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.

The Inordinate Love of God

NB: This is a sermon that I had written for August 18th, but the cards came up differently in the life of the parish that week and Mother Laurie took over for me with a timelier message.

Grace and peace are yours from the Triune God. Amen.

When I first got assigned today’s sermon, I took a look at the passages and had a sinking feeling about whether I were up to the challenge of preaching on family being turned against each other. I remember my own upbringing, how consistently my sisters and I seemed to be at each other’s throats about something or another, how my mom and I Imagewould have spats about the location of my personal effects, how my dad and I would get into an argument over how to tell when steak is cooked medium well (we still have that argument on a regular basis, by the way).

Sometimes these are inane squabbles, and sometimes these are serious arguments. Some of us have a lot more family tension than others; some of us are from broken homes, or abusive homes, and some of us don’t have a place to call home. All that said, we seem to do pretty well at dividing ourselves, so, thanks Jesus, but this message of being turned against one another in the very relationships that seem to give our life structure isn’t exactly news, much less good news. Really, Jesus? You bring division to families? Yikes, I don’t know if I can handle that. Rather, I don’t know if I want to handle that.

Jesus had a lot to say about families, including his own. We know from the other places in gospels that Jesus probably had just as much family dysfunction as the rest of us. His brothers thought he was crazy, and along with his mom they probably worried about his safety, not to mention the shame he was bringing upon the family. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ mom and brothers show up to one of his sold-out teaching events and try to get him to come home, and Jesus says, “my mother and brothers are the ones who hear the word of God and do it.”

Jesus is not beholden to first century cultural norms, which would dictate, in essence, “like father like son.” Merchants’ sons don’t grow up and become priests, they become merchants. Shepherds sons don’t grow up into governors, they become shepherds. Carpenters’ sons don’t grow up into messiahs, they grow up into carpenters. And if you’re a daughter? Well, forget it. At least your brothers get to have careers. I say all this aware of the acute irony that I’m a preacher’s son, and here I am preaching.

But Jesus pushes back against this concept of family-as-identity. He trades his expected family and instead makes a family out of all those who have no family, who have no identity other than their sin: prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves, drunkards. Because for Jesus, a person’s identity isn’t determined by whose genes they have in their blood, but rather by whose breath they have in their soul.

The breath of God himself gives us life and existence. God is love, and God breathes that love into each of us. We exist because we are loved. And that is our identity: we are God’s beloved, without exception, without exclusion.

That is what we proclaim at baptism, that we are God’s beloved. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. And nothing, nothing, nothing can ever break, remove, efface, or deny that fundamental, sacramental reality–as real as the earth under our feet, as the air in our lungs, as the skin on our bones. As real as the bread which we break and the cup which we share.

That’s why we don’t say “I was baptized.” We say “I am baptized.” That is the core of our existence, indelible, unshakeable.

And because this God-love touches us and sustains us, it changes us–we are baptized by its fire, which burns away the strictures and structures of the world that say we are but slaves, that say we are strangers. When the Spirit opens our eyes to see our fundamental identity as that of beloved, we realize that the world has gotten it wrong: we are not slaves or strangers. We are sons and daughters of God.

And THAT is good news!

But for some reason, this love is divisive. Indeed, God’s love is divisive because it is a threat. God’s love is a threat to a world in thrall to death. God’s love is a threat precisely because God’s love is the final word; c’est pas tout ça! That’s it, that’s all!

And nothing–not people, or things, or hell, or death itself–can separate us from it. It is the criteria by which all human activities and relationships are shored up. It tears up vineyards that sprout injustice, it breaks down walls. It robs us of our safety and demands that we trust in God as he forgives our sins, which too are burned away.

We remember in the Eucharist: “when our love failed, your love remained steadfast.” That steadfast love is always present, always holding us, always enfolding us, always embracing us. It is arrests us, it transforms us, it burns us. We are called by him whose love drove him to the cross to destroy death for us to embrace this same love and to be set ablaze by it.

When we proclaim something so extravagant, so wasteful, so irresponsible, so dangerous, it’s little wonder that our families should show up at our door wondering whether we’ve lost our grip on reality, because it seems so at odds with the pattern of the world. But behind this outward appearance is the deeper reality of God’s unrelenting, never-failing, never-giving-up love. This extravagance breaks into our tragedies and holds us so tightly, so intensely, that nothing can separate us from it. And that love will not let us go.

Oh love, that will not let me go!

I rest my weary soul in Thee;

I give thee back the life I owe

that in thine ocean’s depths its flow

may richer, fuller be.

