Living with Kudzu

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43  July 20, 2014  Pentecost 6

 “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” Murphy’s law states.  Related to this is the Law of Unintended Consequences.  This law of unintended consequences is really a warning; we cannot fully control the world around us.   Unintended consequences are not always a bad thing, however.  For example, aspirin is used as a pain reliever, but it was also found to be an anticoagulant that can help prevent heart attacks and reduce damage from strokes.   The practice of sinking ships in shallow water helps cut costs and provides divers with diverse training.  It was later found that those sunken ships have also helped to create coral reefs.

Negative unintended consequences pervade our world, too.  The effects of economic policies, which aren’t felt until years or decades after they are implemented, fall into this category.  This is true of the mortgage and housing crisis.  While the intent of environmental intervention is to help, often it has the opposite effect.  The United States set aside land in the west as national forest and parks to protect them from fires.  This policy led to fewer fires, but also led to growth conditions that made what fires did occur much larger and more damaging.

In our part of the country, we see unintended consequences in the pervasive nature of the plant that ate the South – Kudzu, that trailing, coiling, hanging vine.  It was introduced here as an ornamental plant in 1876, brought to decorate the Japanese pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.  It was good for animals to munch and for shade.  In the 30’s and 40’s, it was the final answer to erosion. Between 1935 and 1942, government nurseries produced 84 million kudzu seedlings. Southern farmers were given $8 an hour to sow it into the soil. Like things and people, its best attribute is also its worst fault.  Kudzu has rapid growth, spreading at a rate of 150,000 acres a year.  If you happen upon what looks to be a kudzu shaped person, stop and look under the vines. It has come to overtake native plants, telephone poles, and sometimes consume whole houses.

Often it is hard to tell the difference between a good plant and a weed, Matthew points out.  The Greek word used in Jesus’ story is “zizania,” which is a very particular type of weed that looks just like wheat as it is growing up.  Today we call it “darnel wheat.”  It looks like wheat, but it is not wheat.

The sower planted good seeds, and now there are weeds among the wheat.  The sower must wait, living with both the wheat and the weeds until the day of harvest when they may be separated.  Living with the weeds must have been a difficult choice to make.  These past few weeks, I’ve heard similar stories of hard decisions.

Most recently, our director of preschool told me about her nephew’s wedding.  It is this weekend.  Last weekend, the bride’s brother was scuba diving with a group.  They were about 15 miles off of shore. Some of the other divers saw the young man come up out of the ocean, only to go back down and not resurface.  The divers and the rescue teams searched for almost two days before they stopped.  The bride’s brother has not been found.  The choice is to have the wedding or not.  Should the planned marriage and celebration be postponed?  If so, for how long?  There is no clear answer.

Some choices are hard to make, like taking a job that will bring financial support for the family, but means uprooting the family. Should we marry someone we love if it will alienate the rest of our family?  Decisions about medical treatment for a loved one are agonizing.  Should risky surgery be performed, and, if successful, what will be the quality of life afterwards? Life at times is ambiguous.  Things are not always black and white, all good or all bad.

Last week, we talked about Jesus’ parable of different kinds of soil, and how we are at times resistant to growth in God, and other times we hardly pay attention, and other times we help bring in God’s kingdom.  People are not simply good soil or bad soil, just as they are not simply either faithful or wicked, blessed or cursed, wheat or weeds.  Sometimes our choices are not that cut and dry, either.  We know that we will live with the weeds among the wheat.  This parable tells us that in the end, God will sort it all out.  We gather today to hear again God’s forgiveness and grace.  We come together to join with Christ in his death and resurrection in and through bread and wine.  We gather to be reminded that all of it, us, our choices, and our lives are redeemed by God.

Barbara Brown Taylor re-tells this Parable of the Weeds in her own way:

One afternoon in the middle of the growing season, a bunch of farmhands decided to surprise their boss and weed his favorite wheat field.  No sooner had they begun to work, however, that they began to argue—first about which of the wheat-looking things were weeds and then about the rest of the weeds.  Did the Queen Anne’s lace pose a threat to the wheat, or could it stay for decoration?  And the blackberries?  They would be ripe in just a week or two, but they were, after all, weeds—or were they?  And the honeysuckle—it seemed a shame to pull up anything that smelled so sweet.

