Archive for parable

The Parable of COVID-19

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2020 by timtrue

Delivered via Zoom to the St. Michael’s, Coolidge congregation.

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

1

Do you know what the kudzu vine is?

An indigenous species in Asia, kudzu was first introduced to the United States at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, in 1876, as an effective groundcover for stopping erosion.

A few years later, at the New Orleans Exposition of 1883, kudzu was marketed to the south primarily as an ornamental vine to shade porches. Cattle farmers, too, discovered that their cows liked it as food, that it grew quickly, and that it has a high protein content.

During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s kudzu was planted extensively to combat erosion. In fact, it was so effective that the government cultivated and helped fund the planting of 85 million seedlings, yielding approximately 3 million acres of groundcover by the end of WWII.

However: boll weevil infestations soon decimated the cotton fields of the south; most southern farmers abandoned their livelihoods; kudzu was left unattended and unchecked.

And, turns out, kudzu likes the climate of the southeastern United States. A lot!

Pretty soon, people began to notice kudzu’s negative effects.

It grows faster than other plants.

It possesses a curious ability to establish new root systems from the ends of vines in a hurry; thus enabling new, independent organisms to grow quickly outward in every direction.

It is classified as a structural parasite, meaning it finds light for photosynthesis by climbing on top of other structures—whether bushes, trees, power poles, or houses.

For living organisms, such as dogwood trees and blackberry bushes, this means their light gets blocked, their ability to photosynthesize becomes compromised, and they die.

For structures like power poles and houses, kudzu decays and destroys.

And—one more fun fact—it is super nitrogen-rich. I don’t presume to understand the science behind it all, but apparently this means it actually pollutes the ozone.

Yeah!

So, in 1953 the USDA removed kudzu from its list of recommended groundcovers. In 1970, they listed it as a weed. And in 1997, kudzu appeared on the Federal Noxious Weeds List for the first time, where it remains today.

Fight it as we might, kudzu covers approximately 7.5 million acres of U. S. soil today. If you ever drive down a road in the southeast, just look out your window and within a few minutes, no doubt, you’ll see some.

Anyway, point is, today we see nothing of value in kudzu. Instead, it is an invasive nuisance.

2

I’ve heard a similar story about the mustard seed in the ancient Roman Empire.

A foreign weed, the mustard seed was first brought to the Empire because of—you guessed it—a useful quality.

In an effort to rid the Empire of pirates, the story goes, Julius Caesar commissioned his military leader Pompey with a task to build—or, to dig—more harbors across the Mediterranean region.

The innovative mustard seed was employed—a plant known for its ability to grow quickly and to sap seemingly all nutrients and moisture from its surroundings.

The result was large-scale erosion in short order; and, for Pompey’s concerns, easy digging.

But, like kudzu, mustard quickly rose to the top of the Empire’s Noxious Weeds List. It was invasive. It became a widespread nuisance.

All Jesus had to do was mention the term mustard seed, and people’s eyes would roll with disdain and contempt—even if they knew its history and background, its original usefulness.

So, the question I now want to focus on is this:

Why does Jesus say the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed? How is the KoH like the kudzu vine—something worthless, disruptive, good for nothing but widescale, commonplace frustration?

After all, that is the jarring surprise from this parable.

In case this point weren’t already clear enough, Jesus goes on to equate the KoH with yeast that spreads throughout a huge batch of bread.

Yeast!

Jewish people didn’t like yeast. Their bread was unleavened. Yeast was unclean, impure, not kosher.

So, why is Jesus teaching us today that the KoH is like some everyday, commonplace, invasive nuisance that no one wants around?

If I didn’t know better, I’d say Jesus is saying that the KoH has a subversive quality to it. Mustard seed invades; yeast spreads; kudzu overwhelms, against all our efforts to the contrary!

3

Hmm. The KoH, subverting? Invading, spreading, overwhelming?

Sounds to me a lot like COVID-19.

Wait, what?

Yeah, I just went there. I just said that the KoH is like a global pandemic.

Shocking statement, isn’t it?

But this sense of shock was experienced by the first hearers of these parables.

So, actually, I’m thinking that if Jesus were with us today, he might tell the Parable of COVID-19:

The kingdom of heaven is like a global pandemic. It invades; it infects; it interrupts; it frustrates; it disrupts our lives—despite all our efforts to combat it. And, truth be told, no one really wants it around.

