Trees, we can’t live without them! Their roots hold the ground in place; their trunks provide wood for the builder and the artist; their branches are foundations for birds’ nests; their leaves are like an umbrella shielding the land from the burning, parching rays of the sun; their fruits are a harvest that nourishes the body and delights the taste buds; they combat climate change by absorbing CO2 and pollutants, while releasing much-needed oxygen on which we humans depend, to list only a few reasons to plant and maintain trees;
reasons that carry the echo of the words the prophet Ezekiel credited to God:
On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures
of every kind.
Trees, with the prophet acknowledging the Creator-God to be their source of life, living and growing to be of service to God’s creatures…with the cedar, planted in the hills of Lebanon called “noble” for its “boughs” and “fruit;” the “fruit” of its wood valued for its length and strength, small cones with flecks of resin used for incense and embalming, and its berries for fragrance and medicine; trees that past generations harvested almost to extinction,
but preserved as a symbol of a person who honors God by living by God’s commandments, and so the Psalmist sang:
The righteous …grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
showing that the Lord is upright; (Psalm 92: 12-15a)
Standing on a tree-less hillside, Jesus shrank that image as, in a teaching moment He said,
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable will we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,
yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs,
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Jesus’ listeners knew He was speaking symbolically when He said its tiny seed grows into a great shrub with branches large enough to provide shade for birds and hold their nests. The Middle East mustard trees around them were, and still are, a fast-growing, wide spreading weed – much like our wild mustard, rarely reaching to more than six feet, unless good soil and favorable weather increase their size to 10-15 feet, with slender branches that are only strong enough to bear the weight of small birds.
The mustard weed plants stand in striking contrast to the mighty Cedars of Lebanon; a contrast that broadcasts hope and consolation!
Jesus’ story pictures our lives as being the soil for this growth, which – by God’s intention and not human invention –makes us humans a garden for a mustard seed-sized life, minuscule in qualities and possibilities, and in belief and trust in God, yet made, as the Apostle Paul celebrated, to grow to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4: 13)
This congregation, and every assembly of people, are to be like soil sown with the Bible’s words, watered with the love of God poured out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and nurtured with the warming rays of God’s Spirit.
For us the image changes from the noble Cedars of Lebanon which fed the false hopes of ancient Israel as they demanded a king who would make them an all-powerful earthly kingdom, which proved to be disastrous for them,
and for any emperor and empire that stays on top until toppled.
For us the noble Cedars of Lebanon round about Jerusalem have been diminished by a cross-tree planted outside the city of Jerusalem on a hill were garbage was dumped. There the Roman Empire also raised a cross to execute contenders to their power. There they crucified Jesus.
For us His Cross becomes a tree that pictures God’s rule and reign of amazing love, a Cross-tree meant to grow in the soil-like life of every human being.
It’s time to plant the Cross-tree, especially in congregations where empty pews are causing those who are attending to be told by church growth experts it is because their soil is depleted. To reclaim what is lost, programs are proposed, and questions are used to provide the focus and incentive, such as: “What do you see is God’s vision for you five years from now? Where do you want your church to be?” and “What must you do to get there?”
As though growing a church is the work of humans, when, in Jesus’ Gospel story, it is God Who:
casts the seeds of the Bible’s Words in the soil of our life,
soaks them in Baptismal waters,
nourished with Christ’s nurturing and sustained presence received at the Table,
and, through the warming light of God’s Spirit,
yields the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness...and on to the count of nine with the
last being self-control.
God’s plan to grow God’s rule and reign, beginning with mustard weed-like people in congregations like ours, who worship and live under the sign of the cross that becomes a tree –
rooted in the sacrificial love of God in Christ,
bearing branches sprouting leaves
that are symbols of those who are meant to mature into the “full stature of Christ.”
It’s time to plant the Cross-tree and be both humbled and amazed with what God can do.
A husband and father who was a binge drinker would turn violent at home, drink up the money needed to put food on the table, and cause the family to fear they would lose their house. Until one day when taking his children to Sunday school, he began to see people whose lives were the soil for the seeds of a Christ-like life, and he asked God to use him for the same purpose.
His whole life changed. The family looked forward to being with their father; they began to develop their own faith in God, along with their Dad. (Adapted from Richard J. Fairchild, Sermons.com for June 7, 2015)
It’s time to plant the Cross-tree in the soil of our life, so that by God’s plan, we may grow into the “full stature of Christ.”