Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Trees. From the first chapters of Genesis—when God places the tree of life in the center of the Garden of Eden—through the closing chapters of Revelation—where trees bear leaves bringing healing to the nations—the Bible is practically an arboretum of trees. Any one of our readings today could be an entire sermon explicating how the image of a tree represents God’s faithfulness, or our community of believers, or something else about God’s relationship with God’s creation.
There are many explanations for why trees come up so often in Biblical stories, but certainly one reason is that, at every stage of its life, a tree is generous. The most essential of its gifts to the world is one that authors of this ancient book would not have been able to comprehend—oxygen—but they knew about wood, fruit, colorful flowers, shade, seeds, medicine, and many other blessings that come from trees. Let’s treasure the trees of the earth and be faithful stewards of them, for the world needs trees and will always need trees.
The trees in today’s readings range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Ezekiel describes God clipping the very top of a cedar tree – the youngest, greenest, and most vulnerable part of the tree – and personally planting it on a high mountain. That sprig grows into a mighty tree that produces fruit, and the boughs of the tree provide shade and shelter for birds. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus could have chosen to echo Ezekiel by speaking of God’s reign being like the cedars of Lebanon–majestic and awe-inspiring. But he didn’t. Instead, he uses the symbol of the scraggly mustard bush instead.
Mustard is a weed; it grows into a relatively unattractive plant without any help at all. No ornamental gardeners deliberately cultivate mustard seeds. No one has to understand anything about germination or photosynthesis or anything at all for mustard to grow. It begins as a teeny tiny seed, and must be harvested promptly, or those seeds will blow everywhere and grow and grow and grow wherever they land—kind of like dandelions. Jesus is making the point that God’s reign will take root wherever it lands—in a hostile empire, in a church, in a human heart.
But he doesn’t stop after he makes the point about humble things bearing a resemblance to God’s kingdom. He goes on to make some wild claims that any farmer in his audience would have found hilarious. Jesus speaks of mustard seeds growing into the greatest of all shrubs, putting forth big branches, strong enough for the birds of the air to nest in.
That’s not actually possible. Mustard can be a sturdy enough bush, but it seldom grows very tall, and it definitely doesn’t “put forth large branches”—though even if it did, what farmer would welcome birds to nest in his crops? From what I’ve seen, farmers erect netting and ribbons and stuffed forms called SCARECROWS precisely to scare off the crows!–and whatever other sort of bird might come near.
If Jesus had wanted to describe an in-breaking of God’s reign in a way that would cause people to drop everything and be impressed, he could have chosen a cedar. But this parable—like all parables—throws two disparate things together so that we have to look again at what we think we know. While some people consider mustard a nuisance, there are those who, like the birds, need a home where they can be safe and happy. Another purpose of this parable might be to get us laughing at ourselves. My favorite comedian, Stephen Colbert, points out that it is hard to be afraid when you are laughing. Since the Bible is always urging us not to be afraid, making us laugh at ourselves is a smart teaching technique for Jesus to use.
So maybe Jesus wants to make us laugh while driving home the point that the reign of God will mess with established boundaries and conventional values. Like a fast-replicating plant, God’s reign will get into everything. It will bring spice and color to desolate places. It will resist our manipulations. Its humble appearance will expose and mock pride and pretentiousness. Followers of Jesus are called to strive not be respectable, but to be hardy and difficult to contain!
As a result, some people will want to burn everything down in a pointless attempt to restore their fields. We should not be surprised by this. Jesus himself was considered a weed by many. Religious authorities were irritated by his radical reinterpreting of Scriptures to include in God’s favor all kinds of people they thought ought to be excluded. Jesus did not keep the proper cleanliness or behavioral codes–he was always touching the untouchables, healing people even on the Sabbath, and directing the rich to give to the poor, whether or not they “deserved” it. He ate with alienated and lonely people who were of the “wrong” faith, and sometimes no faith. He embraced respecting the dignity and worth of children as a prime example of faithfulness.
The political authorities of his time also thought Jesus was a weed. He spoke of a kingdom more powerful than the Roman Empire that everyone thought dominated the world–a kingdom in which compassion surpasses revenge, and all people are one family, not divided by race, religious convictions, or any other artificial boundaries. Jesus promised his kingdom had nothing to do with military might or immigration status. He instructed his disciples to pray that this kingdom come, which meant they could not keep silent when injustices occurred around them.
All of this led Jesus to a tree. Not a mighty cedar but a cross, bits of wood cut up and reshaped to become an instrument of torture. And yet, as a sign of God’s amazing reign, Jesus rose again like a dandelion breaking through a crack in the asphalt. And the jaw-dropping, miraculous truth is that in our baptisms, we are grafted onto that unstoppable life force—eternally connected to that fierce love that nothing, not even death, can kill.
The Good News is that, in the same mysterious way that mustard seeds grow without our effort, so God’s reign will come. It’s not up to us. We can’t make it happen and we definitely can’t prevent it from happenig. We simply have to trust that the God who created light out of darkness and raised Jesus from the dead will keep God’s promises. Meanwhile, we pray that God will give us the resilient confidence we need to rejoice in the moments when we see God’s reign lived out in front of us and to keep the faith when we don’t.
Whether or not we can see it, we trust God is on the move–in our life, in our community, in the world—and that God will complete the work God has started. In the meantime, we are called to infiltrate our world’s systems of power and domination like sneaky little mustard seeds. However unimpressive or insignificant we might feel, we are the dangerous, hospitable, unstoppable company that Jesus is calling to serve the birds and all the world God loves.
When we Christians rise up as our truest selves, our job is to be impossible to ignore, not because the church is such a lovely and righteous community, but because we are so annoyingly constant. My fellow mustard plants, God intends to use our spice and heat to alter the whole garden. Let us embrace our calling to have and to be friends in low places!
Glory to God in the lowest!
~Pastor Susan Schneider