Sermon: The kingdom of God is a weed + children’s story

by Joanna Lawrence Shenk

Mark 4:30-32

I am connected. I am connected to my body, to the Spirit and to the earth. I am earth. 

Those are the intentions I chose for myself while on the wilderness vigil last month. For four days and four nights I was alone in the woods without food. Seven others were also keeping vigil on the same piece of land, spread out, but within whistle distance if anything unexpected happened. We also had a team of five people keeping watch over the land and available for support if we vigilers were in need.  

We prepared together for two days at basecamp and we debriefed together for two days after the vigil. We created a collective altar and shared our intentions together before the vigil began. As we sat around a communal fire, we listened to stories about the land on which we were vigiling. It is the land of the Cherokee, now called North Carolina. Lianna Costantino, a Cherokee woman, and member of our support team, told us stories about the land and creatures and their relatedness to each other. 

I am connected. I am connected to my body, to the Spirit and to the earth. I am earth.

While I was sitting in the forest, watching the leaves fall from the trees, I had a lot of time to be and to think. One question that came up for me was why I have never considered myself an outdoorsy person. Although I do outdoorsy things like camping and hiking and backpacking and even helping to start an organic farm in Indiana, all of that has been on principle. I have always felt a deeper resistance. Where does that come from, I wondered? 

It’s the middle of the night on the first night of the vigil. I can’t sleep. I feel my heart race with each rustling sound in the forest. Was that a falling leaf or a piece of bark? Was that a creature on the prowl? Maybe it’s a human walking stealthily? I’m afraid. It is scary to be alone in the forest at night. This is where scary things happen.

I want someone to protect me, to stand guard. I put my hand on my heart and my belly and take deep breaths to calm myself. It feels like the night will never end. I wake from a fitful sleep and see the full moon through a circular opening in the trees, perfectly framed. Sister moon, I ask, can you help me sleep? 

I was in 11th grade and our family was living in Goshen, Indiana. I decided to take my guitar and go out into the country and find a place to create my own worship service on a Sunday morning. I found a wooded area at the edge of a field and parked my car. I sang my prayers. I felt a connection in that place. I’d never done something like that before. Usually I was in church on Saturday night with my friends and on Sunday morning with my family. When I got home I had a glow about the experience. I told my mom and she responded, “you should have gone to church.” 

It’s night again. The third night. They go on forever. My fear starts to rise. I don’t feel it during the day. During the day I can sit by the river. I can walk through the forest. I can collect firewood. I can walk on the path. I can just sit and keep watching the leaves gracefully fall. I can sing my prayers. Some of them go like this:

May I be empty and open to receive the light. May I be empty and open to receive. May I be full and open to receive the light. May I be full and open to receive. 

Oh great Spirit come. Oh great Spirit come. I have made a place for you. I have made a home for you, in the center of my soul. In the center of my soul. 

But it’s night again and I don’t want to make noise. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I remind myself to breathe. Then I remember back to the stories Lianna told us about the Cherokee people who knew and loved this land. They were in relationship with the land. They were connected. Whether night or day, they knew this place and were sustained by the plants and creatures and flowing water. They would not have been afraid at night because this was their home. 

The stories in my head do not come from a knowing of the land, they come from people alienated from the land, fearful of the dark and needing protection from what they perceive to be wild and out of control. The land is not sacred. It is not home. It is here to be controlled and cultivated. Those stories live in me, but they are not the truth.

I take a deep breath. I am connected. I am connected to my body, to the Spirit and to the earth. I am earth. As I drop into those intentions and out of my head, the fear loses its grip. I am connected. This place has welcomed me. The trees have provided firewood to keep me warm. They have protected me from winds. The birds have shared their news. The crickets have shared their songs. 

When I drop out of my head and into my body, I am connected. The Spirit is present in this place. The earth is holding me. My fear is gone. My body relaxes. I am earth. I have come from earth and to the earth I will return. I am safe. 

It’s the fourth night. With my fear composted, I decide I will stay up later and reflect on my experience during the vigil. It’s the last night and I want to appreciate it, even though I am looking forward to being in the presence of people again. As my fire burns down, I light my last altar candle. It casts a cozy glow. I noticed a daddy longlegs spider bouncing around near the flame. It might like the warmth of the fire. 

