Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 NRSV A sermon delivered to Broadmoor Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, LA, July 13, 2008
Have you ever noticed that whenever we romanticize, glamorize, sentimentalize life, even faith itself, whenever our expectations are too great, we are usually greatly disappointed?
Our family vacation was coming to an end. It was our last day at the beach. I had looked forward to spending the entire day on the beach, swimming in the crystal, Caribbean-blue water with my children. In my mind, it was going to be the perfect day.
But on our last day, the Caribbean-blue water was not so Caribbean-blue. It was seaweed green. Sometime during the night, the weediest seaweed you’d ever seen had drifted into the waters in front of our condo. The water was green, the beach was green, and if you swam in it, you’d be green too. I had never seen so many weeds.
So, I spent the rest of that day that came with such expectation working on this sermon—which ironically happens to be about Jesus’ parable of the weeds. No matter what kind of expectations we may have for our garden, weeds are always bound to appear. Allow me to give you another example.
The previous day, I was reading a book on the beach when my eye caught notice of a young family playing in the surf. A father was helping his eight-year old boy ride a wave on his boogie board. A mother was holding the hands of her six-year old daughter who was standing in front of her, lifting her up to hop over the incoming waves. In spite of a little envy and jealousy, I managed to smile as I watched them, for it was a beautiful picture of a perfect family vacation.
But as they came out of the water to take their seats next to me, something happened—you might say that these weeds began to appear.
“Daddy, a jelly fish stung me,” whined the little boy. “Mommy, I’m hungry,” moaned the daughter. “Son, stop shaking that towel, you’re getting sand all over everybody!” griped the father. Exasperated, the mother yelled: “Why can’t we just have one day on our vacation without all this fussin’?”
And as I watched them, I smiled once more, but this time, even bigger than before, because this time, this Norman Rockwelian family looked more real, like, say the Banks’ family on vacation—because regardless of my high expectations for a perfect vacation, somehow, someway these weeds would always appear.
It’s not so different from the expectations I had before moving to Baton Rouge. Whatever I had envisioned about my transition—answering the call of God, following my savior on a wondrous adventure into the deep, antebellum South, embarking on a brand new journey with the Lord—No, whatever my expectations were, I can assure you that it had nothing to do with what actually transpired. Lori becoming ill. Our health insurance denied. My car vandalized in the night. Throwing out my back while moving a garden hose. A constant battle with seasonal allergies. No, no matter what my great expectations may have been, weeds were bound to appear.
And the weeds on my beach, in my garden, have been and are a lot more manageable than some of your weeds. Thus far, my weeds have been merely a nuisance. Other weeds have been bent on entangling and even strangling all that is good.
An unforeseen accident tragically claims the life of the innocent. Someone falls and fatally breaks a hip. The doctor says the tumor is malignant. A mother dies very unexpectedly. One faces two surgeries in a month; both are unsuccessful. Chemotherapy treatments make some deathly sick. And that’s just scratching the surface here in our family of faith. Elsewhere, a U. S. consulate is attacked by terrorists. Tornados ravage entire communities. Wildfires continue to destroy homes. And the Mississippi River continues to rise; levees continue to break.
No, as much as we try to romanticize, glamorize or sentimentalize our vacations, our families, our lives, despite all of our high expectations for the perfect day on the beach, the perfect family, the perfect vocation, the perfect life—the weediest weeds always appear.
So the slaves complain to the householder: “Where did all of these weeds come from?” This is not what we were expecting. “What are we to do with them? Do you want us to pull them up, try our best to get rid of them ourselves?”
“No, says the Master. But have hope. In the meantime, we have to live alongside the weeds, but the time is coming, at the end of the age, when the weeds will be collected and destroyed forever. And there will be no more mourning. No more crying and pain. Death will be no more.”
This is, of course, the hope all of us have in what we call the second coming of Christ. It is the hope we have that Christ will somehow, someway, someday come again and defeat evil and destroy the weeds that entangle us, that have sought and that may even prevail to strangle the very life out of us on this earth. It is the hope that one day we will reside in the Kingdom of Heaven where weeds simply do not exist.
But wait a minute. Notice that this parable begins with the customary parabolic prefix, “’The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to…’ Someone who sowed good seed; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.”
The Kingdom of Heaven is not only that eternal weed-free place that is part of our future. The Kingdom of Heaven is something we can also experience in the present, among the weeds. It is not something that we only look forward to after the second coming of Christ, it is something we can somewhat experience today as a result of the first coming of Christ.
I believe one of the reasons we often miss this truth is because of our aforementioned propensity to romanticize, glamorize and sentimentalize life. And I’m afraid we have a tendency to do this even with the incarnation, the first coming of Christ.
Angels flying in the night sky singing a heavenly chorus. A brilliant star rising in the East. A baby worshipped by Shepherds and Kings and even animals. A glorious baptismal scene with the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. Jesus calling faithful disciples who drop everything to follow. Even the cross has become sentimental—a perfect, pretty piece of jewelry to adorn the neck. In our minds, the whole story is a beautiful, perfect garden completely devoid of weeds.
But the truth is and the good news is that it was not that beautiful. It was not that perfect. It is the story of God being born into the weedy existence of humankind.
We forget “Like, a root out of dry ground,” says the prophet Isaiah” he was born among weeds in a stable and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air. We forget that John Baptist argued with Jesus trying to prevent his baptism. We forget he was tempted by Satan not only in the desert for forty days but his entire life by disciples who never seemed to understand him. He made just a few precious friends, but a mob of enemies. And in the end, those enemies got him. His best friends betrayed, denied and abandoned him. And in the most god-forsaken of ways, God, the creator of all that is, was tortured to death.
There is nothing glamorous, sentimental, or romantic about it. God came into the real world, encountered real evil in the most real of ways, experienced real suffering and died a very real death. And the irony is: we call this story good news.
Dr. Ernie White was one of my professors who was stricken with cancer while I was a student at Southern Seminary. I’ll never forget something he shared with us in class one day. He said, “Although I can not explain it, somehow, the sicker I am, the more pain I experience, the more hopeful I become, because in the moments of my most immense suffering, God has been and is the most real to me.”
I believe that is because through the first coming of God through Christ into a very real and broken world, God knows something about real human suffering and real human misery. God is therefore able to relate to us in the most intimate of ways in those moments in life when the weeds are the thickest.
The good news is somehow, someway, someday, Christ will return and defeat evil and destroy the weeds of this world forever. However, the really good news is that we do not have to wait. We can experience a taste of the kingdom of heaven even among the weeds, maybe especially among the weeds of this world today.
This is how, although I know things are not going to be perfect, although I realize that my family, my vocation, and my life, my path ahead of me, will be strewn with weeds, this is how I still manage to have some great expectations. And I know I will never be disappointed. Let us pray together.
O God, thank you for the hope that we have that one day there will be an eternal life in a garden completely devoid of weeds. However, until that day comes, thank you for the hope we have that today we can experience life abundant even among the weed, maybe especially among the weeds, because we know you are with us in the most real and intimate of ways.
Inspired from a sermon by Frederick Buechner entitled “Two Stories,” from Secrets in the Dark (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 86-87.