I have been a gardener for many years. And I hate weeds. In Louisiana, the weeds are much fiercer than they ever were in Virginia. There’s one type of vine in particular that has enormous root systems deep underground. When you pluck this vine out, it’s almost impossible to get much of the root, so it always grows back quickly. Having been traveling the whole month of July, I’m not looking forward to the mess that will await me in my garden when I get back home.
This weekend, the gospel lectionary passage is Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the weeds. It’s supposed to be about people in the church. There are good people (wheat) and bad people (weeds). Jesus says that God doesn’t take the weeds out of the wheat field because it would require accidentally plucking out too much wheat, so he leaves the weeds in there until harvest time, and then when he harvest the wheat, he throws the weeds into the fire (a.k.a. hell).
Jesus doesn’t tell us in the context of this parable what defines the difference between a wheat and a weed. But the parable takes place in the gospel of Matthew which is largely shaped by Jesus’ ruthless polemic against his rival Pharisees. In Matthew 23:13, Jesus says to his enemies: “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying.” That seems to me like a pretty good characterization of the weeds from Jesus’ parable: people who get in the way of the gospel by making themselves the gatekeepers of a heaven that they’ve never allowed themselves to experience.
As an evangelist, my constant concern is tending the gospel that I preach just like I tend my garden. I’m always trying to figure out how to tell Jesus’ story in the most beautiful way possible. And I do battle with every stumbling block that makes Jesus’ story look unnecessarily ugly just like I do with those Louisiana weeds. Sometimes in my excessive zeal, I pull out good vegetables along with the weeds. I do it in my earthly garden and I do it in my gospel garden too. This of course is why the sower in Jesus’ story tells his servants to leave the weeds alone. But I want to talk back to Jesus for a moment.What if a church full of weeds creates a gospel full of weeds? What if the gospel we’re preaching is good news only to people on the inside who want to feel like they’re doing something hard so they can judge people on the outside? What if the emotional needs of the church’s biggest weeds have an oversized influence on the gospel that gets preached? I’m not saying I want to throw the curmudgeons out of the church, but how many preachers right now are being straightjacketed by the major givers who sit frowning in the front pews as they calculate whether the “whole counsel of God” is being preached? Will there be any church left when the last culture warrior is finally dead?
The church today has no problem drawing conservative personality types: people who believe in things like loyalty, order, and authority and see the church as a refuge from a confusing, rapidly changing world. Jesus loves the law and order crowd. But I don’t think he wants his garden to become a monoculture, which is exactly what’s happening in our church right now. As I’ve watched the exodus of progressives from the church over the past two decades, I’m not dancing in gleeful schadenfraude; I’m weeping. Not everyone is called to try to understand and minister to progressives, but I am.
That means that I take seriously progressive critiques and sensibilities not in order to handcraft a gospel that perfectly scratches their itching ears but as part of my discernment of the weeds that need to be plucked from the gospel so that Jesus’ fruit can blossom and shine. What goads me is the thought that the self-justification needs of our church’s biggest weeds are shutting the doors of heaven in other people’s faces. So when I get mad and say mean things, that’s where I’m coming from. I just want a beautiful garden that isn’t all the same crop.
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