Towering Trees, Pesky Weeds
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Mark 4:26-34
June 17, 2012
“Love your enemies; do good to them,” (Lk. 6:35) Jesus famously stated. Tonight I want to talk about what might be humanity’s supreme nemesis – trees. Call me crazy, but I believe that somewhere within us, we are envious of trees’ seemingly endless majesty, immortality, and transcendence. Let’s begin with two stories. Both stories are 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 legendary tale involving the real Sumerian king of Uruk, who ruled around 2700 BCE. Gilgamesh famously built the first walls 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.
The story is a wonderful tale about the hero’s obsession with death; his futile quest for immortality, and his monumental will for fame. The story opens with Gilgamesh peering over the city walls watching bodies float down the river. The Sumerians honored their dead by sending their bodies down the river. Well, seeing these bodies haunts Gilgamesh; they remind him that he too will one day die. While his city walls may protect him from intruders, they cannot spare him from death. Someday his body will also float down that river.
When Gilgamesh realizes his mortality, he becomes angry. Revolting against his finitude, Gilgamesh has a vision: he will travel into the sacred forests and chop down the cedars because they represent transcendence and immortality. Cedars are taller and wider than humans. They stretch to the heavens and cover the earth. They live for thousands of years. Gilgamesh decides to project his own fate onto the forest. He will make logs float down the river. They will become the new cadavers, and he will use them to erect monuments to immortalize his fame.
Gilgamesh’s journey to deforest the cedars ends in vain. While he slays most of the trees, his best friend dies in the process. Upon his friend’s death, Gilgamesh becomes depressed and again obsessed with his own death. Fame and monuments will not console him. All the cadaverous logs he sent down the river cannot spare him from the same journey. At the end he frustratingly realizes: “Man, the tallest, cannot stretch to the heaven … man, the widest, cannot fill the earth.” There is nothing he can do to circumvent his death.
The second story I want to tell tonight is more familiar to us. It too is a tale of humanity’s quest for power, fame, and glory. It should be fresh in your memory since Isaac preached on it last week. 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.
This relationship is clarified a few verses later when we read: “And God took the earthling and set him in the garden of Eden 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 all of creation.
But like Gilgamesh, Adam and Eve were discontent with being earthlings. As Isaac explained last week, they wanted to be the center of the universe; the top of the ladder. They longed for glory, fame, and power. So they tried to transcend their creatureliness by treating the garden as their possession. They ate of the one tree God specifically told them not to. Instead of serving as Eden’s protectors, they abused the trees of Eden much like Gilgamesh deforested the cedars of the sacred forest. Their anger over their finitude propelled them to disrespect the limits of the created order. They took out their anxieties on the one thing that had everything they thought they wanted, trees. Trees are our ultimate nemesis.
It’s no coincidence that two of our oldest tales center on our abuse of trees; sadly it seems that we humans have never ceased reenacting this gesture of Gilgamesh and Adam & 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 that goes well beyond greed for material resources or the need to domesticate the environment. It is as if we project onto the natural world our anxieties of finitude which hold us hostage. We take our humanness out on the trees because we are jealous of their immortality, transcendence and power.
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 want what they have. 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.
One of the clearest examples is how we chart history. Which I know far too well because my grandmother is obsessed with genealogy. Her den is cluttered with 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. Now she has traced our family history back much further than this. She’ll spend hours a day researching on the internet in hopes of filling in one of her missing branches. We use genealogical trees in order to transcend our finite bodies and place ourselves in a much larger, dense story.
That’s not all; our languages have been inspired by trees as well. Our base etymological words, we call 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 also 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 was the prophets who first warned us of the dangers of modeling our identities and societies on trees. Scattered throughout their writings, we find a series of parables where trees are presented as symbols of royal domination, of imperial culture, of war. These prophets understood that humans 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 finally fulfill Gilgamesh’s vision to stretch to the heavens and cover the earth. So the prophets frequently speak of the tree as a metaphor for empire.
The most well known tree parable is found in Daniel. Here Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, 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.
Our passage from Ezekiel is another prophetic tree parable. 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 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.” This parable is Jesus’ satire of our tendency to organize our societies after trees.
Jesus’ irony 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 author from the time of Jesus who wrote on nature, had this to say about the mustard plant:
“With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, once it has been sown, it is scarcely possible 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 two years. They aren’t interested in sending down roots into the ground. They don’t desire to reach the heavens. It’s rare for one to actually ever become a shrub. Only wild mustard can reach 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 the place. You can try to burn them, but bare soil enhances the survival of seedlings that germinate after the fire. For this reason, Jews had strict laws about where mustard seeds could and could not be planted.
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.
Chapel Hill Mennonite is a living organism; it’s a body, a plant that is constantly growing, constantly morphing in new ways. At its best, it’s a scrubby weed. It’s dispersing seeds of God’s love and hope throughout the Triangle. It’s consistently incorporating new life, giving access to new nutrient sources. And like a good weed, y’all are spreading everywhere. People are taking the good news they experienced here and sharing it wherever they go: Dallas, San Francisco, Washington, DC. Chapel Hill Mennonite is a pesky weed.
But as organisms get older, as they settle into patterns, the tendency … better yet, the temptation is to start mirroring trees. I see this at Peace Mennonite in Dallas. Forty years ago it began as a weed. They constantly found ways to spread God’s peace and justice to the larger Dallas community. But about twenty years in, after a series of trials, they started to focus on themselves. Searching for stability, they sent down roots deep into the ground; they firmly solidified certain ways of life. We are just now figuring out how to be a weed again.
Let me conclude with a challenge: continue to free your imaginations, which for far too long have been captivated by the majesty, immortality, and transcendence of trees. Instead seek to become an organism like the wild mustard weed. Being a weed is hard work. Living to disperse seeds takes quite a bit of energy and constant commitment. In times of trial, your first reaction will be inward, to send down roots in hopes of bringing 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.