— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 7th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is, in my simple mind, a classic movie. The older one is the one I’m talking about, the movie that was released in 1971 and was based on the 1964 book by Roald Dahl entitled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The weird owner of the candy factory, Willy Wonka, was played by Gene Wilder. The boy in the film, Charlie Bucket, was played by Peter Ostrum. Ostrum, by the way, never made another film and is now a large animal veterinarian.
On one level the movie is about separating weeds from wheat.
The story line of the movie is that the factory that makes Wonka candies and chocolates will be open for a special tour to the five people and one member of each of their families who are fortunate enough to find a golden ticket wrapped around one of the Wonka chocolate bars. Charlie is from a poor family and he only gets one Wonka bar a year … on his birthday. Charlie, of course, finds the last golden ticket and takes his grandfather with him through the tour. There is a special prize at the end of the tour for one of the recipients of the golden tickets. As the movie unfolds each of the children reveals his or her moral defect and is thereby eliminated from the competition and the special prize at the end.
Weeds are separated from wheat, so to speak.
At one point in the tour Mr. Wonka takes the children into a room with special Willy Wonka geese. These geese are huge, and they are perched way up high near the ceiling on a funny looking contraption that is called an “Eggdicator.” When a goose lays a golden, chocolate egg, the egg drops down onto the “Eggdicator” which has an arrow that then points to the word “good” or the word “bad.” If the egg is a “good egg” it is shined and polished. If the Eggdicator points to the word “bad,” then the bad egg is dropped down a trash chute.
One of the five children on the tour of the factory is a spoiled girl named Veruca Salts. She sees the geese and she tells her rich daddy she wants a golden, chocolate egg laying goose. Daddy tries to buy one. “Name your price,” he says to Mr. Wonka. Mr. Wonka says clearly and definitively that the geese are not for sale. Veruca throws a tantrum, tears up the room and ends up near the geese standing on the Eggdicator. Guess what? The arrow points to “bad,” and down she goes. Mr. Wonka pronounces – “She was a bad egg.”
Oh, if life could be so simple, so binary. If we could just stand everybody up on a machine and see – “good egg” or “bad egg.” Of course, I don’t know that I’d willingly go through the test. Maybe I’d make the cut on a good day, maybe not. For sure there would be some darker days when the indicator would reflect my own sense of self and maybe even my behavior and drop me through the trash chute. Still, there is a longing within most of us, if not all of us, to have a simpler way of determining the good guys from the bad, good ideas and policies from the bad. Life, it seems, would be better if the bad could be sorted out from the good. If the weeds could be pulled out to allow the wheat to thrive;
Jesus tells a story to discourage such an uprooting,
to discourage such binary thinking about what faces us in life…
He (Jesus) put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
It is a good idea to refrain from pulling up the weeds because in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Surely we’ve learned this as a country. Whenever we’ve tried to root out the evil ones in our midst we’ve ended up doing a whole lot more damage than good. Interning the Japanese during World War II hardly made our country a better place; in fact, it diminished our moral standing in the world. Joseph McCarthy’s crusade to rid the nation of communists did not elevate our moral status as a people, but revealed an ugly fear that overrode our founding principles. The desire throughout the country to keep blacks and whites separated during our Jim Crow years … keeping wheat from weed as defined by the white power structure of our communities … did not lead to anything but horror and oppression and a diminishment of the vitality of our multi-colored, multi-ethnic, mult-religious society. We are paying the price of these actions of separation even and especially today. The problem is complex but it boils down to the fact that no one of us or group of us is able to see clearly the weeds from the wheat. The plants we identify as weeds may, in truth, be the leaven in the loaf.
I have an acquaintance in another town, a business man with whom I do business, who was telling me a while ago that he was raised to be suspicious of Mexicans and other Hispanic people. It was subtle, he said, but he was raised to think – white people good, brown and black people bad. A simple formula that infected his mind, a binary world of good and bad and one that was easy to apply. He said he never did anything to hurt Hispanic people, but he never did anything to help them either. And then, he said, both my daughters married men from Mexico. “Can you believe that?” he said. “And right now I love those fellows as if they were my own boys; in fact, that’s just how I see them… as my own.”
