June 13, 2021

Making the low tree, high

Passage: Ezekiel 17:22–24, 2 Corinthians 5:14–19, Mark 4:26–34

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

A beautiful poem penned by the American poet Joyce Kilmer written in February 1913, it was first published in Poetry: A magazine of verse.

Trees are amazing. We have a couple of huge trees on our property. One is an elm and it drops all kinds of stuff into our yard. And it drops a lot of leaves and usually waits till after it snows to drop its leaves.
But it sure is beautiful and has lots of shade and high up in the branches there is a big nest.

I am not a scientist so I cannot verify these facts particularly, but my understanding is that trees and plants in general have a lot to do with the oxygen we have in this world. There is much debate as to what percentage of the oxygen comes from the rainforests, and it is probably true that most of our oxygen comes from marine plants, but in general, photosynthesis in plants and trees generates oxygen.

And trees also help take water from the earth and release it into the atmosphere which causes rain.

And Jesus today talks about plants. Specifically, today he likens the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed which grows up and becomes greater than all the herbs and puts out great branches, so that that the birds of the sky can lodge in it.
That is Mark’s version.
Luke’s version is that the mustard seed grew and became a large tree and the birds of the sky lodged in its branches.

Now scholars have looked at this. In general, mustard doesn’t grow into what we think of as a tree. There is a plant called black mustard with can grow up to 9 ft tall, and its seed is quite small.
Birds don’t particularly live in this plant. It isn’t big enough.
But, may I remind you that we are dealing with a parable, and parables are not always literally true.

The idea of this parable is that of a small seed turning into a very big plant, and it suggests I think to the average person who heard Jesus speak, that even though they were small in comparison to the kingdoms of this earth, such as the Roman Kingdom, or even though they were just one person in the land of Israel, their smallness is not a deterrence for doing big things in God’s dominion of love.
Another idea that is quite popular is, that when the gospel or good news of Jesus is told, it spreads and grows; and so, God’s dominion of love grows like a wild weed.

That is the general idea.

But, I would like to step back for a moment into the agrarian society in which Jesus lived and put this story in context.

Farming and sowing seed was very common in Israelite life and had been for hundreds of years if not thousands of years.
They did not have big combines and threshing machines and tractors pulling ploughs and harrows.

The sower went out to sow. And he had seed and he threw it on the earth. And just as Jesus tells it, not all the seed grew. There were birds, and rocks and weeds. There was also drought, disease, wind, and storm. The sower was lucky if the grain came back sixfold.

It was a precarious life, because if the farmer had a bad year, he and his family could starve.
The farmer had to pay rent, pay taxes, pay tithes, pay for seed and tools, and pay for food. So, what often happened is that farmers would fall into debt. In bad years they would use their land as collateral on loan from wealthy landowners. There were no Chartered Banks… No Alberta Treasury Branch to provide loans to farmers.

These wealthy landowners usually charged interest, even though the Torah forbad the charging of interest.

When farmers defaulted on loans, they lost their land. At the time of Jesus, a lot of the land was now owned by wealthy landowners and farming families had lost their land.

This cycle of losing land was also addressed in the Torah which proclaimed that in the year of Jubilee which was every fifty years that slaves would be released and land given back to the original owners.
I might add that one of the reasons that people ended up in slavery was because of economic debt, like owing money for seed and food. There is no evidence that a Jubilee year was ever celebrated and the land was given back.

This is the context in which Jesus spoke to the people about sowing seed on the land. A lot of the land was already gone to the ultra-rich.

And so, when Jesus talks about 30 or 60 or 100 fold increase, we are talking numbers like winning the lottery.

These are unbelievable numbers. These numbers would see the safety and security of the famers and their families for years to come.

I have preached the parable of the sower many times and often spiritualized it. For instance:
There are times in my life when I am hard as rock and stubborn and God’s word doesn’t even take root
There are times in my life that when the going gets tough I lose faith.
There are times in my life when I am so busy that the cares of life choke out my relationship with God.
There are times in my life when I hear God’s word and am productive.

And there is nothing wrong with that interpretation.

But there are other interpretations.
Another one is this: When God’s kingdom comes, or as I like to call it, God’s dominion of love. When God’s dominion of love comes, then there will be a Jubilee that will eradicate poverty, and redistribute abundance.
Then the farmers will have their land and will harvest abundantly and all will have food and land and plenty.

Last week I talked about the strong man…those forces, or institutions, or systems, or dictators who dehumanize and take from the weak.

One can read chapter four of Mark in the same vein. This can be read as a direct reference to the strong man who has taken much of Israel’s land away from the everyday person who is trying to scratch out a living.
And Jesus will go on to talk about parables indicating that there will be many people who don’t get this, and don’t want to get this. They will refuse to understand it. They will not have ears to hear.

It is much easier and more palatable to interpret the parable of the sower as: I am the good ground and those people over there are the bad ground.

It is easier and more palatable to interpret the parable as: I have four types of ground within my own self, and I need to strive to be receptive ground to God’s word and God’s love.

It is harder I think to interpret the parable to say that the system and culture we live in is bad ground, which means that the rich take most of the grain and the poor get left next to nothing. That we need to change the system so that the poor, and the average person can sow and reap enough for a decent living.

And I am not sure that one interpretation precludes the others. It is possible, as with all parables, there are several interpretations which are all valid and meaningful.

But I want to take this notion that these scriptures today in Mark’s gospel chapter four, in addition to spiritual messages and interpretations, are a kind of political and social commentary. Therefore, let us look more specifically at the parable of the mustard seed.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention in this little parable that the birds come and take shelter in this tree, this shrub, this plant.