Well, why not? Let’s consider it; let’s make this our simile today:

How is the KoH like COVID-19?

The whole world is quarantining. We can’t take those summer vacations we planned. We’ve got to wear those confounded masks everywhere and apply hand sanitizer until our hands are cracked and bleeding!

Worse still, people we know—friends, family—have become sick and, in some cases, died.

COVID-19 has disrupted everything about our lives.

So, okay, the KoH is disruptive.

We human beings like stability. We like to plan and have everything play out according to our plan. We like things to be neat and tidy—efficient, productive!

Or, to come at it from another angle, we don’t like change. We don’t like it when we wake up in the morning, look out our window, and discover that weeds are there in the middle of our planned out, neat and tidy rows of wheat.

Our routine, our world, has been disrupted. It’s not fair!

But we get it, right? Humanity likes routine; and the KoH shakes us out of it. God is full of surprises. Aslan is not a tame lion.

Still though, there’s that negative side to the parable that leaves us scratching our head.

Churches have shuttered their doors. Services have gone virtual. Communion is an increasingly distant memory. Tithing and giving have dropped. Priests seeking to pray with sick parishioners or administer last rites are turned away from hospitals. Weddings and funerals are mostly on hold until further notice.

Isn’t society telling us, really, that everything about the KoH is non-essential; or, more jarringly, that the KoH is invasive, a nuisance, good for nothing but frustration?

Forgive me, you ask, but how is there anything redeeming anywhere in this?

4

Good question!

For the answer, we return to today’s Gospel. How was there anything redeeming anywhere in that invasive, overwhelming, frustrating nuisance known as the mustard seed?

Jesus gives us the answer. When that nuisance of a seed was fully grown, it became a home, a place of shelter, nurture, rest, and safety for the birds of the air.

The mustard seed, like kudzu, was originally brought into the Empire because of its usefulness; but it soon became a useless nuisance.

But Jesus tells us it becomes useful again—though in a way no one is looking for; in a way no one expects.

There’s a theological term for this: transformation.

Transformation does not mean that we will go back to the way things were—back to a Roman Empire before the mustard seed, back to the southeastern U. S. before kudzu took over, or back to a world before COVID-19.

But transformation does signal a way forward.

It’s a new and unexpected way forward; and so, yes, it’s scary.

But it is a way forward nonetheless.

And thus there is hope.

The KoH—especially as it is manifested in and through the Church—the KoH is God’s agent of transformation; not so that society can return to the way things were but so that it can move forward, in hope, into a new and unexpected world.

Humanity will move forward, beyond a world where everything lies under COVID-19’s shadow. Because of COVID-19, yes, things will forever be different, changed, transformed. But don’t despair in the present; we will get there!

The KoH is like that: an agent of transformation, pushing society into a new and uncomfortable place; and, at the same time, transforming it into something unexpectedly beneficial for the common good.

And that, to answer your question, is infinitely redeeming.

Changing It Up

Posted in Doing Church, Musings with tags , , on November 16, 2014 by timtrue

Today’s Gospel reading in the Episcopal lectionary is Matthew 25:14-30, a parable about three slaves who manage their master’s money while he goes away for a time.  In this story we usually interpret the third slave as the bad guy, albeit a slightly dimwitted one; which is why we don’t feel so badly when he ends up thrown out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  But what if we were to change it up a little?  (By the way, I have no specific persons in mind in anything that follows; I’m merely playing with the parable.)

untitled

Once there was a bishop who was about to go on sabbatical.

“I’m about to go on sabbatical,” he told three of his finest priests.  “But the trouble is, I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, and I’ve disabled my email account and I’m not taking my cell phone with me so you have no way of getting in touch with me while I’m gone and I don’t know when I’ll be back.  It’s an open-ended sabbatical, see, and all my colleagues are jealous.

“Anyway–stop yawning, all of you, and listen to what I’m about to say!–there’s another ‘the trouble is’ problem here.  80 million dollars came across my desk just this morning for church development, and I don’t know what to do with it.  So I’m putting it in your charge!

“Here, you, Lenny, take 50 million.  I’ve seen you do brilliant things before.  Do it again with this!

“And you, Veronica, take 20 million and do something fantastic with it.

“And you, er, uh, what’s your name?”

“Frank.”

“Yes, you, Frank.  Can’t say I know much about you.  Where do you serve?”

“Saint Swithin’s, sir.”

“Well, okay, if you say so.  But I thought Jim was there.”

