Inspired: Gospel Stories

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In the Kingdom of God goodness shows up, grace shows up.  And grace changes us.  Weeds may always be weeds but people can be transformed.  So, we are called to let go of our judgment and refrain from plucking out the possibility of transformation.  If we leave anyone out or if any one of us feels unwelcome then we miss the opportunity to cooperate with the grace of God to influence positive change.  

Matthew 13:24-30

 

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Casey Gutteridge, is becoming quite a popular photographer in England.  I’m not sure this is where he got his start, but it probably didn’t hurt.  When he was 19, he was studying studied leopards for a zoology class in college.  As part of his project he went to the Hertfordshire Zoo to photograph leopards. Something extraordinary happened as he was observing the animals.  The zookeeper had just dropped chunks of meat into the pen to feed this beautiful leopard when out of nowhere a little mouse appeared. The mouse went over to the food and started to eat the leopard’s breakfast.

Given the fact that cats eat mice, it seems entirely logical to assume that a BIG CAT would be inclined to eat a mouse as well, especially a mouse that’s helping herself to the leopard’s breakfast.  Right?

In fact, that’s not what happened.  As the mouse filled herself with the leopard’s meal the leopard gave the mouse a sniff.  And then the leopard gave the mouse a little shove or two with his nose. When the mouse ignored the leopard’s polite encouragement to leave, the leopard simply waited until the mouse had gotten her fill.  Finally, the little mouse went away and the leopard ate what was left.

Now that is a crazy story and the beautiful pictures that accompany the story are almost surreal.  What the story suggests is this: we can’t always tell the good guys from the bad guys.  

That is exactly the situation described in our parable this morning.  There is a weed that grows abundantly in the Middle East and it’s called the bearded darnel.  It looks just like wheat when it begins to grow.  In fact, it is often referred to as “false wheat.”  It’s not until the ear appears on the wheat stalk that you can really tell the difference.  So, the quest to rid the field of bad weeds may have the unintended consequence of destroying good wheat because they look the same at least in the beginning; it’s not easy to tell the difference between weeds and wheat.

That’s why this farmer in Jesus’ parable instructs the servants to leave the weeds alone and let them grow amongst the wheat.  It’ll be easy to identify the weeds at harvest time because the wheat will produce wheat grain and the darnel will produce a grain that is obviously different and is actually toxic.

Surely this story that Jesus told his disciples was a call to humility.  Don’t be so quick to judge, he might say, because you might not know which is good and which is truly bad.  Let there be some time for growth.  

Here’s the thing.  Jesus knew the weeds wouldn’t turn into wheat.  But remember, this parable as with all parables is really about the Kin-dom of God (kin to connote family, siblings, rather than king). And even though weeds can’t turn into fruit-bearing wheat, God’s children, even the weedy ones, can be transformed from bad to good.  

Many of Jesus’ stories focused on that truth.  There is the story of the shepherd who left 99 sheep in order to retrieve one that strayed. Believing that that one sheep had potential for transformation the shepherd searched until he could lead him back; there is the story of the father who welcomed home his wandering son with extravagant/radical/prodigal love, because that’s how grace works…it brings us home and changes us, even when change doesn’t seem possible.  And think about the woman at the well who is transformed when she has this chance-meeting with Jesus.  

In the Kingdom of God goodness shows up, grace shows up.  And grace changes us.  Weeds may always be weeds but people can be transformed.  So, we are called to let go of our judgment and refrain from plucking out the possibility of transformation.  If we leave anyone out or if any one of us feels unwelcome then we miss the opportunity to cooperate with the grace of God to influence positive change.  

Now, I’m not gonna lie.  This is not an easy thing.  It’s not an easy thing to cooperate with God’s grace to be part of transformation.  It necessarily means we may have to be in uncomfortable spaces that challenge us to engage with our weedy neighbors…just to see if something like wheat emerges. 

