I came home from preschool with a construction paper craft and proudly put it on the fridge. That day we’d learned about traffic safety — green means go, red means stop. To fortify this message, we made cut-out traffic lights — red, yellow, green.
My mom complimented my jagged circles and uneven pasting before offering a corrective: Peanut, you’ve hung it upside down.
To which I responded, with complete sincerity: No I didn’t.
Yes, the red light goes on top, and green on the bottom.
No, green goes on top and red goes on the bottom.
Honey, I see traffic lights all the time. I know which way they go.
At this point I’m getting combative: Green goes on top. We just learned this in school.
My mom, who is a much wiser and more patient person than I, sighed and said: okay.
Around the same time — I was maybe 4 — my grandmother had sewn me a butter-yellow summer dress, hand embroidered across the top. I took one look at it and announced, “I don’t wear yellow.” My mom — my poor mother — whispered to me, explaining that Grandma, who you love, went to a lot of effort to make it for you. Don’t you at least want to try it on? They sighed and went downstairs, and eventually my conscience — in my mom’s voice — got the best of me and I put it on… and went downstairs, and said, “Are you happy now, Grandma?”
I was a stubborn kid. No, that implies that I’ve somehow outgrown my stubbornness. I am a stubborn person. And no matter how patient my mom was with me, how much she tried to explain or prove, once I had made up my mind about something, that was it.
We laugh about these stories now, but at the time I can picture my mom’s confusion, frustration, embarrassment. Hadn’t she planted good seeds in her daughter? Where was this deep-rooted weed of stubbornness coming from?
I’ll admit that there are times that I wish my stubbornness could be weeded out, too. I’ve been in the middle of fights over stupid things, and think to myself, What can’t I just concede? even as I’m vehemently debating for my point.
I’ve hated my stubbornness. I wished to be naturally more pleasant. More “nice.” Certainly, when I was in a stage of life of dating, my romantic life would have been much easier if I had naturally been inclined towards being a polite girl who silently nods with interest at the right moments. But I often couldn’t seem to let my ideas and opinions remain silent.
I lamented: What made me this way? Why can’t I just nod and smile? Haven’t good seeds been planted in me?
A couple years ago, my parents came to visit for my graduation. At the school’s open house, they mingled with my fellow graduates and met my professors. Dwight was one of my professors, and not one I’d say I was particularly close to. He and I had our differences. And we voiced them in debates that took over class time, most often without resolution.
So it’s the open house, I introduce my family to Dwight, Dwight to my family, and Dwight looks straight at my parents and opens with: “Your daughter is so stubborn.”
My parents were shocked — not that he had diagnosed me as stubborn; they knew that better than anyone. They were shocked that the people who were granting me a degree in being a pastor knew that I had bad traits. Not quite recovered, they laughed and agreed, “Yes, she is.” I’m on the sideline thinking What the heck, man?
And then Dwight continued, “Your daughter is so stubborn, and the Church is so blessed to have her. The church is in a season of transition; Seattle is one of the top cities of de-churched adults; this is a dying field of work. The Church needs people with the kind of tenacity and fortitude of your daughter, now more than any other time in history.”
I tell this story not to tell you how lucky you all are to have me.
I tell this story because it seems to illustrate the truth of this morning’s parable: The very thing that we want to rip from the soil of our character might be intertwined with the very best of our character.
Or, in shorthand: Despite our tendency to focus on our sinfulness, we are all sinners and saints.
Last week we read another parable, about a sower who throws his seeds onto a path, rocky ground, among thorns, and fertile soil. Canon Britt taught that each of us is soil, and none of us is bad soil. Jesus shares the good news with everyone, believing that no one is inherently “bad soil.”
This week, Jesus says: You are not defined by the weedy parts of your soul.
I don’t think it goes too far to say that many of us hate of ourselves. There are aspects we despise, traits we hate, characteristics that we believe are dark, shadowy sides that we long to uproot and burn.
And it’s those very traits that we hate in ourselves that we also can’t tolerate in others. The very places we don’t receive grace for ourselves, we are unable to extend grace to others. Perhaps we even despise them as much as we despise ourselves.
Jesus says, “Do not uproot the weeds, for you would uproot the wheat with them. Let them grow together.”
Jesus accepts the weedy parts of our souls. He acknowledges that they exist and he calls a weed a weed, but his firmness that they be allowed to grow makes me wonder if perhaps nothing is as bad as the hatred of the bad, the desire to remove it, to obliterate it.
Julian of Norwich had visions of Jesus — this was in 13th century England. Afterward, she recorded entire conversations that they had had. Jesus told her “all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” And she asked Jesus, “How can all be well when great harm has come to your creatures through sin?” And he responded, “Since I have brought good out of the worst-ever evil, I want you to know by this; that I shall bring good out of all lesser evils, too.”
Later Jesus tells her, “Sin shall not be a shame to humans, but a glory.”
This isn’t a license to get away with bad behavior, but an invitation to complexity. An invitation to understand your weeds and how they might be intertwined with your best qualities. An invitation to receive grace and extend it to your own self. It would be easy to simply strive for perfection; tolerating our weeds requires compassion, love, patience. It might be that the only perfection can hope to attain is in accepting and blessing our imperfections.
For years I lived wanting my stubbornness to be rooted out and burnt up. But then someone saw a weed — saw my stubbornness — and said, “This is also good.” He saw how entangled the roots are with traits that I need — traits the world needs. And in that moment, I began to re-narrate my life. The same stubborn child that said “I don’t wear yellow” became the stubborn adolescent who said “I don’t wear clothes from companies whose advertisements promote anorexia.” The stubborn child who said “green goes on top” became the young adult who refuses to accept that the wealthy belong on top of society.
It’s in our own interior lives that we learn to acknowledge complexity, to accept shadows, and to live in grace. Only once we’ve received that grace, are we truly free to extend it to others.
In a few moments, we’ll confess our sins to God and neighbor. As we approach confession today, I’m thinking about what it means to be a good neighbor to myself, what it means for the narrating, judging voice in my head to be a good neighbor to my behaviors. If God can receive me not just for my wheat, but with all my weeds, who am I to reject myself?
But before we get to the confession, we’ll profess the Nicene Creed, and in it, our belief in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Which means that in our order of worship, we profess our belief that we are all already forgiven, well before we confess. Perhaps we are even able to confess because we have already been forgiven.
Jesus doesn’t deny our weeds, but he does accept them, and he loves the entire field of our being with the weeds yet intact.
May you let wheat and weed grow together. May you come to bless the weedy parts of your soul and know grace in your bones. And may you be freed to extend that grace to everyone you encounter — even in their weediest moments.