About the time they had gotten around to debating the purple asters, the boss showed up and ordered them out of his field.  Dejected, they did as they were told.  Back at the barn he took their machetes away from them, poured them some lemonade, and made them sit down where they could watch the way the light moved across the field.  At first, all they could see were the weeds and what a messy field it was, what a discredit to them and their profession, but as the summer wore on they marveled at the profusion of growth—tall wheat surrounded by tall goldenrod, ragweed, and brown-eyed Susans.  The tares and the poison ivy flourished alongside the Cherokee roses and the milkweed, and it was a mess, but a glorious mess, and when it had all bloomed and ripened and gone to seed the reapers came.

Carefully, gently, expertly, they gathered the wheat and made the rest into bricks for the oven where the bread was baked.  And the fire that the weeds made was excellent, and when the harvest was over the owner called them all together—the farmhands, the reapers, and all the neighbors—and broke bread with them, bread that was the final distillation of the whole messy, gorgeous, mixed-up field, and they all agreed that it was like no bread any of them had ever tasted before and that it was very, very good.  Let those who have ears to hear, hear[1].

~  Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] The Seeds of Heaven.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. p. 36-37.

It’s about the Sower

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23   July 13, 2014  Epiphany 5

 Our gospel today has been called the parable of the Sower.  A parable by definition is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness.  It leaves the mind in sufficient doubt of its precise application to tease it into active thought.  This one has teased me and taunted me.  If you notice, the assigned gospel reading this morning skips verses 10 through 17.  One of the things we miss by not hearing those verses is the disciples asking Jesus why he speaks to the crowds in parables.  Those are my sentiments exactly.

Jesus spoke his parables to an agrarian society. They understood more about farming without modern conveniences than we do, which at times makes Jesus’ messages harder for us to understand.  I’m familiar with farmers and shepherds, and with hired hands and laborers, but I’ve never heard of a farm having a position of “sower.”  It’s obvious that a sower is someone who scatters seeds, but when I looked it up on, its meaning was only given for the verb “sow,” which is to sprinkle seed.  This person’s primary function is to throw seed onto the ground.  Our story places the odds for something sprouting at 1 in 4.  Conditions in only 1 out of the 4 are right to produce a harvest.  Why would any sower sprinkle seed where it won’t grow?  That cuts into the profits!  Even today we know that you till the soil in a place that gets sun, make nice neat rows, water it and keep the weeds out.  Not Jesus.

Picture this.  Jesus is on the sea, out from the shore, sitting in a boat, talking to a crowd of people standing on the beach. Even though he has recently been explaining why everyone doesn’t follow him, apparently enough people had gathered around that he felt the need to separate himself.

“Listen!” Jesus shouts.  This is our clue that what follows is important!  “A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.”  The place where these seeds land is ground packed down hard from people walking on it.  The seeds never had a chance before the birds came and snatched them up.  Imagine a person who is stepped on, hard.  The poor person who falls between the cracks for help, or maybe someone who has been beaten by harsh words or closed fists.  Or maybe someone who is having trouble standing up because illness has knocked them flat, or maybe the insidiousness of alcohol or dugs has gotten the best of them.

Jesus continues.  “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.  But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.”  This person heard the word, and became infatuated with God. Maybe he or she was on a “Jesus high,” as sometimes happens when people first hear of God’s love through Christ, people who have barely had the chance to know God on a deeper level.  But then something happens that burns them, maybe a parent dies, or a spouse walks away.  Not fully understanding why God would allow this, their Jesus high tumbles.

“Other seeds fell among thorns,” Jesus says, “and the thorns grew up and choked them.”  Thorns, like the crown of thorns put on Jesus’ head at his crucifixion by those who mocked him.  This person struggled with the things that choke God out, like Sunday morning soccer games, or buying into society’s definition that success is a high career level or a fat bank account.  Maybe the thorns that choke God are the ones that say I can do it all myself; I am in control; I know best; I can save myself.

Jesus says of the fourth soil condition, “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

Here’s the question that, if you are anything like me (and I don’t mean short), you are asking.  “Which kind of soil am I?”  The odds are only 1 in 4 that we are the good soil.  So the question that naturally follows is, “How can we get to be good soil?”  If we could just get rid of those birds and the rocks and the thorns,…. Let’s spread some fertilizer and water thoroughly because, after all, we need to produce!  We can fix this ourselves, can’t we?

This parable continues to tease and taunt me because, if this is a story about the various categories of people, I have a hard time putting myself into just one.  I’ve been in places where it was all I could do to survive, much less think about God.  My faith barely endured the stomping of feet.  At other times, seeing horror and tragedy in the world, I’ve asked where God was.  I’ve let my struggle for self-worth suck me into prioritizing things and people in the place where God should be.  My one in four chance of being good soil has come when the Holy Spirit has used me to bring at least a glimpse of the kingdom to someone else, when I’ve shared God’s love in concrete ways.  If you look at your faith journey, you will find yourself in different places at different times. It isn’t a linear progression, or a stage that we pass through never to return.

