July 23, 2023, The 8th Sunday After Pentecost. Sermon preached by Rev. Mary Lee Wile

Wheat and weeds

Long years ago, back in my first year of teaching at Mt. Ararat High School, I had a particularly troublesome student in one of my 11th grade English classes. Using the language of today’s parable, I would have labeled him a weed. He was prone to be disruptive, teetering on the edge of outright rudeness. During a major test, he fell over that edge. He began talking out loud, making snide comments about the questions and inventing deliberately absurd answers. I told him that he’d need to be quiet, or I’d have to send him out. He got louder. I told him to leave the test on his desk, gather up the rest of his things, and go to the assistant principal’s office for the rest of the period. He gathered his jacket, slung his backpack over his shoulder, and did a slow bump and grind down the aisle. “I’d like you to hurry it up,” I said. Without turning around, he responded, “And I’d like to put a pencil in your eye.” And he was gone.

Sometimes during my teaching years, I would wake in the night feeling as though some of my more troublesome students were perched like vultures at the foot of the bed. This was one of those times. So what I finally did —  because I’m a writer as well as a teacher – was to write a story (which I’ve never shown to anyone besides my husband) in which I imagined this boy and his friends having a late night drinking party, during which the place they were partying caught fire – and he did not escape.

In my story, I let myself play judge and jury, determining who should burn. Now the reality is that he never put a pencil in my eye and I never set him on fire, but this parable reminds me of the human capacity to imagine evil – and the history of our world reminds me how easy it is to move from imagining to action.

First let me say up front that today’s parable – “let them alone. Let wheat and weeds grow together” – isn’t about tolerating wrong behavior. I needed to remove the disruptive student from the classroom so other students could focus on the test, for example – but not to remove him from the school, or to burn him up. He and I managed to finish the school year without physical harm to either one of us. But I had let a darkness enter my soul, and as I said before, we humans don’t have a great track record when it comes to differentiating between feeling and action. When encountering those we consider “other,” whether because of skin color, or background, or behavior, we have been conditioned by our families or by society to say (or to think): “Burn them. Lynch them. Deport them. Don’t let them live here. Don’t let them live.”

It reminds me of that song from South Pacific, which includes:

You’ve got to be taught

To hate and fear;

You’ve got to be taught

From year to year…

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of …people whose skin is a diff’rent shade….

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

For a lot of us, we have been taught, often without recognizing it, to know who the weeds are that need to be uprooted, where the boundaries are that we need to protect, who it is that we need to hate or fear. And if we can’t prevent them from moving into our neighborhoods, then find reasons to isolate or incarcerate them. Keep them out, in other words. My field, not yours.

“No!” Jesus is saying. Everyone belongs in the same field. The weeds in the parable do not harm the wheat. Let them alone. Let wheat and weeds grow together. Our roots are all entangled. Uproot one, and we’re all affected. Disparage and deny human rights to a group of people, and we plant the weeds of sin in ourselves.

And don’t get too bent out of shape by the explanation that follows the parable – a lot of commentators say these words were added later; they aren’t even from Jesus. What is worth taking from the explanation is the reiteration that we are not the ones to judge. Of course we’re not supposed to tolerate harmful behavior. As followers of Jesus, we are called to name wrongdoing, to work, for example, to stop gun violence, political lies and manipulation, systemic racism, even disruptive students. As the prophet Micah says, we are to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Because through it all, after all, God is the one who is to judge, who will see and sear and heal the woundedness of the world and of our own sinful souls. Just as we are to let the wheat and weeds grow together in the parable, so are we told not to burn Jews in death camps, not to discriminate against our Black siblings, not to deny human rights to asylum seekers, or Indigenous neighbors, or women. And we are not even to condemn ourselves when we fall into sin, but, as we promise in our Baptismal Covenant, whenever we do sin (and we will), we are to “repent and return to the Lord.”

This parable is good news for us; it’s telling us that when we sin – in thought (as I did in imagining the demise of my student) or word (whenever we denigrate others) or deed (too many to name here), God will not uproot us.

And, again, Jesus offers a blunt reminder that we are not to uproot others because we don’t know who the weeds are, or whether God actually sees any weeds in the field of humanity.

Let me return to that troublesome student. Over twenty years later, during my last year of teaching at Mt. Ararat, a colleague came to me early in the schoolyear and said, “Guess who’s in my freshman English class?” It was the son of my difficult student, who was, it turned out, a congenial, happy kid. His father had grown into a responsible adult, a hard worker, and a good dad. What had looked like a weed in 1986 was only a temporarily errant stalk of wheat.