In less than a week, I will be heading down to Berwick United Church Camp as I have almost annually for the past 33 years. Berwick Camp is located at the end of Commercial Street in the town of Berwick in the Annapolis Valley. It is unique camp in that it is situated inside town limits, but it is also inside a large, old hemlock and pine grove. These trees are incredible – they grow straight and extremely tall. They remind me of the mythical, mighty cedar of Lebanon that we read about in the Bible. Standing among these old, monumental trees can make one feel quite awestruck and very small. When the sun shines through, the way that it does at certain times of the day, it feels like a holy experience just to stand there in their presence.
But here’s the thing about mighty earthly things – when they fall, they fall hard – Berwick camp learned all about this on December 13, 2010 when a storm ripped through the Valley and the camp experienced what has been described as “Unfathomable destruction”. Over 100 trees fell. Many literally crushing cottages in half. Over 30 buildings were destroyed. The camp has mostly been rebuilt, but the spaces left behind where the trees once stood is still an ever-present reminder of loss.
Trees like that take a long time to grow and new trees, hemlocks especially, are difficult to get going because the plants are highly susceptible to pests and deer. They take a lot of work to grow. If they do make it, it takes a very long time for them to reach maturity to the point where nh birds are nesting in their branches.
I wonder if this is one of the reasons that Jesus subverts the idea that the Kingdom of God is a mighty cedar and says that it is like a mustard seed instead. A mustard seed grows to be a plant that is usually a viewed as a weed. This means that it germinates easily and quickly grows and is hard to get rid of. The mustard plant grows to around 4 feet although there are some bushes as high as 8-10 feet. It surely does not grow into a tree despite what the translations might say. So, it would have been surprising to the listener to hear Jesus teach that the kingdom of God was a like weed. Actually he says it is like the seeds of the weed!
There were even rules around planting mustard because it was so intrusive. It was considered lawfully pure to maintain an orderly garden. Vegetables were for the garden proper. Grains were for plots in the field. Only one kind of grain was to be sown in a plot because sowing more than one could make the crops of the field indistinguishable and therefore unclean according to the law.
The man in our story is risking an unclean crop by sowing mustard seeds in his ground! What is Jesus possibly trying to teach us about the Kingdom?
Just the nature of the word “kingdom” conjures up might and power! The kingdom of heaven is surely more like the mighty cedar of Lebanon – well established, widespread and prosperous! This is the human standard of success and this is what we expect of any kingdom worth being a part of! –established, widespread, and prosperous! But no, Jesus says that the Kingdom of heaven is like this little seed that grows wherever it lands. The Kingdom of God is still growing, still reaching, still spreading…
In the Old Testament, particularly in Daniel, the Psalms, and Ezekiel, the mighty cedar represents great power. Sometimes the power was that of God’s and sometimes it was of that of a ruler that thought they were more powerful than God. In our reading today, the poem by the prophet Ezekiel uses the image of the mighty cedar as warning to the king of Egypt that his kingdom –is like the Assyrian one before him – the prophecy is that this tree will fall as it has before. Have you ever seen the destruction when a mighty tree falls? Not only is the tree destroyed, but so is everything around it and that is what was happening in Israel each time a kingdom fell.
To say that God’s kingdom is like a cedar wouldn’t have made sense to Jesus. He understood that God’s power and might were beyond our human understanding. The power and might of the human kingdoms is not what God’s kingdom is like.
Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God is not a destination or a grand tree to climb to reach the clouds, he doesn’t even say that God’s kingdom is like a Mustard Plant… no, he says it is like the Mustard seed that is sown. It is still full of potential! It has the potential to grow into being shelter and comfort to all who flock to it. The Kingdom of God is like the seed that can grow anywhere. If given the chance, the seeds of the kingdom of heaven will grow among all the other things growing in the garden until it takes over! Unlike mighty cedars, weeds don’t really fall down. Anyone who has had weeds in their garden know that they come back again and again and again. They grow, and they grow, and they grow.
The summer after the great storm at Berwick, I noticed something that I hadn’t before. In the sunlit places left behind where the mighty trees had once shaded, were now full of saplings and sprouts of all kinds plants and grass – and there were dandelions too. Dandelions are another weed that we want to hack out of the ground yet they provide so much goodness for the creatures like honey bees. What if the parable was “The Kingdom of God is like a dandelion…”
In any case, I had never seen so much green on the ground that had always been just brown with pine and hemlock needles. But where the trees had fallen, new life was able to take hold in the soil and grow. I wonder if that is what is like when we let go of our lofty ideas about what life should be like and begin to focus on the simple things. The Mustard Plant provides just as much shelter and protection for the birds as the mighty cedar after all, but unlike the cedar that takes forever to grow and requires just the right conditions, it seems that Jesus might be saying that all the kingdom of God just needs us. That’s it. And, if we let it grow, it will grow and we will start to see it invade all the areas of our lives. The more we let go of the desire for power and wealth and all the things that we think of as mighty then room is made for more heaven in our lives – there is more room for God.
So, how do we reconcile this idea that the Kingdom of God is like a little seed that will turn into a weed which is something that we usually fight against??? Don’t we want the Kingdom of God? I think we do, but we resist it because we think that the riches of the human world are easier to harvest. We have been fooled into thinking that God’s kingdom is beyond our reach in the highest branches of the tallest tree. But it’s not – it’s as close as bending down to pick a dandelion.
Maybe I connect with this idea of a pervasive, weed-like, almost annoying God because it reminds me of how God has worked in my own life. I have never been able to get rid of God… and I can tell you I have tried more than once, but God just kept growing back into my life each time I tried to cut God off. The things that really matter in my life are simple things and I think these are like the mustard seeds that plant the potential for an experience of the Kingdom of God in my life. Things like a roof over my head, clothes on my back, a hand to hold, a friend to hug, tasty food, fresh ocean air, a good book, some sunshine, a good storm, and even dirt between my toes. These things are grounding.
Whenever I have tried to plant the seeds for extra things in my life. You know the things I want, but not the things I need? – particularly things like money, expensive clothes, fancy vacations, or concern about my reputation as a business woman and maybe even now when I seek perfection in my academic work – I experience a profound sense of being out of balance. For me, this experience easily leads to depression and anxiety. And to me, that feels a lot like falling. I think that the higher you get climbing after those things you don’t really need, but that you think you want because the world tells you that is what success is, then the farther you have to fall when you realize those aren’t the things that really matter.
When our lives are out of balance and the ‘extra stuff’ becomes more important than the simple things then we are all at risk of this fall. What each of us need is going to be unique to our journeys as is what it will look and feel like for us to be out of balance. I think all of us experience feeling unbalanced and ungrounded from time to time.
This coming week I invite you to think about this image in your own life. Where are you likely striving to climb a mighty tree, rather than seeking the comfortable nest of a gentle shrub that’s right in front of you. That’s where I think Jesus is calling us in this parable. Out of our lofty towers and trees and a little bit closer to the ground where the seeds of God’s love are sown. What is it that grounds you and reminds you that you belong to God?
Bernard Brandon Scott, one of my favourite writers on parables, suggests that they are “entrances into a mystery”. I invite you to enter into that mystery with me, that mystery of God and let yourself be stirred up to think about what these parables mean to you….there are no easy answers, and often just more questions, but let those questions fill your heart as you leave this place. Let those questions ground you in an experience of God.