Listen to the sermon from Sunday, July 16, 2017 titled “Be the Weed Whacker you Want to See in the World” by Wendy Davidson.
When I was growing up, I heard this parable as an admonition to scatter seed, to share the gospel, that it wasn’t up to me what ground the seed landed on, and I should scatter away, trusting God to make the seeds grow. But looking at this parable now, I have to wonder – perhaps this is an admonishment to do more than that. An instruction, not to throw seeds, but to care for the ground?
After all, if, in this parable, the seed is the word of the kingdom that sprouts into faith, then the earth that the seeds are planted in must be the people. Aren’t we to care for the people?
So, for a bit of background:
When I was on a mission trip to St. Louis several years back, we spent a day working in the community garden. In this garden grew all sorts of vegetables. And also weeds. I learned a very valuable lesson that day – most of the work of gardening is weeding. You plant the seeds, you weed, you water the garden, you weed, you see tiny sprouts of the plants you wanted to grow and full grown weeds even though it’s taken weeks for your vegetables and you just weeded yesterday, so you weed again. When the vines start bearing fruit and the vegetable plants begin to flourish, you harvest the bounty before beginning the whole process again. In St. Louis, that harvest meant the local food bank would receive an influx of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the many community members who worked in the garden would have fresh produce to take home to their families.
When I was in St. Louis, we weren’t scattering seeds or harvesting produce, we were weeding. I don’t know how many of you are experienced gardeners (I’m certainly not – for reference, my roommate and I managed to kill a succulent in under a month), but in my limited experience, it seems to be a lot of weeding. Gardens require continuous care from planting to harvest if they are to bear fruit.
And if that is the case, why would people be any different? Why should we consider our work done after simply scattering seed? Should we not continue to care for the land and the crops that we hope will grow? Shouldn’t we care for the people that land represents? More than that, should we not work to cultivate the barren land in order to help fresh seeds take root, and grow to bear strong fruit, rather than simply giving up on that land?
So let me tease us out of the metaphor a little bit.
Some “seed fell among thorny plants. [And] the thorny plants grew and choked them”
When I was in high school, one of my good friends left Christianity because too many of our peers told her she was going to hell because she was bisexual. And “the thorny plants grew and choked her.”
When another of my friends went to college, he left Christianity because he was told, by Christians and atheists alike, that he had to choose between science and faith, and he chose science. And “the thorny plants grew and choked him.”
When another friend came out as genderqueer and began their transition, they stopped attending church, because they were worried about the questions and the stares and the judgements. And “the thorny plants grew and choked them.”
I cannot begrudge their move to other ground in search of a less painful place to grow.
That said, the Christianity that they are leaving is not the Christianity that I affirm. Like many of you here at UBC, an open and affirming congregation that recognizes and welcomes persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions, I do not believe that being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community is wrong. Like many of you here at UBC, I see science and religion as two sides of the same coin, not in conflict with each other at all. I think there is something really important and valuable here at UBC – a patch of earth that bears few, if any, of these thorny weeds, and a group of gardeners, this congregation, committed to pulling up weeds should they be brought to our attention.
But while this patch of earth may be healthy, we are surrounded by land that isn’t always so. There are a lot of people who consider what we think of as weeds to be simply a part of the garden. I’ve met a lot of them. Many seem to consider Labyrinth a personal affront, and so accost us while we are tabling. We have been told that we need to be saved because we table with a Pride flag. We have been told that we’re leading people to sin because we hosted a series called Sex Positive. We have been told that we’re not real Christians because although we take the Bible seriously, we don’t take all of it literally. But despite the reception our tabling is something vitally important. We have something to offer that is not matched elsewhere on campus as a Christian community devoted to diversity and unafraid of asking questions. It is our responsibility to go out there and tell people about the patch of earth we have cultivated, to tell people about this place we have to grow. The weeds that grow to exclude others have been pulled up and thrown out of our plot of land. They will not take root here. And for every person who argues with us about our commitment to loving others, there are two who come up to us to say “thank you” or “I’ve been looking for a place just like this.” So I know our little plot of land is needed, as is our commitment to telling others about it.
More than that, when someone hears that they are not loved by God because they are gay or because they believe in evolution or because they refuse to try to convert their Hindu friend, it is our responsibility to add another voice to the mix. To tell them that none of that can separate them from God’s love.
