A Sermon from Sherborne

Plants in the wrong place

A sermon for Epiphany 5, preached at Castleton Church on Sunday 10 February 2019 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson


Vicarages and their gardens are very variable. It seems that frequently a Vicar who quite likes gardening follows one who finds even cutting the grass a wretched chore. One of my gardens had a north facing rockery under a row of 3 huge Horse Chestnut trees. Try as I might nothing would grow there until I happened upon Cerastium tomentosum, a pleasant plant with small grey leaves and a profusion of white star like flowers. That sent its roots into the poor soil around the rocks and covered the rockery.  It is probably still there. We have some in our current garden but of course it is now impossible to eradicate. What was its great advantage is now its Achilles heel, namely its rugged determination to survive.

You will know the old adage that a weed is a plant in the wrong place and our Gospel reading today gives us a parable by Jesus which deals with Tares mixed up with Wheat. The farmer wanted the Wheat to survive and flourish but not the Tares. The Tares were definitely in the wrong place. It would have been normal practice to try to remove them.

There is, at Lucca cathedral in Italy, a series of marble panels detailing the labours of the months and I had hoped that one of them would have featured weeding. Sadly, the closest I can get is the March one which has the farmer tending a rather luxuriant plant.

We also visited the British Library recently to see the Anglo-Saxon exhibition and amongst the exhibits you can find the Julius work calendar. These rural calendars are not uncommon and, like the marble plaques at Lucca, set a particular task for each month. This scheme has March set for digging so I guess a few weeds would have been dislodged with some vigorous digging. You will be pleased to learn that January or February (depending on how far south you lived) allowed for sitting by the fire!

To enter into the spirit of the parable we have to make a conscious effort for today, if weeds invade the wheat the Farmer simply gets out his selective weed killer, gives the field a dose of spray and waits for the weeds to shrivel up and disappear. Now that rather messes up the point of the parable for Jesus was exhorting people to have patience.

The weed referred to is darnel which is botanically close to wheat and looks rather like it, but it has a poisonous character and so is definitely to be separated from the wheat.  In the early stages of growth, it is difficult to distinguish the plants one from another and at later stages the roots of both are intertwined, so that pulling up the weed would uproot the wheat too. However, a little judicious weeding would normally be possible without ill effect. The fact that the story suggests that an enemy has been in work gives the impression that the tares were there in great quantity and so pulling them up was not really an option. The parable exhorts the listeners to wait for the final judgement when the good and the bad will be separated.

But it is not quite as simple as that for we can easily see that this is also a picture of human life. The good and the bad and the mediocre are inextricably mixed up not just in the sense of individual people who choose one path or the other but in the sense that in all of us there are good tendencies and selfish ones. St. Paul writing to the Romans says rather succinctly: “For the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” It’s almost as though you had plants which weren’t quite sure whether they were weeds or Wheat until they became fixed as one or the other at Harvest time. If that were the case then even today’s farmers would be baffled as to whether to apply weed killer or not.

God, as the divine farmer seems to leave everything in the world in a mixed-up state. We have to be patient. It is not possible for the final separation to take place until the final judgement. This is partly because people would never be able to carry out the separation properly. History reveals the terrible flaws in those who took the task of judgement on themselves. We know about the horrors of the Inquisition, the demands of the Puritans, the failures of all churches and denominations in one way or another. Those who are truly God’s people are mixed in with everyone else.

Then, secondly, God has appointed a time for judgement but the moment has not yet arrived. Opportunities remain for people to have a change of heart and to grow in faith because of God’s mercy and grace.

It is a mark of the optimism of Jesus that he sees the results of his mission in terms of a great harvest. There are other parables too which have this theme not least the one which talks about the seed which fell on the path or near rocky ground, was eaten by birds or choked by weeds. Amidst all this loss of the sown seed still the harvest far outweighs the loss. So Jesus sees the triumph of good over evil. His ministry marked the beginning of an enormous growth in the numbers of people who believed in God and in the special revelation that Jesus brought.

In our own time the growth in Christianity seems to be in other parts of the world rather than in Europe. Opinion polls chart the loss of faith amongst those who look to the secular world rather than the religious one. If you watch quiz shows where there is a choice of subject, how often will contestants avoid the Bible or religion in the questions? Or if in general knowledge this subject crops up how often will they get it wrong and come up with a guess which is quite ludicrous.

Perhaps people think of Christianity as a belief structure from the past which no longer has relevance or find the future more attractive especially as technology is producing ever more interesting products. But faith is not a dry catalogue of doctrines or facts but a living relationship with God which, at its best, is full of life and vigour.

It is a truism to say that we change from birth to death. A baby grows into a child and then into an adult. We grow too in our knowledge and understanding of the world and our ability to handle it and control it. Our knowledge of God should grow too, as should our relationship with him. Of course, it is easier to pretend that our dealings with God can be static and unchanging; that we need make no effort and therefore make no progress; that belief is a matter of dry ideas and facts which we accept or reject without any consequences. In fact, the truth is that religion is a matter of continuing enquiry, something which changes and develops according to the capacity of each one of us, just as our relationships with one another change and develop.

Just as a wheat plant grows and matures over time until it is ready for the harvest, so should we. The Bible records the growth of belief over hundreds of years as faith in one God and an understanding of his nature developed. The process begins in the Old Testament and continues in the New where we are given the revelation of Jesus Christ himself.

We are part of a living, growing group of people and we are moving towards God’s harvest. Let us make sure that we so live out this life that we are found, not amongst the bundles of weeds with stunted lives but amongst the sheaves of corn, full of a life derived from God himself.

The Reverend Christopher Huitson 10/02/2019
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton