Phytoliths

II Corinthians 4:7-11
I Corinthians 15:51-54    
Union University Church
June 20, 2021  
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Today is the longest day of the year and today summer officially begins.  It is finally safe to put away your snow shovels, to switch out your long johns for shorts, and enjoy the outdoors.  When I was a child, before the days of ticks and Lyme disease, summer was also the time to put away shoes and socks and run barefoot through the grass picking wildflowers, chasing butterflies, tasting the clover, and chewing on long pieces of timothy.  If you were a country bumpkin like I was, maybe you too can remember running barelegged through fields and if so, maybe you also remember afterward the thin red scratches that criss-crossed your sunburned legs, souvenirs left by the tall grass.  

Or maybe, you learned as I did, how to put a piece of grass between your thumbs to fashion a makeshift reed instrument that, when you blow through it, makes a shrill note.  If so, you probably also learned to be careful when blowing through that piece of grass because if you let it slide across your mouth too quickly it was capable of cutting your tongue.  That grass that is soft enough to call us to lie in its luxurious embrace as we watch the clouds drift overhead, is also sharp enough to cut our flesh when we pull a strand through our fingers.  Those long stalks of timothy in a field that we can easily push aside as we walk can also stand tall and strong against the wind of a storm.  What makes grass so sharp?  How can something seemingly so weak be so strong? 

Well, if you took that stalk of grass, sliced it open, and put it under a microscope, you would discover teeny tiny hard structures inside made of silica.  Botanists call these structures phytoliths (this is your word of the day) which literally means “grass stone” because these phytoliths — these hardened particles of silica — are chemically identical to the opals that you might buy in a jewelry store, although they are so small that you’d need to be an amoeba to consider wearing one as a ring.  Nevertheless, it is these phytoliths — these microscopic opals — inside the grass that give grass its rough texture and that strengthen the plant so that it can endure the kinds of hardships that a stalk of grass encounters in its life: tribulations like insects chewing on its leaves, fungal diseases, winds and storms.  The next time you see a meadow of grass, think of it as a field of jewels because that field contains millions upon millions of microscopic opals encased within those stalks of grass that help them to stand strong against the trials of life. (1)  Though Paul was no botanist, he certainly could have been describing grass when he said, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels… We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed…. struck down, but not destroyed….”

I share with you this cool fact about phytoliths partly because phytoliths remind me of Paul’s phrase “treasure in earthen vessels,” but more importantly because of how phytoliths come to be in that grass in the first place.  Where do those microscopic opals in the grass come from?  They come from the soil, and here is the lesson for our faith.  

As every school child knows, when a piece of grass begins to grow, it pushes its roots down into the dirt to draw up water and nutrients, and one of the minerals that those roots absorb is silica.  Silica from the soil moves up through the roots into the stalk of the grass and collects in the spaces between the cell walls where it hardens into the phytoliths that give the grass its strength.  In other words, grass can’t make silica on its own; grass has to be rooted in the soil in order to absorb the silica.  Do you see where I’m going here?  Grass must be rooted in the soil in order to draw into it the strength to stand. 

Like the grass, we human beings are weak and fragile creatures that can’t stand on our own.  As Paul says, we are earthen vessels; we are a bundle of weaknesses of spirit and failures of flesh: brain chemistry subject to temptations or anxiety, tempers that we can’t always control, unbidden resentments, jealousies, envies, or any one of the seven deadly sins known since the first human being walked upright.  And it is not only our spirits that are weak; our mortal bodies constantly break down vulnerable to cancer, heart disease, pandemic viruses, and the common cold.  Life is a constant battle; it is a battle against our own proclivity to sin and against the hurts and wounds of a world that seems to be more intent on war than on peace, on division than on reconciliation, on judgment than on forgiveness, and on self-interest instead of concern for one another.  As the storms of life assail us, we would have little ability to endure all of this if we had only our own resources on which to depend.  If our only hope in this struggle lies in the hope of our mortal selves, we would have no hope at all but instead each of us would come to the end of our life bruised and ragged, torn asunder by the constant trial of simply living.