For some this love really did take them all the way to the point of giving up their lives for its sake. Jonathan Daniels. Maximilian Kolbe. And sometimes this love faces us in the wake of loss, entering into our grief and reminding us that those whom we have lost are still beloved by God. Not were beloved by God; are beloved by God. When the world seems so unsafe, so violent, so brutal, so utterly divided, we remember that the brokenness of the world is a reality that is giving way to a greater, truer, brighter reality. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

So thanks be to God for his extravagant, burning love. Thanks be to God for love that divides. Thanks be to God for the love that creates our identities, that redeems us from sin, brokenness, and death, and sustains us in eternal life.

If any of you are like me, which I suspect you are, you know that it’s very hard to stay cognizant of our belovedness. Life piles up. Dishes go undone, papers get turned in late, tires go flat, bank accounts overdraw, jobs get lost, relationships end, loved ones pass on. In those moments of blackness it’s very hard to feel beloved.

But thanks be to God that our belovedness has naught to do with feeling beloved. It is a fact. Fire is hot, the sky is blue, we are beloved. It’s non-negotiable. You are beloved. We are all beloved. And all means all, no exceptions.

Thanks be to God.

Lent I: Deserts of Life

“Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Thus says St. Paul in the epistle for this Sunday, the first in Lent; in this same melange of texts we’ve also read about Jesus’ temptation by the Accuser in the midst of his desert time, and we’ve been reminded of the magnificent promises made to our Hebrew ancestors. How interesting it is that our Lord’s sojourn in the desert is placed right next to the reminder to the Hebrew people that their own sojourn in the desert was for a purpose: the salvation of a people, and what more, the salvation of the whole world.

But the epistle–what do we do with this? In the southern United States this is an oft-emblazoned slogan on billboards and automobiles, needlework and banners, tracts and tattoos. There’s something curious about this message that St. Paul gives us, that those who simply confess belief in the Lord and in his resurrection will be saved. It’s simple to draw a reduced message of salvation from this passage, like a wine sauce with all of the alcohol cooked off. That’s what gives shape to the evangelistic programs of so many of the ecclesial communities here: professions of faith leading to believer’s baptisms with no follow-up discipleship. You get your card punched, and you’re in the kingdom, no sweat.

Of course the gospel of easy-believism has been rightly criticized on all sides by Evangelicals, Catholics, Mainliners, and on. We acknowledge that salvation is not simply a free pass to heaven. We affirm that salvation entails a radical change, something that fundamentally reorients us in the direction of the Kingdom. It’s easy enough to say what salvation isn’t. But how can we understand salvation in light of the desert time of Jesus and the sojourn of Israel? I think understanding these texts rightly is key to understanding what salvation is over against the false American gospel.

Let’s turn our attention first to the Israelites. Nigh five centuries of bondage, without a place to call home, they are suddenly delivered from captivity through a bizarre and historically improbable series of events whose veracity is attested to by the very existence of the Jewish people today. They are brought home, but home is not the promised land. Indeed, the climax of the Exodus is not at all the entrance of the Hebrews into Canaan; the climax of Exodus is an undoing of the alienation from God wrought in the first chapters of Genesis. The Exodus is a story about God taking up residence among God’s people. God doesn’t leave them in the lurch until they enter Canaan; indeed, God has traveled with them throughout their desert sojourn, being led onward by the pillars of flame and cloud. And in one glorious moment after years of journeying towards a home that no one knew, the glory of YHWH fills the tabernacle and they are brought home, right there in the desert. The text from Deuteronomy this week is shaped by the presence of God dwelling among his people, and the desert shapes them for this.

What then, of our Lord’s desert time? Of course, God is with him there as well. It is the Spirit who drives Jesus out into the wilderness, and the communion of his Father sustains him through that desert time. He is never abandoned. He is never left to wander without a sense of belonging. No, indeed for Jesus the desert time is a time of preparation, a time of sharpening, a time of dogged focus on the task at hand.

I believe that when we as Christians come into faith (whether we have been baptized as infants or not), we begin walking in the desert of salvation. God takes up residence in our hearts and fills us with the glory of God-presence: we receive a new name, a new identity, a new mark on our souls as part of the people of God. And then God’s Spirit drives us into the wilderness to shape us, to give us cause to work out our salvation, to give us an opportunity to grow into an identity of a people marked to bring about the inversion of the world in love and life. In a sense at our salvation we cross over into the Promised Land and are bade to conquer it–not with sword or bloodshed, but with words of life and acts of love as the avant garde of the Kingdom of Heaven, to “shed abroad the love of God” among all peoples and nations, as Wesley would say.

And as we walk through the wilderness, as we travel in our sojourn on earth, God prepares us for our home in the kingdom that we are helping him to establish, where every soul may at last find home in a land flowing with milk and honey.

So, salvation is freedom from bondage to sin and death. Salvation is the embracing of the promise: “you are my people, and I am your God.” Salvation is the hope of a future. Salvation is the overabundant, teeming, writhing life-giving love that makes us hale and whole in spite of any evidence to the contrary. Salvation is the new heart of flesh that beats and bleeds for a broken people. And salvation is for all people: may God’s will be done.