Seeds, Trees, and Everything We Need to Know (Easter 2003)
Rev. Gary Cox (4/20/03)
University Congregational Church – Wichita, Kansas
This is a day when we celebrate the impossible. Most of us are rational, intelligent human beings, and we normally have no difficulty drawing the line between what is and what is not possible. For example, if I told you that at the end of this morning’s message I was going to levitate myself into the air and float around the sanctuary, you’d be right in assuming that was not possible—that I was mistaken. You would also be right in assuming I was evidently in need of a long, long rest.
When I say we gather today to celebrate the impossible, I’m talking about the fact that Jesus Christ is alive and well two thousand years after the authorities of his day tortured the life out of his body. But how can this be? We’re not a bunch of uneducated simpletons here. We’ve been around. We’ve seen things die. We’ve seen people die. And once a person stops breathing, and once their heart stops beating, well, we have all learned the hard way that there is indeed a difference between what is and what is not possible.
But then again…are there any signs that our thinking may be all wrong? Can we find any indications from the world around us that what seems black and white may not be all that black and white? I believe we can. There are many things in life that we take for granted, which really seem quite impossible if we stop and think about them. I’ll give you an example. I hold in my hand a seed. If we were to cut this seed into little pieces, dissecting it thoroughly and studying every cell, every atom within the seed, I promise you we would not find a tree. Seriously, there is no tree inside this thing.
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And yet…we take this little seed, put it into some completely unremarkable dirt, and after a time, with the help of some equally unremarkable water, we have a tree. None of us would claim this is a miracle. This is certainly not impossible, because we see it happening all around us, day after day, year after year. But as I look at this seed, I have to ask the question. Where is the tree now? I’ve seen dirt. There aren’t any trees hidden in the dirt. I’ve seen water. There aren’t any trees hidden in the water, either. And as I said, we can chop this little seed to smithereens and never find a tree. I ask again. Where is the tree?
I’m actually going to attempt to answer that question after while. But for now let’s consider the tree once it has evolved from seed and dirt and water into a giant Maple. Imagine that we meet some person from a distant world where there are no such things as trees, and that person sees a tree for the first time. He probably wouldn’t buy the story about the seed and the dirt and the water—after all, he would know what is and what is not possible, and that fifty foot tall collection of bark and limbs and leaves couldn’t have just appeared out of a little seed like this.
But then imagine that our alien friend watches the tree throughout the spring and summer months as it grows more and more beautiful, more and more alive, and then…and then something awful happens. The seasons start to change. The leaves begin to change from deep green to hues of red and yellow… Our friend from another world can tell something’s wrong. And sure enough, the leaves begin to fall from the tree. And he watches over a period of a few months as that beautiful tree he so admired evolves into what appears to be a lifeless wooden hulk. The tree he knew is gone.
What would our alien friend from some distant world, unacquainted with the ways of trees, say when we told him not to worry—that next spring the tree would come back to life as strong as ever? He would probably tell us that’s impossible. There is nothing in the looks of that tree to indicate it is simply going through a dormant phase and will bloom again, even bigger, even stronger, than it was before. That would be almost as impossible as the tree appearing from a little seed in the first place.
I use the example of our alien friend as a way of reminding ourselves that there are miracles all around us if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. We gather today to celebrate the fact that seeds grow into trees and trees are reborn season after season. We gather to admit that there are miracles everywhere we look if we just stop taking the impossible for granted because we’ve seen it happen so often. We gather today to acknowledge the fact that this universe is a radically amazing place, and that we don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to think we do.
One of the most enlightening books I’ve ever read—Quantum Questions by Ken Wilber—contains the mystical writings of the great 20th Century physicists. From Einstein to Planck to Eddington, these great scientists admit that we are squarely in the middle of a mystery that is far beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend. We can compare the total of human knowledge to a young child carefully studying the crib in which he is held. We have been granted only a narrow and limited view of the universe. This universe is more vast, more complicated, more impossible than we dare to imagine.
And yet, here it is. And here we are, right in the middle of it. And today we celebrate its vastness, and its complexity, and most importantly of all we celebrate the fact that the creative force behind this universe—the very power that holds in being you and me and everything else in creation—is a love so far beyond our ability to grasp that all we can do is humbly surrender our thankful hearts in its presence.
And we do indeed have thankful hearts. The reason our hearts are so thankful is that we are not alone. The God who created us not only loves us, God wants us to experience that love. Just as only a part of the universe has been revealed to us, so too only a part of God has been revealed to us. That is the Christian claim. God became known to us. We can’t see the God whose spirit encompasses the billions of galaxies; we can only see the part of God that has been made known to us. We can’t see the God who can take a tiny seed and some dirt and some water and turn it into a majestic tree; we can only see the part of God that has been made known to us. And we can’t see the God who knows the number of hairs on our heads and the number of atoms in this seed and the nature of ice crystals on some distant moon in some distant solar system; we can only see the part of God that has been made known to us.
And God has been made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ. What an outlandish thing to say! What a crazy thing to believe! And yet we know in our hearts that it is true. We know it is true because our faith tells us it is true. Our faith won’t let us think otherwise. And today we make the most outlandish claim of all. Today, we stand on our faith and say, “Christ is Risen.”
Christ is Risen. That is the essence of our faith. There are those who say, “If Christ is Risen, show us his body. Where is he now? Is he peeking down from above the dome of the sky? Is he relaxing on some distant planet in some galaxy billions of miles away? Where is the body of the Risen Christ?”
