Of Pitch Pines and Mustard Seeds

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 17:22-24

Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

2 Corinthians 5:6-17

Mark 4:26-34

Prayer of the Day: 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, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

 “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” Mark 4:26-29

“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.” Mark 4:30-32.  

The most common tree on the Outer Cape region of Cape Cod is pitch pine. It isn’t the most beautiful or majestic evergreen, but I must confess that it has grown on me just as it has on the rest of the Cape. This scrappy, scraggly tree is perfectly adapted to our acidic, well-drained and sandy soil. The National Seashore that occupies most of the Outer Cape is dominated by forests of pitch pines, floored with a cushiony layer of needles and covered with scrub oak, beach plumb and hardy species of undergrowth that I can’t begin to name. It wasn’t always that way. The Cape was once dominated by dense cedars that blocked out the sunlight, leaving little opportunity for the smaller deciduous trees and shrubs to gain a foothold. You can still find a few patches of woods like these that have managed somehow to resist the pitch pine invasion. The forest around the Cedar Swamp Trail in the National Seashore at Marconi Beach is one such example.

The pitch pine was imported by European settlers. It’s pitch was used to make tar and turpentine as well as charcoal. The wood from these trees was used for firing steam engines and for brickyards. Once introduced on the Cape, pitch pines gradually began to dominate the landscape. Eventually, what was once a mixture of cedar forest and scrub land transitioned into pine forest. Ecologically, the Outer Cape is a place entirely different from the one on which the Pilgrims landed in 1620.

All of this brings me to Jesus’ two parables. The first is unremarkable. It reflects a reality of which every farmer and gardener is aware. You can prep the soil, plant the seeds at just the right depth and properly spaced. You can weed and water. But the growth is a matter beyond your control. Drought, blight, insect pests, flooding or hail can frustrate your best laid plans for a bountiful harvest. So it is with the reign of God. Disciples can seed the kingdom of God, but only God can bring it to fruition in God’s own way and in God’s own time.

By contrast, the parable of the mustard seed speaks not about the ordered practice of agriculture, but about the chaotic infestation of weeds. Though the mustard plant has always had its culinary uses, nobody in First Century Palestine would have planted it deliberately on any precious plot of arable soil. Like the pitch pine, the mustard bush is bent on dominating the field. It will transform your vegetable garden into a bird sanctuary.

Can we speak of the Kingdom of God as an invasive species? Is it like a non-native plant that sets down its roots, grows, spreads and finally transforms its environment? The analogy is a little discomforting, given that the pitch pine’s introduction to Cape Cod is tied up with the history of colonialism. I have no doubt Jesus’ comparison of God’s approaching reign with an infestation of weeds raised more than a few eyebrows as well. But maybe that is the point. The progressive Protestantism, in which I was raised, has always viewed the Kingdom of God as the endpoint of human development. From the darkness of barbarism, the light of Christ raises church and society up to a greater level of enlightenment. The realm of government, family and work are the arena for transformation of human existence along the arc of justice toward which the universe bends. The garden is, after all, a work in process. But what if God is not interested in the progress of the garden we envision? What if God has something entirely different in mind? What if the order, structure and patterns of regularity we reflexively defend are not the foundation for a fruitful harvest, but the servants of systemic oppression? What if revolution, not evolution is God’s intent?

In addressing these questions, a few things need to said. First, the reign of God is not to be identified with the church. It is the church’s mission to proclaim the reign of God, to bear witness in word and deed to that reign and, to the extent humanly possible, to embody that reign in its communal life. But the church is part and parcel of the current global environment and as much in need of transformation as the rest of it. If we forget that, we run the risk of equating ecclesiastical growth, programmatic success and societal influence with the transformative work of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t about us and what we are doing. It is about what God in Christ is doing. As theologian and preacher Karl Barth put it, the church is the crater left by Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we are not pointing to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims, we are just an empty hole in the ground.

