July 19, 2020
7th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Each spring, we plant a packet of wildflower seeds in a raised bed alongside our house. We never quite know what we’re going to get, although usually there are cosmos and coreopsis. A few years ago, as we watched the sprouts grow, it all looked normal until about a month in. There was a group of giant plants growing throughout the bed. They grew faster than the others. For awhile, we were excited to see what they might produce, but then we got nervous, and started posting pictures, “Does anyone know what this is?”
“It’s ragweed!” the very first answer came back. “Get rid of it quick. If it goes to seed, you’ll never get rid of it.”
So, we pulled them out our garden bed, figuring some mysterious breeze or bird dropped this invasive plant into our flowers. What we hadn’t realized is that the roots had probably grown just as fast, intertwining with every other plant in that bed. So, pulling up the big weeds meant we destroyed most of the other plants, too.
The bed never recovered that year.
You would think that two pastors could have remembered Jesus parable about the wheat and the tares. But like everyone else, when you’re in panic mode, you are most likely to forget the deepest wisdom that’s planted somewhere deep within you.
We forgot that what you see above ground is never the full story. If you pull out the one that looks bad, you don’t recognize that all the plants are mysteriously rooted together.
For me, it’s knowing about the roots that helps make sense of this difficult parable, which could easily become a stereotype that confirms all the ways we label people. There are the good ones. There are the bad ones. The good ones get into heaven; the bad ones get thrown into the fire. Moral of the story: Be the good one…which most often just means “Be like me. Believe what I believe. Act like I do, or, at least, what I present to you.”
I don’t think that’s probably the moral of the story. In fact, I suspect this isn’t about morality at all.
Recently, The Atlantic had an article on cognitive dissonance, which is what happens to us when our underlying beliefs that shape our behavior, have been challenged by learning something near or getting additional information that we never had before. We experience a disconnect between the way we’re living and what we believe. Humans don’t like this experience. The reasonable thing would be to shift our behavior to match the new belief. But usually, that’s not what we do. We double down on our old belief. We do this particularly if our core beliefs about ourselves are being challenged. We don’t like to see that we’re being unkind or unethical or dumb.
The article suggests that “The minute we make any decision—I’ll buy this car; I will vote for this candidate; I think COVID-19 is serious; no, I’m sure it is a hoax—we will begin to justify the wisdom of our choice and find reasons to dismiss the alternative. Before long, any ambivalence we might have felt at the time of the original decision will have morphed into certainty. As people justify each step taken after the original decision, they will find it harder to admit they were wrong at the outset.
It’s the only way to understand all the language about freedom related to wearing a mask. It’s too hard to admit that your behavior is turning out to threaten the life of another person. It conflicts with the view that you’re a good person, a good citizen, standing up for basic principles.
The article goes on to say, “Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible. The challenge is to find a way to live with uncertainty, make the most informed decisions we can, and modify them when the scientific evidence dictates—as our leading researchers are already doing. Admitting we were wrong requires some self-reflection—which involves living with the dissonance for a while rather than jumping immediately to a self-justification.”
Could the parable be helping us to understand that living with the dissonance, stepping aside from our need to defend and argue, to justify ourselves and our beliefs, and to admit that we only see partially what’s true, living in the midst of ambiguity? Wheat and tares grow together. In fact, it may not be clear in any given moment that I’m a stalk of wheat or a tare? And maybe I was one yesterday, and another today. Honest vision; remaining open to new insights and perspectives, is more our job as faithful followers of Jesus than telling everyone exactly what the harvest is supposed to look like.
This doesn’t suggest that there isn’t an evil to fight, injustice to remedy, wrong to amend, but it does suggest that maybe we begin by considering our part in it all before we point the fingers at someone else. We recognize that our own roots are intertwined with injustice and wrong, sinfulness to use church language. We can’t just pull our individual self out of the greater context that shapes us, our gardens, and pretend that we’re just pretty flowers. We’re all in this together, and we hold ourselves honestly and generously, as we grow into God’s harvest.
God will certainly bring the harvest of peace and love, justice and mercy. All the evil of oppression and self-centeredness, narcissism and judgment will be burned away away in the grand and mysterious movement of an explosive and ever-expanding universe.
In this moment, in this growing season of pandemic and racial injustice and economic fragility, we let our dissonance surface. We look into mirrors that are now being help up for us to see the vulnerability that we often ignore, the privilege we rely on and never see, the global connections that we’re trained to avoid. The reality that my choices do have an impact on others. We resist the temptation to blame or stereotype, or even think that once certain individuals are removed, or groups relegated back to the shadows, we will be pretty and beautiful again, just like we were before that one bad plant grew in our garden. Perhaps for today, we recognize that we share the roots of that one bad plant.
AND, we trust that there are roots of God’s grace growing within and around us, too.
On my vacation, I read, “American Dirt,” the story of a mother and son fleeing from drug cartel violence in Mexico and making a harrowing journey to cross the border into “el Norte,” a journey hardly of choice but of survival. It’s an eye-opening story of what migrants truly face as they flee and yearn for a life without the threat of violence. One of the characters, Nicolas, a PhD student deported because his papers lapsed, makes the journey back to the United States and he’s sure that the Southern Arizona town that made the news for the gruesome murder of migrants. A good liberal, Nicholas was sure the town was filled with conservative militia men just waiting to do it again. The coyote, El Chacal, who has been paid to bring them across the border suggests that such hard conservatism has created something else in response. The author tells us, “In short, Nicolas has never experienced a shock so primitive that it shakes him to the core of his beliefs. In short, he’s never had a fundamental change of heart. So, he’s unaware of the way Newton’s third law can resonate in a place like this: for every wickedness, there is an equal and opposite possibility of redemption.
Perhaps this is the deepest mystery of the harvest, of the way that God is at work in the midst of our goodness and our evil. For every wickedness that we perpetrate, or have been part of, or have even justified, the paschal law is that there is now a possibility for authentic redemption, even resurrection. Another harvest has already been set in motion. There will be a day when all are gathered in, and only righteousness shines like the sun.
We planted wildflower seeds this year, too. We recognize the same leaf in our raised bed. We’ve let it survive a bit longer than we did last time. Just before I recorded this sermon, I noticed that the plant has buds. I don’t know if it’s a dangerous weed or part of another kind of beauty. I’m still a bit afraid, but I’m also hopeful.
I guess that will have to be enough for today. Amen.
 Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt: A Novel, Flatiron Books, New York, 2020, page 337 (kindle page numbering)