So there goes Jesus again telling funny little stories about weeds and seeds and farming. He was a country boy and so were his people, and they would have understood what he was talking about. Up to a point, at least. Because parables by their very nature are always a challenging. They raise more questions than they answer. And that’s why the disciples had to ask Jesus to explain the meaning of this story when they got him alone again in the house.
And maybe they still had questions again after that explanation. I know I have some questions.
Is this really a story about weeds and roots, or is it about human flourishing? And the weakness that makes us vulnerable to temptation, because there are still evil powers in the world? And about the way we’re all connected—whether we like it or not?
So here’s an interesting little contemporary factoid about interconnected roots. This is true. The largest living organism in the word right now is a grove of quaking aspens that grows in Utah. It was alive at the time when Jesus was telling this parable, and it’s still alive today. It includes 47,000 individual trees and it covers 107 acres, and those trees are all connected by one single root system, which in fact is really just one large root. So all of those trees—all 47,000—are actually one large plant. They’re all interconnected. And the survival of this whole organism is threatened right now, mostly as a result of human activities. It’s dying. It could be saved but right now it’s dying, because the individual trees can’t thrive unless the whole thing thrives.
I’ll tell you another story from my own experience. When my son was young, maybe in fifth grade, we were riding in the car together and for some reason he started talking about his class at school, about how everyone in the class had a place in the group. Had some value to the group. The class was the class because of everyone who was in it.
And he mentioned one boy who—shall we say—had some personality quirks that made him vulnerable to teasing. And that boy, my son told me, was not anyone he would never want to invite over to our house for a play date, but he, too, had a place in the class. He was one of them. He belonged.
I don’t remember exactly why my son started telling that story. But it might have been because of something I said about that boy. Something not especially kind about his quirks. And obviously I was humbled by this little sermon that I got in the car.
Somebody was teaching that kid stuff about community and he was getting it. What’s that saying—it’s actually from Psalm 8—“out of the mouths of babes,” right?
So let’s go back to the parable: A man sows good seed in his field, and while everyone was asleep an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat, and all of those seeds grow up together. And in his wisdom the master decides to let them live together until the harvest, when the wheat and the weeds will be separated.
And when Jesus is asked to explain that story, he tells the disciples that it’s about the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one, living together until the harvest at the end of the age.
You could say he’s telling us that we’ll never have a perfect community on earth, perfect in our eyes—either in church, or in civil society—and maybe this parable is a lesson about not judging other people. We leave the judging to God and make the most of the community that we have. We learn to get along with each other because we’re all connected.
And I think that’s a good lesson on this day when we celebrate St. James the Greater and this parish that’s named in his honor. Because you’re all in this together. Each one of you, as my son said, has a place in the group, each one of you belongs, and if you want to work toward making this little parish community a reflection of the greater ideal of “the kingdom of heaven,” you have to find a way to do it together.
I do wonder if we don’t focus too much on the problems that we face rather than the strengths that we have. Rather than the gifts that individual members bring to the community. I think this need for participation by each individual member, which was always true, becomes especially clear in this situation in which you find yourself now, in which you have no permanent priest, and you see that the church really is the people. You see that, and you see that the contribution that each member brings to the group is all the more important.
This is a beautiful, gifted community that keeps pushing past its challenges.
But the parable is also about something bigger than a single parish. It’s about “the world,” Jesus says.
We don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world that’s terribly broken. The whole creation, Paul tells us in todays’ reading from the letter to the church in Rome, “groans in labor pains” as it waits for the glory that is to come.
I still have a lot of questions about this parable. If I’d been in that house, I’d still be asking Jesus some questions, like, what about the power of grace to overcome evil? What about the possibility of conversion through faith in Jesus Christ? What would happen if we all went out and truly, truly lived the Gospel?
And most of all, are we supposed to just passively tolerate the evil we see around us, while we sit back and wait for the end of the world to come?
Because we’re all connected. we’re all connected. Everyone, not just in church–the whole world; all of us. That’s the clear message of this Gospel—and like those quaking aspen trees, we can only flourish as individuals if we all flourish all together.
As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once observed:
All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.
But what if some of our siblings don’t have what they need to flourish? That seems to me to go against everything else that Jesus taught.
And that’s why it’s so important for us to go out from here and really live the Gospel. We are adopted children of God, as Paul says in his letter, alive in the Spirit—and through that Spirit we have the power to use the blessed gifts of this community to speak God’s truth to the world. And that’s what it’s all about
To speak the message that every individual counts, that we’re all connected, and that every individual must be able to flourish in order for everyone to flourish.
That flourishing begins here on Sunday morning, when we gather as a parish to bring our gifts to God’s table. And we leave nourished by the bread we’ve shared.
We’re nourished, we’re strengthened in faith, and we’re reminded once again that we are all connected.
And we’re reminded once again what it means to take the message of the Gospel out to a broken world.
Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA.