Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Something Unexpected
Mt. 13:31-33[1]
If you’ve spent any significant time in the Southeastern United States, you know that “Kudzu” is bad word. A very bad word. People in that part of the country hate Kudzu with a passion. The reason is that it is one of the fastest growing invasive plants ever to make it to our shores. Ironically, Kudzu was originally cultivated in the U. S. about a hundred years ago as a means of controlling erosion. But talk about too much of a good thing. By the 1950’s the agriculture folks knew there was a problem. By the 1970’s it would seem that the problem was out of hand. These days, the authorities in the worst-affected areas spare no effort to eradicate Kudzu. Or at least to try to stop it from spreading.
I think one would be hard-pressed to make the case with people in these areas that Kudzu might have any beneficial uses. In fact, however, in Southeast Asia Kudzu is considered a food crop! According to Wikipedia, in its native China Kudzu is considered one of the “fifty fundamental herbs” and is used as an herbal remedy for the treatment of alcohol related problems, including treating liver problems! There are even some hints that it may show promise for treating migraines, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer! Wouldn’t that be a twist—if medical science discovered the ultimate cure for cancer in the plant that our neighbors are spending millions of dollars to eradicate!
Something like this kind of twist is involved in Jesus’ parables from our gospel reading for today. To use a mustard seed as a means of describing God’s kingdom would have been about as shocking in that day as telling a native of Alabama that Kudzu might become the next miracle cure. It just doesn’t compute. Mustard was just about as virulent as Kudzu. Once it took hold in a field, it would eventually take over the whole place. It’s just about impossible to eradicate. Modern farmers hate it because it gets in their crops. Ranchers hate it because it irritates the eyes of their livestock. What possible good could come from mustard seed?
But in a very real sense, that’s precisely the point. God’s realm of justice and peace and freedom in this world is something unexpected. It works contrary to our expectations. The eventual success of God’s kingdom at transforming this world into a place of justice and peace and freedom would have been about as unexpected to the people who originally heard this parable as Kudzu turning out to cure all our most serious ailments.[2] It just didn’t make much sense.
One of the biggest obstacles to our ability to wrap our heads around the idea that a kingdom of humility and self-sacrifice and mercy would somehow transform this whole world is that it just isn’t the way the world works. In our world money talks. Might makes right. Nice guys finish last. Those who lay down their lives for others become doormats. Humility means weakness. Mercy means being taken advantage. In a world that works like that, Jesus’ vision of a new realm that would bring justice and peace and freedom seems ludicrous.
What tends to happen, it seems to me, is that even those who identify themselves as disciples of Jesus adopt the means of this world to “force” the issue. Not content to just continue sowing Gospel seeds, waiting patiently for the harvest, leaving the outcome vulnerable to circumstance and luck, with no guarantees but the promise of faith and hope, many who call themselves Christian take the shortcuts that they see working in this world. They try to guarantee the success of God’s realm by shrewd calculation and slick marketing. They try to ensure the success of their Gospel seeds by any and every means, including manipulation and deceit. But what they miss is the plain truth that you cannot promote the justice and peace and freedom of God’s realm by methods that are unjust and unpeaceful and unfree. You may find some success by those means, but it will not be God’s realm that you are promoting. It will much more likely be something of your own devising.
In the midst of all this, Jesus’ strange parables remain as an encouragement to those who will wait in faith and hope. The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast in the dough both suggest that, despite all obstacles, and despite all indications to the contrary, God’s realm of justice and peace and freedom is here; it is real among us now. And these parables point to the promise that one day God’s realm will define all of life in this world.[3] As unlikely as that may sound, Jesus was no fool. I think he knew that his message about God’s realm was unlikely at best—as unlikely as the success of weeds and leaven—and at worst it came off as ludicrous. The “kingdom” that he brought to the people who were looking for it was something different entirely from what they were expecting. But if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that sometimes something unexpected can be more satisfying than anything we could have imagined. When and where and how we least expect it, God’s justice, God’s peace, and God’s freedom break out in this world in unlikely ways and unlikely places.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/24/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2]Cf. Linda McKinnish Bridges, “Preaching the Parables of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel in Ordinary Time,” Review and Expositor 104 (Spring 2007): 344. Cf. also Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 390; Ulrich Luz and Helmut Koester, Matthew: A Commentary, 261; and M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible 8:311-312.
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.1: 301; Boring, 8:309; and Luz and Koester, 262.


JD said...

Kudzu...perfect illustration...thank you!

Anonymous said...

Love the Kudzu illustration. I am a northerner but have traveled extensively on the backroads of the south. This is like the bull carp crisis. My bulletin already when to press, but I would title the sermon, “Carp and Kudzu”.