Towering Trees; Pesky Weeds

Text: Mark 4:26-34

Date: June 13, 2021

“Love your enemies; do good to them.” This morning, I want to talk about what I believe to be our supreme nemesis – trees. Call me crazy, but I’m convinced that deep within us, we are envious of trees, of their endless majesty, their immortality, their transcendence. Let’s begin this morning with two stories. Both extremely ancient; both teach us about humanity in its very essence.

The first is the oldest literary work in history – the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is a legend about a real Sumerian king of Uruk, who ruled around 2700 BCE. Gilgamesh famously built the first walls around his city to protect his people from foreign invaders. Hundreds of years later, the Sumerians honored him by writing a story about human existence with Gilgamesh as the main character.

Gilgamesh is a wonderful tale about our fear of death; our futile quests for immortality, and our longing for fame. The story opens with Gilgamesh peering over the city walls watching cadavers float down the river. The Sumerians honored their dead by sending their bodies down the river. Well, seeing these bodies haunts Gilgamesh; it forces him to realize that one day, he too will die. While his city walls may protect him from intruders, they cannot spare him from his ultimate fate – death. Someday his body will float down that river.

When Gilgamesh realizes his mortality, he becomes furious. Raging against his finitude, he has a vision: he will travel into the sacred forests and chop down the cedars because they have what he wants – transcendence and immortality. Cedars are taller and wider than humans. They stretch to the heavens; they cover the earth. They live for thousands of years. Gilgamesh decides to project his fate onto the forest. He will make logs float down the river. They will be the new cadavers, which he will then use to erect monuments to immortalize his fame.

Gilgamesh’s journey to deforest the cedars ends in vain. While slaying many trees, his best friend dies in the process. Upon his friend’s death, Gilgamesh recognizes that fame and monuments will not console him. All the logs he sent down the river will not spare him from the same journey. At the end of his journey he frustratingly proclaims: “Man, the tallest, cannot stretch to the heavens … man, the widest, cannot fill the earth.” Gilgamesh will never be a tree.

The second story I want to tell today is more familiar to us. It too is a tale of humanity’s quest for power, fame, and glory. It’s the story of two earthlings in a garden – earthlings we know as Eve and Adam.

I use the term earthlings because the author wants us to know that humans were created to be intricately connected to the earth. “God formed the human being, Adam, dust from the fertile soil, Adama.” That adam was created from adama highlights that God created us to have a specific relationship with the earth, with the dirt under our feet.

This relationship is clarified a few verses later when we read: “And God took the earthling and set him in the garden to work it and serve it, to preserve and observe it.” God creates Adam to be Eden’s protector and observer; to be respectful of the limits built into the created order. God created us to live in harmony with one another and the created order.

But like Gilgamesh, Adam and Eve become discontent with being earthlings. They longed for glory, fame, and power. So they try to transcend their creatureliness by treating the garden as their possession. And it’s no coincidence that their revolt against God’s creation centers around an act of abuse against the one thing God ordered to spare – a tree. Much like when Gilgamesh deforested the cedars of the sacred forest, Adam and Eve’s anger over their finitude propelled them to disrespect the limits of the created order. And they took out their anxieties on the one thing that had everything they thought they wanted, a tree. Trees are our ultimate nemesis.

It’s no coincidence that two of our oldest tales center on our abuse of trees; sadly we humans have never ceased reenacting this gesture of Gilgamesh and Adam and Eve. In the words of the Joker to Batman: “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” Deep inside us, humans have a destructive impulse with respect to nature, and particularly forests, that goes well beyond greed for material resources or the need to domesticate the environment. It is as if we project onto nature our anxieties of finitude which hold us hostage. We take our fear of death out on the trees because we are jealous of their immortality, transcendence and their majesty. 

