Daniel 4: 1, 10-15a; Mark 4: 26-32
June 24, 2012
The other day I was down in the small garden our family has in our backyard at Folly Farm Circle. I was remembering an old hymn that my grandmother used to sing to me when I was a kid; a hymn I also remember hearing on the local Christian AM radio station I listened to as I fell asleep at night. It’s called “In The Garden,” and it talks about Jesus taking a walk with you in a garden. The refrain goes like this – feel free to sing it with me if you like:
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
And so I’m standing there in my garden, and I’m thinking about this song and Jesus walking with me and talking with me and telling me I’m his own. Except there’s something else he’s telling me: he’s saying, Steve, what is up with this garden?! See, there are a lot of wonderful things I inherited from my father, but apparently a green thumb was not one of them. Because, as hard as I’ve tried over the past few years, I cannot seem to grow much of anything in this garden. I mean, it’s pitiful, y’all. And there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus wouldn’t mince words. Seriously, Steve, I love you forever, but you call these tomatoes? How can you mess up tomatoes? And I’ve never seen a more pitiful green pepper. No, I daresay there would little joy shared as we tarried in my garden.
I think I know what our problem is, though. See, we have these big trees around the edge of the garden, and they cast just enough of a shadow to keep what’s below from getting full sunlight. I think that’s why our little garden struggles so much. Trees can do that, you know - cast a long shadow. We heard about one in the scripture passage Octavia read earlier. The tree that King Nebuchadnezzar dreamt about one night. Except this tree was much bigger than the ones around our garden. In fact, this thing was enormous! Tall and mighty, reaching to the heavens – so high you couldn’t even see the top of it. It was visible from all over the earth – imagine a tree as big as that! Full of leaves and foliage that provided shade for all matter of living creatures, as well as fruit to sustain them.
Kind of reminds me of the trees I remember seeing in the Redwood National Forest a number of years ago on a family vacation. Now, talk about some tall trees! 300 feet tall, dozens of feet in diameter. You stand in front of the trunk of one of these things for a picture, like my brother and I did; and you look so incredibly small, comparatively speaking. Enormous things those trees are.
And that’s the thing – their size symbolizes something. At least they do in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. These “cosmic trees” in ancient lore symbolize power, domination, influence. They reach up to the heavens, suggesting that they are inspiring to be divine, or already are. You don’t mess with trees like this.
And that is probably why the rest of the king’s dream troubled him so deeply, and why he sought the counsel of young Daniel. Because this huge tree, this life-giving tree that reached to the heavens and was divinity itself, this huge tree and its branches were all cut down. Nothing but a stump, it says! All that foliage and fruit, stripped away. All that shade, gone. All that power and domination and influence and divinity – no more.
And even though Nebuchadnezzar asked Daniel to help him understand his dream, he knew – he knew what it meant. And he was terrified by it; the thought of losing his power, as all people in powerful positions are. Just think of our own day and time; governments on the other side of the world, the “Arab Spring;” citizens forcing change upon regimes and leaders who do not want to give their power up. That’s the way it is with the cosmic trees – that’s the way it’s always been. When they are at their most powerful, they dwarf everything around them. But their power doesn’t last forever. It can’t. And so those trees eventually come down.
So what does last forever? That's the question, isn't it? What lasts forever? Let’s head back to the garden for a minute, shall we; back to that garden I can’t get anything to grow in. Well, that’s not entirely true, actually. There are a few things that grow quite well in there. Problem is, I don’t want them to! Weeds, my friends – wild plants that have no problem flourishing and taking over the beds I’m trying to till.
Strangely enough, Jesus talked about weeds a lot – he even made a parable about it. About a mustard seed. And the crazy thing is that, unlike the huge cosmic tree, this plant starts from something so small. Your typical mustard seed is usually one or two millimeters in diameter. They don’t make national parks for mustard seeds, y'all. Nobody gets their picture taken with one. But once these things start growing, it takes off and covers everything, like a blanket. Like kudzu, in fact – you know that stuff? “The vine that ate the South,” as it’s sometimes called? God’s kingdom is like kudzu – it grows wild and uncontrollable, and keeps on growing.
That’s what the kingdom of God on earth looks like, my friends. At least that’s the way Jesus describes it. It’s like a mustard seed. Think about that! It is the very antithesis of the cosmic tree Nebuchadnezzar dreamed about. It’s tiny and hardly visible at first. But when God’s kingdom takes root, it grows. Like kudzu! It takes over everything; and not by towering over it, but by spreading through it. You don’t even realize you’re under its reign until you wake up one morning and BAM, it’s there! You don’t really see God’s kingdom coming until you’re suddenly in it.