Second, just as we dare not equate the church and its programs with God’s reign, so too we cannot confuse our own views of what constitutes progress in the direction of God’s reign with what God actually wills. We have seen for the last few decades the corrupting effect of alliances between religion and political agendas. We know all too well the tragic consequences of the church and its representatives seizing the levers of power to make history come out right and so hasten the coming of God’s reign. Jesus rejected the use of imperial force to bring about God’s reign and so should his disciples. This is so because, as Jesus points out, we know neither day nor the hour of the kingdom’s revealing. Nor can we begin to guess the means God is using to bring it about. I don’t suggest for one moment that the church or disciples of Jesus individually are to be politically neutral (as though such a thing were even possible!). In politics, as in everything else, disciples of Jesus are called upon to love their neighbors, especially those deemed “least” in the human family. I think I have some understanding of what that should look like and the actions I need to take in order to bring it about. But I don’t have the advantage of seeing the universe from God’s long range perspective with which my own well meaning efforts might not be in concert and might even be opposed. Thus, I can never blithely assume that “I am on the Lord’s side.” I can only pray that the Lord is on mine and that through my faithful work, God is working a change in my cultural environment.

So what kind of environmental changes would I hope to see the nearness of God’s reign bring about? I would like to see an environment where racial slurs-even the dog whistle kind-no longer find a place in public discourse. I would like to see an environment where all lives really do matter so that people of color no longer have to work so hard convincing the rest of us that theirs do. I would like to see an environment where political candidates who make their case with reasoned arguments and without resorting to falsehoods, insults and wise cracks are rewarded with electoral victories. This is hardly utopian and far short of the glory of God’s kingdom to which the scriptures testify. But it would be a better environment than we now have. It would be a better environment in which to live, work and raise our families. And if enough of us feel the impact of God’s approaching reign, if enough of us can be convinced that the way things are is not the way they have to be, if enough of us start believing that there is a better way to be human, who knows? We might wake up one day to find the ecological landscape changed.

Here is a poem by Bin Remke illustrating how linguistic, cultural and family influences shape us and transform us along with our communities. Can you see the Holy Spirit at work in these media striving to plant the seeds of a better environment in which to be human?  

The Melting Pot

“Who are you to tell us how to live or why,
et cetera?”   No Man, of course, and not so tall   
as is the current fashion, nor smart enough
in the acceptable modern way, to enthrall

the crowd with stories of my life among
the savages where I was home and growing
baffled day by day, raging through the night
as if it were new music I made, groaing.

It came to me today at lunch, the sound
of women in the next booth, a voice like
Aunt Odile’s—whom I never knew well
nor did I like her, but not her spite

but her voice like home-grown fame, a touch
gravelly, a considerable groan itself, it seemed.
They spoke outmoded French around me, never
to me, except to taunt, I thought.   She leaned

above me, on those visits, speaking to Mother
in their private French, laughing.   A boy
surrounded by the sound of foreign tongues
knowing what wasn’t meant for him:   toy

temptations, suggestive coils of syllables.
I learned Latin, for Mass, and did love
its terrific laddered randomness:   
The Blessed hovering Virgin above

every station of a boy’s new path, hormonal
disharmonies, her praises sung into hundreds
the first Tuesday of every month: and yet
Latin could not expose such shreds

of glittering flesh as I found in French,
not like the living tongue whose tip twined
into an Uncle’s mustache as he leered
at the wrong Aunt and winked and a fine

distance crystallized loud there, then
gone. Crashing like German. Father’s family
spoke clear English among the bayous, boys
and girls of immigrants accentless happily

German through two wars, not counting
Civil.   I had the tongue for arithmetic
and spoke it beautifully.   I loved to count:   
precision’s a tempting career, clicking

into a future like an abacus ignoring
all those accents around.
I never learned the luck of any
but English, bland and bound.

But only yesterday I heard a word
the mechanic said in Czech
to his cousin—shop rag—clearly centered
in a welter of incomprehension, the wreck

of my car at their wretched mercies:   shop
rag.   And he wiped his hands and cried   
for me, shrugging like a cousin would.
I wrote a check. I drove home, or tried.

So does it count?   Am I a man of passion or
child of comprehension?   “Father of little lusts
driving myself home who thinks:   Buy some
sentiment, a little like love and she must

speak French this time. She longs
for you, you know; it isn’t just the money.
America loves you for yourself alone”
and so I go for professional help, honey-

blond hair and a disposition like
a happy banker, whose French for dear
sounds like dog; the cost of living
is going up, loving her here.

Source: Massacre of Innocents, (c. 1995 by Bin Ramke; pub. by University of Iowa Press). Bin Remke (b. 1947) was born in Port Neches, Texas. He began writing poetry while an undergraduate at Louisiana State University from which he graduated. He earned his master’s degree from University of New Orleans and his Ph.D from Ohio University. Remke taught at Columbus College in Georgia for several years and he edited the University’s Press’s Contemporary Poetry Series. He currently teaches at the University of Denver. You can read more about Bin Remke and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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