I have my headlamp on, writing in my journal. I notice a couple more spiders on the edge of my site. I had cleared away the leaves for the fire area and so far the spiders had seemed to prefer the leaves to bare ground. Now however they are no longer deterred. Their numbers start to grow, as if one of them issued an invitation stating that my campsite is party central. 

You have got to be kidding me. They are crawling on my tarps and onto my sleeping bag and pillow. They are making their way up my backpack. They are on the paracord holding up my tarp. I’m not sitting in the chair anymore because they like that surface as well. I’m pacing around the site with my headlamp on, noticing them everywhere. On the trees, in the leaves, on my altar. I can’t sit down anywhere to put on my PJs cause they’ll crawl all over me. 

Lianna told us that she hoped we each got visitors, but seriously. Spiders!! I got over my fear of the forest at night, but I don’t think I can overcome my fear of spiders too. Where am I going to sleep? I can’t just keep pacing around all night. And the spiders just keep coming. It seems like they are also fighting or maybe mating?? This is crazy. I keep pacing.

Finally I have an idea. I’ll grab my sleeping bag and sleeping pad and pillow and go sleep by the river. There’s a mostly flat rock there and I’m sure there are less spiders. So I grab my stuff. I tell the spiders to enjoy their party and I tromp down the hill and over to the river. I check for spiders. Don’t see any so I crawl into my sleeping bag. This is not how I was expecting this last night would go, but I am proud of myself for figuring out a plan. I also wonder what Lianna will say about my spider visitation. 

On my hike back to basecamp the next morning, I have a wave of realization related to my resistance to the outdoors. The morning sun dances through the leaves and sparkles on the dewy grass. Tears well up in my eyes. I think of my 13 year old self uprooted from the life I had known in the United States and dropped into a village in the Caucasus mountains as a missionary kid. 

I had to use an outhouse. I had to go to the well for water. I had to learn to wash clothes at the well, with my feet. I had to go on hours long hikes with my family to visit other villages because we didn’t have a vehicle. I had to go to a village school where I barely understood anything, in addition to doing homeschool. I got sick on a regular basis because my immune system was encountering a whole new reality of germs. And I had to have a good attitude about all of this, since being there was for God’s glory. 

That was the root of the resistance. And furthermore, I realized it cut me off from connection to the land. The demands of village living were a sacrifice for God. God was not present in the fields and trees and the river valleys and the mountains. God was not present in the orchard or the wild berries or the bubbling springs. God was only present in us and we were responsible to live as perfectly as possible to attract people to God in order to save their souls.  

I was disconnected. I was disconnected from my body, from the Spirit and from the earth. 

This brings up great grief in me, to have been malformed in that way. And coming to that realization, is also a source of freedom. I am no longer bound by the inner resistance, just as I am no longer bound by the fear of being alone on the land. Healing is a process. It’s a journey of learning to root myself in relationship to the land and ecosystems and seasons. 

I am connected. I am connected to my body, to the Spirit and to the earth. I am earth.

Sitting around the communal fire following the vigil, we each took turns sharing about our experiences. Of course I told the spider story! Turns out no one else had a spider party. Lianna said it was a significant visitation. She said that spider brought fire to the Cherokee people and Cherokees are known as fire keepers. She encouraged me to explore my relationship to fire. 

As we learned from the children’s story, spider carried the gift of fire on her back. As I reflect on the spider party, I wonder about the gifts they were bringing to me. I think they were very generous, since so many of them came to visit. 

One great gift coming out of the experience is a deepened awareness of my interconnection to the ecosystems that sustain me. I want to know the names of the trees around my home because without them I couldn’t breathe. I want to recognize my relatedness to the plants and the soil and the fungi and the creatures. What are their stories? What wisdom do they have to share?

Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. What wisdom does a mustard seed have? Something so tiny grows so big, so don’t underestimate the little guys. Is that it? If we dig deeper into the Galilean soil, Yeshua, the aramaic speaking country bumpkin, is actually saying the kingdom of God is like a weed, it’s an invasive species actually. What the heck? No farmer in their right mind would plant that in their field. It totally takes over! Farmers were doing their best to control, if not eradicate those dastardly mustard shrubs. 

The kingdom of God is wild, he was saying. It does not play by the rules of neat and tidy fields. It gets in the way of industrial agriculture that feeds the wealthy and exploits the labor of the poor. 

