Text: Matthew 13:24-30
All of us have perceived enemies. My earliest memory of an enemy was in the ninth grade. Her name was Madam Niver, my French teacher. Madam Niver was a tall, kind of lanky lady with a voice that reverberated through the halls of Crest High School. From day one, she scared me. She moved fast and talked fast, her arms flying in all directions as she spoke only in French. On the first day of class, we were given our French names and instructed to use only them. My given name was “Nanette.”
French class and Madam Niver made me nervous. I had never taken a foreign language and the new experience and subject matter had me a bit on edge. People who know me well, know that when I am nervous I tend to laugh a little more than normal, and talk a little more than normal. Well, my nervousness—meaning my laughing and talking in class—didn’t go over well with Madam. On day two, I began hearing a phrase that I would come to know all too well, “Fermez la bouche, Nanette!” Translated, “Shut up Nancy.” Needless to say, Madam and I got off to a rocky start.
Now I need for you to know that I passed two years of French in high school and two years of Greek in college. But the truth is that I’m not very adept when it comes to learning foreign languages. Karla will tell you that after ten days in Cuba, I woke up the last morning and for the first time in those ten days I said,
“Mi nombre es Nancy.” It was the only Spanish I spoke the entire trip and it was uttered in private. But I’ve strayed from my old enemy Madam Niver.
You see, in both junior high and high school I lived to play basketball. But in order to play basketball, I had to make good grades. And that first semester of my freshman year, Madam threatened my academic record and therefore my athletic career. She was the enemy! And I must say, it is not lost on me one bit that I am married to a former high school French teacher.
Yes, all of us have perceived enemies. The biblical narrative names hundreds of enemies that threaten the Israelites. The Egyptians, the Amalekites, the Edomites, the Amorites, the Cannanites, the Syrians, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Midianites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the list goes on and on and on. Jesus and the disciples also had to contend with their enemies. Herod, the Pharisees, the Herodians, the chief priests and the elders of the people. Even one of the disciples turned out to be an enemy. Just as the biblical narrative calls out and gives names to certain enemies, so does our current human narrative. The names of our enemies today depend on which side of the aisle you stand on. To one person the enemy has the name Trump and to another Clinton. To one person the enemy is the label “liberal” and to another “conservative.” To one person the enemy is the NRA, to another it is common sense gun legislation. To one person the enemy is the religious left and to another it is the religious right. The enemy is whoever and whatever we perceive is threatening us and our self-interest. Otherness, technology, modernity—the enemy can be whatever, whoever we make it. I have known for some time that to the majority of Christians, I am the enemy. I have the cards and letters and emails to prove it.
The parable comparing the kingdom of heaven to someone who sowed good seed but while everybody was sleeping, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat got me thinking about our perceived enemies. It seems like our current human narrative has a lot of perceived enemies. It’s like we are playing whack-a-mole just waiting on the next enemy to pop up so we can whack it back down in its hole. And I am wondering this morning how it might help our human narrative if we thought less about how something or someone is an enemy and more about the good seed being sown in the world. What if there were no enemies?
I know what you are thinking. I’m thinking it, too. There are real threats in our world and to the common good. There are those things and people out in the world who are working against a kinder, more compassionate, more justice-loving, equitable, and peace-filled world. And when it comes to establishing God’s commonwealth here on this earth, they feel like the enemy. Theologians and preachers have always spoken of the enemy and of evildoers. The great theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, [her] work.”
The biblical narrative, our faith story, and generations of theologians and preachers have spoken of “the enemy” and of enemies that threaten kingdom living. For certain, we need to be aware and mindful of all that works against establishing God’s commonwealth here on earth. We must stay awake and remain watchful. But the question I want to press this morning, the challenge I want to put to the biblical narrative, and to our ongoing faith story is this 21st century is: “How does it help us—really help us—to always be on the lookout for an enemy?” What does that do to our emotional and mental and spiritual wellbeing? If we are always looking for the enemy, that on which we can place blame for all that is wrong in our world and lives, do we not run the risk, are we not in danger, of losing sight of our own responsibility and charge to actively sow the good seed and represent the kingdom?
Let me illustrate my point with a fairly modern day story edited from Barbara Kingsolver’s book: Animal ,Vegetable, Miracle.
In 1999, a quiet, middle-aged farmer from Bruno, Saskatchewan, was sued by the largest biotech seed producer in the world. The seed producer claimed that Percy Schmeiser had damaged them, to the tune of $145,000, by having their patented gene in some of the canola plants on his 1,030 acres. The assertion was not that Percy had actually planted the seed, or even that he obtained the seed illegally while everyone was sleeping. Rather, the argument was that the plants on Percy’s land contained genes that belonged to the biotech seed producer. The gene, patented in Canada in the early 1990s, gives genetically modified canola plants the fortitude to withstand spraying by dangerous herbicides.
