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The Noxious Weed of Racism

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So, most of us woke up yesterday morning to the news that we lost two leaders of the Civil Rights movement on the same day, Friday–the Rev. C.T. Vivian, and Congressman John Lewis. Both worked tirelessly for racial justice from the time they were young men until they died, two days ago.

John Lewis is well known for saying “Get in trouble–good trouble.” As a young man his parents told him, as black parents tell their sons, lay low and please stay out of trouble. As we well know, he did not stay out of trouble, and our country is incalculably better for that.

It’s impossible to pull out one saying or one moment from these men’s lives, but with the Rev. Vivian I think of that moment (caught by a cameraman) in front of the Dallas County courthouse in Selma when he was defending the voting rights of a long line of African Americans there with him, and kept defending them even after segregationist Sheriff Jim Clark knocked him to the ground.

There are times as a priest when Saturday’s news makes the sermon you’d been working on that week all in a moment irrelevant. Our minds are on this, on these men. On what they accomplished and on what we still need to accomplish in our country. They are, to use the metaphor in today’s parable, stalks of wheat in this messy field that is the United States; tall, fruitful, surrounded all their lives by many weeds that tried to choke them and pull them down, but they stood firm and bore fruit. The least I can do is put aside my old sermon and honor them this morning.

In fact, it’s interesting this parable falls today. We do have all these wonderful agricultural parables in the summer months. Most summers, they come just as we’re at our most relaxed, and as we’re engaging with the natural world. They lend some whimsy to these summer Sundays–most years. But everything is a little different now. More is required of us this summer than last, and maybe (hopefully) next. More patience. More passion. More engagement socially. It’s not the summer I’d hoped to have, but it will probably end up being one of the most important summers of our lives together.

The parable of the wheat and weeds lends itself to dividing people into categories: wheat represents the good, weeds, the bad. That’s how it’s been used in the church from the moment Matthew first wrote it down and for many centuries after. There are genuine Christians, and then there are those who don’t really belong. It’s just the way it is, and it’s not our job to pluck up the bad ones because once you start doing that, you’ll probably ruin the whole crop. Darnel, the weed Jesus refers to in this parable, looks identical to wheat until very late in the season, when the wheat flowers and the darnel does not. It’s only then that you can tell them apart. So to try to get rid of the darnel plant would likely mean pulling a lot of the wheat with it. Start sorting, dividing, and eliminating certain groups of people and you’ll destroy the whole community.

And yet. When I think of the opponents of these two men, it’s hard not to think you’ve found a weed. Those people who cleared the bus station that day when the Freedom Riders pulled into Alabama, the mob of men, women and (unbelievably) children. This group attacked the peaceful protesters, mostly African Americans, cracking their skulls, scratching their faces, calling them names. Or those who faced off against the marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, wielding their fire hoses, barbed wire, cattle prods and billy clubs–not vigilantes, this time, but actual law enforcement. Weeds.

We try not to judge or sort in the church–Jesus tells us not to–and we must remember no one is all bad or all good. But still. When evil is so stark and uncomplicated, your mind can’t help but go there.

At very least, we can say with certainty that bigotry and racism are weeds, weeds we can’t afford to let grow. These aren’t subtle weeds like darnel that masquerade as wheat then quietly get sorted at the harvest, no real harm done. These are ugly, and obvious, and we all know them when we see them. They wrap their tendrils around the good plants, they leach the soil of its nutrients. If you don’t take them out, the whole crop fails. Not people, but the things people say. Believe. Do. The structures people collectively support, without fully realizing. The weed of racism has done horrible damage, and will destroy this country if we don’t do something about it.

Peace is not easy. It’s the result of hard, determined work–and struggle. From our hymnal: “The peace of God it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. But brothers pray for just one thing: the marvelous peace of God.”

Rest in peace, John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian. Amen.