This is why so many of humanity’s ideas have been plundered from trees. Humans are often caught in a “mimetic trap” where we imitate our enemies because we long for what they have. Where we want something not because we need it, but simply because they have it and we do not. Well this is especially true of us and trees. Much of our knowledge, our systems, and our ways of conceiving identity have been stolen from them, in hopes of grasping the eternal dominion they seem to have, and that we desperately want.

One of the clearest examples is how we chart history. Which I know very well because my grandmother is obsessed with genealogy. Her den is cluttered with charts and notebooks displaying numerous genealogical trees which trace our family’s history back tens of generations. Years ago she discovered that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, was my forty-second great-grandfather. The only reason she is even remotely interested in the internet is because it helps her trace our family history in hundreds of directions. I’m positive that her interest in genealogy is for her to transcend her finitude and place herself inside a much larger, taller, denser story. Those genealogical trees are one way that we long to deny death and mimic the trees.

That’s not all; our languages have been inspired by trees as well. What do we call our base etymological words? Roots. From these roots stem all other words. Much of our mathematical concepts too are indebted to trees. We learn factoring by creating factor trees. Math has radical numbers and binary trees. Similarly our government and military distinguish their parts as different branches of a unified tree. And how we understand cells, that too has been linked to trees. The connections of neurons are called dendrites, which is just the Greek word for trees. The list goes on and on. It’s utterly amazing how much we have plundered from trees – from ontology, to philosophy, theology, anatomy and biology, trees have dominated our fundamental structures of thought. Even the concept of the circle, we are told, comes from the internal rings laid bare by fallen trees.

It’s the prophets who first warned us against mimicking our identities and societies on trees. Scattered throughout their writings are a series of parables linking trees to our desires for domination, of empire and war. These prophets understood that we have never fully come to terms with our humanity. Our fascination with trees is linked with our insatiable desires for expansion, fame, and power. And they recognized that empires are our latest attempt to mirror the great forests, to fulfill Gilgamesh’s vision to stretch to the heavens and cover the earth. So the prophets frequently spoke of the tree as a metaphor for empire.

The most well known tree parable is found in Daniel. Here the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, dreams of a tree at the center of the earth. Its height is enormous; its top reaches to the heavens; it’s visible to all the ends of the earth… and all the birds of the air nest in its branches. When Daniel interprets the dream, he explains that Nebuchadnezzar’s reign mirrors the greatest of the trees. His empire’s dominion appears to be eternal. It’s as vast and powerful as anything humanity has created. However, one day, Daniel states, the king’s tree will be cut down. Nebuchadnezzar too will die. All that will be left is a stump.

Throughout Ezekiel’s writings too are a series of  prophetic tree parables. Here the prophet attempts to persuade Israel to remain faithful to God even though it dwells in the shadow of the tall cedars of the surrounding empire. Ezekiel calls Israel to resist becoming a tree like the other nations, to not seek security and greatness through military alliances and expansion. They are to take a different path, one not bound by the structures of hierarchy and imperialism.

But even this great prophet cannot free himself completely from the allure of trees. His imagination is still stuck within the images of roots, radicals, and branches. Ezekiel insists that one day Israel again will “become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in its branches… All the trees of the field will know that the Lord brings down the tall tree and makes the small one grow tall.” We have been so envious of the majesty and transcendence of trees, that it’s almost impossible to free our imaginations from them.

Our Gospel text presents us with Jesus’ rendition of a prophetic tree parable: “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like? How shall we describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant into the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.” If you listen closely, you hear the common chorus repeated throughout all the prophetic tree parables: “all the birds of the air can perch in its shade.” Here’s an example of intertexuality. Jesus wants us to read this parable in light of Israel’s prophetic tree parables.

But there is an irony in Jesus’ example which would have been quickly grasped by fellow Israelites. If you’ve ever planted mustard seeds, you know why. Mustard plants are a nuisance; they are a scrubby weed. They are almost impossible to manage and contain. And they threaten any other plants which grow in their vicinity. When allowed to grow wild, mustard plants transform the landscape of a place and spoil its environment.

