Birds and Earth
August 19, 2012
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Many of you have probably read the novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. If not, you may have seen a movie version or the Tony Award-winning Broadway production. For those of you who have not, The Secret Garden is the story of Mary, a self-absorbed little girl recently orphaned by her parents’ death from cholera, who is sent from India to her uncle’s enormous house in Yorkshire, England. The uncle, like her, is withdrawn, angry, and self-obsessed.
While exploring the manor and its grounds, Mary finds a key that leads to a locked, walled garden left untended for at least a decade. She understands that she is forbidden to enter the secret garden, but her fascination with it (lush, green gardens were unknown to her in India) possesses her. Then her uncle speaks with her before he leaves on a trip and asks her whether she needs anything. She replies that she would like a bit of earth to plant some seeds in. He gives her permission to take a bit of any earth she can find; he has forgotten about the secret garden, which he locked up following his young wife’s death.
During her uncle’s absence, she disobeys the servants’ orders not to explore the source of a mysterious wailing noise and finds her uncle’s son, Colin, in a remote wing of the house. He has been kept hidden away, a remnant of her uncle’s grief and self-blame.
Mary befriends Colin, and their shared love for the secret garden, which they have begun tending together, becomes the driving force that impels him out of his wheelchair and helps him to walk again. Eventually, the uncle returns home and finds his recovered son, his now-blooming niece, and a restored garden awaiting him. The garden itself becomes a place of restoration for Mary, Colin (her cousin), and Uncle Archibald, who had abandoned his son out of grief in much the same way he did the garden when his wife died. In this story, the secret garden represents love, or the heart. Mary steals in and takes just a little piece, which brings her closer to her uncle; from there, transformation occurs.
A side note: one of the other significant characters in the story is a robin that helps lead Mary to the garden. But more on this later.
Both of our Bible readings today tell of a profound transformation. Jacob, living in a pre-enlightenment state, is transformed by a vision of a ladder leading to heaven. In our Gospel reading, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed that grows as tall as a tree, so that birds can land and nest in its branches. On the surface, we might not see these stories’ connection, but if we look more deeply, a profound link emerges between the two.
The mustard-seed parable is often quoted in conjunction with the Lord’s statement that faith like a mustard seed can move mountains. The mustard seed is effective in this image because it is the tiniest of seeds, and yet it grows into a plant larger than many of those with seeds five times its size.
I want to challenge that traditional understand of the mustard seed as faith a bit. More to the point, I want to challenge our idea of what faith is.
The great thing about a seed is that it contains all of the genetic information of the plant to come. All that is required to bring it forth is the right conditions. A seed symbolizes the basic elements of being; spiritually, we might understand those elements as will and understanding. When the seed’s will and understanding are filled with the love and wisdom of God, it sprouts forth its hidden self. A seed embodies potential.
The idea of a mustard seed moving a mountain depicts faith in action, or “true” faith. But comparing the kingdom of God to a mustard seed seems, well, a bit ridiculous. When we think about something regal, we think of it being large and impressive—but this is the point, isn’t it? The kingdom of God does not initially appear in our lives as something big and impressive, but as something unassuming and small, yet hard to destroy—something that contains a tremendous amount, if only we nurture it.
In Jesus’ image of the mustard seed, something that needs to be nurtured transforms into something that nurtures: a seed becomes a bird sanctuary. We often focus on the idea that something tiny can become larger and more powerful. What we rarely talk about in this story, however, are the birds that nest in the branches.
In our faith tradition, birds symbolize an affection for thinking heavenly thoughts. The analogy of birds with thought is a great one: thoughts can dwell high or low; thoughts can flutter about; thoughts can glide; thoughts can require a great deal of work to make them fly.
The higher our thoughts fly, the more heavenly they become, but our thoughts also need a place to land and rest safely. If you have cats, you know when birds are in danger: when they are on the ground. When birds find shelter in a tree or bush, they are far less vulnerable to predatory animals.
Building a faith life can mean many things, but how do you know if you have done it? I will posit this idea: if you are providing shelter for your spiritual birds, then you are building a faith life.
So here is a yardstick for you: What do you spend your time thinking about? How often do your thoughts rise toward awareness of neighborly or heavenly things?
Our reading from Genesis actually touches on a similar idea. Many people pay attention in this reading to the angels going up and down the ladder, and we understand the ladder to refer to the divine– human connection, but few people pay attention to where Jacob has that dream. Specifically, he falls asleep on a rock (an analogy for faith). Have you ever tried to rest your head on a rock? Believe me: it’s more comfortable to sleep on the ground.
We learn from our tradition that sleeping with his head on a rock means that Jacob was living a life unaware of the Lord and yet had a foundation of love and goodness from the Lord. When Jacob’s eyes were opened, he saw that mountaintop as the gate of heaven, and that rock became an altar. Jacob’s descendants were destined, like the branches of the mustard tree, to reach out in all directions, which means more than where his family ended up. It means that a life of faith dedicated to the Lord will reach every part of a person’s being. Put simply, a life of faith transforms a person’s existence into one in which thoughts of goodness and truth are all that person can think about. I don’t know about you, but I’m not fully there yet.
In The Secret Garden, a bird—that robin I mentioned earlier—reveals the key to Mary and leads her into the garden. Mary then discovers something new that becomes her secret place. Like her own sense of empathy, love and regard for others, the garden is overgrown and unused. Cultivating that secret garden and sharing it with Colin and their friend Dickon opens her bitter and angry self up to the world around her. As a result, she transforms her embittered, grief-stricken uncle into a loving man who learns how to express his love to others. That bit of earth Mary asked for, like the mustard seed and Jacob’s rock, offers a place from which she could both nurture and be nurtured.
To be loved, we must love—and vice versa. Loving is the first step, but nurturing things in our lives does not stop with us; caring for others creates a vibrant tree that nurtures heavenly thoughts and transforms the people around us.
We choose how we live, and it’s not the big things that define us but the small things—the little choices we make each day about what we choose to bring into our consciousness. We can choose to sleep through life, controlled by the things of this world; or we can choose to seek out points at which God is active in our lives. If we choose the latter, we become active agents in how we see the world. Then we begin to nurture the seeds of love and life. And then we are transformed. Amen.
Rev. Kevin K. Baxter