And now a few words from the gospel according to Lucy; Lucy Van Pelt, that is.
Do you see that tree?
It is a Fir tree.
It’s called a Fir tree because it gives us fur,
It also gives us wool in the wintertime.*
In the musical, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Lucy shares these and other “Little Known Facts” with her younger brother, Linus. And I’m no arborist, but even I know that’s wrong.
Just to give you a sense of how little I *do* know, in 2007 I went to Skillins looking for something to plant where we lost a big shrub in the Patriot’s Day storm. In our backyard there is a pretty flowering tree, and I went hoping to duplicate it. I had no idea what kind of tree it was. It buds hot pink and then it opens white, but still pink in the center. I remember watching it happen the spring I bought my house and marveling. I thought there had never seen such a tree before, but of course I then began to see them everywhere. When a space opened up in the backyard, I wanted more.
I memorized the leaves and the way the bark looked, and I drove to Falmouth and began my search. The names of the trees on the little tags meant nothing. We were past the season of blossoms, so that was no help. I described the blossom and the leaves in a short conversation with someone on the staff, then based more on the bark than anything, I chose a little tree. I planted it according to instructions. Then I waited.
The following spring, 2008, it blossomed. The flowers weren’t exactly like the ones on the other tree, but it was pretty, and I convinced myself I was satisfied. Then in 2009, the tree surprised me. Where there had been blossoms, I looked one day and noticed apples. Full of wonder, I began telling everyone who would listen, but no one would believe me when I told them about the unexpected apples.
“You mean crabapples,” they would say patiently. Or, “That isn’t possible. You need two trees to pollinate.” “Surely they would have told you at the nursery.”
But I could see differently. There were apples—small ones—five or six of them. In the fall, I ate them. They were lip-pursingly tart, but they were apples.
Lucy goes on:
This is an elm tree.
It’s very little.
But it will grow up into a giant tree,
You can tell how old it is by counting its leaves.
A mustard seed is tiny. I know because I have seen one, held them in my hand. I know they are smaller than apple seeds and acorns; there is an elegant logic in the idea that a bigger seed grows a bigger tree. It suggests that the essence of the outcome must be found in the first expression of a material thing.
The people listening to Jesus knew about mustard seeds, knew they grew a scraggly shrub, not a thing with spreading branches, which to our minds suggests a tree.
And here is something that fascinates me. There are some people who want everything Jesus ever said to be exactly true, and to prove it, they want to make everything he said exactly factual. So they go to Israel and seek out mustard shrubs gone wild. They sit beside them and look for birds flying near them. They try to prove that the Kingdom of God is defined by a plant, just to make Jesus right.
I find this to be a failure of imagination, which is something Lucy never has.
And way up there,
Those fluffy little white things,
Those are clouds,
They make the wind blow.
And way down there,
Those tiny little black things,
Those are bugs,
They make the grass grow.
To which Linus replies, “Is that so?”
And his sister answers: “That’s right. They run around all day long, tugging and tugging at each tiny seedling until it grows into a great tall blade of grass.”
It’s about that time Charlie Brown sighs and utters his classic line, “Oh, good grief!”
After the great apple crop of Ought-Nine, I eagerly anticipated 2010. And we got…nothing. I heard on the news it was a bad year for apples, and I felt my heart beating in perfect sympathy with apple farmers all over Maine. I also began to wonder if I had really seen those apples the year before.
I mean, really, what do I know?
The sower in the parable does not know all the scientific details of how the wheat is transformed from seed to crop. The kingdom of heaven is as if a man sows seeds and while he goes about the rest of his life, somehow, magically, good things are ready to harvest because they are simply growing into what they were meant to be. Gardeners, does this sound right to you? Don’t you have to work a little harder than that to get results? The bugs are not running around tugging on each green bean to stretch it out to full length.
Really, that’s the truth *and* a fact.
As fall turned to winter in 2010, I looked out the window at my tree—my apple tree—and wondered. Would the weather conspire to bring me apples? Would the conditions be propitious? I tried to believe, at Thanksgiving, at Christmas.
D’you see that bird?
It’s called an Eagle,
But since it’s little it has another name,
And on Christmas and Thanksgiving
We eat them.
Oh, Lucy. It’s not a fact just because you say it.
Jesus spoke of spreading branches, welcoming the birds who came to nest. He painted a picture of arms spread wide to receive all who would come to him, all who would come to God. That, he said, is the kingdom of God.
I think the people of long ago had a better way of using words. They didn’t expect everything truthful to be factual. We’re going to hear more parables this summer, and I’m not going to try to turn them into proofs, like a geometry problem. I’m hoping they’ll expand our thinking about how God works among us and to imagine together what images might express the kingdom of God today. Longer ago, when Ezekiel recorded prophetic words, no one thought he was writing a horticultural manual or an ornithology guidebook. People heard the words the way he meant them: God can take a twig, a tender sprout from the high branches, and make a mighty tree, sufficient for the support of all the birds. In other words, God promises a kingdom with enough for everyone.
Last year I watched my apple tree, mother of six tiny apples two years earlier. I watched and waited, and after the blossoms, there came the little green buds of apples-to-be. I counted them. I encouraged them. I loved them. I gave thanks for them. Otherwise, I did nothing practical for their protection or promotion, because, to be clear, I wouldn’t have known what to do.
Other people doubted them. I heard the same negative talk from before. They can’t be apples. Are you sure they aren’t crabapples? And from one wise…acre: “Ah, there must be another tree somewhere nearby in your neighborhood.”
There are lots of ways we set limits on what God has made. We listen to what others tell us is possible. We fall into believing and then making the failures we expect ourselves, whether it’s a poor crop or an invasive weed or a failed transplant of the top of a tree.
God sees more for each of us. God sees more for the church. God’s hopes are expansive, not restrictive. The kingdom of God is a like a twig full of hope that becomes a great tree of life. The kingdom of God is like a harvest we did not anticipate. The kingdom of God is like a shrub that outgrows its potential to the surprise and wonder of the neighborhood.
By the end of last summer, my apples began to look like the real thing. Thirty or so grew and became red. And although some fell to the ground too soon, eventually we had enough, and of good enough size, for a pie. Yes, they were real apples.
Now, it’s a fact that Lucy about drives Charlie Brown crazy with her little known “facts,” and when the song ends, Linus asks, “Lucy, why is Charlie Brown banging his head against that tree?”
Indefatigable, the young teacher replies, “To loosen the bark so the tree will grow faster.”
I didn’t loosen the bark, but this year I listened to one piece of advice and had the tree pruned. And this week I counted the little green apple buds and stopped when I got to 50. It is both a fact and true that I am not informed about apples. I am repeating little things I’ve heard people say in passing. I did not know I was buying an apple tree. All I can tell you is there was a harvest last year and, weather permitting, this year there will be another.
Forget the facts. Here’s a little known truth. The kingdom of heaven is like a mis-marked tree, planted by an uninformed woman. Even if the planter does not know what she is planting, the tree will become what it was made to be, yielding unexpected apples.
We contain, from the beginning, the elements of who we will become. It doesn’t matter what the world sees. God knows our potential and awaits the harvest. And in the kingdom of God, it will be bountiful. In the name of the One who plants us all. Amen.
~Rev. Martha K. Spong
*You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on the “Peanuts” characters created by Charles M. Schulz, music and lyrics by Clark Gesner, 1967.