A tiny seed, a handful of yeast can bring change
A visit to the national Arboretum outside Canberra was a vibrant reminder to Jan Sutch Pickard, former Warden of Iona Community, Scotland, that humans are invited to be part of God’s work of transformation in the world.
“A tiny seed, a handful of yeast, the little voice of a creature we might well overlook — a man, a woman — these can make all the difference,” Ms Sutch Pickard said. “These can signify the change that God is constantly bringing about in the world.”
Just as Jesus talked of a mustard seed growing into a tree where birds came to roost in its branches, Ms Sutch Pickard said, the 100 forests of the Arboretum had come from very small beginnings.
“Planted out, tended by human hands — we who are part of the problem, can be part of the answer. Jesus says the Kingdom is like this — not just God’s intervention — the wonder of regeneration and growth — but human beings involved, even when it needs imagination to plant for something that will take 100 years to grow. And one day the birds of the air will nest in the branches of those tiny saplings [of the Arboretum].”
Ms Sutch Pickard, who is an attendee at meetings of the Society of Friends, a member of the Methodist Church, a poet and a storyteller, offered these reflections during a communion service on April 14 at the meeting of the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT at Knox Grammar School, Wahroonga.
To underscore how God worked through small human acts to bring renewal, she read from her poem “Aliah bakes bread”. The poem is published in her book Between High and Low Water: Sojourner Songs (Wild Goose Publications).
The poem was written while she was part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel. Living as a “protective presence” in a Palestinian village close to the Separation Barrier, she had sometimes sat with a neighbour while she baked bread for her extended family.
“That everyday activity [of baking bread], which Jesus witnessed and celebrated, starts small, in a backyard and — even in a situation of poverty and dispossession — includes an individual made in the image of God, her community and the land on which they live; a land which, in God’s coming kingdom, needs to be shared for the common good.”
Ms Sutch Pickard, who lives on the island of Mull, a small island off the West Coast of Scotland, said she was astonished by Australia’s vastness.
She said that reading Isaiah 49:8-13 her sense was of a huge landscape like that of Australia — a land where God was present but not always perceived or acknowledged, where God’s creation, in all its diversity, was enjoyed and exploited by human beings, and where people’s lives can ignore or strive for the common good.
Australian society was also full of small and significant things, she said, as well as strong symbols like the campfire as a gathering place and the waterhole as a vital source of life.
These symbols embodied hope for the whole community, she said, and connected people to their sisters and brothers, within the environment they shared, and to God’s transforming work in the world.
Ms Sutch Pickard used a Michael Leunig cartoon of a child listening to a shell on the shore to show how the small voice can sometimes be a cry of distress.
“This small voice reminds us that we are part of the problem, through our wars, our greed that threatens our fellow creatures, our carbon footprint and our determination to keep on digging out ever more coal, from seams still unexploited, shipping it out on freighters from the East Cost, contributing to global warming … we are part of the problem, even as we look to God to come to our aid, to have pity on us in our distress.”
Ms Sutch Pickard said the Isaiah passage gave vivid images of human distress: of prisoners yearning for release (prisoners of conscience elsewhere or asylum seekers in detention here) or of people living in darkness or struggling in other ways.
The sufferings human being can inflict on each other and the environment were all failures to seek the common good, she said.
“Arid places … Wilderness created by what we have done to the land in which we live through our unimaginative greed. Or land lived in by one people, claimed by another — as in the land that we call Holy, where the Separation Barrier that has been built has a wasteland, a no-man’s land at its foot, where the olive trees have been felled … Disputed land. Degraded land.”
In contrast, she said, the thousands of tiny saplings at the Arboretum — “patterning the hillsides like a dot-painting” — were a sign of hope; part of an intentional act to reclaim a place where native species had been destroyed or crowded out by economic activity.
She also said that when she thought of projects like the Arboretum — or even much smaller community gardens — she could see that they were not just about rural or urban regeneration, but about people’s own regeneration — a recovery of the understanding that humans are part of the whole created order.
Ms Sutch Pickard said that Celtic Christians in the time of Columba of Iona talked of learning about God’s kingdom by “reading the Great Book — creation — as well as the Little Book – the one you can hold in your hand.
“They were much closer than us to the life experiences and culture of the Old Testament, in their sense of creation uniting, under God, for the common good.”
Images from Synod appear on Insight’s Facebook page.