This morning I want to share with you an excerpt from Robin Wall Kimmerer's book, Braiding Sweetgrass, which begins this way:
Hold out your hands and let me lay upon them a sheaf of freshly picked sweetgrass, loose and flowing, like newly washed hair. Golden green and glossy above, the stems are banded with purple and white where they meet the ground. Hold the bundle up to your nose. Find the fragrance of honeyed vanilla over the scent of river water and black earth and you understand its scientific name: Hierochloe ordorata, meaning the fragrant holy grass. In our language it is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.
In another time, in another world, a great wisdom teacher named Jesus shared these words: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on 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.”
For Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist and member of the Potawatomi nation, the invitation is to “remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.” For Jesus, it's to encounter “the kingdom of God.” In both instances the portal, the doorway is the land: for Robin, sweetgrass; for Jesus, a mustard seed. What if, in order to get to know God, “to remember things we didn’t know we’d forgotten,” we had to get to know the earth?
The parable of the mustard seed is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. The kingdom of God according to Jesus isn’t some iconic piece of architecture like the tallest tower or the world’s largest mall. The kingdom of God isn’t having enough power to turn your access to privacy into a right to secrecy. The kingdom of God is the refugee rebuilding their life one Skip the Dishes, one day labour contract at a time. The kingdom of God is—finally!—the extra 15 minutes of sleep with a newborn; it’s the words “I like you” that you’ve been meaning to say for some time now, or the words “We’ve always known they were there” that you’ve already been saying for some time now. The kingdom of God is as small and as big as a mustard seed.
I’ve often been struck by the line at the end of today’s gospel reading, where the author makes this editorial note:
“[Jesus] did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”
My sense is that much of Western Christian interpretation has taken this to mean that the disciples were some sort of exclusive club, whisked away so that Jesus could tell them the real meaning of his cryptic stories whilst keeping the public in the dark. But what if Jesus explained everything in private to his disciples not because they were set apart or better than the rest, but because these ones who'd walked closest with Jesus, had every opportunity for education, were the ones who struggled most to grasp the scope and meaning of Jesus’ message? What if Jesus explained everything to them because he had to?
What I’m getting at is that we can sometimes assume a kind of hierarchy when it comes to who we think knows or understands God best. Those who have studied in a particular school of thought, become experts on the church fathers, read the Bible in the original Hebrew or Greek, these are the ones who get the true meaning of Christianity. And it’s not just in the church, but in our everyday lives as well. Who are the ones that get coveted access to our social circles? Who are the ones we defer to in our workplace or in our family because that’s who we’ve been taught is the smartest person in the room?
Jesus and Robin Wall Kimmerer say that sweetgrass and the mustard seed, that the whole of the natural world is humanity’s greatest teacher. If this is the case, then knowledge of God, knowledge of the world, of “things you didn’t know you’d forgotten”, this belongs to the land, to Mother earth, not to any one person or way of thinking.
First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Christians have long been telling the church that if you want to get to know God you have to get to know the land. It’s why land acknowledgement has become such an important part of Christian worship, especially in traditions where our churches reside on unceded, stolen territory. When we get to know the land we begin to ask questions like, “Who lives here? Who has lived here? What grows here? What has grown here?” These questions in turn become things we ask of ourselves: Who lives here [in our hearts]? What grows here [in our hearts]?
When we get to know the land our intention turns from teaching as an expert to becoming a life-long student of the world in all of its immeasurable unknowable glory. It’s high time we remembered that it’s the earth that gives us the breath that pumps blood from our hearts to our minds, the earth that fuels our curiosity and our desire for knowledge in the first place.
The desire for knowledge, the desire to teach others about our encounters with God or our knowledge of the world, this in and of itself is a good thing. But when this zeal turns into something we believe only a few can comprehend, something only a few would ever be able to understand, then let us breathe in and remember the mustard seed, that the root of all knowing is the earth. Amen.