Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

The other Saturday, as I was heading out of the house, my wife asked, “Where are you going?”

“Oh, over to church to get a few things done.”

“You told me you were going to do some lawn work today.”

“Oh, that’s right.”

So I picked up a few twigs and small branches that had fallen from the trees. I also stacked up the wood from an old fence that had come down. That took about half an hour or so.

“Okay,” I said, “What else needs to be done?”

“The landscaping here in front of the house. You see all those weeds among the plants?”

“What weeds?”

“Those right there,” she pointed.

“Looks like groundcover to me.”

“Well, it isn’t.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am. It’s an invasive species.”

“Well, if it is, it’s still very nice looking.”

She pointed at them again: “Go and pull.”

So that’s what I did—for the next hour and a half. Some of the time on my knees; sometimes bending over, which my back and legs felt for the next few days. Since it had rained just the day before, though, the soil was soft. So I was able to do a decent job, in spite of the fact that the root system was deep and interconnected.

Another kind of weed—without extensive roots—is known as cockle or darneland was common in the ancient Near Middle East. It is often referred to by another name, as in “The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. ”It grows stems and leaves that are almost identical to those of wheat. Only near the end—when the leaves change and the heads appear—can a person tell the difference. One other detail: Darnel can often be infected by a fungus that produces a kind of poison, which, if eaten in bread or drunk in beverage form, can produce something like a state of drunkenness. Interesting, isn’t it?

That, then, is some background about that weed.

In the parable, Jesus uses it as a perfect illustration to distinguish true believers from false believers—that in this world, this life, however, is not easy to tell—because until the end they look so much the same.

Of course, that fact has never stopped a number of Christians from attempting to do just that—whether it’s the theological ideas some people come up with or the lifestyles that they practice. There are not only Christians who condemn truly obvious heresies or clearly despicable acts towards others, but also those who are bound and determined to find such things when they may not be there at all. For example, when Hurricane Katrina devastated major parts of New Orleans, some fundamentalist preachers claimed it was God’s punishment of the inhabitants of that city for their celebration and promotion of loose living.

Most Christians know better than to so easily divide people into the “good” and the “bad.” Into the sheep and the goats. And yet it happens.  Sometimes believers try to do that for the best of reasons—out of a desire to take a stand—to separate themselves from a culture with an attitude of “anything goes.” While the intent may be noble, the end result can still be far off the mark—sometimes even disastrous. The abuses of the Spanish Inquisition is one good example.

Yet, even Martin Luther often believed he could easily tell the wheat from the tares. He described what he called the “true church from the false church, ”which basically meant, respectively, the persecuted religious movement he was helping to lead and the late medieval church that he considered filled with hypocrisy, corruption, and illegitimate power. As in one of his writings:

For there are two kinds of churches stretching from the beginning of history to the end…a true one and a false one…we have proved we are the true, ancient church, one body and one communion of saints with the holy, universal, Christian church. Now you, papists, [believe] you are the true church…. [Rather] you are the new false church, which is in everything apostate…, thus becoming [the whore of Satan]…For in the end, wood, stone, mud, and dung would cry out against you, because it is impossible for a desperate whore to be a chaste and pious virgin.”[i]

 Luther certainly had a way with words, didn’t he? And he was a sexist to boot.

 For him, life in what he knew as the true church lays the foundation, provides the path by which one enters into the kingdom of heaven. About that he says this, in much more moderate language:

[God] describes the glory of [the] church in a…magnificent manner by saying that here the entrance to the kingdom of heaven is open…. Wherever we hear the Word and are baptized, there we enter into eternal life….Direct your step to the place where the Word resounds and the sacraments are administered, and there write the title THE GATE OF GOD.[ii]

 In our day, it’s not so much a question of whether one belongs to the “true” church or the “false” church, but rather any church at all. We believe that that’s very important or else we wouldn’t be here this morning. At the same time, we might not go as far as an early church father, Cyprian of Carthage, who once declared: “He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother.”

 That’s a very strong statement. And yet it is true that no such thing exist sas a private Christian. By definition, the Christian faith is a social faith. We cannot practice it alone, but only within a fellowship of believers.

So it can grieve us—grieve us deeply—when a loved one or a close friend is not, in some form or fashion, truly connected to the church. Is a spiritual wanderer who does not seem to miss having a church home. Such a person is not so much one of the tares sown in with the good plants, but rather a tumbleweed—with no real roots at all—blown about by the wind, first in one direction and then another and then another.

As a teenager, I was sometimes recruited by my father for farm work of one kind or another. I didn’t mind at all—because he would pay me for it. He was instilling in me a good work ethic. So one time, taking me out into a field of soybeans, he showed me a patch of weeds. I think they are what is known as pigweed. Handing me a hoe, he told me to go for it. But also to be careful, for the weeds had a red stem almost indistinguishable from those of the soybeans. Weeding between the rows was easy, but among the soybeans themselves, not so much.

There were places where I accidentally hoed out some of the plants along with the weeds. When that happened, I would prop them back up, hoping my dad would inspect my work before those particular soybeans began drying up.

There may be times when I have done some of that in the church—accidentally pulling up some of what is true along with that which is false. Another theologian of the early church, Augustine, even went so far as to imagine “that they who today are tares, may tomorrow be wheat.”[iii]

By the same token, there are times I think the opposite. I think that, in fear of doing the wrong thing, many churches err on the other side. Too hesitant to hold ourselves to higher standards, we run the risk of letting the field fill up with weeds. Then we act surprised when the yield of the crop that’s harvested isn’t all that impressive.

In the end, maybe the image of the church as a mixed bag is not the best. Instead, maybe the image of church as a hospital or urgent-care clinic is better. That’s what we see in one more quotation of Martin Luther—one that is especially pastoral in tone:

…it is the peculiar duty of bishops and pastors to teach, [encourage], and comfort, not hardened and foolish persons who cannot be set right with words…, but to apply the [ointment] of Holy Scripture to the afflicted &…distressed. “Do not fear! Have confidence…! Your sins are forgiven you!” …But how difficult this application is, both my own experience and that of others testif[y]. I have read the Bible with the greatest zeal and diligence for [nearly] 30 years, but I have not yet been cured in such a way that I could with full confidence find rest in the remedies shown by God. I would desire to be…strong[er] in faith and prouder in Christ, but I cannot be.

 [Nevertheless] the wound is healed…after oil and wine have been poured on it….For the churches are nothing else than lodging places of this kind in which the people who feel sin, death, and the terrors and vexations of an afflicted and wounded conscience are healed.[iv]

 Sometimes the church, which leads to the kingdom of heaven, is a field both of plants and weeds. And the two will be sorted out in God’s good time. However, as long as we remain on this earth, the church as a place of healing may be an even better model to use.


[i]“Against Hanswurst, 1541,” trans. Eric W. Gritsch, in Luther Works, American Edition, gen. ed. Helmut T. Lehmann, Church and Ministry, III, ed. Eric W. Gritsch, vol. 41 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966):194, 199, 224.

 

[ii] “Chapter Twenty-Eight,” in Luther’s Works, American Edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, associate ed. Walter A. Hansen,Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 26-30, vol. 5 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968):247.

 

[iii] Augustine 1888: vi 334-335.

 

[iv] “Chapter Forty-Nine,” in Luther’s Works, American Edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, associate ed., Walter A. Hansen, Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 45-50 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1966): 54.