But then I remember that this is the parable of the Sower, not the parable of different kinds of soil.  It is the story of God.  The focus isn’t our successes and our failures, but God’s extravagance.  God generously spreads seed everywhere, on good soil and bad soil, and never runs out.  The truth of God’s outrageous love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ is not subject to our rules of productivity, and our need to see immediate results.   God doesn’t wait to shower us with God’s grace while we cut down trees, haul off rocks, and break up the soil. Without our cooperation, or even our consent, God scatters the seed, the Word, over all the earth.

It’s a good thing that we are not in charge of where to scatter seeds.  When I was on vacation, I went to the top of an inactive volcano.  It was eerie and beautiful at the same time.  Pools of steam rose like incense from small craters.  The ground was black, hardened lava. There, up out of the blackness of rock, grew a bush, full of red flowers.

~ Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin


The Wise and Intelligent

Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30   July 6, 2014   Epiphany 5

John the Baptist, the founder of the back-to-nature movement, was famous for his camel-hair clothing and diet of locusts and honey.  He steered clear of alcohol, and parties, too.  John hungout in the desert.  He was a fire and brimstone kind of preacher, who talked about the coming of the savior, the messiah, the one whose sandals he wasn’t fit to carry, the one named “Jesus.”  Jesus would come with an ax in one hand and a shovel to sift the chaff in the other, and all not worthy would be thrown into the fire [Matthew 3.10-12].

You may remember that John irritated Herod’s wife, Herodias, because he spoke against their marriage.  Herod had John thrown into Sing Sing.  Having time to reflect on recent events, John realized Jesus was less than the sensational, and spectacular messiah he anticipated.  Jesus didn’t fit John’s image of a savior.  John came “neither eating nor drinking.” Jesus, on the other hand, helped keep the wine flowing at weddings, and instead of throwing prostitutes into the fire, he treated them to dinner at Olive Garden.  At this point in his ministry, Jesus picked up crushed victims of evil forces instead of combating those evil forces head on.  John sends word from prison to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Part of Jesus’ response is contained in our gospel reading this morning.

What John must have heard in prison is that many people ignored Jesus.  It was true.  Many dismissed Jesus as irrelevant to their lives.  Interesting how some things don’t change much over time.  “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance,” Jesus says of those who found him of no use.  Jesus had just finished his mission trip to Galilean cities.  The people there rejected him and his teachings.   The people living there had good jobs, nice houses, and the latest iPhones. They were successful, and had no need of a savior.

These are the same people Jesus calls “wise and intelligent” in his prayer of thanksgiving.  “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants [11.25].”

If you had asked me to describe myself, I might have said that I am wise and intelligent.  But then I think about this verse, I wonder about myself, and all of us sitting here this morning.  I asked my husband what is the wisest thing he ever did.  He said it was to marry me.  Whether or not that’s true, he was wise for saying it.

In my wisdom, I’ve researched mortgages for when I move to Williamsburg.  I’ve calculated investments and set up a retirement plan.  I’ve completed my advanced directive to relieve a future burden on my family.  I work hard at writing sermons.  I try to be nice to all people.  I give money to charities that I believe further God’s kingdom.  I, I, I…

And therein reside the issues.  First, where does salvation lie? Is it being well respected in my community? Is it in being comfortable in my retirement years?  Is it having air conditioning? Is it being young, thin, rich, and educated?  Is it even in following the letter of God’s law?  Or is salvation, as Luther says, rescue from sin, death and the devil,—all the things that separate us from God?  While intellectually I understand my true salvation is through the grace of God in Christ Jesus, I don’t always live like that.  While intellectually I know that I am not responsible for my salvation, no matter how it’s defined, I work hard everyday to attain it. I often live doing things that I “should” or “ought” to do.  I do believe that my life depends on God’s grace, but often I act like it depends on me and my own doing.  The lines blur between what and who will save me.

“Any who believe that they are responsible for their own salvation, through …political power, through intellectual prowess or personal magnetism, have no need of the comforting arms of Jesus.  Jesus will not trouble them with heaven’s gifts.  To those who recognize their need for a savior, however, Jesus comes with comfort enough, lifting life’s burdens and offering rest even for the lonely soul,”  one commentator writes[1].

It is in trying to earn our own salvation, however you define it, that wears us down.  That is true whether you are trying to make people like you, climb up the corporate ladder, or striving to keep the ten commandments or earn a jewel in your heavenly crown.  We must prove ourselves worthy, and the way to find rest for our souls is to have more, do more and be more.

When Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants,” he highlights the difference between human wisdom and divine revelation.  Our knowledge of God is attained not through our own intelligence, or our own efforts.  Our knowledge of God is revealed to us because God has chosen to be known.  After Jesus makes this clear, he says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Perhaps you have seen yokes either in person or on TV.  There are two kinds, single and shared.  The single ones are most efficient, except that the animal using it gets tired more easily.  The weight of the load the animal is moving feels heavier over time.  A shared yoke requires two to use it.  Like a bicycle built for two, you can distribute the load, and when one gets tired, the other can pull more weight.

Barbara Brown Taylor explains:

Plenty of us labor under the illusion that our yokes are single ones, that we have got to go it alone, that the only way to please God is to load ourselves down with heavy requirements—good deeds, pure thoughts, blameless lives, perfect obedience—all those rules we make and break and make and break, while all the time Jesus is standing right there in front of us, half of a shared yoke across his own shoulder, the other half wide open and waiting for us, a yoke that requires no more than that we step into it and become part of a team[2].

A yoke isn’t a sitting instrument.  It is a walking tool, which means that each step that we take, Jesus takes with us.  Jesus invites us, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] Goettler, William.  Feasting on the Word.  Louisville:  John Knox Press, 2011, Year A, Vol. 3, p. 216.

[2] Taylor, Barbara Brown.  The Seeds of Heaven.  Louisville:  West Minster John Know Press, 2004, 21.


Peter and Paul; Mary has her own Day

John 21.15-19   June 30, 2014   Epiphany 5

 It is generally believed that on this day, June 29, in the year 67, both Peter and Paul were killed.  Peter, according to tradition, was crucified upside down on Vatican Hill.  Upside down because he said that he was not worthy to die in the same way as his Lord.  Paul, who was a Roman citizen and, therefore, was granted certain considerations, was beheaded south of Rome.  Today, the Feast Day of Saints Peter and Paul, is one of the oldest of the saints’ days.  Mary has her own feast day.

Peter and Paul shared some characteristics, but were also very different.  Both had name changes.  Peter was Simon, a son of Jonah.  Jesus changed his name to Cephas or Peter, which is Aramaic and Greek respectively for “rock” or “stone.”  Paul had been known as “Saul.”

Peter had been a fisherman, partners with the Zebedee brothers, James and John. Together, the three formed Jesus’ “inner circle,” and Peter became the spokesperson for the disciples.  After Jesus’ death, his missionary work was primarily with the Jews.  Peter had a habit of speaking the first thing that came to his mind, and Jesus had a habit of letting him now about it.  When Jesus told the disciples that the time wasn’t far off when he’d be tortured and die, Peter couldn’t stand it and blurted out, “God forbid, Lord.”  Jesus responded to his devoted disciple, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block for me.”  This “rock” was blocking the road that Jesus knew he had to take [Matthew 16.21-23].  That was Peter.  He said the wrong things, asked the wrong questions, got the wrong point, and failed to do what he should. While Peter said that he would lay down his life for Jesus, the fact is that when things got rough, he denied he even knew him.  Not just once, but three times [John 13.5-11].

Which leads us to today’s gospel reading.  It was after Easter morning, and this is the last Peter would speak with Jesus.  Some of the other disciples were there, and Jesus cooked them breakfast.  After they cleaned their plates, Jesus called Peter.  You know when your parents are serious, they call you by your first and your middle names?  I can still here my mother loudly calling me, “Cheryl Ann!”  Anyway, Jesus called, not the name Peter, but “Simon son of John,” and he asked him three times if he loved him.  Peter responded, three times that he did, and Jesus said, “Follow me.”  And Peter did.

Paul’s life was different than Peter’s.  Paul probably attended a local synagogue school, and studied with the rabbi Gamaliel.  He learned the trade of the tentmaker.  He was an ardent defender of Jewish law.  He persecuted Christians, until he was struck blind and asked by Jesus, “Why are you out to get me?”  After his sight was returned, Paul became one of Jesus’ biggest fans. In his new zeal for Jesus, he traveled and wrote letters.  While Peter’s mission was mainly to the Jews, Paul’s mission was mainly to the nations not of the house of Israel.

We discover through scripture that Paul was bald-headed, bowlegged, a strongly built man, small in size with a uni-brow and a large nose. A guy that looks like that must have been a force to reckon with to have had the effect on Christianity that he did.  He was a “fool for Christ’s sake,” as he called himself.  For all the good that Paul did, he recognized he was both a saint and a forgiven sinner.  “For I don’t understand my own actions,” he wrote to the Romans.  “”I do NOT do the do what I want, but the very thing I hate” [Romans 7.15].  Paul’s contemporaries called him insincere, not to mention crazy.

