“The Greatest of All”
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
March 15, 2020
I was going to talk to you about trees this morning. Trees are our theme during this Lenten season—remembering our walk with God using some of the great tree texts. So I was going to talk to you about trees this morning. And then the town ran out of toilet paper and I wasn’t going to talk about trees any longer.
It has been a wild week to put it mildly and it looks like there may be even wilder weeks to come. I don’t know about you but the uncertainty of it all has left me feeling on edge. It has left me worried and checking news websites way more times a day than is normal. And I know it cannot just be me who has been feeling this way because, as I mentioned before, Fort Smith is out of toilet paper. Yes, it has been a week of wondering and of worry.
If I had talked to you about trees this morning, I would have told you about the World Tree that was believed in by many ancients of both Daniel and Jesus’ time. For them, the world was flat and rooted into the center of this flat earth was a tree whose branches reached throughout the earth. Some cultures even believed it was not only a World Tree but a Cosmic Tree that even the moon and stars rested in its branches. This tree grew so big that all living things would build nests or find shade in it.
I would have also told you that many kings and pharaohs took this idea of the World Tree and began to believe it stood for them. They were the World Tree that everyone talked about, whose influence reached throughout the earth. King Nebuchadnezzar dreams he is such a tree in our reading from Daniel 4. He dreams he is this World Tree whose height was incredible and who grew great and strong. Pharaoh is described the same way in Ezekiel 31: “his tree was beautiful in its greatness.” Assyria’s kingdom was the mighty world cedar tree. And on and on it went.
Even Israel got in the game. They began to believe that they too might fill the role of the great World Tree. Earlier in Ezekiel’s prophecies he describes that since God has planted them, perhaps they will be the next high cedar tree of the world, the greatest of all.
That’s what I was going to talk about if I had talked about trees today. But this doesn’t feel like a week to talk about might. Or about having power in the world. This week feels like a lot of powerlessness, like a big dose of smallness. Like what in the world should we do as we face this? What even can we do? It feels like a week when we’ve been put in our place. When our plans and even our standing in this world do not feel anything like a Cosmic Tree. Instead, our plans and even our place feel pretty insignificant.
That’s why I am not going to talk about trees today. I am not going to talk about them because God does not ask us to be the World Tree. He does not ask us to reach to the heavens or to stretch our influence over the earth. I know that God does not want this for us because in every case where the World Tree is described—in Daniel, in Ezekiel—for pharaohs and for kingdoms, in every case the tree is cut down. The tree falls. God does not ask us to be like that. That is not his calling for us nor is it his desire for our lives.
I also know that God does not want us to be the great tree because of this, one of the shortest of Jesus’ parables. Hear it with new ears today: “Jesus said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the 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.”
When we think of this parable we usually think about the seed: how small the mustard seed is to then grow into something so big and your faith only needs to be as big as that seed to become something huge. But I don’t know that this is the only thing that Jesus meant in this shortest of parables. I think he also wanted us to know what he wants us to be—and that is not the greatest of all trees, the noble cedar, the Cosmic Tree. He wants us to grow and grow until we can be the greatest of all…shrubs.
There is the great tree at the beginning of God’s story—the tree of life in Eden. And there is the great tree at the end of God’s story—the tree in New Jerusalem whose fruit is always in season. There are great trees in God’s story with us. And we are not them. We were not made to be. What has always been true has shown itself in sharp relief this week and will in the weeks to come: we are not very powerful, nor very mighty. We do not have much sway in this world. But with even this much faith in Jesus, we can be the greatest of all shrubs you’ve ever seen.
Don’t worry about being the greatest of anything else. Because the shrub has large branches too. The shrub has room for the birds to nest too. So frow enough to feed those who need nourishment. Grow enough to shelter those who need comfort. Let’s stop being like kings who dream of their might so that we can be the really great shrub Jesus hopes for us. For the shrub, when he is great, does not seek to be the tree. The shrub, when she is great, knows that of all the trees in God’s story with us there is only one Cosmic Tree that stands at the center of space and time and that is the tree that Jesus hung upon. That is the only tree that matters and that Tree is not one of power or might—at least not any power or might we easily understand.
Before this virus began to spread, we were going to walk the Lenten road to the cross. In walking toward it we were asked to set aside all our misguided priorities, our vanity, our self will. With the virus’ spread, our walk only becomes more real and present with us. We are still headed to the only tree that matters. In this time, do not try to be everything nor consider yourself nothing. Be just the right thing: be the greatest shrub God has made you to be. Shelter where you can; nourish where you can; have even the smallest amount of faith. And God will make it enough. Amen