Date: June 18, 2017
Title: “Grace in the Family”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Matthew 13:24-30
The best-known and easiest definition of a weed is “a plant growing in the wrong place”. You know that – weeds grow where we want other plants to grow, or where we want no plants to grow at all. Other definitions describe weeds in other ways. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Very inclusive of him, don’t you think? And Richard Mabey tells us:
Some plants are labeled as weeds because we morally disapprove of their behavior. Parasites, for instance, have a bad name because they exploit the nutrients of other plants, regardless of whether they do any real harm in the process.
It seems that the city of Houston, Texas has its own high puritanical criteria. In that city, by-laws have made illegal “the existence of weeds, brush, rubbish and all other objectionable, unsightly and unsanitary matter of whatever nature on any lots or parcels of real estate.” In this litany of dereliction, weeds are defined as “any uncultivated vegetable growth taller than nine inches. Which makes about two-thirds of the indigenous flora of the entire country illegal in the city of Houston!
All of these definitions have one thing in common: they all view weeds entirely from a human point of view. They are undesirable because they sabotage human plans. They rob our crops of nourishment; they rob our meticulously planned garden designs of the beauty we intended. They break up our images of perfection, and they do not live up to our limited expectations. So what is Jesus doing sticking up for them in this story of the weeds and the wheat? Maybe there is another way to look at weeds.
I’ll never forget the day my dad became a human being to me. I was about eight years old and vacationing in New York City with my family. We were staying at Governor’s Island, off the coast of Manhattan, and Mom had bought a few things for breakfast – cereal, milk, and bananas. Because it was hot and humid, she had put the bananas in the refrigerator overnight, and of course, their skins turned black. I came downstairs that morning, took one look at those bananas, and asked, “Ooh… what’s wrong with those bananas?” Mom calmly explained, “There’s nothing wrong with the bananas; I just put them in the refrigerator and their skins turned black.”
Shortly thereafter, my sister Debby entered the kitchen and asked, “What’s wrong with the bananas?” Again, Mom patiently explained, “Nothing is wrong with the bananas…” Next came our father, asking the same question and getting the same answer. Finally, my sister Bunny walked in bleary-eyed to wonder “What’s wrong with the bananas?” And Dad blew up at her. “You girls are so damn picky!” he raged. “There’s nothing wrong with the bananas!” Now Debby… you could just see the wheels turning in her head as she decided that enough was enough. And that was the day my dad’s weeds were called out and he apologized to us all. There were weeds in my family. And there was wheat. And – thank God – there was grace abundant there as well.
Years later, my own three-year old daughter Kate, helping me set up the large family-sized Coleman tent quietly asked, “Is there any possibility we could do this today without the wicked witch coming to visit?” Weeds and wheat….and thank God for grace in the family. The truth is, we are all a mix of good and bad, kindness and selfishness, patience and impatience, love and hate, wheat and weeds. And Jesus’ parable we read today is a good reminder of that fact. It is a story told not for the sake of action. It is not about pulling up the weeds or clearing the garden. It is a story told for the sake of honesty, and even for the ambiguity that comes along with being human.
You may remember the story of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist, who saved over a thousand Polish Jews from the concentration camps of World War II. One of the people he saved said “He was our father, our mother, our only hope.” And yet, he certainly was no saint. He was unfaithful to his wife, and a big drinker. He was a Roman Catholic but also a member of the Nazi party, and his stated goal was to end the war with two trunks full of money. So he was happy to exploit the Jews as a cheap labor source. Oskar Schindler had his share of weeds within him. Fortunately, he also had his share of wheat.
As the war wore on, Schindler became appalled at the horrors being perpetrated against the Jews, so he protected his workers from the death camps, even at great personal risk. Weeds and wheat… and thank God for grace. It is that grace which allows us to recognize the weeds – and the wheat – in our own lives, in our family members, our friends, even in our enemies. It is that grace – the unmerited, unconditional, forgiving and all-embracing love of God – which gives us space to make mistakes and learn from them. It is that grace which gives us courage to change our hearts and our minds about others, and which allows us to be the people God envisions and desires. Karoline Lewis suggests:
Our purpose and presence in the world as Christians is to live the Gospel, to be the light, to be the salt. Because we are, says Jesus to his disciples. This should be good news for us. The parable calls us simply to be…We are called to simply be the wheat in the world, even when we are fully aware of the weeds. Someone else tells this story:
One of the best Christians I’ve ever known was a Roman Catholic who cursed and smoked and had a heart as big as the Gulf of Mexico. She was not the kind of person you would find serving punch in the church fellowship hall. But she started the shelter movement in Atlanta… When one of our homeless friends died on the street, she claimed his body, paid for the cremation, and waited for someone –family or friend – to come. No one ever came. She drove around for weeks with his ashes in the backseat of her car. Finally, she asked the rector of a downtown Episcopal church if the ashes could be placed in the church’s memorial garden. “Our policies will allow only the remains of relatives to be placed there,” he told her. “Perfect!” she said, “Jesse was my brother.”
When we see everyone we meet as our brother or sister, we are living as wheat in the world. When we march in the Pride Parade today; when we serve dinner or stay overnight at the Goose Hollow Family Shelter; when we pack food boxes at the Oregon Food Bank; when we visit at the Maybelle Center; when we provide launch boxes for teenagers aging out of foster care; when we stand up for undocumented immigrants; when we engage in interfaith dialogue and cultivate cross-cultural understanding…we are living as wheat in the world. And we are helping others to do the same, because we know there is grace in this family.
At Annual Conference this week, one of the retirees was Jane Hill, the last Diaconal Minister of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. When asked to share a bit of wisdom from her ministry on the Oregon coast, Jane reflected on the fishermen she often watches as they head out to do their work:
Watching them load their boats and begin the treacherous journey across the Columbia River Bar, I’ve thought about what it is that sustains these fishermen, what it is that keeps them going out to sea, day after day. It seems to me they must rely upon three things:
– first, the constancy of the tide, it’s going out and its coming in.
– secondly, the strength of their nets
-and finally, their desire to feed the people.
It is these same three things which sustain us as disciples of Christ, followers of the greatest story-teller ever. We must rely upon the constancy of the tide – the ebb and flow of God’s invitation to life and new life over and over again. We must trust the strength of our nets – the very fabric of relationship we share. And finally, we fall back on our desire to feed the people – to be the wheat, even when we are well aware of the weeds. Thanks be to God! For grace in the family. Amen.