Peter and Paul, two different and flawed people, both with a passion for the good news of God’s forgiveness and love through Jesus Christ.  Failure after failure, God invites and empowers them to try again.  These are the ones from whom the gospel comes to us.

The good news still needs to be told!  Lutherans are known for not telling it!  This is the mission of the VA Synod Youth Retreats, to prepare young people to speak about their faith.  Not only that, but to connect what they do most of the week to their faith that shows up on Sundays.  All kinds of flawed kids come to these retreats.  This past week, I was at Kairos, the youth retreat for high school students held at Roanoke College.  40 adults and 164 came together for 6 days to talk about our faith, to face our daily challenges, and to worship.  Our theme was, “We, though Many.” There were kids with uni-brows and big noses who confessed to not understanding their own actions.  There were kids who believed, and then sunk into the waters.  All were there to form new relationships, and to deepen existing ones, understanding that all our relationships flow out our primary relationship to God through Jesus Christ.  We began each day at 7:20 a.m. with Matins worship, ended each day at midnight with Compline worship, and had brief worship 5 other times throughout the day and evening.  We gathered into one large group and into small groups to talk about where God is, and perhaps thought not to be, in our lives.

Rising seniors have the opportunity to share their faith journey with all of us.  Those who share their stories prove that discipleship today is vibrant among our young people.  I’d like to share part of the faith testimony of one young man. Bradley Fielding of Trinity in Newport News has given me permission to do so.

At Youth Assembly a few weeks ago, I led a chat room where we primarily discussed the American taboo on Christian culture:  we don’t talk about God or Jesus, and to openly say, “I am a Christian” often results in dismissal as a naïve religious fanatic….Of the three people I sit with on the bus to and from Governor’s School, one is openly agnostic; the other two, without religious labels.  I would describe them as deists.  All three seem to believe that the church is bogus, hypocritical, inconsistent, et cetera.  Well, one day, they were talking about this, and they finally got around to asking me what I believe.  I said, “I’m a Christian,” and left it at that.  They acknowledged my viewpoint and continued their conversation, while I said nothing.

I’ve always felt guilty about that.  I couldn’t say, “This is why I’m Christian; this is what I believe, and this is why it is so important to me.”  It’s not that they needed to be converted; I just couldn’t talk about it.  The other thing that bothers me about this conversation is that as soon as I said I was a Christian, one of them immediately replied, “Really?  You seem more like an agnostic to me.”

A stereotype exists that intelligent people cannot be Christian because anyone with the capacity to understand science or art must surely have the good sense to see the holes, the inconsistencies, the impossibly flawed nature of all things theological.  But I don’t think any of it is flawed or inconsistent.  Id do think it’s impossible, but that is the mystery of faith.…

When I step back and look for logical order, I see that it is there.  I just have to suspend my disbelief in the power of God—that too, is a definition of faith.  And it’s okay to ask questions about it because I’m Lutheran.  That’s what we do.  That’s what every great theologian who ever lived has done….

“We, though many” is about sharing one’s gifts, but it’s also about unity in Christ, that no matter who we are, we can come together in conversation with and through Him.  That’s how God works.  It’s how the Church works, and it’s how Kairos works.  Me, my gift is somewhat obscure; I sing opera.  So I practice it, and I make conversation about it.  That’s how I can connect it to other people….  “We, though many” is not just about individuals constituting a whole.  It is about words, ideas, gifts and conversations about them that run through and sew together the bread and body of Jesus Christ.  Anything and everything that can be expressed lovingly in His name is a gift that lives in the Holy Spirit.

So now, I am to talk about it all.  I love being Lutheran.  I believe that I can be both intelligent and Christian.  I believe that ideas of science and morality and the greater good of [human] kind can and should not only coexist but also be inextricably intertwined with our faith because I can talk about them  [end of Bradley's quote].

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks.  Peter and Paul, and Bradley remind us that we fail to remain faithful.  Though we fail to give witness in word or deed to our faith, Jesus not only forgives us, but calls us to try again.  Jesus doesn’t just call us to try again, Jesus invites us to share our journey. When the youth left Kairos, they were re-commissioned and re-energized to share the good news that we are love by God who gave his son Jesus for us.  What will you do when you leave here today?

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

(If you would like a copy of an earlier sermon, e-mail Pastor Ballentine or Pastor Griffin and s/he’ll send you a copy!)