Our Scripture: Matthew 13:24-43 (please read first)
Recently, my husband and have been watching the 1980’s police drama “Hill Street Blues,” thanks to the wonder of internet streaming services. Hill Street Blues focuses on the lives and work of the officers of (fictional) Hill Street police station in an unnamed US City. The Hill Street precinct is the poorest, most crime ridden and gang infested precinct of the city. Its problems and challenges are too numerous and too deep for the officers of Hill Street to fully address, although they do their best. The police station is led by Captain Furillo, who manages to stay calm and grounded in the midst of it all. Captain Furillo and some of his lieutenants have forged a relationship with the gang leaders, a relationship that is tense and imperfect, but has reduced the violence some. They try to do the best they can for those living in their precinct.
At one point, the local news outlets run a story about the most crime ridden most violent block in the city: a block within the bounds of the Hill Street precinct. The city’s Police Chief, who is running for mayor and wants to look “tough on crime”, orders Furillo to do a multi-day sweep of the block, essentially arresting anyone on the street. While Captain Furillo disagrees with this approach, one of his Lieutenants—Lieutenant Hunter—is all for it. Hunter has long felt that a “no tolerance” policy is needed and is convinced that most of those living in the Hill Street precinct are criminals and degenerates. He wants to purify the precinct and get rid of all the “bad actors.” Now, with “Operation Big Broom,” he can do just that. They begin making mass arrests. Within a couple of days, a judge puts an end to it, after seeing a stream of frivolous arrests fill up his courtroom. The operation didn’t make the block any safer in the long-term. It did, however, further damage relationships between the police and the local citizens: citizens who were now more suspicious and fearful of police than ever. It also eroded the relationship between the police and the area judges. Hill Street precinct continued to be messy, crime ridden, and complicated.
In many ways, the Hill Street area is not unlike the field Jesus describes in the first parable today. The owner of the field planted good seed but, Jesus says, an enemy came and planted weeds in the night. When the plants sprout, the servants come to field, expecting to see only “good” wheat plants—perhaps even expecting them to be lined up in neat rows. But what they find is a messy, weed infested field. Their first instinct is to clear all the weeds out, to achieve a “pure” field of only wheat. Imagine their surprise when the owner tells them to let the weeds be. My grandmother Short, who lived with us as I was growing up, was a gardener. Letting weeds be, leaving them to grow amongst her beloved and carefully chosen plants, was definitely NOT part of her gardening practice. She knew that weeds soaked up the water and nutrients “good” plants needed. She knew that leaving the weeds could weaken and even kill the plants she intended to raise. She would have been all for getting rid of the weeds in that field immediately, just as those servants were; just as Lieutenant Hunter and the Mayor were.
But the landowner has a different viewpoint. He, too, is concerned for the wheat, but he—unlike the servants—can see that removing the weeds now will also do damage to the wheat. Perhaps he knows that some of these weeds have wrapped their roots around the roots of the wheat, so that pulling up the weed also pulls up the wheat. Certainly some of those arrested in “Operation Big Broom” were guilty of serious crimes; getting them off the streets was an admirable goal. But what about those whose only “crime” was walking to the bus stop to go to work? Or what about the kids who watched the police round up their parents for no apparent reason? What damage, what harm is done to them?
Perhaps the landowner doesn’t trust his servants to be able to distinguish between wheat and weeds. Some commentators on this passage suggest that the weed involved was darnel, a plant that looked so much like wheat that it was hard to distinguish until the ear of grain formed. The owner is worried that the servants in their haste and in their desire for a ‘clean’ field will pull up the wheat along with the weeds. The landowner doesn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in his servants making the distinction at harvest-time either: he specifies that it will be the “harvesters,” not the servants who will separate them. When Jesus explains the parable, he names the harvesters as the angels. The servants are never identified in Jesus’ explanation, but presumably they are Jesus’ followers. Regardless of the identity of the workers, it is clear from Jesus’ explanation, that it is the angels, not us, who will do the separating.
Our job is not the “clean up” the messy field. Our job is not to work to make the field “pure” or orderly. Our job is to tend to the plants of the field—both wheat and weeds. The reality is that our world, even our church, is messy and complicated. Wheat and weeds are closely inter tangled and we simply do not have the wisdom or the perspective to reliably tell the difference between them. Furthermore the presence of the weeds does not mean that God is not present and at work. Remember, Jesus said this is what the kingdom is like: messy, containing both weeds and wheat. All too often the good can appear to be outnumbered—as weeds can outnumber wheat, as flour can outnumber yeast. The kingdom can also appear to be too small to make a difference, like a small amount of yeast or a tiny mustard seed. And yet the kingdom IS there, at work in the midst of the messiness and the seemingly overwhelming odds. Our job is to let God work through us to offer grace and love to both wheat and weed. We don’t need to know which is which to do our job.
This morning, as most of us in Western Iowa are huddled in our homes in the midst of a blizzard, thousands of our fellow United Methodists are gathered in St. Louis for a special session of General Conference, the highest governing body of our denomination. Only about 860 of those gathered are voting delegates: the rest are volunteers, Bishops, observers, etc. This special session of General Conference is devoted to finding a way forward for us as a denomination in the midst of our disagreements about human sexuality, particularly about same sex marriage and the ordination of “self avowed practicing homosexuals.” Passions run high; there is deep concern about justice and about faithfulness to Scripture. There are some voices—both among those who yearn to be fully inclusive and welcoming to our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters and among those who believe that Scripture forbids same sex romantic relationships—who seem to be seeking “purity.” Who want to rid the field of all the weeds for the sake of the wheat. The progressive voices who are seeking to clear the field are deeply concerned for the harm done to those among us who are LGBTQ+. The conservative voices who are seeking to clear the field are equally concerned that we not harm the faithful by teaching and living out what they believe to be a theology contrary to the Bible.
While I lean more progressive than conservative on the issues before our denomination at General Conference, I am distinctly uncomfortable with the push—on ANY side—for purity, for a weed-free field. Reflecting on this parable these last two weeks has helped me see why: purity or the absence of weeds is not the kingdom. And to seek to root out all the weeds now does great harm to the wheat, in part because none of us—whether we progressive, centrist, conservative, or just “complicated”—has the perspective or the wisdom to reliably know the difference. My prayer for the United Methodist Church is that we find a way to live together as a messy field, knowing that we are a mix of weeds and wheat, but also knowing that it is not our job to sort it out. Our job is to offer God’s love and mercy to everyone. Our job is to proclaim the Gospel boldly, to state clearly what we believe, to stand up for justice. Our job is to live in the midst of the messiness, the injustice, the brokenness in doing so offer a glimpse of God’s kingdom. Please pray for our church—both locally the denomination as a whole—that we may be the presence of the kingdom in a messy world and a messy church.