Although invasive species get a bad rap a lot of the time, they actually only thrive in places that have already been disturbed and disrupted. They come in to stabilize that which has been ruptured. They live on the edges and help to heal land that has been wounded. 

The kingdom of god is a wild weed that heals and re-roots and connects ecosystems. I don’t think that Yeshua was talking only metaphorically here. I think he meant that the kingdom of god is about the land. God is in the land.

One of my fellow vigilers, Jim Perkinson, in his book, Political Spirituality in an Age of Eco-Apocalypse” offers this beautiful, lyrical reflection…

“What might it mean to say, ‘the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed’? If the favored figure of ‘the kingdom’ is a weed–not a god in heaven or a man (gender intended) on Earth, but a growth underfoot–then here is a ‘note from the underground’ of that image: the ‘reign’ is ultimately about the ‘rule’ of nature–prolific, wild, self-sowing, and the ‘god’ in the equation–a ‘rain’ of life forces interior to and commensurate with the whole, fecund and teeming, from fungi to elephants, on the ground of a soil so packed with multitudes that a cubic foot hosts a community solidarity 10 billion strong.”

I am connected. I am connected to my body, to the Spirit and to the earth. I am earth.

May we know ourselves to be connected to this kingdom of teeming, wild and prolific life. Truly it is under our feet and in the air we breathe. We are stewarded and sustained by the generosity of the earth. We have come from the earth and to the earth we will return. May the Spirit enliven us to reciprocate this generosity, to learn to know the land on which we live, and to recognize as kin even the spiders when they come to visit. Amen. 

Children’s StoryThe First Fire
–Excerpt from the book “History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees” by James Mooney

In the beginning there was no fire, and the world was cold, until the Thunders (Ani-Hyun tikwala ski), who lived up in Galun lati, sent their lightning and put fire into the bottom of a hollow sycamore tree which grew on an island.  The animals knew it was there, because they could see the smoke coming out at the top, but they could not get to it on account of the water, so they held a council to decide what to do.  This was a long time ago.

Every animal that could fly or swim was anxious to go after the fire.  The Raven offered, and because he was so large and strong they thought he could surely do the work, so he was sent first.  He flew high and far across the water and alighted on the sycamore tree, but while he was wondering what to do next, the heat had scorched all his feathers black, and he was frightened and came back without the fire.  The little Screech-owl (Wa huhu) volunteered to go, and reached the place safely, but while he was looking down into the hollow tree a blast of hot air came up and nearly burned out his eyes.  He managed to fly home as best he could, but it was a long time before he could see well, and his eyes are red to this day.  Then the Hooting Owl (U guku) and the Horned Owl (Tskili) went, but by the time they got to the hollow tree the fire was burning so fiercely that the smoke nearly blinded them, and the ashes carried up by the wind made white rings about their eyes.  They had to come home again without the fire, but with all their rubbing they were never able to get rid of the white rings.

Now no more of the birds would venture, and so the little Uksuhi snake, the black racer, said he would go through the water and bring back some fire.   He swam across to the island and crawled through the grass to the tree, and went in by a small hole at the bottom.  The heat and smoke were too much for him, too, and after dodging about blindly over the hot ashes until he was almost on fire himself he managed by good luck to get out again at the same hole, but his body had been scorched black, and he has ever since had the habit of darting and doubling on his track as if trying to escape from close quarters.  He came back, and the great blacksnake, Gule gi, “The Climber,” offered to go for fire.  He swam over to the island and climbed up the tree on the outside, as the blacksnake always does, but when he put his head down into the hole the smoke choked him so that he fell into the burning stump, and before he could climb out again he was as black as the Uksu hi.

Now they held another council, for still there was no fire, and the world was cold, but birds, snakes, and four-footed animals, all had some excuse for not going, because they were all afraid to venture near the burning sycamore, until at last Kanane ski Amai yehi (the Water Spider) said she would go.  This is not the water spider that looks like a mosquito, but the other one, with black downy hair and red stripes on her body.  She can run on top of the water or dive to the bottom, so there would be no trouble to get over to the island, but the question was, How could she bring back the fire?  “I’ll manage that,” said the Water Spider; so she spun a thread from her body and wove it into a tusti bowl, which she fastened on her back.  Then she crossed over to the island and through the grass to where the fire was still burning.  She put one little coal of fire into her bowl, and came back with it, and ever since we have had fire, and the Water Spider still keeps her tusti bowl.