Sermon, July 30

These are some of Jesus’ parables, these little stories he liked to tell, to make people think and wonder. 

Some of his parables are about the kingdom of God. Which didn’t seem to be an ordinary kingdom at all, or a place you could go, but something much more mysterious. Something ordinary abut also strange. Something he could only talk about in stories, like these. 

I have a question. In the story, is it good that the mustard seed grows? 

Okay, what about the yeast? Do you know what yeast is? … 

(Very very tiny fungus!) 

In Jesus’ story, is it good that the yeast grows? … 

Okay. Let me tell you another parable. Jesus tells this one just before the mustard and yeast parables. 

Jesus said, The kingdom of heaven is like somebody who sows good seed in their field, to grow some grain. But then somebody sows weeds in the field, too. 

When the plants come up, there are grain and weeds all mixed up together! 

The slaves ask the landowner, Should we pull out the weeds? And he says, No; you’ll pull up the grain too, by accident. Let it all grow together. We’ll sort it out at harvest time. 

Here’s my third question. 

Is it good that the weeds grow? … 

What is a weed? … 

A weed isn’t a kind of plant. 

Lots of kinds of plants can be weeds. 

Here is the definition of a weed: 

A weed is a plant that people don’t want, growing where it conflicts with human preferences, needs, or goals. 

Weeds are usually plants that grow fast, and spread fast, and can thrive even when it’s dry, or there’s not good soil, or the environment isn’t great in other ways.

That’s why they’re spreading into places where people don’t want them! 

I’d like to introduce you to a weed. 

This is white sweet clover. 

I picked this a couple of blocks from my house, growing on the side of the road. 

There’s also a big patch of it on the north side of University Avenue, just a block east of here!… 

Sweet clover is originally from Europe. It was brought to America on purpose to be a forage crop – something for cows and other animals to eat. 

But it quickly started growing and spreading on its own. 

Sweet clover grows happily in any open, sunny environment. 

A single plant can create thousands of seeds – which helps it spread very easily! 

The week before last I was on retreat, up at Holy Wisdom Monastery, just up the road. Holy Wisdom has a big piece of land that they are turning back into prairie. 

Before white settlers got to this area and started farming, this area would have been prairie and oak savannah, with scattered oak woodlands. That was the local ecology – with help from Native American land management practices. 

The land around Holy Wisdom was farmland for about a hundred years before the sisters decided to turn it back into prairie, because that would be better for the land. 

When you turn land back into prairie, you don’t just stop planting grain and let things grow. 

A prairie is a kind of ecosystem. There are plants and animals and insects that all connect with each other, to make a healthy, happy prairie. 

To restore a prairie, you plant the kinds of plants that are part of that system. 

And sometimes you have to discourage other plants that don’t belong in that system. 

Not just because they come from someplace else – or because they don’t look as nice as all the prairie wildflowers. 

Those aren’t good reasons, unless there are other reasons too! 

But we might want to get rid of some plants because they can’t be a good part of the prairie system. 

They might choke or shade out the other prairie plants. 

They might steal water or nutrients from the other plants. 

Some plants even make a chemical in the soil that makes it harder for other kinds of plants to grow near them. 

Plus, maybe the prairie animals and bugs don’t like to eat them, because it’s not what they are used to. so if that plant grows too much, it gets hard for the prairie animals and bugs to find food. 

While I was staying at Holy Wisdom with the rest of my group, their prairie ecologist, Amy, gave us a job. She said: When you’re out walking on the prairie, look out for sweet clover.  

When you find it, cut it down or pull it up. 

So, we did. As we walked on the prairie, we kept an eye out. And when we spotted some, we would pull it up, and throw it on the path. 

Why did we pull up the sweet clover instead of letting it grow, like in Jesus’ parable?

Well, it could be a problem to let it grow – mostly because it will make seeds. Sweet clover makes LOTS of seeds – tiny seeds that spread easily on the wind. It even makes two kinds of seeds – seeds that are all ready to grow the next spring, and seeds that won’t start to grow for several years. It has a long term plan! Pretty clever! 

So the reason to pull the sweet clover, in the summer, when the flowers haven’t turned into seeds yet, is that otherwise it will spread those seeds and make more and more sweet clover. 

And all that sweet clover would start to crowd out the prairie plants. 