Pliny the Elder, a Roman from Jesus’ time who wrote on nature, had this to say about the mustard plant: “With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, once it has been sown, it is impossible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.” 

That’s the unique thing about mustard weeds. They live to disperse seeds. Unlike trees, mustard plants live at most for two years. Mustard weeds are not perennials. They aren’t interested in sending down roots to the ground. They don’t desire to reach the heavens. It’s rare that one actually ever becomes a shrub. Only wild mustard reaches this size. But one small mustard plant can produce over 5000 seeds. And once they produce seeds, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them. Pulling the weed simply spreads the seeds all over. You can try to burn them, but bare soil enhances the survival of seedlings that germinate after the fire. 

And wild mustard, it grows everywhere. It is one of the few plants that grows well in Greenland and the magnetic north pole. It grows rapidly in the desert. Sahara mustard is a robust, fast-growing, drought tolerant weed that actually prefers sandy soils. It pretty much loves growing everywhere under the sun, and overtakes anything in its path. For this reason, Jews had strict laws about where mustard seeds could and could not be planted.

And the last place that one was allowed to plant mustard seeds was in a field. For in a field there is absolutely no way to contain the mustard weed. No way that it can be nurtured and managed. But according to Jesus: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.” Sowed in the one place where it was illegal to plant it. It’s hard not to think that here Jesus is proclaiming that God’s kingdom is like a weed plant in the space where it can spread quickly and overtake all other forms of life.

Why does Jesus compare the kingdom of God to an illegal weed? Jesus is trying to free our imaginations from the world of trees. The kingdom of God is nothing like the majestic cypress or the mighty cedars of Lebanon. Instead Jesus sarcastically gives us an anti-tree to describe God’s kingdom – the invasive, nuisance mustard plant. And not just any mustard plant, but a wild one, spreading seeds in every direction; one that has so completely overtaken the ground that now birds feed on the mustard weed. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus deliberately compares the rule of God to a pesky weed.

One of our greatest temptations as humans is to mimic the trees. To expand to the heavens, to stretch as wide as the earth, and live seemingly forever. Our imaginations are captured by their stability, by their majesty, and their power. So we rage against our finitude by trying to make a name for ourselves, by hoping to transcend our creatureliness, and by searching for ways to deny the reality of death. Trees are our greatest nemesis.

Natalie and Gretchen, your lives are in front of you. It is an exciting time and I cannot wait to see where God is leading you. I hope you know that this community will always be here to support you, to offer wisdom, to celebrate life, to journey alongside you. And it’s easy to be tempted at all times, but especially now, by the desire to do something great, majestic, life-altering. And that’s not a bad thing. The question is why? Is it to make a name for yourself? To transcend your humanness? Or is it because you want to create new life, beauty, hope and joy in this world? Is it because you want to toss seeds of God’s life, everywhere?

Because what Jesus helps us see this morning is that our lives and God’s kingdom should more closely resemble a wild biennial weed, something like the mustard plant. Our lives are to be scrubby weeds that live to disperse seeds, seeds of God’s hope and love wherever we go. Weeds that transform the landscape around us, ones that are deemed a nuisance by the world, weeds not afraid of death, and yet are seemingly impossible to get rid of. We are to be weeds that spread in every direction, constantly morphing, constantly incorporating new life, while in the process, gaining access to new nutrient sources.

So this is my challenge this morning to you, to everyone here: Let’s free our imaginations, which for far too long have been captivated by the majesty, immortality, and transcendence of trees. Instead seek to become organisms like the wild mustard weed. Being a weed is hard work. Living to disperse seeds takes constant energy and commitment. In times of trial, our first reaction will always be inward, to send down roots in hopes of securing stability. Just never forget that Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is more like a weed than a tree. So be that pesky weed which rapidly disperses the new life of the kingdom, in whatever directions God leads you. Amen.

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