Big Trees

Big Trees

Matthew 13:31-32

by Daniel Harrell

We’re back to Matthew 13 this morning, plowing forward a few verses, but still sowing seeds, in this instance one single seed, the famous mustard seed. Ancients had long regarded as somewhat miraculous how such a small thing could grow so deliciously large. “It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.” Technically, as I understand it, mustard seeds don’t grow into shrubs or trees. Mediterranean black mustard is an invasive plant that grows up to 15 feet. Mustard plants grow tightly together in tight thickets capable of consuming entire countrysides and providing home to many species of bird, insect and rodents. It literally becomes it’s own ecosystem. This is how Jesus’ audience would have expected God’s kingdom to come—vast and glorious with enormous reach and power. They may not have mentioned the bugs and vermin finding a home, but everything else worked well by comparison.

On the other hand, Jesus focused on the size of the seed. While technically not the smallest of seeds, a mustard seed is quite tiny. Jesus had made a point in previous sermons about how kingdom come was already at hand. Here he has it in the hand of a sower, so small you can hardly see it. Bury it in the ground and you can’t see it at all. This, of course, was the point. Jesus would do his best work underground. It’s how seeds work. “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it cannot bear fruit,” Jesus said. Meaning his own death and resurrection.

In the parable of the sower, seed gets strewn onto every kind of dirt where it sprouts every time despite the dirt. Early Christians assumed the seed to be Jesus himself, the word and the kingdom made flesh. The problem was that centuries of heightened Jewish expectation presumed a mighty sequoia of a Savior, making it practically impossible for people to see God doing his kingdom thing in this seedy young carpenter from Nazareth, no matter his miracles. His family thought he was crazy. The religious leaders labeled him a blasphemer. Those who followed him didn’t really understand what was going on, and using parables to explain only muddied their minds. Jesus met every kind of resistance—hard rocks, choking thorns and devilish fowl. As seed, it did not compel soil to let it grow. But for the dirt that received it, the yield would be enough delectable dijon, yellow and spicy brown sauce for an eternity of flavor.

Horticulturists tell us that fall is the best time to sow seeds—surviving through winter makes for strong growth—another lesson from nature with life application. Out back, as you know, we have a couple of honeybee hives hoping to make it through winter. Like seeds, bees are small by themselves, but as a hive they have enormous impact as pollinators while producing their own flavorful honey. If the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the church is a beehive—a single super organism requiring every bug to bear its share of the load. You can’t be a bee by yourself—it takes a whole hive to raise larva, collect nectar and make honey, all the while providing for a flourishing world of beauty and fruit—love, joy, peace and goodness—all in service to the one queen to whom ever bee knee bows. And yet despite our best efforts, beehives in Minnesota, like churches, are dying off at an alarming rate. Last year a third of all hives failed to survive winter, this year the forecast is half.

Among the biggest problems for bees is the vicious varroa mite—a devilishly tiny red parasite that climbs on a bee’s back and sucks out their life, eventually killing the whole colony. Our hives are full of these mites, which we try and fight off with oxalic acid—wood bleach—but the forecast is grim.

Amazingly, these dying bees still managed to crank out fifty pounds of truly yummy honey—sufficient to keep your bagels sweet through the winter. Jars of this local, sacrificial sweetness are on sale after church, the proceeds to purchase more of the ten thousand cans of fruit we’re collecting for the Sheridan Story. Due to the good cause and great sacrifice involved, the honey is on sale for the outrageously high price of 25 dollars a jar. But like the kingdom of God compared elsewhere to a pearl of great price, this Colonial honey is worth every penny.

These bees could have actually made more honey had one hive not lost half its colony to a swarm. For reasons bee biologists don’t fully understand, worker bees sometimes decide to abscond sometimes decides to fly off with thousands of worker bees. They’ll find a new place to nest, a nearby tree of under somebody’s deck. (Fortunately we had a spare queen we were able to introduce to the hive, but that’s a sermon illustration for another Sunday.)

Churches, akin to hives, have suffered serious swarms of their own. Another report out last week, this one from the Public Religion Research Institute, confirmed the continued migration of Americans from churches. Entitled “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion–and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back,” the researchers found the number of nones, people with no religious affiliation, almost doubled to 39% of Americans, from 20% four years ago. Most nones are young, many have kids, though some are older too. Reasons for leaving included the usual list: outmoded mores regarding sexuality and science, the validity of other faith traditions, an overindulgence in politics and overall hypocrisy.