Canola, a cultivated variety of rapeseed, is one of over three thousand species in the mustard family. Pollen from mustards is transferred by insects (bees), or by wind, up to one-third of a mile. Does the patented gene travel in the pollen? Yes. Are the seeds viable? Yes, and can remain dormant up to ten years. If seeds remain in the soil from the previous years, it’s illegal to harvest them. Further, if any of the seeds from a field contain the patented genes, it is illegal to save them for use. Percy had been saving his canola seeds for fifty years. The seed producer was suing for possession of intellectual property that had drifted onto his plants. [not by some illegal act in the night while everyone was sleeping but by the honey bees and the wind]
Is there an enemy here? The pollen? The insects? The wind? Even when there is no enemy, if you go looking for one, I guarantee you you will find one. I know that the parable we have read this morning about an enemy coming in and sowing weeds among the good seed is simply a story created and told to teach about the kingdom of heaven. But I will ask again, how does it help us to always be looking for an enemy? What if the parable simply stated that among the wheat weeds grew. And the main point of the lesson was found in verse 29. To the question, “Do you want us to go pull the weeds up?” the master responds, “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together…”
Before we jump to the metaphor, let’s stick with the agricultural frame that Jesus has put us in. Now I am no expert on agriculture, but lucky for me, I have a lectionary group full of extremely intelligent and well-read folks. So this morning I have a second agricultural illustration for you, this one from C.C. Mann’s book, 1493, Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Mann writes about the similarities and differences in European and native agricultural practices. One of the most profound differences speaks directly to our text this morning. European practice is very familiar to us – it is to “clear” the land to be used for farming – to destroy all that is currently on the land, then create orderly rows, and plant what is called a monoculture – one kind of plant in one patch of land. Over time, those crops are rotated, but the focus in one season is on one target plant. And in the field of that target plant, say corn, any other plant is considered a weed and is eliminated. This approach creates that mid-Western landscape we are so accustomed to – a beautiful patchwork of fields that to European/Western eyes is so calming and civilized. Mann points out that the natives farmed very differently, partly due to vast differences in the tools available to them. First of all, natives farmed in circles that surrounded burned trees. The clearing created by the trees defined their plots, and they were the only plants destroyed (or transformed) to make the field. They then planted their crops among the other existing vegetation, and they planted them together, such that beans climbed up the corn plants and squash grew underneath. Mann notes that Europeans had a hard time figuring out which land had been cultivated because the Indian approach was so different to their own. It all just looked like weeds to them.
So back to Jesus. Maybe, his lesson would be: it is not our job to sort out the wheat from the weeds. Maybe we don’t always know the wheat from the weeds. Maybe we just need to focus on being wheat—doing justice, being kindness, and walking in the ways of our brother Jesus. Let them both grow together. Maybe that is the point of this lesson. Not the lesson that Matthew ascribes to it about heaven and hell. That doesn’t sound like Jesus. You know what does sound like Jesus? Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.
I am afraid that the only way humankind is going to get out of the mess we are in, is for all of us to start looking less for the enemy and start doing what Jesus told us to do when we face the real threats to God’s commonwealth being established here on this earth, now. Yes, there are enemies out there. And we must stay awake and aware and keep speaking the gospel to them. What we do in the face of those enemies either puts us on the path to more destruction or on the path that our brother Jesus walked and taught.
MLK writes: “Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”
Maybe if we could do a better job at loving our enemies we would begin to see fewer perceived enemies. And if we see fewer perceived enemies then we could focus even more of our attention on that redemptive power of loving our real enemies—power, greed, self-interest, ego, exclusion, inequality, self-preservation—all the enemies that we often find within us rather than outside of us. For as the saying goes: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
What if there were no enemies? Well, that may be just a little too Pollyanna. But what if we approached life looking for fewer enemies? And what if the enemies we did see we did our best to love them because love has within it a redemptive power. And what if…what if…we stop trying to be judge of what is wheat and what are weeds and we let them grow together? Might there also be some redemptive power in that, too?
I know about redemptive power from my freshman year in Madam Niver’s French class. I know now that Madam was not my enemy. She taught me a two-fold lesson that has lasted my lifetime: not everyone we perceive to be our enemy is; and we have to possess the tenacity to stay with something that doesn’t come easy to us. Loving our enemies will not come easy. But if we want to be gospel people, if we want to believe in the radical and inclusive love of God that has within it a redemptive power, then we must have the tenacity to let go of our need to focus on the weeds and start loving our real enemies.