Our sermon series on Jesus’ parables in the Gospel of Matthew continues this week with Part 2, the Parable of the Weeds. Jesus tells us in this parable that the church will face opposition not only in world, but also within its own ranks. This will happen because we have an enemy that is actively opposing every good work that we do for God’s kingdom.
Among other things, I discuss the challenge of church membership—with all of the church’s problems. I sympathize with Groucho Marx, who said, “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Thank God that the church, however imperfect, is the kind of club that would have us as members!
In spite of these challenges, we are, at our best, able to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ to a world that desperately needs it.
Sermon Text: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Please note: There’s a small hiccup in this week’s video. The batteries in my Flip camcorder ran out (inexplicably, since I had just put in a fresh set), so Lisa, my wife, switched to her iPhone. Pretty good quality overall!
I don’t have a green thumb. I’m not someone who likes to “play in the dirt,” as the old Pike’s Nursery jingle said. For me, the best thing about fall besides college football is the fact that the grass stops growing—or the weeds stop growing, as the case may be.
As you might imagine, I am very sympathetic with the landowner in today’s parable, who decides to ignore the weeds for the time being, not to pull them up right away. I’m all about ignoring weeds. I do not pull up weeds. Look, I figure if the weeds are green, and they sort of match the rest of the lawn, what’s wrong with some weeds? Once you mow the lawn, it all looks the same—sort of—from a distance at least. I realize that not all of you share my enlightened view of weeds.
Similarly, the servants in today’s parable did not share the landowner’s view of weeds. And who can blame them for wanting to pull up these weeds immediately? These weeds were bad news for wheat farmers. Today, these weeds are called bearded darnel, “false wheat,” or tares, as King James Version says. Darnel is poisonous and potentially deadly. And it looks a lot like wheat—at least until it sprouts. When wheat sprouts, the wheat grain causes the stalk to droop, whereas the darnel stalk stands straight up. To make matters worse, the roots of the darnel become entangled with the roots of the wheat. The landowner doesn’t want to pull up the weeds prematurely because doing so would also uproot a portion of young, perfectly good wheat. It’s easier to sort it out at harvest time, when all the good wheat is ready to be harvested anyway.
This parable reminds me of an an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. In it, Debra wants to learn to cook like her Italian mother-in-law, Marie. Whatever faults Marie may have—and they are many—she is a famously good cook. Debra, of course, never feels like she can measure up to Marie—and Ray always prefers his mom’s cooking to hers. So she asks Marie to share with her Marie’s famous meatball recipe. Which Marie gladly does—Marie even brings over a box of her spices for Debra to prepare the meatballs. So Debra follows the recipe and uses the spices Marie gave her, and guess what? The meatballs are terrible. Debra is devastated. Marie condescendingly tells her that the number one ingredient is love. Only later does Debra realize that Marie very carefully removed the label from a bottle of basil and very carefully placed it over the label on a bottle of tarragon—and passed the tarragon off as basil. Thus sabotaging the recipe. Thus ruining Debra’s meatballs.
If you ever watched the show, you would know that Debra might have screwed up the recipe on her own—without any outside help. She wasn’t a great cook. But that wasn’t the case here. Marie wanted to make sure Debra failed. Marie deliberately acted against Debra’s efforts to do this good thing and make this dish that her husband loved.
And the same thing happens in this parable! From my very limited experience of planting flowers or grass seed, I know that weeds will grow just fine in my garden or in my lawn without any outside intervention. I don’t need an enemy to creep into my garden or yard at night and plant weed seeds. Weeds do just fine on their own. But if an enemy did this to me, I can only imagine how much worse my problem with weeds would be! For this landowner’s enemy to do this, he must really, really hate him, and really want to hurt him, and really want to work against his best interests, and really want to make his life as difficult as possible.
Is it possible that there is such a thing as the devil who wants to do the same thing against God’s kingdom, both in the church, in our lives, and in the rest of the world?
Jesus makes it clear in his interpretation of this parable that the answer to that question is yes. I told my wife, Lisa, that I was going to have to talk about the devil again in a sermon, and she laughed. And she said, “Are you going to call him the devil?” and I said, “That’s what Jesus calls him, or it.” But I know that the idea of the devil comes with a lot of baggage. And she said, “I can’t help but think of the little red guy with pitchfork, horns, and cloven hooves. You know, the Underwood Deviled Ham guy.” So it’s difficult to talk about the devil, or Satan, or the demonic and be taken seriously. If it helps, call the devil something else—use another name. Call it a self-directed force for evil in the world. Regardless, I can’t take for granted that most Methodists believe in the devil anymore, but I believe in the devil. And if you struggle to believe in the devil, ask yourself why. Be skeptical of your skepticism.
Do you remember the Enlightenment from your history class? It led to some really good things and some really bad things. But one really bad thing is that it made us skeptical of anything that we can’t see with our own eyes—or at least that scientists can’t see with theirs, using math equations or microscopes or telescopes or other instruments. So I might think, “It’s hard to believe in God, because I can’t see God. Science can’t see God. So it’s hard enough to believe in one thing I can’t see—like God, for instance. How much harder is it to believe in all these other things that I also can’t see, like angels and demons? That makes faith so much harder!”—or so we might imagine.