However the majority of Nones say they left because they just stopped believing. They didn’t so much reject religion as outgrew it. Remarked one respondent, “Once you stop attending church and doing Christian stuff, you discover how superfluous that stuff really is. Church tends to be mostly irrelevant ritual, a monetary drain and a drama factory.”

I attended a small gathering of dispirited ministers on Friday who’d all read the report—many hoping we can hang until we retire. Nothing has really worked to stem the losses: not loosening up institutional structures, not loosening up on theology and liturgy, not changing worship styles, not hiding Bibles where people can’t read them, not hiring cool clergy (an oxymoron if ever there was one). Churches focus on passing faith to their children, but according to the report this isn’t working either, at least if measured by kids keeping faith post-confirmation and through college.

In the midst of our own youth ministry transition, we’ve recognized a need for culture change in our church, one that’s more intentional and inclusive of families with kids in our larger congregational hive. Our Youth Ministry Task Force has done its own research and concluded that involvement of faithful adults in kids’ lives is critical fertilizer for spiritual growth. I’m leading Confirmation next season, and looking forward to working with the 25 adults who’ve agreed to help and mentor our students. We’ll also be looking to hire a cool pastor, just to be safe.

In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed meeting with this year’s students due to be confirmed in a couple weeks. Each Confirmand has to complete a project tied to their faith, and most are creating timelines or collages that display ways they’ve seen God at work in their lives. However, one student I spoke with asked whether it would be OK to do a project on all the ways he struggles to believe.

I asked him if he’d ever heard the Bible story of Jacob. He said no, not that he remembered. So I told him about how Jacob, an inheritor of divine blessing by way of deception, wrestled with the Lord and actually pinned God to the ground. No way, said the student. True word, I said. Genesis 32. God touched Jacob’s hip socket, and popped it out of joint, allowing God to wiggle free, but not before Jacob demanded another blessing. So God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means to wrestle with God, a name passed on to the whole nation of Jacob’s descendants. To wrestle with God is what it means to believe.

A few chapters forward in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will promise that if “you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Given the mustard seed’s puny size, we presume we can generate at least that much faith, but then we try for the mountain and nothing budges. Luke’s gospel lessens the degree of difficulty by saying mustard seed faith can uproot a mulberry tree and fly it into the ocean, but that doesn’t work either. Ergo the struggle. Hyperbole aside, we pray hard to get what we want, adding caveats and catch phrases, doing our best to pin Jesus down. But so often in the end we end up all out of joint, despite our best belief and best efforts. We’re forced to face the fact that we can’t even muster a mustard seed’s worth of belief. No wonder so many just stop.

But the mustard seed lesson is not about our failure to have enough faith to get a good yield. It’s about our need to yield to God. Good dirt is still only good as dirt. God’s power is in the seed—“boundless and incalculable… which at once created all things out of nothing, and every day raises up things that are not, in a manner which exceeds the capacity of the human senses,” to quote our friend, John Calvin. Despite every reason for despair, we Christians remain captive to hope. We believe in resurrection from the dead for Christ’s sake. One minister at that depressing clergy gathering on Friday pointed how how the authors of demoralizing report on Christianity in America did title it Exodus, which you’ll remember was the best thing that ever happened to Israel.

The kingdom of heaven is like a single mustard seed sown in a field. Seemingly nothing, it grows to encompass everything. The least ends up as the greatest, the last is first, loss is gain and weakness is strength. This is the mustard seed lesson. The amount of faith never matters as much as the direction toward which it is aimed. Weak faith is strong as long as it’s faith in Jesus.

Faith in Jesus is essentially surrender. And surrender does entail loss. Jesus said that by losing ourselves we do find our true selves. Loss means only the end of ourselves—it works like decaying matter absorbed into soil—the beginning of a deeper and deepening encounter with God. We can do this. Psychology and biology have both shown humans to possess an inborn ability to transcend self-interest and lose ourselves to purposes greater than ourselves, realities larger than the temporal concerns over security and reputation and success and acquisition that can otherwise dominate our thoughts. Christians call it our calling. Psychologists, you may remember, call it making “the hive switch.” Even bees weakened by mites make a whole lot of honey. It is the grace of God.

On the way out of my study, that confirmation student saw the stack of honey jars and a few frames of comb in the corner. “Do you have bees?” he asked. We do, I said, and told him about our hives and the mites and the struggle, and how we’d love him to help, but go ahead and taste the honey, isn’t it good? “That’s amazing,” he said.

We come to the communion table for another taste of God’s goodness, a small bit of bread and wine drawn out of Christ’s body and blood, a mere mustard seed’s worth, sufficient to move mountains. May we yield ourselves to its power.