A sermon about kudzu and capitalism

This is the sermon I preached this past Sunday as part of our Be the Church series, the UCC’s initiative to get congregations thinking about what it means to be a church on the move.

My family is from southwestern Virginia, near the border of North Carolina and a short drive from the town that Mayberry was based on. Whenever we would drive down from the DC Metro to visit our relatives (which, after a certain point, was primarily for funerals), I remember seeing entire patches of fields or hillsides covered in this tremendous, verdant green vine with purple spikes of flowers. If you’ve ever traveled through this part of the country, you know very well what I’m talking about. It was growing everywhere and it seemed that if you stood still too long it would cover you, too.

This plant is, of course, kudzu. The government has deemed kudzu a noxious weed, an invasive species, an ecological moral evil. But the funny thing is that we’re the ones who put kudzu there. It was originally imported from Japan and planted by private citizens and federal landscape engineers as a means of preventing the erosion of hillsides that road construction, development, and industrial activity created as trees were plowed to make way for coal slag and farm land.

But because kudzu no longer serves that purpose, we’ve written it off. Yet it might be that kudzu has a grace all on its own, far apart from what we think of it. Nevermind its natural beauty, kudzu is an important land reclaimer and stabilizer. It compacts disturbed soil. It serves as a source of natural fiber, of material for basketweaving and other handicrafts. It is completely edible. It can be used as cattle feed. But because it didn’t stay in the box we wanted it to stay in, we simply judged it to be evil.

[NOTE: I didn’t include this on Sunday, but I realized it as I was driving home—there’s a troubling racial undertone to the way we label species “invasive” that we imported to the American mainland from distant lands to do a specific job that they stopped doing. I’ll let the reader fill in the blanks.]

The Bible tells a story about creation that stands in stark contrast to the capitalist utilitarian whims of a human society that thinks it knows what’s best for the planet. The Bible tells the story of community, and it is not a community that consists exclusively of humans; the Bible tells the story of a community whose starting place the interconnectedness of all of creation. The Bible would tell us that kudzu, for all the problems it causes, is good.

From the very first page of the story where God looks at everything that has been called into being and calls it “very good,” to the prophetic vision of the end of all things where “the lion shall lie down with the lamb… and a little child shall lead them,” from the Psalms where we learn that “the heavens proclaim the glory of God and the firmament shows forth God’s handiwork,” to what we have heard today—

From Job, that “In God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” to our Gospel passage where Jesus tells us that not even Solomon with all his riches was clothed with splendor comparable to the lilies of the field—

There is no honest way to read our Scriptures and not be hit over the head with the fact that God has a particular interest in everything God has made, not just in humans, and not just in what we believe about God up here in our heads. That’s to say, I think God is concerned with how we interact with the environment, because our story tells us that the environment was made for God’s delight and our use.

I say all that to say to make it plain that “protect the environment” is not some kind of ~liberal agenda~ that I’m trying to import into our worship this morning! In fact I don’t think you can even use the word “liberal” to describe what God instructs Israel to make happen in the first passage that we heard this morning, from Leviticus 25: “every seven years the land shall observe a sabbath.” That’s not liberal. That’s revolutionary.

I want to suggest that the way we treat creation itself what it is that we believe about God, and what we believe about our neighbors.

Let me say this a different way: none of us disagrees that we have a responsibility to care for the poor, but I wonder to what extent we consider how our relationship with the environment necessarily impacts the poor for whom we are caring. And that’s where we pick up with the passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel today: “You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and wealth.” With that black-and-white warning still ringing in our ears, Jesus then turns our attention to nature. “Nature doesn’t worry about paychecks and bottom lines.”

In his teaching about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, Jesus is raising a point that should rattle us, but it’s hardly something he’s making up on the spot. In fact, what he’s doing is masterful: he’s plunging all the way back into the story of the Hebrew Bible to dredge up an incredible notion that we see all throughout the writings of the Old Testament, a treasure that only a people who had been freed from slavery in Egypt could really get.