To ask such a question is to look at the tree and say, “Show us the seed! I see the tree, but I do not see the seed from whence it came. I see billions of Christians; I see churches all over the world; I see the changed lives of countless millions over the ages whose lives have been changed forever through the power of Jesus’ cross; but where is the body? Where is the man who hung from the cross?”
The apostle Paul said it so well: What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. The glory of the heavenly is one thing, the glory of the earthly another. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.
It seems clear that when Paul talked about the Risen Christ, he saw no need to question where the collection of cells, atoms and molecules that comprised the earthly body of Jesus of Nazareth now reside in the universe. The same thing happened to Jesus of Nazareth that happens to a seed that is sown in the ground: God changed him into something much greater.
Earlier I looked at this little seed and asked the question, “Where is the tree?” I have an answer to that question, an answer that is at least satisfying to me. The tree is in the mind of God. The tree is, now and forever, alive in the mind of the one from whom all creation springs forth. This may look like a seed right now, but the tree is there—right there, in the promise we know exists in the seed, the promise that only God can fulfill. The seed is in the hands of God. The tree is in the mind of God.
We are a lot like this seed, you and I. We are perishable. We are here but for a time. We are in the hands of God. But we are something more. We are the promise of the eternal. We who say on this day that Christ is Risen know that our future is exactly where it belongs—in the mind of God. The seed does not lament the fact that it will one day be a tree, no more than the tree laments the fact that it is no longer a seed. We do not lament that we are perishable, because miracles are happening all around us.
In God’s world, things are seldom as they appear to be at first glance—things are not like they appear on the surface. St. Francis was right. It is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. Hatred and violence are overcome not with more violence but with love. Despair is overcome not by giving in to anguish but with hope. And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. All that we are and all that we shall ever be are held now and forever in the mind of God.
And God has been made known to us. That is our claim on this Easter morning. God has been made known to us by the seed that holds the promise of a tree. God has been made known to us by the mystery of life and the impossibility of creation itself. And God has been made known to us in the person who gives us life and conquers death. God has a face now, at least for you and me. It’s not everything that God is—it’s just a face. But that is all we really need. Because everything we need to know can be found right there, in the face of God, in the person of Jesus Christ.
Does it sound like I’m overstating the case? Does it sound ridiculous to say everything we need to know can be found in Jesus Christ? I don’t think that is ridiculous at all. If we shake off all the little things that keep us mired down in the details of life, we all share a few basic questions. Seriously, we can probably narrow down the entire human experience to about four basic questions.
First, Where did we come from? Second, why are we here? Third, how are we supposed to live our lives? And fourth, where are we going—what is our ultimate destiny? That’s pretty much it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a preacher, teacher, lawyer, accountant, businessman, construction worker, farmer or homemaker; it doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American; it doesn’t matter if you were raised in a mansion in suburban L.A. or a dirt hut in East Africa. We all share those few basic questions, and our happiness in life is largely determined by how we answer them. And Jesus answers each one for me.
First question: Where did we come from? Well, the one thing of which I’m fairly certain is that I did not create myself. There is something else which called me into being; something else which holds me in being; something else which draws air into my lungs and keeps my heart beating, and whatever that is I call God. And since our faith tells us God has a face, we look to Jesus to tell us where we came from. And that is good news, because we discover that the God who created us is all about love. If the God who created us is revealed to us in the face of Jesus, then we came from a God who loves us, who cares for us, and who forgives our inevitable shortcomings.
Second question: Why are we here? I again look to Jesus for the answer to this question, and while I hate to sound like a broken record, my faith tells me the reason I am here is to love. Not to accumulate wealth, not to gain prestige, not to know the joy of defeating some foe. Just love. I’m supposed to love this world and every leaf on every tree. I’m supposed to love every creature I see. I’m supposed to love every person I meet. That’s why we’re here.
Third question: How are we supposed to live our lives. Okay, now I’m getting really redundant, but according to Jesus I’m supposed to live my life with love. And that, again, is really good news, because it accords me an amazing amount of freedom. I can paint, farm, work in a factory, choose any of a million ways to make my way through life, and they are each and every one fine as long as I love while I’m at it.
Fourth question: Where are we going—what is our ultimate destiny? Again, Jesus answers the question for me. Jesus told his disciples on the night before his death that he was the way, the truth and the life, and that we could enter into the heart of the eternal through him. And he said he went to prepare a place for us, so that where he was we could be also. Our faith tells us that our future is with the Loving God from whom we came in the first place.
That’s everything we need to know! We are miraculous mixtures of dust and breath. Each morning we open our eyes to a new day, but how often do we think about the miracle in that? How often do we remember that we did not keep our hearts beating through the night? How often do we acknowledge when our eyes are opened in the morning that we did not draw breath into our lungs as we lay unaware even of our own being. It is a gift. Every single breath, every single heartbeat, every single moment we are granted upon this beautiful blue and green planet is a gift from the God who loves us.
My hope is that we go forth from this beautiful place of worship on this glorious Easter morning changed. I hope we never see another seed without thinking about the miracle of creation. I hope we never see another tree without remembering that it sprang forth, impossibly, from seed and dirt and water. And I hope we give thanks every morning to the one from whom all gifts come—the one who not only gives us every sight we see, but also gives us the eyes with which we see.
There is no time for hate, no time for violence, no time for despair. We are given time for one reason only, and that is to fill it with love. We are given time for one reason only—to fill it with love. As we dedicate this day to the Risen Christ, may that be our mission in life, from this moment forward. Amen