Separating the weeds from the wheat…. we just do not know. And surely we have learned that you cannot do the separating based on things as basically human as skin color, nationality, religious affiliations, political parties… As human beings we are more complicated than such simple formulas will capture. Dealing with judgments about goodness and evil, between right and wrong behavior, between healthy and destructive community and political decisions requires us to move beyond binary choices into nuanced thinking.
One of the silver linings for me of the need for physical distancing is that I have discovered just how good Sunday morning television is. In fact, I am grateful that most of us can record those shows or I’m not sure anyone would come to church (just kidding, I know most of you are more righteous than that!). Anyway, though I have been coming to our church building every Sunday morning during the pandemic at around 11 a.m. to pray, I have had time to watch Sunday Today with Willie Geist and CBS Sunday Morning. On the CBS show this past Sunday (July 12, 2020), Jim Axelrod interviewed the late night host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah. The interview, as I heard it, addresses the wheat and the tares! Not directly but clearly as far as I’m concerned.
Mr. Axelrod makes the comment that one of Trevor Noah’s most powerful statements came without a single laugh. On May 29th after the George Floyd murder the late night comedian from South Africa set up his phone and recorded an 18 minute monolog that came to be titled “George Floyd and the Dominos of Racial Injustice.” It is a powerfully simple and profound statement on racism and protests from the perspective of a black man in America. Hearing it referenced on the Sunday morning show sent me to find it on YouTube. I recommend it.
On the Sunday morning show Trevor Noah says something that I think is very relevant to the parable today. Mr. Noah said: Americans are always told there are only two sides to every story, two sides to every debate, two sides to every argument… If you only have two choices then people are always going to make one of two choices which means people are always going to be against each other. He goes on to say… Nuance doesn’t sell very well in America. Nuance means you can’t just take a stand and fight the other person. Nuance means we have to talk a little more. Until the American political process can find a way to represent the nuance that exists in America you are going to create this false impression that there is only this or that. There is only racism and not racism.
Maybe part of what we can take away from Jesus’ parable about the wheat and the tares is that we as a society need to be more open to nuance. There are always more than two choices in the debates we are having. People are more complex than the boxes we tend to which we assign them. We can better move forward as individuals, as church, as society when we recognize the complexities of the human condition.
Jesus said, Let both of them grow together until the harvest…
I had this very parable bouncing around in my head as I was riding home on the train from the Airport to North Springs years ago after a vacation to see my family in Minnesota. I was coming back and would need to preach the coming Sunday. It was about 10 p.m. and I was trying to transition back to work; so, since I am a lectionary preacher and this was the assigned text for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, I had weeds and wheat on my mind.
On the train a young man stood up and and said he was sorry but he had no money and could anyone help… He was slurring his words and was bothersome. I kept my head down reading a book about the church needing to be more like Jesus… a good book by Philip Gulley … and I was pondering his words and weeds and wheat and hoping this guy would not come near me.
Well, I made it off the train; I had to change from the gold line to the red line because it was after 7 p.m….. in other words, I did not get on the wrong train at the Airport, I just had to change because the Red Line was not running at that time from the Airport. At any rate, while standing on the platform waiting for the next train to take me to our destination, the man approached me for money. He said all he needed was 40 cents. I looked at him and handed him the change that was in my pocket… around 80 cents. He mumbled something that I assumed was leading to a request for more money, but I said that was all I had to give him. He walked away.
There was a young man standing behind me shaking his head. I looked back at this clean-cut and sharp looking African-American man. He said to me … “Don’t feed the animal.” And then he went off to get security to take the panhandler away.
I started to feel bad about the whole thing. Was I just enabling a man, the slurring man who was begging, to continue to destroy himself and bother others. Or is it possible that one day he’ll remember the folks who took pity on him and realize that life is good and people are decent and he can be sober and a contributing member of his community? Or was I simply trying to get rid of him and I don’t like carrying around change in my pocket anyway? I don’t know.
I tend to want to give something to panhandlers. Maybe it is my way of acknowledging that I don’t always know wheat from weed? Maybe it is not so noble as that, maybe I just want the begging person to get away from me? I don’t know if he or she is weed or wheat nor am I sure if I am weed or wheat. I wonder if any of us ever do know ourselves fully or the other fully? God does, and we can leave it to the divine One to sort it all out in the end. Meanwhile, let’s recognize that there is more than meets our human eyes and let’s work to be charitable with those around us. I think we can make the world better if we realize we are all blooming or perishing in the field together!