And that is significant because there are several parables in the Old Testament that talk about a tree, or trees and their sheltering characteristics.

In Judges there is a parable where the good trees, the olive, the fig and the vine all refuse to abandon their productive tasks to be king. And so instead the nasty thorn bush is invited to be king. The thorn bush invites people to take shelter in his shade, and if you don’t, then fire will come out and destroy you.
This parable is told in reference to a bad judge who killed all but one of his seventy brothers.
The thorn tree offering shade is a bad ruler.

And then Ezekiel has tree parables. In one parable in chapter seventeen the parable’s meaning is about a bad king of Israel who broke his treaty.
And God promises to raise up Israel to be a great cedar where winged creatures of every kind will nest.

And there then is another parable in Ezekiel where the king of Assyria is likened to a tree where all the birds of the air made their nests, and yet Assyria’s empire crumbled.

And then in Daniel 4, Daniel interprets King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a tree at the centre of the earth, its top reaching to heaven, where the birds of the air nested in its branches, and all people were fed.
Daniel says that the great pride of this empire will be judged and he tells the King to repent and atone for his sins and give mercy to those he has oppressed.

So, when Jesus weaves a little parable talking about all kinds of birds in this great tree or plant that came from a little seed…
..the Israelites would know the context of how the parables of the trees, in what we call the Old Testament, are political references to bad leadership.
And they would know what Ezekiel was talking about when he said that the high tree is brought low and the low tree is made high.
Ezekiel is talking about equality, and justice, and raising up the average person who struggled for a living, and God bringing down the high and mighty.

What chance did the everyday person, the poor person, the low tree stand in relation with the power of the Judean Temple State, or the Power of the Roman Empire?
But Jesus says that even the smallest seeds and the least important people can bear fruit, and make a difference, and change the system, till one day there will be a tree of life and everyone, every bird, every type, all, will be welcome in its shade.

Maybe one day, the high tree will be brought low, and I don’t mean so much a person…
…but the vast inequitable system.

In the God’s dominion of love, every one has land, and a vine to grow grapes, and wine, and food, and friends, and safety and peace.

I don’t know. Do you have a strong connection to the land?
Personally, I love the earth. I love the land. I like to walk on this earth, I like to smell the flowers, I like to hike up some hill and get a good look at the promised land.

When I was a child living in Hampton, there was a little mountain called Frost Mountain. My grandmother was Leah Frost and she grew up on the farm where Frost Mountain was. Frost Mountain was named after the Frosts who were United Empire Loyalists and came from the United States to Canada I think in the 1780’s. This mountain was on the original land grant to the Frosts on the Kennebecasis river in what is now New Brunswick.

I used to go up that mountain and see up and down that river valley. It was a special place.
Not only was I looking at God’s creation in a beautiful part of the world, I was connecting with my roots. My family settled there over 200 years ago.
And they were farmers, growing crops, eking out a living.
My grandmother was born there on that farm beneath Frost Mountain and she grew up on the farm poor. For Christmas she would get maybe an orange and a piece of candy.
When I was younger and a minister in rural parishes I like to help the farmers. Sometimes I bailed hay, or stacked hay in the barn. Sometime I harrowed a field. Sometimes I help feed the cattle, or helped split and stack firewood for the winter. I understand the connection people have to land.

It makes me think that Christian spirituality is not just about being connected to God, to Jesus, to Spirit, but to the creation.
I wonder if our lives are very much subconsciously shaped by our connection to this earth, to family, to a place where we felt safe and loved.
The scriptural image that comes to mind is that of “promised land.”
It came to be an image of heaven after we die, but the idea of promised land, was of a real place of safety, security and plenty here on this earth… and then it became associated with a time when the Messiah would come and wrongs would be righted, and all people on this earth would have a place and food and peace and wellbeing and shalom, and as Isaiah would write: the lion would lie down with the lamb, and as Micah would write everyone would sit under their own vine and fig tree an no one would make them afraid.
All of this is wrapped up in Jesus talking about seed and land and trees in Mark’s gospel.

Do you have a promised land, a special place, a safe place, a holy place where you connect to land, or creation and to God? It is that connection I think that helps us become sowers.
It is that connection that helps us plant seeds of love, seeds of mercy, seeds of connection, seeds of unity, seeds of forgiveness.

It is a crazy thing that Jesus talks about a mustard plant. Probably at Jesus’ time mustard was a weed. A noxious weed that took over. It wasn’t something to be prized, but eradicated.
And yet, Jesus uses it as the basis of a parable.
Maybe that is the way Jesus came to earth. As a tiny unwanted mustard seed of a baby, that the Big Tree Herod tried to wipe out… and that the Big Tree of Rome and the big Tree of the Sanhedrin crucified on a tree.
And yet Jesus gathered, and still gathers, all the unwanted, raggedy, sinful, outcast, mustard seeds together…
planting seeds of love and inclusion in them.
Seeds of peace and non-violence
Seeds of forgiveness and reconciliation
Seeds of kindness and compassion
Seeds of equality and justice…

Weed seeds… seeds of the Holy Spirit that blow where they will and there is not stopping them.

Seeds that grow into a giant tree of life where everyone is welcome and it doesn’t matter if you are a blackbird, a bluebird, a redbird, a snowbird, or a multicoloured bird. It doesn’t matter if you are a jay, a gull, a sapsucker, a cuckoo, or a tit.
It doesn’t matter if you are a scavenger, a raptor, a songbird or just a plain old sparrow.
God sees you, knows, you and loves you.

This tree is a promised land of radical inclusion, a place of safety, and a place of love.

Sermons are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree. Amen.