Text: Matthew 13:31-32
This story may be apocryphal, but its message is powerful. New College at Oxford was founded in 1379. It has a great dining hall with huge oak beams, as large as two feet square, and forty-five feet long apiece. In the 1860s, the roof beams were found to be full of beetles. The massive beams would have to be replaced. But where could they find wood of those dimensions in the diminished oak forests of the nineteenth century? It turns out that when the college was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetle-infested, because oak beams always become beetle-infested in the end. This plan had been passed down from one college forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the college hall.” So, when the college council finally called in the college forester, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use. He said, “Well sirs we were wondering when you’d be asking.”
The foresters preserved the grove of oaks because they wanted to sustain the wellbeing of the building and the community of the college. They could have sold the trees in order to meet their urgent needs. Instead, they saw the needs of future generations. Learning from trees, the foresters were able to think long term.
When we are preoccupied with what seems to be urgent tasks, we may lose a bigger picture, how we are part of something more. On a personal level, I like to put myself into the larger context that have started with my great grandparents’ generation and all the way to my great grandchildren’s generation. Day by day I am living the legacy of my previous generations. Moment by moment I am also making an impact on my next generations. This sense of interconnection makes me aware of consequences of what I do today. Such awareness doesn’t necessarily make me feel stuck in the past or in the future. Instead, it makes me grateful for what I have received, and leads me into making conscious decisions.
The kingdom of heaven, Jesus proclaims, is like a mustard seed. It starts as small like a seed. He invites us to imagine what the smallest seed can do. Once it is planted in the soil, with proper care and nourishment, it can grow and grow, and it can become a tree, and the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. The point is not to make the seed grow as fast as we can – none of us can – but to trust that it’s going to grow and turn into something greater than anyone can imagine. Our task is to sow the seed of kindness and compassion day by day and moment by moment.
Trees’ sense of time is different from ours as humans. In our eyes, they grow extremely slowly. Thanks to slow growth, however, they can become strong. The woody inner cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the trees flexible and resistant to breaking in storms, and more importantly they become resilient to injuries closing up any wounds by growing bark over them. Scientists have determined that slow growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age.
Trees’ long term perspective, however, doesn’t make them slow in producing seeds. For example, the mother poplar trees each produce up to 54 million seeds every year. For until the old ones hand over the reins to the next generation, they produce more than a billion seeds. Wrapped in their fluffy packaging, these seeds strike out via airmail in search of new pastures. But even for them, based on statistics, there can be only one winner. Tree seeds are extremely vulnerable. Chances are that they are always in danger of being eaten by hungry deer or dying of thirst. Seeds may germinate and young seedlings may vegetate for a few years or a few decades, in the shadows, but sooner or later, they run out of steam and eventually return to humus. What’s so amazing about trees is that despite the very low rate of success, they never stop producing seeds, because it’s in their nature to regenerate themselves.
The following prayer is attributed to Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. He was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in a small chapel in a cancer hospital where he lived. He had always been close to his people, preached a prophetic gospel, denouncing the injustice in his country. He became the voice of the oppressed when all other channels of expression was crushed by the repression.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
1 Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees (p. 33). Greystone Books. Kindle Edition.
2 Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees (pp. 29-30). Greystone Books. Kindle Edition.