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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Weeds and Wheat

A Sermon preached at
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
Pentecost VII - Proper 11A(RCL)- July 23, 2016
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

So let me start by getting this off my chest: Matthew’s Gospel is not my favorite. He's "Mr. Gloom and Doom". "Hell and Damnation". "Rust and Ruin." And, his parables are probably my least favorite. And of the seven parables in the thirteenth chapter, I think I like this one the least.

The parable of the weeds and wheat is fine, as it is. Parables are stories that are open to interpretation. They point us to know something about ourselves and the world and God’s love for the world. Parables honor the intelligence God has given us by engaging our creativity and imagination. 

Parables also tell us something about the nature of God and God's relation to creation and all of humankind. Matthew's account of the parables does that.

The problem is that Matthew spoils it all by trying to explain it to us. 

In. Every. Single. Little. Detail.

So, this may surprise you, but I know a few things about weeds. I’m not a gardener - I'm a city gal myself - and I don’t have a green thumb, but my maternal and paternal grandparents were farmers in Portugal, as were their parents and grandparents before them. They brought their skills and knowledge to this country. 

Much of my childhood was spent with my grandparents who had a small farm on the side of their tenement house in the city. It was only about an acre but it was enough to feed our family with great abundance. In fact, I had no idea we were poor until I was much older and looked back on my childhood. But, I was never hungry, always had a roof over my head and clothes on my back.

So, I learned a few things from living with my grandparents. What I know about weeds is that they are the least of a farmer’s worries. Seriously. Drought can do much more damage. Or, too much rain can be equally damaging to crops.  

Bugs and insects can ruin an entire crop or potatoes or corn.  And, rabbits and squirrels and other rodents love fresh vegetables - probably more than many humans.

Weeds – especially those with deep roots – can cause more damage when you pull them out than if you just leave them alone. Weeds may reduce the crops but at least there will be crops. They can always be gathered up when the crops are ready and separated. But they are not useless.

Weeds – especially those with the same long roots that can limit the bounty of the crops – can be used as fertilizer. They are filled with minerals and nutrients that can be extracted and made into what my grandmother used to call “weed tea”. 

She would put the weeds, including the roots and the leaves, into a sack and soak them in a large bucket of rain water for several months. Then, in the spring, she would use the “weed tea” to soak the ground around the young vegetable plants, nourishing them for even better crops.

But, weeds have other purposes. They grow faster than other plants so they act to stabilize the soil. Some weeds also die faster and, as they decay, they condition the soil. Other weeds attract beneficial insects that repel other damaging insects and pests and function as a protector.

So, all of that information changes a few things, doesn’t it? It turns Matthew’s interpretation of the parable of Jesus on its head. Weeds can do real damage but they are not inherently evil. Even weeds also have their purpose in God’s creation, if you know how to use them.  

Not everything bad that happens in life is the end of the world. Not every ending is necessarily The End. The things that sometimes look the worst – the darkest, the most painful – sometimes actually turn out to have had some benefit.

God can and does take everything in this word - even the seemingly bad stuff - and use it for a purpose that leads to good. That includes people.  Look at Jacob in this morning's lesson from Hebrew Scripture! That scoundrel stole his brother Essau's birthright and yet, God still used him to prosper his purpose. 

All our lives have stories that are their own parables - ways in which God is revealing God's image and relationship with wus and all of creation. You have some wonderful parables in your own life.

You didn't think you'd get out of church this morning without hearing one of my stories, did you?

Here it is:

So, I don't know if kids these day still have to do chores and get an allowance, but when I was a kid, that's the way it worked. 

I got a dollar a week - every Saturday morning after the chores were done - and it always came in the form of three quarters, two dimes and one nickle. 

I was allowed to spend one dime in any way I wanted - usually I'd buy 5 pieces of penny candy and a can of soda. The other dime I had to give to the church. And, man, did I resent THAT!

"Why did I have to give a tenth of my allowance on the church?" I asked my mother.  

"Because," said she, "God requires that we return a tenth of what we get to him."

"Fine," said I,"I'll do that. But, why do I have to give it to the church?"

"Because," said she, "Because . . . Because. . . . I'm the mother and I said so."

And so it was.

The other eighty cents went directly into my piggy bank. Because my mother said so, that's why.

Now, in the RC church of my youth, there were always three collections. The first was for missions, the second was to keep the lights on in the church and the third was the children's collection. I think that one was to help "pagean babies" in Africa and Asia and Viet Nam and Cambodia. 

