On Heroes and Villains
July 23, 2023
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Matthew 13: 24-30
He 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.’”
Today’s sermon is one I offered in July of 2020. It is titled On Heroes and Villains.
There are heroes among us whom we will never know about, but I have a story for you today about a 6 year-old named Bridger. Bridger shielded his little sister from a dog attack in his hometown in the state of Wyoming. Bridger instinctively placed himself in front of his sister and yelled for her to run as the dog bit him in his face. Doctors put 90 stitches in Bridger’s left cheek and temple. When asked about the incident, Bridger said, “If someone had to die, I thought it should be me.”
I was in need of a hero story this week. There’s a lot going on in our world and while we feel caught in the midst of the battle of good and evil, humanity has been through it all before and stories of heroes, in which the good overcomes evil, have helped us for thousands of years. Gilgamesh is credited as the first hero in literature, dating back to 2000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. After Gilgamesh comes Hanuman and then King David, Perseus, Odysseus and Hercules and the list stretches on and on. In the 1920’s Zorro is followed by Buck Rogers, in the 30s we met The Shadow, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Superman and Batman, and in the 40’s Blue Beetle, Captain America and Wonder Woman. The characters change over time but the story remains largely the same. The world is in danger, epic danger. There is an evil threat that must be dealt with and in the end, the hero and heroine prevail and we can sleep a little better having been reassured that good really is stronger than evil, especially when one has superpowers.
I don’t know about you but I, for one, am not feeling equipped with the superpowers I need to face the plethora of issues in our world. I can really relate to the farmer in the parable Jesus tells today. I know what it takes to prepare ground for planting. I, too, am careful about what kind of seeds I choose to plant and I, too, know the deep satisfaction in seeing the first sprouts, then the growth of the seedlings, the careful tending and vigilance all the way through harvest and storage. But I never have grown wheat and I have never had to deal with the poisonous bearded darnel that, for weeks and weeks of its growth, is identical to wheat. It is not until the plants have reached the final stage, referred to as “in the ear,” when the seed is ripening in its husk, that the bearded darnel shows its tell-tale beard. The farmer in the parable who was so careful to prepare his field and sow good seed realizes that despite his best efforts and intentions, his plans have been foiled and his crop is in danger.
The workers are quick to offer to eradicate the poisonous plants and I can imagine that the farmer would love to be rid of the threat, but the farmer is wise not to act too quickly. The farmer is caught in this place of tension between wanting to be rid of the poisonous weed growing in amongst his good wheat and not knowing how to go about it without damaging what he worked so hard to cultivate.
Brothers and Sisters, I fear we, too, are caught in a similar tension. We, too, are standing on our thresholds, looking out. We don’t have to look too far to find the goodness, care and concern that can be found in humanity, strangers helping strangers, and the strong standing up for the less strong, as exemplified in that 6 year old little boy who will forever bear the scars of his heroic action. There have been good seeds planted in our experimental fields of democracy and capitalism. We have inherited many fruits from our ancestors, from those who labored generation after generation over the last 400 years on this continent. Much equity has been amassed, wealth continues to be passed down, and we have made great progress in the fields of medicine and science. Viewed at a distance, it looks good, promising, healthy, even.
Upon closer inspection, though, we are finding that there are poisonous weeds growing in with the good grain. You have probably guessed already what the poisonous weeds are; they are what hold us back from a higher way of living, a higher way of being. They are what hold us back from realizing and perfecting the American promises that countless lives have fought for and died for. The poisonous weeds thrive on the roots of all evil: greed, fear, dishonesty, assigned superiority that leads to racism and classism. If left to grow and mature they break down society, they pit brother against brother and sister against sister, they break apart families. Gaps are widened and some benefit but not nearly all. It would be easier if these harmful agents were only on the outside, within our organizations, systems of commerce, and government but they are not. They are within us. We have inherited them and we have further created a culture around them. What is there to do?
Here is something that my twenty-three-year-old and I have been debating. From his perspective, as he learns about the multiple injustices in our nation’s history, especially concerning black Americans, the injustices appear like steps in a plan that formulated long ago, like Lex Luthor’s schemes to disable Superman with kryptonite and take over the world. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision about affirmative action, my son is learning about Special Field Order 15, the Homestead Act, the New Deal and the GI Bill and how the promises for advancement for black Americans were never realized. My son had learned about slavery, but Special Field Order 15 was new to him. At the end of the Civil War, the Order allocated 40 acres and the loan of a mule to freed slaves in 1865, but it was repealed by President Andrew Johnson the following year, displacing over 30,000 families again. Then the Homestead Act was approved just a few years later; it stated that all people could apply for 160 acres of land in the western territories, but the process of applying and then reapplying for a permanent deed in 5 years was an arduous process for most freed slaves who could neither read nor write nor provide valid identification. In the 1930’s Roosevelt crafted a series of legislation under the New Deal that, again, in word provided opportunities but in process became out of reach for most black Americans. A decade later, returning veterans from World War II were eligible for the GI Bill that provided low-interest loans for housing and tuition, but because of the way it was structured, structured to benefit some but not all, over a million black veterans were ultimately denied access to financial help because of a practice that white-owned financial institutions created called “redlining.” Historian Ira Katznelson writes that there was “no greater instrument for widening an already huge racial gap in postwar America than the GI Bill.”
When my son accumulates this data and lays it out for me, I have to admit that it looks like a multi-generational plan of oppression. My counterpoint is that within every generation, short-sighted, bigoted choices are made without the foresight of how people will be affected in the long-term. I can not believe it was all part of an evil plot devised . But I tell you this, now that we have the knowledge that history and hindsight provides, if we do not do something to change, to remedy, and to heal these inequities, we become the villains and we miss the chance to become heroes.
In closing, I don’t have many answers but, like usual, the scriptures hold some good advice. The farmer did not trample the good grain in an effort to hastily remove the poisonous weeds. He gave it careful thought and he made a plan and he followed through. May we, too, take some time to take a look at ourselves and prayerfully consider what in us needs nurturing and what needs weeding out. My we remember the prayer of the psalmist we heard today, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The force of goodness we call God will guide us if we allow and that same divine force will guide others, too. God is the superpower we need. So be it. Amen.
Redlining—a decades-old practice of marking maps by race to characterize the risks of lending money and providing insurance—made purchasing a home even more difficult for Black veterans. Lenders froze out poorer neighborhoods, ensuring that loan assistance and insurance would be denied. And new white suburbs often came with overtly racist covenants that denied entry to Black people.
Pastoral Prayer: God of earth and sky, we are blessed with so many gifts; open our hearts with gratitude for the areas of our lives that are full and healthy and functioning. Inspire us to give thanks to the people who have been most instrumental in our lives, the people who have believed in us, the people who have loved us just because of who we are. Bring them to our minds, Lord, in prayer. When we are faced with challenges, lack of necessities, sorrow or loss, illuminate the presence of goodness in our lives, past and present, so that we may be guided homeward by your holy light. In the ways we need healing, I pray we are open to receive. For all of our brothers and sisters that are struggling, may they be noticed, may they receive the care and comfort they need, we pray, in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Benediction: I leave you with these words from Colossians, chapter 2:
“May your hearts be comforted and well-equipped in all the riches of complete understanding so you may know the mystery of God, the Father of Christ Jesus, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”