Sunday, July 23, 2017

Overcoming our 'Weedness' - a sermon for 23 July 2017

Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 1619
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

At Stanford University in 1971, there was an experiment to study human behavior and responses.  It was a role-playing experiment intended to be conducted over the course of two weeks but had to be terminated after only six days because the volunteers got out of hand.

It was a prison experiment.  All were paid volunteers, and all who applied were screened for psychological and physical wellness.  Once they were hired, some students were randomly assigned as guards; others selected as inmates were “arrested” at home before they knew they had been selected.  They were brought in to the local police station, then blindfolded and taken to the “prison”. 

The authority of the guards was not to be challenged; they had the duty to control the prison population and maintain order.  Because the guards had not been trained or prepared, they were left to decide for themselves how best to control the prisoners.

Within only a couple of days, some had already begun to test the limits (or extent) of their power.  The guards became sadistic, and the inmates began showing signs of extreme mental and emotional distress.  In order to get the full effect of prison life and the controlled environment, the prisoners could not quit!  Before anyone got seriously hurt, though – and it appeared to be going in that direction! – the experiment had to be terminated.

What was most interesting were the reactions according to assigned roles.  Even the administrator of the experiment serving as “warden” found himself acting completely outside his personal character!  The guards got the prisoners to turn on one another in efforts to protect themselves. 

Though some may have considered the experiment to be a failure, analysis revealed that people will generally fall into assigned roles according to how they are treated.  To put it into the context of Jesus’ parable, it seems if we treat others as “weeds”, they will learn to adjust to the assigned role.

It may seem incomprehensible that any one of us could be so easily manipulated by roles or environment, but it is telling that what had been planned for two weeks fell apart after only a few days.  In fact, they were only 48 hours into the experiment when certain degradations began to show - in guards and prisoners alike.

What was learned from the experiment is that within us all is the potential for good … and the potential for evil.  Take a good person who would not harm a fly and give that person absolute power, and it has been shown that over time that person will soon abuse that power.  The philosophical concept that absolute power corrupts absolutely is very difficult to disprove.

Human nature being what it is, Jesus warns us that even our best intentions can sometimes do harm.  The workers of the field knew what useless “weeds” looked like and so wanted to clean up the fields to provide more good soil for the wheat.  What they could not see, however, was what was going on beneath the surface. 

And this should not escape notice; the workers meant well, but it was the wisdom of the “master” that kept them in check.

In their enthusiasm to rid the field of what they believed to be useless and even degrading to the whole crop, however, the master revealed to the workers – and to us - the reality of their nature.  If they were left unchecked to go and do as they thought best for the whole field with no mind toward a few stalks of good wheat, they could possibly ruin a significant portion of the good crop.

No one wants weeds.  They are unsightly; and because they serve no useful purpose and can possibly take over a whole garden or flower bed, we think nothing of bending over to pluck a few weeds and hopefully get them at the root.  If we don’t, we know it will not take long before our gardens and flower beds are overrun!  And when the weeds take root and become entangled with the roots of the good stuff, it is difficult to pull the weeds without doing some harm to that which we intend to protect.

We don’t often think of this in terms of our society and our communities, even our churches, but maybe we should.  We can often be a little too quick to judge a “weed” without realizing our quest for our own sense of purity and order - and righteousness - could possibly do more harm than any good we may hope for.  Think of this in terms of deciding it is better to jail 100 innocent persons than to risk letting 1 guilty person go free.

I think the Church, throughout its history, has been a little too concerned with ridding itself of the “weeds” among us – failing to realize we were all, at one time, considered “weeds” by someone.  Think of the Crusades or the Inquisition.  Yet given time and care and concern, we were empowered and led to overcome our own “weedness” through the faithful work and the witness of the Church acting according to the Master’s wisdom.  But it seems that once we overcome our own “weedness”, we would rather jerk out the other “weeds” before they take over!

In some cases perhaps some of us were “judged” rather harshly by others; and that judgment served as a serious, spiritual “wake up call”.  There are many more, however, who were gently guided into – or back into – the fellowship of the Church.  It is these who are most likely to stay and continue to grow and thrive with the rest of us.  So when we stop to think about it, the one response that brings most people back is one of encouragement, not ultimatums. 

We Americans who place great value on our liberty and independence are not likely to respond well to “or else” warnings or threats.  Some of us may be prone to go the “or else” route just to see what it might look like!  Or maybe even as a strict act of defiance to be sure it is understood we will not be controlled by others. 

We can all take a lesson from the Stanford experiment.  If we are randomly thrust into a certain role without having been adequately prepared for that role, as the students were – for us it is becoming disciples before we start trying to make disciples – we have the potential to do grave harm even as we begin with the best of intentions.  Think of it as being more concerned about the “speck” in someone else’s eye before we’ve dealt with the “log” in our own eye!

Tending to the “soil” of the mission field is not at all about pulling undesirable “weeds”; it is about making sure the soil is adequate for spiritual growth and maturity.  Though the nature of a real weed cannot be changed, the Stanford experiment reveals that if we would allow our “weedness” to be assigned a new and more fulfilling role, it is very likely we will grow into that role.  But if we are treated as “weeds” or treat others as “weeds”, “weeds” we will be.

It is our task to tend the field rather than to decide who is worthy to be there.  If we really trust our Lord for our own salvation, perhaps we can learn to trust Him for the salvation of others.  And if we will live fully into our discipleship roles, we can have a hand in that salvation; but we can never have a hand in judgment and condemnation.  As St. James wrote, “You should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:20).

So let us embrace the Wisdom of Solomon in a common prayer: “Although You, O Lord, are sovereign in strength, You judge with mildness, and with great [patience] You govern us; for You [alone] have the power to act whenever You choose” (Wisdom 12:18).

Jesus assures us the final act of gathering the weeds for burning will be His alone.  Let us resolve to put away the matches and kerosene lest we burn ourselves.  Amen. 

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