But does it really? If we believe that God created this universe and everything in it, is it really so much harder to believe that he also created unseen, spiritual things, called angels, which operate in a different realm from us. And that some of these angels chose—as we human beings also chose—to rebel against God. And as a result, these fallen angels—called demons—are working against God’s kingdom in this world and are working for our destruction. Maybe we don’t know exactly how they operate in our world, but is there any way to read Jesus’ words here and imagine he isn’t talking about the devil as a real thing—as a clear and present, imminently dangerous spiritual force at work in the world? Can we read these words and imagine that he’s using devil language as merely a symbol for the evil that you and I do? I can’t. In my mind, it doesn’t do justice to the problem of evil in the world.
I’m not saying that the evil that you and I do isn’t bad enough, because it is, but what if the “enemy” we face is far bigger, far more pervasive, and far more powerful than what’s inside of us? If so, no wonder the church fails so often to be the Body of Christ in the world—the very embodiment of Christ’s love for the world. No wonder the church finds itself so often in the midst of scandal and embarrassing controversy. No wonder the church so often fails to get along with one another—and is always fussing and fighting. This parable tells us that we face a powerful, unseen enemy working against every good thing we try to do—sowing these pesky weeds in the middle of this beautiful garden that God is trying to grow here.
Are you fooling around with sin in your life? Do you know that maybe you’re not being faithful to Jesus right now but figure “I’ve got plenty of time to get right with the Lord?” Are you playing around with sin and thinking, “What’s the big deal? Jesus is too nice to hold me accountable or judge me or punish me”? Did you not hear these terrible words of judgement about “weeping and gnashing of teeth”? Parents, are you doing everything in your power to ensure that your children are getting the message, that they’re learning from your example how important the Christian faith is? There most assuredly will be a final judgment, and your enemy and my enemy would love to see your faith and my faith fail before that time comes. The enemy would love for your children to not have a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In other words, the enemy would love for you and your children to go to hell. There is a spiritual battle going on here. The stakes couldn’t be higher. God isn’t playing around with sin and evil and you shouldn’t be either!
Jesus is telling us in advance through this parable that—sadly—the church—not to mention the rest of the world, but even the church—is a badly flawed institution. It’s going to let us down. It’s is going to disappoint us. It’s going to fail—a lot! Did you hear that?
Where are my sisters and brothers who were baptized or reaffirmed their faith and joined the church this morning? Do you know what you’ve gotten yourself into here? Jesus is telling you through today’s scripture that this church—even this wonderful church here at AFUMC—is going to be a mess sometimes. It’s going to let you down. It’s going to disappoint you. It’s going to sometimes say one thing and do something else. It’s going to fight sometimes. It’s going to be a pain in your gluteus maximus sometimes. So you gotta be a little tough, and you gotta be a little thick-skinned sometimes.
But do you know what helps me when I get down about the church? I remember what that great philosopher Groucho Marx said: “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Well, guess what? The church is the kind of club would have me as a member—thank God because I know the kind of person I am. I know that I’m part of the problem even as I’m trying my best to be part of the solution. Thank God the church would have even people like me! Because as bad as the church can be sometimes, it’s better than any alternative! It’s certainly better than trying to go it alone. I need the church!
One of my favorite things to do, as I’ve said in the past, is run on the Big Creek Greenway—and I’ve seen some of you on the greenway, so I know you like it, too. I’m the one running barefoot! One great improvement to my running over the past six months has been the iPhone. I use this Nike app that keeps track of my distance, time, and pace. Pace is minutes-per-mile. Every half-mile it interrupts my music and tells me how I’m currently doing. This app helps me pay close attention to my pace. I’ve realized that it’s so easy to lose focus! It’s not that I can’t think about other things when I run—running is great for prayer and contemplation—but a good runner still has to multitask, still has to pay attention to the basics: putting one foot in front of the other as fast as I comfortably can. If my attention wanders from that task, I can go from running a respectable seven-and-a-half minute mile to a nine-minute-mile without even feeling the difference. The iPhone app reminds me to pick up the pace! And I also run slower when no one else is running with me or near me. I’m competitive enough that I feel extra motivation to run faster, for example, when someone passes me. I don’t like being passed. It wounds my pride! But it’s not just competitiveness; it’s not just pride; it’s also inspiration. It’s a reminder that if these people can run their race this well, maybe I can too.
When I consider how well so many of you at Alpharetta Methodist are running the race of your Christian life, I feel inspired. You inspire me! All of you beautiful people I have the pleasure of ministering with! You’re beautiful. For example, I saw some of you in action yesterday in midtown Atlanta, feeding and loving the homeless. You were beautiful yesterday—and yesterday was just another day in the life of this church.
In fact, do you know who you remind me of sometimes?