Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
At the start of today’s service we prayed, “O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world. Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need.”
Where can we find this tree of life? Well, in scripture, it is the cross of Christ upon which he was crucified. It is the tree at the center of the New Jerusalem with fruits for all and leaves that heal the nations. It is the tree standing in the garden of Eden at the beginning of time. It is the tree from which Jesus calls us now in the parable of the mustard seed. Come eat, drink, and be healed.
Can we return to Eden? Can we find the New Jerusalem? Scripture says the Lord God drove Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. God sent them forth ‘to till the ground from which he was they were taken’ (Genesis 3:23). That was about 10,000 years ago. At least, that’s around the time archeologists and historians say year-round agriculture first began.
Humans shifted from living in small bands of hunter-gatherers to settle upon the land. Farming gave rise to cities and the development of many familiar institutions of civilization, such as centralized government, social stratification, organized religion, and organized warfare. It also saw the creation of the first writing system, the first alphabet, the first currency in history, and law codes, early advances that laid the foundations of astronomy and mathematics, and the invention of the wheel—all the way up to modern medical and technological innovations of today.
Truly, humankind did eat of the fruit of that other tree—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Mostly, we celebrate what we have learned. Yet, for all our progress, we have yet to forge a civilization which will not lead inevitably to extinction. In fact, according to historian Yuval Noah Harari, for most of us, even the quality of our days and the variety of our diet does not yet surpass that of the average hunter-gatherer of the Stone Age, when humans wandered God’s Garden, eating whatever the natural world provided.
The truth is, we never left this Garden because there was no place else for us to go beyond planet earth. (At least, not yet.) No. We left the Garden behind when we decided we no longer needed God. We seized control and the Anthropocene age, that is, the period during which human activity became the dominant influence on climate and the environment, began.
I want to suggest to you today that the parables of Jesus, like those we read today, are an invitation to return to God’s Garden. They are an invitation to dream of the New Jerusalem. The flaming sword of the cherubim guarding the way to the Tree of Life allows all those to pass who are disillusioned now. All those who hunger and thirst for justice, those who have lost all hope in mere knowledge to save us, those who are sick from drinking the poison of self-sufficiency, superiority, and self-righteousness will find a key that unlocks the way to new life, to healing wisdom, to the rekindling of hope, to the tree of life itself. It is not this planet that must change but the transformation of our hearts and minds that is the key.
‘The church of Jesus Christ must become, as it once was, an “embodied force opposed,” a beloved community of defiance, a joyful but resilient colony of dissenters from the forces of death—both physical and spiritual—that destroy and marginalize creation. Compliance with the unacceptable, even through apathy or indifference, is a sin. The body of Christ was born to resist in love all that is the enemy of love. This cannot happen, however, until human beings are themselves freed from the illusions that afflict us—that is, until we are “undone.”’ (Excerpt From: Robin Meyers. “Spiritual Defiance.”) Then the way to the tree of life, to God’s Garden, the way to the New Jerusalem stands open again before us.
It is hard to imagine what it would have been like to hear the parable of the sower and the mustard seed for the first time, particularly if you were a tenant farmer in debt to a landlord and in service to the whims of the Roman Empire. Your life and the sweat of your brow were not your own. On their face, neither parable makes any sense. Are you joking, Jesus?
Jesus said, ‘The kingdom is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground, and goes off to sleep, leaving “the earth to produce of itself.”’ Yet clearly, any tenant farmer would know this is irresponsible behavior, and possibly, might even be criminal. Jesus said, ‘The kingdom is like someone who sows a tiny mustard seed in the ground, and it grows into a gigantic bush, large enough to offer birds shelter in its branches.’ But mustard is an invasive weed. Its soft bendy branches aren’t good for anything. Even to this day, farmers in the Midwest fight to uproot and eliminate it.
But those that have ears to hear will listen. Jesus is saying that God is at work in the world in surprising, counter-cultural ways. Jesus is saying God can work with small. God can take ordinary lives, our poor gifts, and magnify them into something great. “God’s insurgency looks weak. It’s a handful of tiny seeds falling between our fingers, an unpromisingly sown field waiting to produce we know not what (Mark 4). And yet, look! A crop we couldn’t have imagined that the dark loam of the earth throws up overnight, a bush that makes shade for every [kind of] bird. This is the way God’s insurgency of goodness works. It looks pitiably weak. It’s actually unstoppably strong. One day it will flood the world with love the way God has always intended.” (Pastor Jason Byassee, Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, N.C., published by Sojourners.)
Here Jesus topples any self-importance we might have nurtured about our piety, and empties all pompous notions about our prized traditions, institutions, culture, refinement, and the arts. The judgment upon Jesus’ message was decisive. The world flung out the parables and gospel of Jesus onto a garbage pile outside Jerusalem and violently put both him and his message to death on a cross. To which God responded creatively, gracefully and just as decisively with a resurrection for Jesus and also for us. God’s free gift poured out upon all people. Here stands the tree of life for all world-weary eyes to see, and hate-deafened ears to hear.
You and I are invited, not to return to the Stone Age, but to forge a new way of life more in harmony with nature, in collaboration with each other, in an alliance with the stubborn, persistent, opportunistic, creative, relentless, power of grace tirelessly working when we are sleeping and when we are awake for the good of us all and every living thing. Can we imagine a new economy that provides basic necessities for everyone without exceeding the finite capacity of the planet as they have already begun to do in Scotland, Costa Rica, Slovenia, and New Zealand?
The tree of life becomes a living sanctuary. Let life’s storms rage. Let injustice, violence, racism, and hatred do its worst. The kingdom of God will flourish and take over –“so that birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:32). I see the signs this sacred tree here in this courtyard, decimated by the feet of little children who needed a safe place to play during the pandemic. I see other signs too, when you helped families throughout Edgewater put food on the table through Covid Assistance grants; when you provided support and stability for a family torn apart by deportation; when you gather playgroups to play with the parachute in Senn park; when you convene an interfaith dialogue for peace; when you make space for youth to connect and find their voice for social justice; when you help seniors find resources and community; when an Eritrean refugee boy finds a new home (Yes—that has been a profound blessing to me and my family and would not have happened without of you –this community); whenever we gather in person and online to hear and drink God’s Word—you become a living sanctuary.
We would not get there on our own. We could not find this tree of life. We could not enter God’s Garden, nor glimpse the streets of the New Jerusalem without grace that renews our hearts and minds and gives us eyes to see and ears to hear what God makes plain right here in our midst. God knits layer upon layer of strength as our lives are woven together. For too long, humanity has disregarded this sacred tapestry, wearing holes in the web of life, threatening the very life of all life on this planet.
Jesus’ crazy parables are not only about the surprising character of God and of grace, they are an invitation to be planted, to become like seed, to be plunged into the dark earth and there to die alone, in order that our lives might be broken open and our gifts multiplied like bread for the world, to let ourselves be grafted like branches into the tree of life itself, to return to God’s Garden, the Garden of Eden, and to enter the streets of the New Jerusalem with all the saints in light.