“Yes, sir.  Jim’s the rector.  I’m just a curate.”

“Oh, okay, whatever that means.  But you are an Episcopal priest, right?”

“Yes.”

“Of this diocese?”

“Yes.”

“Very well, then.  You, Frank, Curator of St. Swithin’s, take the other 10 million (give or take) and do something grand with it.”

“Um, not curator, but–well, never mind!  Sure thing, boss.”

“I’ll check in on all y’all when I return.”

So they all went on their merry ways: the bishop to his sabbatical of undisclosed location and duration, although I heard it had something to do with warm, sandy beaches in the part of the world where our winter is their summer, and it may or may not have included surfing lessons by day and pina coladas by night; and the three priests to their respective parishes.

The first priest, Lenny, put his $50 million to work by developing an Episcopal waterpark.  And $50 million!  Hey, that’s enough to get something good going!  So he hired the best architects and engineers who work on that kind of thing and spent a full week out at Schlitterbahn in Texas shadowing the executives and so on until he had a good plan together and an opening date on the books, Memorial Day Weekend.  When asked about his innovative brainstorm, he is reported as saying, “You just watch.  This is gonna be good!”

Likewise, the second priest, Veronica, set about putting her $20 million to work building a community center on the vacant 10 acres adjacent to her parish.  Yeah!  With the help of her vestry, she bought the lot and drew up plans for a community gathering place, complete with hip café, gift shop, playground, dogpark, and Vespa rentals.  It would be a veritable mall where adolescents with extra cash on hand, soccer moms, anxious husbands out for that last-minute anniversary gift, toy-dog aficionados–anyone!–could buy the latest cool thing for Christians.  And it would be right next to church!  “So hip,” was her only comment.

Meanwhile, the curate of St. Swithin’s, well, he decided to take the $10 million and purchase a plot of scrappy land, cultivate it, and plant two crops.  One was grapes.  Black Spanish was the varietal, because that was blight-resistant in this part of the country, unlike other varietals like Cabernet and Zinfandel; and because it is used in port, the wine of choice for the Episcopal Eucharist.

The other was wheat.  And not just any wheat, but non-GMO affected wheat; for long ago he had learned that the people of his parish that requested gluten-free wafers were actually not allergic to organic, non-GMO wheat.  Yes, his was a green desire; a desire to provide his parishioners with home-made wine and bread.  “Not only that,” he argued, “but it will bring jobs to the area and help sustain a local economy.  The project itself will be sustainable too, eventually.  We will become a supplier for churches with a similar vision.”

Time passed.  Sure enough, some glitches surfaced: the $50 million wasn’t quite enough front money (nothing a loan couldn’t cover) and the local conservatives picketed for one-piece swimsuits only throughout opening week (but the Episcopalians responded by wearing bikinis–even some guys); liability issues surfaced when a teenager crashed a scooter into a table laden with lattes while trying to avoid a toy poodle running from a rottweiler; the first wheat harvest was low due to drought conditions and the grapes, well, as every vintner knows, they take three full years before producing a harvest adequate for any amount of wine anyway.

And, you guessed it, that’s about when the bishop returned.

“Lenny,” he said at the end of his first day visiting the Episcopal waterpark, “this was good!”

“Yep.  And the accountant says we should net $50 million in profits by the end of the season.”

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Then he remarked, “Veronica, this latte’s delicious.  And that puppy is so cute!  How’s it going with that law suit?”

“Oh, just fine.  Turns out we’ve been awarded $20 million by the state for allowing us to rent scooters to teenagers in the first place.  Turns out the kid should have been twenty-five.  Not our fault though!”

“Oh, that’s hip!  Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Then he turned to Frank.  “Tell me, curator, what’s up with your bread and wine enterprise?”

“It’s curate, by the way.  But never mind.  Anyway, well, eh hem, it’s gone about as well as one could expect in the first season of, um, an agricultural, er, enterprise, uh, sir.”

“But have you made any money?”

“Well, not yet.”

“Okay, then, well, do you have any bread or wine to show for it?”

“It doesn’t exactly work that way, sir.”

“No money?  No bread or wine?  That sounds hardly sustainable!

“So I see how it is: I hand you $10 million and you go and bury it in the dirt.  And now you have nothing to show for it.  I see.  Well, curate, I never knew you and I sure as heck have no reason to get to know you now.  You’re fired.  Go away and I hope never to see you again!”