The ushers in those days did not use silver collection plates. They used wicker baskets with long poles on the end. I LOVED them. The ushers used to slowly sweep past everyone, like a hockey player executing a precision slap-shot across the net in slow motion. 

The children's collection was always made up of coins. We sat in the back of the church - one of the last long rows so my mother could make a quick, easy exit if need be to change a baby or walk a fussy, crying child.  So, by the time the collection basket got to us, it was pretty full.

Most of the kids used to love to glide their hand over the mound of cold, hard coins and I was no different. One Sunday, a funny thing happened. I was putting in my dime and, low and behold, a quarter stuck to my hand on the way out. 

I was going to say something but, you know, the usher moved so fast and so smooth that I didn't have a chance to say anything much less put it back. So, I just, you know, squirmed a bit then lowered my hand to scratch my leg and then, you know, sorta-kinda let the quarter slip into my white anklet and settle down into my white Mary Jane shoes to the bottom of my feet. 

I didn't tell anyone but, you know, when I got home, I got to thinking. This would be a really cool thing to do, right? I mean, I was already harboring resentment against the church for taking a tenth of my allowance, but now I could use it for some good.

You see, every Friday night my parents would go over my mother's budget. Now, this budget was not just a row of income and a list of expenses. It was personal to my mother. There were no line items for "Milk" or "Bread" or "Medicine".  There were names on each line. "Mr. Hood" for the Hood Milk Man. "Mr. Perreira" for the Bread. And "Mr. Rexall" for the Drug Store where my parents owed 70 whole dollars which they were paying off at five dollars per week for my brother's medicine. 

Every Friday night, my mother would go over The Bills with my father and the one thing they always fretted over was the one for Mr. Rexall. But, the one thing they always fought over was the one for a man named Johnny Walker. 

My mother didn't think Mr. Walker ought to be in her budget At All. My father said that "a working man needed something to help him relax at the end of the day and if she worked in a factory she'd know that and he was the man of the house and he saaid so and that's all there was to that".

So, because I probably understood, even at age six or seven, that what I was doing was Very Wrong, my Very Big Plan to make this all Very Right was to save up my money to pay off Mr. Rexall so that my father could afford to pay Mr. Johnny Walker. 

It was brilliant: My mother would stop worrying. My father could relax after work. They'd both stop fighting and, just like the fairy tale, we'd all live happily ever after.

It was a brilliant way to spend God's money. Or, so I thought.

This went on for several months - sometimes a dime, sometimes a quarter (or two), and sometimes only a nickle, but my savings jar began to fill rapidly. 

It was very exciting. 

Thrilling, really. 

Suddenly, I LOVED going to church every Sunday. I didn't even mind putting my dime in the collection basket.

And then, I got caught. 

It was probably one of the nuns. We knew they had eyes in the back of their head. That's why they wore that veil. So you couldn't see them looking at you when you weren't looking.

My parents drove me to Father's office. I didn't know what it was all about but somewhere in my gut I knew what it was all about. My hands were sweaty. I knew. 

So, when Father asked me why I was stealing from the collection plate, I burst into tears. I told him the whole story. About the allowance. And, The Budget. And, Mr. Rexall. And, Mr. Johnny Walker. And, about My Plan to bring peace and harmony to my home.

Father's face changed from anger to great tenderness. I didn't understand it but it made me feel even more uncomfortable. I knew what I did was wrong. Why was he being so kind?

He said that I had to return all the money, of course, but I was not to worry. He would take care of everything else.

Then, my parents when into Father's office and, when they came out an hour later, they were pale and thin-lipped, but we never talking about it again.

And that's when I eperienced my first miracle. 

Not only did my parents stop fighting every Friday night, but Mr. Johnny Walker disappeared from The Budget. 

So did Mr. Rexall. 

I found out, years later, that Father had paid off my bother's medicine bill so that worry was off my mother's shoulders. 

You see, God had taken even my petty theft for some greater good. And, years later, God took that petty theif and called her to be a priest.

There is nothing in all of God's creation that God can't use for some good. 

Not everything bad that happens in life is the end of the world. Not every ending is necessarily The End. The things that sometimes look the worst – the darkest, the most painful – sometimes actually turn out to have had some benefit.

If you look over the stories in your own life, I'm sure you'll find more than a parable or two which will reveal to you God's unconditional love and plenteous redemption and forgiveness. 

Just don't let St. Matthew interpret it for you.  

(Oh, by the way and PS: Not to worry. I won't take anything out of the collection plate.)


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