.  Probably something like you expect to see in Kansas when the wheat begins to sprout… or even around here when the corn comes out of the ground.

It’s green green green as far as the eye can see.  Beautiful lush green.  The wheat thickens out and grows in height… and by late September into October the heads of grain begin to form.

Now… the parable we are looking at today – the wheat and the weeds – is not just a story about the enemy sneaking in to spread weeds… it’s about an enemy sneaking in to sow a very specific kind of weed.

The word we translate as ‘weed’ comes from the anglicized word ‘tares’… that’s why this is sometimes called the parable of the wheat and the tares.  Weed is actually not really a very good interpretation to be honest.  The Greek word for tares or weeds is ‘zizania’, and is believed to specifically refer to the darnel plant… a kind of wild ryegrass and the pulse it produces is highly poisonous to humans… kind of like a heavy dose of narcotics.  It can kill you.  But darnel also has another nickname…

It’s commonly called… ‘fake wheat’.  

Fake wheat.  Because it’s almost impossible to distinguish between wheat and darnel or tares in the first few months of life.  They look identical.

So… the trail of the crime… sewing the tares under the cover of darkness in the field where the good seed has been sown is long cold.  Because all the farmer and the servants see is a lovely nice green lush field of wheat for several months.  Until the plant begins to form it’s head.  When that happens… you know the difference between wheat and tares… and the enemy responsible for this destructive behavior is long gone.

For a farmer to endure this kind of thing would have been heartbreaking.  In the space of a few days as the heads of wheat and the heads of tares begin to form, he watches his livelihood and his income start to evaporate.  

Whenever we would harvest the grain and take it to the community silo in order for the grain to be shipped by rail 200 miles south to the town of Port Lincoln – which is where I first served by the way – the silo company tested the grain.  Basically, the semi would pull up on a weighbridge, and as the load was weighed, the grain elevator worker would take a sample of the grain and test it … because sometimes, the grain would not be just 100% grain.  If the farmer hadn’t sprayed the crop early on in the season, then combine harvester would take in the wheat and the weeds.  

And if your semi-trailer full of grain had a certain amount of impurities, you would be sent to a different silo on the same complex to dump your load, and paid at a much lower rate per ton.  That meant that making sure your crop was sprayed for weeds at the beginning of the season was vitally important to the harvest of the crop.

All that to say – weeds have an effect on the final harvest.

But while wheat farming practices focus a whole lot on removing the weeds at the very beginning, Jesus way of farming – at least how he tells it in this parable – is different.  In the story Jesus tells, the servants are instructed to leave the weeds where they are.  There will come a time of reckoning for those weeds, but the time is not now.

So – what does this say to the church… to us.  Well, if you read later on in Matthew, Jesus gives some insight to this particular parable.  It’s later in the day and the crowds have gone away when the disciples ask him… so … Jesus … about the parable of the wheat and the weeds???!

Out of all the parables they could have questioned that day… the mustard seed, the 4 soils… they seem to be more vexed by the wheat and the weeds.  Why doesn’t the farmer authorize the servants to go out into the fields and collect the weeds.  What will happen at harvest if the weeds, God forbid, are still there?!

We are so good in the church at dealing out punishment.  We see a weed, and we take steps to eradicate it immediately.  We see a person who doesn’t fit in, then in the name of Jesus we will cast them out of the fellowship quicker than a tick jumps on a hound dog.

Yet in Jesus economy, the wheat – and the weeds… the tares… stay together in the field.  They grow together… it’s not a clean way of farming to sort through the harvest at the end.  Better we strike them now while we can… but no.  

I think too many Christians try to be the Holy Spirit.  We believe that it is our job to judge the worthy and the unworthy, the sinners and the saints.  

Sometime ago, I read the book ‘Pastrix’ by Nadia Bolz Weber.  Weber is an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America pastor in Colorado, and leads a church known as ‘House of Saints and Sinners’.  It’s not your typical church.  There are no stained glass windows.  

Nadia as a person has lived a pretty rough life.  She has the battle scars – and the tattoos – to prove it.  In fact, she’s the kind of lady – at least by looking at her – that you probably don’t want to meet in a dark alley at night somewhere.

Because of her background, and because of her calling, Nadia has made it her life’s work to reach out to the people the church often calls tares.  The weeds.  Working girls, drunks, drug dealers… people that don’t ‘fit’ in the stained glass edifices across the nation.

And she has her fair share of critics.  People who think someone with such a colorful past could ever be called by God to serve God… oh yeah, and shock horror, she’s a woman (which of course to some makes it all the more horrendous).  Of course, a good deal of her critics are folks who hide behind the smokescreen of blogs and pseudonyms, or pastors who are – well – just plain old jealous that Jesus is at work in the community she serves…

But boy oh boy – the proof is in the fruit.  People who would NEVER connect with Jesus in a mainline evangelical church are hearing the gospel preached through a beautiful soul who has seen the rougher side of life and experienced the grace of God in the “even so”.  And, those hearing and experiencing the ‘Jesus’ that lives in Weber are those we are probably the most afraid to share the gospel with… lest we become somehow tainted or smudged by their long list of sins.  Truth is… we’re just as down and dirty as the rest of them (we just choose to ‘sin’ a little differently).  

Sometimes friends, those who think they are wheat – the fine upstanding Christians of the world… are actually tares… and those who think they are tares – the outcasts and the sinners and the hopeless… are actually wheat.  It was the religious elite in Jesus’ world that often received the harshest criticism… not those struggling in their human skin trying desperately to find hope and healing.

And Jesus says… care for them all.  And leave the judging up to him.  The saint and the sinner, the sinner and the saint.  Let the wheat and tares grow as they will… but leave the sorting up to God.  That doesn’t mean we simply sit back and let any licentious behavior to take hold in our churches… not at all.  The field in Jesus parable, by Jesus own words later in the chapter, is not the church, it’s the world we live in.  And his world for us is… let it grow, let it grow, let it grow.

And we’re not called to be the harvesters in this story… we’re called to be the farmers.  And if that means we water some tares along the way, so be it.  Because frankly, none of us – not the pastor, not the youth leader, not the SPRC, not the church council – are qualified to sort the wheat from the weeds of our world.  When we do assume that role, just like the farmer in Jesus parable warns, we’ll probably pull out a good deal of wheat when we go digging at the weeds we see.

So… the guy I talked about in the beginning.  Jim from Indiana.  The young Methodist Minister from Somerset.  Wheat or tare?

Probably, hearing his story… young man, upstanding in the community, a good job, married to a nice lady, a candidate for ordination in the Methodist Church.  He sounds just like a wheat.

Except… Jim went on to give 900 people a glass of kool aid laced with deadly poison in 1978.  

Wheat or tare…?  Or perhaps the answer isn’t ours to ponder or judge.

The truth is, we don’t know the identity of the wheat or the weeds as the plants grow together.  We’re just called to water the crop anyway.  We’re called to love anyway.  We’re called to be agents of grace anyway.  We’re called to preach anyway.  We’re called to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world anyway.  Sometimes, a Jim Jones will tragically slide through the cracks… but that should never stop us from watering the plants anyway.  

Not everyone who comes to the breakfast ministry will have an extraordinary encounter with Jesus Christ.  Not everyone who accepts a few quarters at the Laundromat will fall to their knees in worship.  Not everyone who receives a care box or comes to the trunk or treat or walks into a church service Sunday morning will ‘get’ what it is that God is doing here… but should we stop feeding hungry people or giving out quarters or cancel trunk or treat?

A new commandment I give unto you, says Jesus… that you love one another as I have loved you.  Amen.