Of Thorns, Kudzu, and Wealth

A Homily for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 55:10-13; St. Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who will not cut us off but instead delivers us from the thorns. Amen.

Imagine walking along any street in the Georgia summer. The cicadas are calling from the trees; pine towers overhead while magnolia limbs hang low, diving into the dirt and erupting out again. The humidity presses in around you, reminding you of the promised blast of air condition and tea when you get home. You pass an empty lot, erupting in deep green that covers last square inch, climbing up the trees, covering the abandoned shed, threatening to crush it under the unbearable weight.

For the farmers listening to Jesus, thorny weeds threatened to choke out their crop. For farmers living in the southeast, the threat is kudzu.

How lush the hillside covered in this once-heralded vine appears at first glance! But it has that look of uncanny uniformity, every leaf looking exactly the same, choking out any other grass, bush, shrub, or tree that ever took root in that same soil.

Today, Christ compares these unwanted plants, strangling any seed unfortunate enough to sprout up near them, to the lure of wealth.

What a strange comparison! Thorns and kudzu invading the field are fit only to be uprooted, and often, to be studiously avoided. Why should we avoid the lure of wealth, that precious thing which makes life in this world so comfortable, so much easier?

I can’t speak for thorns in first century Judea, but kudzu was first offered as a miracle cure for poor soil. Plant it! It grows quickly, will prevent erosion, and offer food to your livestock. But then it took over; it is, according to the common expression, the “vine that ate the south.”

Come on, you need wealth. You can use money to buy goods and services. Money is good. And once you have it, you’ll want more of it. So you can buy more stuff; better stuff? Maybe, but that’s not important. What’s important is that there’s more of it.

Do you crave knowledge? Earn money, buy books, build a library. Out of space? Buy another bookshelf. Oh, sure, you’ll get around to reading that one eventually. And a certain website makes it so much easier; just click the button and it’s on its way.

But now you have all this stuff and nowhere to put it! Buy a bigger house! And now you have room for that extra car you’ve always wanted! And more room! To fill with more stuff!

Of course, the new house is in a nicer neighborhood, so you can see all of your neighbors’ stuff: the fancy clothes, the $5,000 bike. They have you over for dinner and show off their new countertops and tell you about their overseas vacation. You want to fit in, right? You can do it, if you just earn a little bit more: put in that overtime, miss a few of the kids’ games, skip dinner. It’ll be worth it: if you work 50, 60, 70 hours a week (80 during crunch time, which lasts from December through to the end of October), you can keep up with your neighbors – maybe even wow them!

And now it’s time to keep all that stuff you’ve worked so hard for. It’s time to defend what you’ve earned. Come one, that gun is so fierce-looking. It’ll keep you safe from those people – you know the ones I’m talking about. They shouldn’t be here.

And come November, you have have have to vote to make sure that no one comes along to take your stuff or your guns; it’s the only issue that matters. It’s the economy, stupid, and it’s our only source of hope and security in this world.

Wealth is a vine that will eat your soul.

The lure of wealth and all its empty promises become all-encompassing. It digs into us deeper and deeper, like thorns. It snakes itself in to our very heart and wraps it tightly, like kudzu. It threatens to choke out everything else. Before we know it, our jobs become our identities, the number on our bank statements become our hope for security, and before we know it, we belong to our belongings.

Not even the Church is immune. How often I look around and think, “If only we had an endowment or a hefty rainy day fund, then we could really do ministry.” Proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins becomes a line item on a budget, our identity in Christ becomes a brand, members of Christ’s body become giving units, faithful and loving service to God and neighbor takes a backseat to keeping a healthy donor base, and the point of the Church becomes to grow our budget rather than God’s Kingdom.

And the thorns and vines choke out the growth.

Later in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, a rich young man – who, to hear him tell it, has piously kept the Law – asks what he must do to “have eternal life.” Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt – that he means it when he says he has kept the Law. He’s so close. He’s come all this way just to see Jesus. All he must do is give everything away and follow Christ – to trade riches in this life for a place in the Kingdom of God. But the thorns crowd out the new growth. He is ensnared by his wealth, possessed by his possessions, unwilling to depart with his stuff, let alone his very life.

And the thorns and vines choke out the growth.

But now, what is wealth? Surely I’m not rich, right? Not compared to the folks in Forbes, the ones who need two or even three commas to list their net worth. I’m not in that 1%. But we live in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. Even with the mass income inequality that exists between the richest Americans and the working class, almost all of our population has ready access to clean water and enough food to survive. And in a world where an household income of just $10,000  puts you in the top fifty percent, and living at the American poverty level puts you in the top seventy percent, it’s safe to say that the American church is living among the thorns.

And the thorns and vines threaten to choke out our growth.

As the young man walks away sad, Jesus remarks: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

What hope is there, then, for us who have been sown into the kudzu, born as we have been into the wealth and security of this economic superpower? To those of us raised in a culture based on consumption and the need to always have more? What hope is there if we live in such thorny soil?

We cannot earn or buy our way out of these weeds. Our only hope of salvation is free, but it will be costly. Free because it is given from God, but costly because it cost the Son of God his life. Free because it is ours to accept at no charge, but costly because in accepting it, we forfeit our lives. Free because in it we are no longer slaves to the pursuit of wealth, but costly because we realize all we have belongs to God.

The thorns may choke us, the kudzu may strangle us, but that cannot stop the saving power of Jesus Christ. As Isaiah writes, the Lord’s word does not return empty. Even the thorns and kudzu patches will be redeemed in the fullness of time. God is at work in this world, liberating the oppressed and to transforming the hearts of the oppressors. Hear this good news: baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, you are no longer subservient to wealth. You no longer belong to your belongings. All that you have and all that you are belongs to God Almighty. Entrust it to the Lord, and let God work through you. You have been set free from servitude to the marketplace, and you have been set free for service in the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

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