Last Sunday, we drove to Antigua to take part in the annual “Day of the Family” worship service held by Presbyterians there. The crowd was a mixture of indigenous and Ladino families that have been drawn to the Presbyterian congregation because of its emphasis on Bible study and children’s ministries. The setting was an old coffee farm, with concrete slabs where heaps of coffee beans dried in the sun. The hill sides were covered with coffee plants, along with other types of scattered brush. I’d been invited to preach at the service, and chose the subject of how to deal with weeds that get intermixed with good plants. Here’s an abbreviated version of my sermon:
“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.’” (Matthew 13:24-26)
Even though Jesus wasn’t a farmer, he loved to use agriculture to teach lessons about God’s kingdom. Cultivation is so important to our faith that the word “cultivate” is derived from the same root word as “cult” (which means worship in Spanish). When we worship God, we’re cultivating the faith—our own and the faith of others around us.
One of Jesus’ lessons had to do with wheat and weeds growing together. One of the challenges of family life and church life is that differences sometimes turn into discord. The world is full of caring people, but it also has lots of rotten relationships.
As I’ve walked around this coffee farm, I’ve seen weeds among the rows of healthy coffee plants. As hard as workers try to eradicate the weeds, there always seems to be more of them.
A vivid memory of my mother is of her fondness for assorted weeds. She enjoyed removing branches from scraggly shrubs and strange greenery whenever she saw them. Often during family drives in the country, our car would have to come to a screeching halt because some wild plants in a ditch caught her attention. Once the car was pulled over, she’d climb out and tenderly collect her prize findings. Later, she’d carefully arrange them into dry bouquets that would adorn prominent places in our home.
My father, on the other hand, prefers to plant flowers in a garden and vegetables in the yard. He’ll gladly spend hours tending to them, leaving them in the garden once they blossom to be admired by any passersby, but primarily by my father.
Somehow, Jesus seems to be able to find a place for both weeds and flowers in his plans. He had a higher tolerance for weeds than most of us. For example, Jesus was reluctant to have us pull up weeds, probably because of our tendencies to mislabel unfamiliar plants as weeds. “What is a weed?” wondered the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. “A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”
Other times, we might find that the disruption of uprooting a weed can do more damage to God’s plans than simply leaving it alone. Jesus teaches us to let both the righteous and the unrighteous to grow together until the harvest. What the world calls a weed might actually be a flower that hasn’t blossomed yet, or a fruit or a vegetable that no one’s ever seen before. Some plants need more patience, more tender loving care.
How do we deal with people that seem like weeds that never blossom or bear fruit? First, remember that they’re children of God. Do our best to find virtue in them. Don’t let them take virtue away from us. Continue to bring them before God, even if reluctantly, whether we’ve forgiven them or not. If we haven’t forgiven them, simply leave them at the altar with God.
Second, bear in mind that the best way to fight weeds isn’t to pull them out, but to create an environment where good seeds can thrive. In other words, have good soil. Soil, otherwise known as dirt, is basically a combination of four things—mineral fragments (like sand, silt, clay), organic matter (decaying plants, dead insects, etc.), water (mostly rain), and air (earthworms, bugs, roots help loosen the dirt). Soil that contains the right amounts of these things is good for flowers and bad for weeds.
Regarding the Christian faith, we can think of minerals as strong doctrine, a solid core of beliefs that gives structure to our understandings of God and life. Organic matter might be the traditions and customs that come and go over the years. Water is God’s flow of relationships that move continuously, and air is the openings for the Holy Spirit to inspire and bring new spiritual energy.
One spring in Nashville, before I planted a garden in our back yard, my neighbor told me that the soil in our neighborhood was too acidic. He’d performed a soil analysis, and was told that it needed lime. I went and bought a sack of lime, which I worked into the garden bed. At the store I was advised to buy some plant food with nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, so I worked that into the ground too. All this fertilizing helped to ensure that the soil was fertile that it had the right combination of minerals and nutrients.
If our lives seem to have too many weeds and not enough flowers, it’s a wise idea for us to test the soil, to check if something’s missing. I can tell you right away that it’s not for lack of good seeds. We can always count on God to provide an abundance of good seed. God’s constantly scattering good seed all around us. If our faith, our families, our friendships don’t seem to be growing in healthy ways, we should check to find out what’s needed to bring our soil back to the right balance.