“Be Where You Are”

July 20, 2014


Isaiah 44:6-8

Matthew 13:24-30


Down the street at the corner of Clinton and Washington, the good people at Hands Jewelers keep putting up signs near the construction at the Midwest One Bank They are advertisements, yes, but in a peculiar way they keep speaking to me at some deeper level—raising questions, bringing up new possibilities, and helping me to understand scripture lessons that can be so puzzling.

The other day I was walking by and saw a new sign that reads: “Be Where You Are.”

And that seemed like fairly straightforward, even simple, advice. Where else could I be than right where I am, whether that’s walking down Washington Street or standing in this pulpit? Maybe you’ve seen those Downtown Iowa City posters that announce: “You are here.” Well, that’s pretty much the case, isn’t it?

And yet I recognize even as I say this that it’s always possible to “be” someplace else—in two places at once. You know the experience.

You sit in your pew, but you’re really already out on the golf course or at the mall or any number of other places—oh, I know what it’s like to sit out there. You go to work, but you’re really packing for vacation. And how often have you had that sense as you talk with someone that they’re just not “present.”

Our bodies may be where we are, but our minds, our spirits can wander off just about anywhere.

Being where you are is especially difficult in the summer. There was a travel agency in Cambridge, MA, that for years had a sign entreating all passersby: “Please go away.” We’d like to be somewhere other than where we are, if only for a short time. We need those breaks because, well, because being where we are requires all of us—body, mind, and spirit. Sometimes being someplace else helps with that.

Being where we are immerses us in all the changing dynamics of our families as children get older and parents get older and we get older.

Being where we are immerses us in this community as homelessness and hunger increase, as we start to ready ourselves for a new influx of students and the decrease in open parking spaces.

Being where we are means being a part of this congregation where we are: surrounded by a university desperately seeking more students from Iowa—telling people be where you are for college—and surrounded by a downtown that is undergoing all sorts of changes—often asking that some would be someplace else. Here we are, seeking to be a witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ in this place. And of course we realize that many still don’t know where we are or what we are up to as people of faith.

Be where you are.

Those words struck me in this week because I’d been reading and thinking about the parable of Jesus that we just heard. It’s called the parable of the weeds in the field, the parable of the weeds and the wheat—or as my New Testament professor, the great German scholar, Helmut Koester, called it, the “veeds and the veat.”

Titles, of course, can mislead us or cause us to focus our attention on one aspect of the story while missing other equally important parts.

We hear the parable of the prodigal son—and maybe miss the parable of the father who had two sons, or the parable of the son who stayed at home. We hear the parable of the weeds and wheat and miss the parable of the patient and merciful farmer, or the parable of the zealous servant.

Titles can lock us into a single understanding of these stories.

Parables, however, never have just one explanation. We find new meaning in these stories each time we hear them. And each time we hear a parable, it seems that the parable somehow explains or interprets us as well.

This time I heard this as the parable of weeds and wheat together. I’ve heard the gracious words: let both be where they are.

As is often the case, Jesus tells a story that surprises us, that even shocks us. The twentieth century social ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr said of this tale: “This is a parable taken from agriculture to illustrate a point of morals, and it violates every principle of agriculture and of morals. After all, every farmer and every gardener makes ceaseless war against the weeds. How else could the flowers and the wheat grow? And we have to make ceaseless war against evil within ourselves and in [others], or how could there be any kind of decency in the world?”[i]

How, indeed, we might ask?

Emerson said that a weed was “a plant whose virtue has not yet been discovered.” But we’re usually not eager to wait around and see if those plants will show any kind of decency. Weeds bother us and we want to get rid of them.

If you’ve ever had a garden or a field, you know the surprise, or maybe even the despair that comes when those unvirtuous plants, those weeds, first make their appearance. We are shocked. “Where did those weeds come from?” we ask. We planted good seeds.

It happens outside of our gardens as well. Those bags of Scott’s premium grass seed tell consumers that they contain a small percentage of weeds. Most of our actions, however, don’t carry such warnings. We act with good intentions and the results we get are mixed at best. And when we dare to look—to really look—at our own lives, well we know that there are a lot of weeds growing all around.

We hear a proposal. “Do you want us to go and gather the weeds?” It’s a sensible suggestion phrased as a question. We’ll get out there and begin a self-improvement program. We’ll get out there and—even better—start improving other people. Before you know it, the field will look great, our lives will be presentable, the world will shine.

We’ve got to do something.

Weeds bother us.

Listen to what the owner of the field says: “Leave the weeds alone!” Don’t pick them, spray them, or dig them. Leave them alone. Let them be where they are.

Why? Because even our constant vigilance can have unintended consequences. In pulling up the weeds, we will most likely also pull up the wheat.

Do you begin to get a glimpse of what God is doing in our world, in our church, in our lives?

Do you begin to get a glimpse of the patient mercy of God?

Knowing us better than we know ourselves, God recognizes that we are incapable of separating the weeds from the wheat in our own lives. Kathleen Norris says that “Any parent, watching a child grow up, can see some weeds in the wheat. And while we try to teach a child right from wrong, when it comes to spotting those weeds and uprooting them, we can’t be perfect ourselves and can’t expect others to be.”[ii]

Yes, we make our judgments. Yes, we will seek to do good, to seek justice, to make peace. We should do those things. While we make judgments, however, we recognize that there is a judgment beyond our judgment; there is a fulfillment beyond our fulfillment. We can’t separate the weeds from the wheat in our own lives, or in our congregation, or in our world.

And so we need to depend more on mercy than on judgment. We need to err on the side of compassion.

And—good news!—this is what God does as well: favoring mercy and compassion over judgment and contempt.

As shocking as all of this is, maybe neither we nor those who first heard this parable should be surprised. After all, we heard earlier in Matthew’s Gospel that when Jesus began to teach those who would follow him, he made it clear that God causes the sun to rise on the good and the bad alike; God causes the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. And so, he reminds us as well that weeds and wheat belong together.

This was certainly part of the understanding of our Puritan and early Congregational ancestors in faith. While they often failed to live up to this understanding, at their best they were deeply aware of the reality that it’s just not possible to judge another person—or even oneself. And so they affirmed that there were two churches—the visible church, the one you can see here and now, and the invisible church, the one God alone knows. Until the final judgment, there is no way of telling the weeds from the wheat—and no way of separating them.

Occasionally we see evidence of this even here at the Congregational Church.

As a congregation we are able to include a wide range of political opinions as well as cultural values. Go down to Rockwood Hall after worship and behold!—the weeds and wheat together! I’m not going to say who’s who. But there we are. Together!

We don’t try to weed out one group, in part because we don’t want to pull out some of the wheat—and in part because, well, we might be weeds ourselves.

Listen to what the owner of the field says: “Leave the weeds alone.” Let them be where they are.

Remember what Jesus said by way of introducing this parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like this.” I’ve said this before in recent weeks and I’ll probably say it again—it probably can’t be said too often as we move through Matthew’s Gospel: when Jesus speaks of the realm of heaven he is not primarily talking about what happens to us when we die. He is much more concerned with what we do while we are living. Yes, the realm of heaven is God’s place; and it is the place where the Creator God is at work redeeming the creation that God loves. That is, the realm of heaven is here in our midst if we will just open our eyes and our hearts and look—and we are given parables such as this to improve our sight.

The realm of heaven, in which we live and move and have our being, is like this—

It is a place of patient waiting, where judgment is set aside so that growth might occur.

It is a time that is moving toward harvest—when the judgment will be sterner than our own; when the mercy, too, will be far beyond what we might ever show to others or expect for ourselves.

It is the realm in which the good wheat will be gathered and even weeds will be put to good use. Darnel—the weed that was sown in secret, the weed that was left among the wheat—was used for fuel in ancient times. And so it would be gathered to be burned, it would be gathered for its own purposes.

And every time we act in just such ways as these, our lives, our congregation become signs to the rest of the world that God’s realm is indeed drawing near.

This then is the good news, the very good news that comes to us this morning:

Nothing is lost in the realm of God. No one is lost.

Nothing is beyond God’s redemption. No one is beyond God’s redemption.

Judgment and mercy beyond our imagining—this is what the realm of heaven is like.

Be where you are. Live here and now as the weeds and the wheat grow up together. Don’t worry about which is which. Just be where you are and as much as is possible act with mercy and compassion toward others.

Back in the 1880’s the American naturalist, John Burroughs said: “One is tempted to say that the most human plants, after all, are the weeds.”

Probably so.

And here we are: wheat among weeds—or weeds among wheat.

Be where you are—here in this sanctuary, at home, at work, at school, around this city. And do those things that you do: love one another, seek justice, do kindness. Do all of these in the midst of the weeds because they’re not going to go away and you’ll only make things worse by pulling them up. This is what I’m getting at in reminding you and encouraging you each week not to return evil for evil, not to seek the downfall of other people or institutions, but instead, to seek the good in all things that you do. Let the weeds remain—but be better than the weeds. I’ve been told that the best treatment for weeds in my lawn is to strengthen the grass, so that what is desired overcomes what is not wanted. That’s what I’m telling you: be better, be stronger than the weeds.

With Emerson, we would agree that, for the most part, as is the case with weeds, our own virtues have not yet been discovered.

As we wait and watch for those wonderful discoveries, take hope in what we hear and see in Jesus: God’s realm encompasses the whole field in which we grow, we are surrounded by love and mercy.

[i]Niebuhr, Justice and Mercy, pg. 55-56.

[ii] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, pg. 317.