On an unrelated note, here’s another thing I noticed when I was weeding in St. Louis: Weeds are kind of hard to pull up. When I was first learning how to weed, a more experienced gardener told me that if it came up easily, it probably wasn’t a weed. Of course, that’s not terribly helpful after you’ve already pulled it up. But especially after I’d been weeding for a while, my hands got sore. The outside of my hand that I would turn to get some leverage was rubbed raw by the stems that dug in, time after time. But my hands lasted a lot longer when I wore gloves than when I weeded with just my bare hands. These gloves, when we weed out ideas, we have to make them. We weave them together out of the things we know to be true.
One of the weeds I deal with personally is the language that “we are not worthy of God’s love.” It’s something I heard a lot growing up, and it takes root quickly. It preys on my own feelings of inadequacy and exacerbates them. This weed for me is quite thorny. And especially with thorny plants, you’ve gotta throw on a thick pair of gloves. So I weave together what I know to be true. I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I am a beloved child of God. Saying that anyone does or does not deserve God’s love is nonsensical. It’s like saying the rocks the river flows over do or do not deserve to be wet. It is in God’s nature to love, just as it is in the nature of the river to make wet all that it touches. These are the gloves with which I can pull up my weeds.
Even then, the thorns may be long, and can sometimes pierce through the gloves, harming the gardener in the process, but if we can manage to pull up the weeds despite the pain, the ground will be the better for it; the people who settle in that ground will be the better for it; our faith will be the better for it.
But it is not only what grows in the ground that we must worry about, but the ground itself.
For “other seed fell fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep… but they had no roots.”
When I was looking for a spiritual home after first coming to UT, I visited Labyrinth as well as another Christian student org, which I will refrain from naming so as to avoid name calling, although for context, I will say that it is one of the largest Christian student orgs on campus, and will refer to as simply “not-Labyrinth.” Now, I felt at home with Labyrinth from the start. Labyrinth challenged me in ways that helped me to grow in my faith. Labyrinth caused me to question what I believe, thereby helping me to define what I believe. The soil in Labyrinth runs deep, allowing me to put down roots and truly grow in faith. But my freshman year, Labyrinth didn’t have a Bible study, which was something I wanted to be a part of. And not-Labyrinth did have a Bible study. So in addition to attending Labyrinth, which was feeling more and more like my home away from home, I attended not-Labyrinth. Mostly just for the Bible study, although I did occasionally attend other events hosted by not-Labyrinth as well. Not-Labyrinth caused me to ask questions just as Labyrinth did, but whereas Labyrinth welcomed and even encouraged my questions, I was explicitly asked at not-Labyrinth to stop asking questions. They got what they wanted, I stopped asking questions there. Of course, that’s because I stopped going there. I found the ground to be too rocky, the soil too shallow. I couldn’t put down roots. Perhaps the soil was shallow there to keep any weeds from growing, but in stunting the weeds, they were also stunting me. I needed a different place to grow. A place where I could sink my roots deep. Labyrinth was that place for me, and became so more and more throughout my time at UT.
UBC must provide that place, as well. From my time here, I’d guess that it is, in which case, keep it up. Keep providing a place where thoughtful questions are considered thoughtfully, rather than dismissed out of hand. We don’t have to have the answers, just a place where the soil runs deep.
And now it sounds like we’re done. UBC has good soil in place. I don’t see any obvious weeds. So… we’ve done it! A quality garden. We can sit back, relax, and wait for the harvest.
But here’s the thing about gardens. If ever you think you’re done, you’re not. They require constant and continuous care. As soon as you manage to pull up the last weed you see, another peaks through the dusty earth. As soon as you manage to get good, deep soil, it’s nutrients are drained by the crops you had planted, leaving nothing for the next year’s growth. As soon as you have a successful harvest, you begin the hard work preparing for the next one.
So here’s my challenge. Tend the garden. Even if you thought you were done. Pull up the weeds you find, no matter how painful it may be to grab the thorns, because it is necessary to prepare the ground so faith can grow. Dig deep into the earth, breaking up rocks and laying good soil. Prepare the ground so that when seeds are scattered, they may grow and bear fruit.