I learned a new term this week. If you grew up on a soybean farm or you’ve ever spent time on a soybean farm in the Midwest, this term may be familiar to you. But when you grew up in small towns and suburbs in New England like me, I had never heard these two words put together.
The phrase is “walking beans.” And it struck me as odd right off the bat, particularly since beans obviously don’t walk. However, I learned that walking beans refers to the process of walking up and down long rows of soybeans, looking carefully to identify and pull up or chop any weeds out of the row.
Not knowing any better, I would have assumed there were special farming machines for this kind of thing. And that assumption is partially true. In early summer, when soybean plants are still small, you can use a machine to get rid of the weeds. By the same token, late in the soybean season like the end of August, when soybean plants are at their biggest, they create enough shade so that weeds cannot find sunlight to grow. And there is no need to walk beans.
But the reason why people walk beans, especially in the month of July, is to spot and then get rid of the weeds you can’t reach with a machine because they are right in the middle of the soybean plants themselves. Sure, you might be able to find some kind of safe herbicide to get rid of the weeds without doing the walking. Still many soybean farmers in the year 2018 prefer the old fashioned way.
The problem is that even when you walk beans, there is a certain amount of human error. Sometimes weeds in the middle of a soybean plant look a lot like the actual soybean plant. Meaning if you aren’t careful, you could pull up what looked like a weed only to discover you had accidentally pulled up a perfectly good soybean plant instead.
Noted preacher, Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad, describes walking beans when she was a young child on her father’s farm in Iowa. (“Bad Farming,” preached on July 26, 1998 for the DayOne radio show) When she was tired and bored at the end of a long day and she accidentally pulled up a soybean plant thinking it was a weed, she would quickly try and stick it back in the ground before anyone, especially her father, would notice.
If only Barbara Lundblad had known as a child the Chapter Thirteen in the Gospel of Matthew. Then she could have told her father to remember the message in today’s Scripture lesson. “Dad, we shouldn’t spend all this time walking beans and pulling weeds because we might uproot some good soybean plants at the same time. Why don’t we just let the soybeans and the weeds grow together until the harvest?”
Of course, if you were Barbara Lundblad’s father or anyone who happens to be a real farmer of any kind, that idea makes no sense at all. The notion that you would let weeds and soybeans grow side by side, harvest them at the same time, and then sort the weeds from the soybeans in the very end of the process is ludicrous. Left undisturbed to their own devices, weeds would wind up multiplying and choking out the soybean plants and taking over the entire soybean field long before harvest time.
Weeds and soybeans co-existing together in a field? It’s just plain bad farming. In fact, it’s just as crazy as the parable of the sower where the sower scatters seed randomly, even on rocky pathways and in the midst of thorny thistles. A good farmer would never waste valuable seeds by tossing them in places they had no chance to grow…
Then again, way back in the first century, Jesus made a habit of telling farming stories to people who were farmers. Which, in relation to this morning’s Scripture lesson, begs the question why. Why would Jesus tell a story about a really bad farming practice to people who were presumably really good farmers?
In the second part of today’s passage, Jesus explains the rationale of initial story by saying that the one who sows the seed is the Son of Man and the field is the world and the good seed are the children of the kingdom. So the good seeds are the good people. Meanwhile, the weeds sown by the evil one? Well, it turns out they are people too, albeit bad people. So the good seeds and the bad weeds grow up side by side and we’re not supposed to pull or chop or spray the weeds because we might end up destroying the good along with the bad.
Like I said a few moments ago, that’s not a great farming practice. I’m not sure it’s a great way to run God’s kingdom either. The people who heard this story, whether they were farmers or disciples, would have had no interest in being surrounded by bad seeds or bad people. They would have wanted to get rid of the bad element and clean up the field as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because that’s what farmers do in order to be successful with their crops. And if they couldn’t find a way to get rid of the bad weeds or the bad people, then who needed God’s kingdom anyway?
Whether you were a farmer or a disciple it was a challenge to try and live up to the vision of God’s realm set forth by Jesus. As we heard in last week’s sermon, the disciples often spent time trying to figure out who was the greatest among them. Almost as if they were trying to weed one another out.
Then after the resurrection, as you might imagine, when the early Christian church took shape, the itch to weed continued. Too often, the church focused far more intently on weeding than it did on planting or tending or growing the field.
And that tendency carries on in the modern Christian church. We tend to spend a whole lot of time and energy as Christian folk trying to figure out who is in and who is out. Who’s on the right side and who is on the wrong side. Who’s in line for God’s blessing and who’s in line for God’s judgement. We do it with people of different races and ethnicities. We do it with people from other countries. We do it with people of different faiths. We do it with people from the LGBTQ community and other marginalized communities.
Not to mention the fact that while we’re so busy weeding, we never really pause to consider the possibility that we might be the weeds. It’s all about perspective. While we’re focused on trying to root out the bad stuff, maybe the truth is that someone else has you or me on the chopping block. You and I might need to be weeded…
One of the reasons why we say here at Wapping every single week at the beginning of worship, “everyone is welcome,” is because it holds us accountable. It holds us accountable to the person sitting right next to us and the person sitting across the sanctuary from us. You and I, each one of us, we are all in God’s field together.
And because the field is God’s in the first place, it’s not up to us to figure out who among us are weeds and who among us are good seeds. God doesn’t think that way. It seems far more likely that we all have good seed within us and God is busy trying to help us grow instead of weeding us out before we reach our full potential?
As a person of faith who leads a church, I’m all for that. Focus on growth and nurture. Stop all the weeding. If there’s any sorting out that needs to be done, leave it to God.
In the end, I’m just thankful that God is doing the farming. I’m not sure how God’s technique would work when it comes to growing soybeans. But I’m confident God is the one I want in charge of God’s realm. Amen.