In every one of these stories there is something that challenges our typical way of seeing reality, because the Kin-dom of God is not like business as usual…the reign of God is deeply counter cultural.  A farmer who lets the weeds grow up in his wheat field would be seen as an incompetent farmer. Likely, their “best” practice was to weed the fields to get the best crop yield even if regularly they pulled up a portion of the wheat with the weeds.  

So, when Jesus told this story it would have knocked the listeners off guard.  They would have leaned in to listen a little more carefully because Jesus was suggesting something controversial.  Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God can emerge in a context where bad and good exist together, side by side. That meant that even in the world of the first century, with its violence, with its oppression, with its horrible poverty…even in the presence of evil, grace is also present and the King-dom of God can grow and produce fruit.  

And of course, that’s exactly the kind of world we live in today.  There is bad and good all around us and yet there are Kin-dom moments that emerge even when it seems that the bad will choke out the good.  There are big cats that will step back so that a little mouse can share his breakfast.  

Jesus was consistent in leaving open every possible opportunity for goodness to grow believing that everyone has potential and promise.  “Do you want for us to remove the weeds?” “No, let’s leave them and see what happens.”

 That doesn’t mean that Jesus turned his back on evil or believed we should just let evil flourish.  Indeed, he confronted evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they presented themselves. He confronted the elite within the structure of his religion when they took advantage of the poor.  He proposed that peace was possible through love in contrast to Roman peace that was based on fear. Jesus overturned the tables of moneychangers as they cheated the faithful out of what little they had.  Jesus was a defender of vulnerable populations like children, telling his disciples to get out of their way.  

Jesus never overlooked the fact that some weeds would persist in their weediness, even as he embodied the inclination of God to believe we can change.  He did not allow the observable evil of his day to dissuade him from nurturing the potential for goodness. Maybe weeds can’t change but people can. That’s the fact that we cannot overlook.  It’s the work of the church to encourage that transformation in all people because God knows we are all born with amazing potential for goodness, even as we are born with a free will that can lead us astray.  

A few of years ago Jack and I were in Rwanda to support a United Methodist ministry that trains groups of orphaned youth and children to become independent families.  ZOE Ministries supports both older teenagers who were made orphans by the genocide of 1994 and young children who were made orphans by AIDS. In just 100 days, one million people, primarily from the Tutsi tribe lost their lives.  It was horrific evil. The genocidaires (those who carried out the genocide) were members of the Hutu Tribe, many of whom had been conscripted and forced to carry out atrocities.

In the recovery from the genocide, Rwanda committed itself to recovery for all.  So after a genocidaire has served 14 or 15 years in prison, he was given the option of doing 2 to 3 years of community work after which he could live in any village other than the one where he committed crimes.  It was stunning to realize that the genocidaires were doing community service alongside the orphans from ZOE Ministries, helping them build houses in which the orphan families will live. So, those who committed the atrocities were serving those who had survived such brutality.  

On the last day of our visit, we attended a blessing of the homes that were built.  The young people who were receiving the homes were so happy. There was singing and drumming and dancing and joy.  And then the orphans and those of us who were visiting offered a prayer of blessing for the houses. And out of the corner of my eye I saw a group of men in blue jumpsuits building a latrine for this small community of houses.  They were smiling, and some of them were bowing their heads in prayer.  

My initial reaction was disbelief.  Anger. I tried to imagine what it was like for the orphans.  It was not ready to accept that a person could engage in genocide and then be transformed.  Not possible. I needed and need a gospel story that speaks the truth of God. 

The Kin-dom of God is like a farmer who let the bad weeds grow with the wheat.  The wheat flourished, even alongside the weeds. And sometimes the “weeds” turned out to be wheat after all.  

Gospel stories help us remember who we are.  If we can focus on who we are and whose we are, the good will begin to crowd out the bad and fruit will begin to grow, fruit enough to feed the world at the table of grace.  Thanks be to God! Amen.