I should have left well enough alone.
I read through the whole article, but that’s where I made my mistake…I opened the Comments section. Usually a mistake.
You know what I am talking about, right? Online articles often include space to comment about the article afterwards. It is often anonymous, and can get pretty harsh. In this instance, it was a local newspaper article about I am pretty passionate about. Many of you know that I am the chair of the Affordable Housing Advisory Board for the city. As a part of that role, I am often the public face of the work of our group to make sure that Lawrencians who work here can afford to live here. And so, there are times when the newspaper reports on the Board, and quotes me personally.
Several months ago, I was quoted in the paper, and I read the online version of what was written.
And then I made the mistake of opening the Comments section. It was filled with pontifications of those who had all the easy answers.
“All we need to do is.…”
“City leaders should simply.…”
“If they would only….”
But then, it got personal.
“Rev. Sturtevant should.…”
“He doesn’t know what he is talking about….”
“If he would only….”
“If only First Baptist would….”
I felt my face getting flush, and my finger hovered over the reply button. I wanted to fix that fallacy. That mistaken assumption. That oversimplification. But more than anything, I wanted to defend my actions, my rationale, my church! I didn’t want to allow such vile and venom to exist without a response. I wanted to fix it.
Anyone else know the feeling?
- Through the grapevine, you hear that someone has been critical of your work at your job.
- A family member drops a passive aggressive comment about you at the dinner table.
- Out of the blue, someone types a negative comment on your Facebook post, baiting you to respond.
We live in a culture that is more and more used to criticism, to snide comments, to incivility, and to negativity. Technology alone cannot be blamed, but it contributes to the problem. Communication is this complex process of body language, eye contact, facial expressions, and more. But online technology turns all of that into text only, often anonymous, and in the case of Twitter…only 140 characters of text! So, these complex issues and difficult conversations get simplified into soundbites and angry reactions. At the end of the day, the rule of thumb is often don’t even bother the comments section.
But it is not only online. Even in the church (gasp!), we have seen examples of negativity and judgment and incivility. The place that was founded on the principles of Christ-like love and trust is not immune to negativity or attacks. A hallway conversation here. Half a truth here. Less in this congregation than many I know, but no church is immune.
The truth is that we live in a world of negativity and incivility, where it is okay to attack someone personally simply because they disagree with us.
Technology has made this worse, but the problem is much older than Twitter. In fact, Jesus seemed to know of this dynamic 2,000 years ago. In his parable I read a few moments ago, Jesus tells a simple story that strikes to the heart of human nature….
A landowner sowed good wheat. But during the night, an enemy came and attacked him by sowing weeds among the wheat. These weeds were especially devious because they looked like wheat. They grew up next to the wheat, but then they competed with the wheat for nutrients and for space. They choked out the wheat.
And so, the servants panicked.
They ran to the landowner asking what to do next. Should they pull out the weeds? Should they try and save the wheat? “What should we do?” they cried. Their fingers hovered over the weeds like mine did over the reply button.
Jesus names, I think, an accurate portrayal of the human response to personal attack. When attacked, we want to react. To yank out the weeds in our lives. To protect ourselves from those who would do us harm. When someone targets us, we want to react in kind, to attack them back with equal or even superior force. Whether it is at work, or on Facebook, or at the family dinner table, we want to react, to defend, or defeat.
But Jesus offers another way:
In response to their anxiety about taking out the weeds, the Master replies: “No, let them grow together. For in attacking the weeds, you will simply damage the good wheat.”
The Master knew that the enemy counted on their panic. On their anxiety. On their reaction. The destruction of the crop would only be accomplished if the servants yanked out the weeds. Instead, the Master knew that the wheat could hold its own. Healthy wheat is more important than removing the weeds. If the wheat grows up healthy, then it will be fine until harvest.
Of course, it is a parable about a timeless truth, and the truth that I see in it is twofold:
One, don’t be like the servants. In other words, don’t spend all your time worrying about the unhealthy, the immature, the cynical, the judgmental. Don’t react emotionally to those who are sowing negativity. Don’t get lost in the weeds – stuck on and anxious about those who are unhealthy, letting them set your agenda or your priorities.
Two, be good wheat. Be as emotionally and spiritually as strong as you can. Grow in maturity and faith yourself. The stronger you are, the more mature you become, the better rooted in Christ you are, the more the unhealthy weeds become obvious for what they are, and get starved out. The bullies lose their power. The emotionally selfish fail to get the reaction that they are after.