If only it were that easy, right? If only God’s kingdom really did spread like kudzu. The problem is, that’s not how things tend to work in our world. I mean, Jesus may be talking all about mustard plants, but we still prefer tall trees over tiny seeds, don't we? We want taller, bigger, better, stronger – something we can name a park after, something we can get our picture taken with. We gravitate toward what already is, not what someday will be. And that has always been the stumbling block for us as people of faith; as people preparing for God’s kingdom: we are a mustard-seed people living in a cosmic-tree world.
So how do we prepare for God’s kingdom? How do we contend with trees that tower over us? It’s interesting, the ways the church has dealt with this over the years. On the one hand, there are those who think that the way to go is to make God’s kingdom look like a cosmic tree. And so there are mega-churches run by mega-pastors and facilities that look more like entertainment complexes than tabernacle tents. But remember – tall trees eventually fall. Then there are those who take an opposite approach; something smaller than even the mustard seed. They withdraw from everything and try to build their own little garden in their own little corner of the world. Problem is, nothing can grow where there’s no room for it to.
You can’t make a mustard seed look like a cosmic tree. Nor can you put conditions on the growth of God’s kingdom on earth. To be the church, to be the active and vibrant body of Christ, we have to grow when and where God wants us to. We have to be tuned in to the movement of the spirit among us. And most importantly, we have to realize that the faith of a mustard seed is subversive and radical – living in a way that changes not just us, but the people around us as well.
I was thinking about one of those “mustard seed-kingdom” people as I was visiting my backyard garden the other day, remembering that old hymn about Jesus walking and talking with me and telling me I’m his own. The man’s name was Carl. Carl was in his 80’s and lived in a rough part of south Chicago, where gangs and drugs ruled the day and night. Carl was a quiet man many people didn’t know well, but he would always greet you with a big smile and firm handshake. When he saw the flyer at a local church asking for a volunteer to care for the garden behind the minister's manse, Carl responded in his characteristically unassuming manner. Without fanfare, he just signed on.
One summer day, though, the inevitable happened. Carl was finishing his watering when three gang members approached him. He offered them a drink of water, and they returned the favor by throwing him to the ground and robbing him of his watch and wallet. They had barely run away when the minister came out the front door and found Carl on the ground. Carl was matter-of-fact: Just some kids, he said. I hope they wise-up someday. And then, despite the minister’s protests, Carl went right back to his work in the garden.
A few weeks later, the three returned. Carl again offered them a drink from the hose. This time they didn't rob him. There was nothing more he had to steal. Instead, they wrenched the hose out of his hand and drenched him head to foot. Carl just watched them as they went on their way, laughing. Then he picked up the hose and started watering again.
Those three made a point of harassing Carl on and off all summer. He would always offer them a drink of water, and they in turn would mock or humiliate him. The minister tried to get Carl to quit, but Carl showed up every day on time, never missing a chance to care for the garden.
It was fall now, and Carl was doing some tilling one day when he was startled by the approach of someone behind him. He turned to see one of the young men in the group who had tormented him all summer. But this time, his demeanor was different. He held out to Carl a crumpled paper bag and told him that it was his stuff, everything he and his friends had taken from him before – the watch, the wallet, everything.
Why, Carl asked. The young man responded: I learned something from you. I ran with that gang and hurt people like you because I could. Because they couldn’t hurt us back. But every time we came and did something to you, instead of yelling and fighting back, you tried to give us a drink. You didn't hate us for hating you. You kept showing love against our hate.
Carl died one cold day after Christmas that year. There were many people at his funeral, even though he hardly said a word, even though people didn’t know much about him. The following spring another flyer went up in the community, asking for help with the church garden. One day soon after, the minister heard a knock at his door. Opening it, he saw a pair of scarred and tattooed hands holding the flyer. It was the same man who brought Carl’s stuff back to him that fall. I believe this is my job, if you'll have me, he told the minister. He gave him the job.
There were many things that happened in that young man’s life besides getting the gardening gig. He got married, he went to college, and became a prominent member of the community. One day he knocked on the minister’s door and told him that he couldn't care for the garden any more: My wife just had a baby boy last night, and she's bringing him home on Saturday.
The minister was elated at the news and congratulated him. What’s the baby’s name, he asked. With a wide smile the man said, His name is Carl.
Mustard seeds are so much better than cosmic trees, don’t you think? Because the kingdom of God is not about the size of the shadow we cast, or how powerful or influential we are. It’s about how we live our lives, who we live our live for, and how those whose lives come into contact with ours are changed for the better. It’s about the gospel of Jesus Christ growing like crazy in and around and through us, spreading to whomever we touch, changing them and us from the inside out. And I’m telling you folks, I’m telling you: that sort of stuff makes any garden a beautiful sight to behold. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.