God has a particular intention for the environment: the rocks, the grass, the fields, the animals, all life. God holds it all together. The poet writing the story of Job tells us, “In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” God’s loving-kindness is programmed into every single atom of matter that exists in this universe, meaning that everything—from the stars and galaxies all the way down to the bacteria crawling around our intestines—has a direct connection to the divine. On the first page of the Bible we hear, again, “God called it very good.”

And Jesus knows this deeply. Yes, there are some birds who get sick and die, or who get eaten by predators. Yes, there are some flowers that never get to bloom because drought gets to them. But left to its own devices, Nature has an inherent wisdom about these sorts of things, and returning to a right relationship with nature is one of the signs that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

That’s why we have this revolutionary idea in Leviticus 25: the sabbath of the land. The land shall observe the sabbath every seven years. How do we buy into the myth that the land exists only for our use and not as part of God’s beloved community? The Land doesn’t have the ability to consent to how we use it and yet we have been charged with taking care of it.

But where does the revolutionary power of God’s intention for our relationship with nature go off the rails? I think it happens precisely in that problem I’ve already identified this morning: we believe in the myth of the unique individual ego who is more important than anyone else.

The wisdom of Jesus’ teaching is that he understands we are way too anxious about having enough to ever let the wisdom of the land take over for us, to let the wisdom of God in the wilderness tell us that allowing ourselves to live in harmony with natural cycles—even just a little bit!—can be a way for us to rest and recover as well as for the land to rest and recover.

Jesus understood that humans are given to project our individual worries onto nature. Our fear of not having enough and our desire for more, for more than we need, is a major reason that we have generated an environmental and an ecological crisis that is impacting our day-to-day life perhaps only a little, but this same crisis has significant impact on the people who are most at risk. We need only to look at history: not letting the land rest, not working in harmony with the wisdom of creation, creates situations that generate suffering for a lot of people. That’s precisely what happened with the Dust Bowl. And even today we are still dealing with the ramifications of the multi-year drought and famine that contributed in no small way to the current political instability in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, that has created an untold amount of suffering.

That is why I say this is not simply a liberal agenda point, and it’s so tragic that we have let it become that in the first place. Misuse of natural resources generates suffering for people who don’t have the opportunity or the money to get out of harm’s way. Everything is connected. What if, instead of to a crowd of poor people, Jesus preached this to a conference room full of millionaires and oil execs?

The point here being: a church on the move as a community of people understands where it falls within the great scheme of nature’s interconnected web. Just as no human exists in isolation, neither does any church exist in isolation. Nothing is made new without that newness having ramifications for all aspects of that person’s life, of that community’s life, and how they relate to other persons and communities and nature itself.

So today is about the Gospel being good news for all of creation. To see that if the good news means that God is healing the world, and if I am called to love my neighbor, and if I am supposed to be made new, then that necessarily changes my relationship with the earth, its resources, etc. That all the cosmos is held together by the love of God.

I’m not speaking poetically; I’m speaking plainly. Look at John 3.17: “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world would be made whole through him.” It does not just mean you, individually, as an atomized unit. That has never meant “you get right with God while everything else burns.” No; the grace that we receive as humans made in God’s image, the grace upon grace that we have received out of all the fullness of God, is the very power that we as Christians have in our back pockets that can set us free from the striving after security that causes us to pillage the land of every possible resource and get upset when nature doesn’t bend to our whim.

I wonder if we can hear Jesus saying: “consider the kudzu of the holler…”

So what do we do? There are an infinite number of things we can do, from simple changes on our own to huge systemic changes, but in order for us to survive as a species we have to do something. That’s why our task as a church is to let our practices of thanksgiving and care and sharing extend to all of creation too. Our task as a church is to take the very grace that gives us a sense of belonging and newness in our individual lives and look for the ways that grace might move us away from fear and grasping to being able to see, once again, the fragile abundance of the planet that is the only planet we’ve got. Amen.

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