But here’s the thing. Weeds aren’t evil. It’s complicated! 

What counts as a weed can even depend on the situation.

Sweet clover is classified as an invasive plant in many states. 

But you can still buy it to plant on purpose, to feed your animals! 

Most of the plants we call weeds are plants that are very good at what they do. They are adaptable, resilient, able to thrive in tough circumstances. 

Normally we respect all that! But we don’t respect weeds…

Weeds aren’t all bad. 

They do the same good things that all plants do.

They store carbon from the atmosphere.

They turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. 

They hold down the soil to discourage erosion. 

Some weeds are good for pollinators. Bees like sweet clover, though they also like all the native prairie flowers. 

Some weeds are even good for the soil. 

Sweet clover can help rebuild soil that’s been depleted by agriculture by fixing nitrogen and other good elements in the soil. 

It is better to have weedy land than bare land. 

I think that’s what Jesus is talking about, in this parable. 

It sounds like grain and weeds are totally different things. 

One is good and one is evil. 

And you want one and you don’t want the other one. 

But it’s not really that simple. 

Weeds aren’t all bad. 

And grain isn’t all good; there are things we grow for agriculture that aren’t great for the soil, or the pollinators, and so on. 

Thinking about the specifics of sweet clover as  a weed leads me into this parable in a new way. 

Matthew, our Gospel writer, thinks this is a parable about how those nasty weeds are going to GET WHAT’S COMING TO THEM.

Matthew has seen some very bad things happen, and he is really worried about whether people who do bad things will get punished. That shows up in lots of ways in his Gospel.

But I wonder if what Jesus meant, when he first told this parable, this story, has more to do with the ambiguity of weeds.

The way weeds can be a mix of bad and good, helpful and hurtful. 

After the retreat ended, we all went home – and pretty soon people started posting in our Facebook group: here’s some sweet clover in my yard, or my neighborhood park!

I know it’s a problem on the prairie, but should I pull it up here too? Is it worse – or better – than whatever else is growing here, and will fill in the space if the clover is gone?… 

After doing a little research, my decision is that I will pull sweet clover if I see a little bit growing somewhere by itself, to help discourage it from spreading into a new area. 

But I’m not going to try to wipe it out every time I see it. 

Sweet clover isn’t evil; it isn’t even all bad. 

It does some good things for the environment around it, and some not so good things. Probably like most of us. 

Sometimes after we tell a Godly Play story, we ask: I wonder what this could really be? 

It’s easy for grownup brains to think that in this story, the grain and the weeds are really people. 

That’s what Matthew thinks about this story; he can’t wait for the bad people to get sorted out and thrown into the fire! 

But I wonder. 

In the yeast parable and the mustard seed parable, what Jesus tells us about the Kingdom of God is just that it grows.

In secret, surprising, mysterious ways.

We just need to plant the seeds, or work the yeast into the flour, and trust it. 

Maybe what Jesus wants to say about the grain and the weeds is that sometimes it might seem like something isn’t growing the right way. 

We were trying to start something good and exciting – we wanted to plant a tree, or bake bread, or start a new ministry, or plan a new project at work, or gather people to play a game or make music, or any new, complicated, hopeful, holy project. 

And it might seem along the way like it got messy, and some parts aren’t doing what we wanted, or we don’t like everything that’s happening… 

Maybe when that happens, we just need to be careful, and thoughtful. Is this messy, unwanted part of the picture something that’s really going to be a problem and we need to pull it out now before it spreads its seeds all over? Or is there a chance it has something to contribute to the bigger picture? 

Sometimes we might need to be patient and let everything grow together. The things we want and expect and like, and the things we don’t. 

Because we’re not that good at telling grain from weeds, and we just don’t know how it’s going to turn out… 

How the different pieces are going to interrelate as they grow. 

Humans are not very good at guessing the future. I mean, we brought sweet clover here on purpose!

Is it good that the mustard seed grows? 

Is it good that the yeast grows? 

Is it good that the grain grows?

Is it good that the weeds grow too?… 

Real life is messy! There are not very many situations where something goes exactly as planned, and only good things come out of it. If we can’t deal with a few weeds, we will have a tough time. 

Maybe Jesus’ words for us here are:  Be patient; pay attention; and trust.