Those of you who know about landscaping and gardening know that this is true. The best way to get rid of weeds in your yard is to grow healthy grass. If the grass is healthy, the weeds will be crowded out and will not have a foothold to survive. Instead of spending all your time on weed removal, your best bet is to grow healthy grass.
Jesus the Teacher here says the same thing. Be good wheat, and that will make all the difference.
Scholar Eugene Boring summarizes the parable in this way: “we live in an imperfect world, and no human effort can eradicate that fact. But it was never our job anyway. We are given the task of living as faithfully and obediently as possible, confident that the harvest is sure.”
I say this like I have all the right answers. But let’s be honest. I am the servant much more often than the Master. I get lost in the weeds all the time. When someone says something negative about me or to me, I want to react. I panic and get upset and want to yank out all the weeds. I want to respond in the Comments Section! But when my better angels take over, I stop. And take a breath. And ask myself a few questions:
One, are they right? Maybe this is God’s way of showing me a blind spot. To assume that I have nothing to learn about myself is a recipe for self-righteousness. And there are times when we need to hear that what we are doing is not working. Or is harmful. Or is selfish. Sometimes, we are the weeds.
Two, can dialogue happen here? There are times when it’s good to read the Comments section, and respond thoughtfully and prayerfully. This is not a parable about running away from hard conversations. If it looks like the other person is open to dialogue, then there might be an opportunity. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. Psychologists wrote a lot during the political campaign about confirmation bias. Confirmation bias takes place when we try to convince others that we are right and they are wrong, what ends up happening is they dig their heels in deeper and end up more emotionally committed to their beliefs then they were before the conversation! If it doesn’t look like dialogue is going to happen, don’t wade into the weeds!
Three, is this more about them than it is about me? Sometimes, people who attack us reveal more about themselves than it does us. We try to fix people and correct people and make people change, but sometimes we simply cannot make them change. Commenting on this passage, preacher John Dally tells a story. A man stormed up to the owner of a vending machine, red faced and angry. It seems he had put a quarter into the machine and instead of the chocolate kiss that he wanted, he got a gumball. So, he put another quarter in, and got another gumball. A third time, a third gumball. Finally, he went to the counter and told the owner what a horrible machine he possesses. The owner calmly replied, “sir, this is a gumball machine. It only gives gumballs.” How much of our anger and anxiety in life is caused by expecting chocolate from gumball machines? Rather than living our lives trying to fix everyone else, sometimes, we just need to be good wheat.
Finally, I love the way that Boring puts it: How can I live as faithfully and obediently as possible? How can I be good wheat? Family systems theorist Edwin Friedman would echo Jesus as he wrote: “Be the strength in the system.” People who are negative, and complainers, and critical, and uncivil, are often just playing their part in a much bigger system. If you root them out, the system will yearn to replace them. But Friedman suggests that we can be the strength in the system – be as healthy and Christ-like and faithful and obedient as we can be – and that that alone can change the system. We may not be able to turn weeds into wheat, but we don’t have to let the weeds take over.
“We live in an imperfect world, and no human effort can eradicate that fact. But it was never our job anyway. We are given the task of living as faithfully and obediently as possible, confident that the harvest is sure.”
It’s not our job. That’s the good news in the passage today. We are not the Master. But the Master is at work bringing a good crop in me. In you. In us. Eventually, we will be gathered into the barn.
Eventually, I closed the Comments Section without responding. I gave up my right to defend myself and my church and my actions in front of those angry individuals on their computers and their phones. It was enough to trust in God’s view of who I am, not everyone else’s.
Coincidentally, or maybe providentially, within the next several months, several random people came up to me out of the blue. “Aren’t you are the pastor at the Baptist church? The one who has been working for affordable housing? I saw you at a Justice Matters event and I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’ Thanks for your work.” They see what we are doing as good wheat. They see that the Baptist church is doing Gospel work. They see that we care about our community. They see things that are helpful and meaningful and healthy and want to pull me aside and say “thanks.”
It was as if God was reminding me not to get lost in the weeds. Not to get stuck on the handful of negative naysayers, but instead to do our best to focus on the work of Christ in the world. To be the healthiest wheat that we can be. To be ready for the Master to multiply our good work. May it be so.