Paul says, however, that we have a treasure in these earthen vessels.  Like the grass, when we put our roots deep down into the soil which is God, God’s love can seep into the cracks of our lives and give us the strength to stand.  God’s healing can bind together our torn spirits; God’s compassion can encase our wounded hearts.  God’s love, like the silica in the grass, lines each cell of our soul so that we can face the storm knowing that even though it pummels us, even though it batters us and hammers us and strikes us down, in the end it cannot destroy us.  By the grace of God, we will endure; by the strength of that treasure within, we will know life again.

So, every time you see a field of grass, I want you to think of it as a field of microscopic opals, as tiny treasures glistening in the sun helping that grass to stand, and then I want you to remember where that treasure comes from.  Look down at the roots of the grass sunk into the life giving soil beneath and ask yourself, “Am I rooted in the soil that will give me the strength to stand?” 

To use plain speaking, is your life rooted in the things of faith?  Are you diligent at maintaining a solid relationship with God?  Do you pray regularly?  Do you worship regularly? Do you study the Bible?  Do you consider questions of faith in your decision making and in your choices, in how you spend your money and in how you spend your time?  Do you recall the teachings of Jesus before you open your mouth to speak to your children or your spouse or your neighbor or a colleague?  Like the grasses drawing those important minerals up through their roots, we too, draw strength from God through those daily attentions to our faith but the problem is that also like the grass, those roots are invisible and become easy to neglect.  We convince ourselves that we can get away with putting matters of faith aside for a while because the fact is that most of the time, we won’t even notice how those daily attentions to our faith are feeding us.  Let’s be honest: in the course of an ordinary week, coming to church, studying the Bible, praying, and thinking about God will not outwardly make any difference to what you do.  Coming to church on Sunday isn’t going to change the way you buy groceries or choose what to have for dinner.  It’s not going to change how you drive your kids to soccer practice, or clean out the garage, or feed the dog.  There is nothing in the Bible that will affect how you mow your lawn or do your laundry, and most of the time our weeks are filled with those kind of ordinary things, so our faith is easy to neglect because it really isn’t changing anything about the way we live our mundane daily lives.  The problem comes when you wake up to a day that isn’t mundane; when you wake up to a day when protests consume the streets because a policeman killed an unarmed Black man; when you wake up to a day when your child doesn’t want to go to school because they are being bullied and you have to figure out what to tell them; when you wake up to realize Ding Jiaxi has been in prison for more than 500 days and your heart breaks; when you wake up full of regret over your hurtful behavior toward a loved one the night before, or when you wake up alone in bed for the first time after your spouse has died.  On those days when life is not ordinary but is extraordinary in its challenge, you will need deep roots to call upon to help you stand and you won’t suddenly be able to cultivate those deep roots to get you through that time if you haven’t been cultivating them all along.  If someone ever asks you, “Why do you go to church?  Wouldn’t you get just as much out of a nice relaxing breakfast in bed?” you should say, “Yeah, I might …. today but I’m practicing my faith regularly because I’m practicing for the day I will need it; and I can never predict with certainty when that day may come.”  I’m sending my roots deep into the love of God and drawing that love into my heart every week, every day, so that by the strength of that treasure that is forming around the very cells of my soul, I will be able to stand.   

Phytoliths, those microscopic particles of opal hidden in our grasses that give them the ability to endure are a perfect reminder of the treasure hidden within each of us drawn from the soil that is God’s love and if that isn’t enough, phytoliths have one more characteristic that is symbolic of our own hope in faith because when the mortal life of that grass comes to an end, its phytoliths remain, leaving behind an eternal image of the plant that encased it.  The imprint is so perfect that archaeologists use phytoliths to determine the plant life of prehistoric times.  They can gather ashes from a prehistoric campfire, for example, put them under a microscope and say, “Look, there are the phytoliths of corn from 10,000 years ago. These people were eating corn on the cob with their roasted Wooly Mammoth.”

Paul tells the Corinthians, “This perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality; when this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  This treasure that we have in our earthen vessels is not only giving us the strength to stand every day; it is also creating a perfect imprint of our souls which will last beyond this day and into eternity.  Paul says that our mortal bodies will one day come to an end but the love of God that has seeped into the cells of your spirit, the love that has flowed tenderly around your heart, the love that has infused itself into your very being –  that love will remain and it will be a perfect cast of your soul.  As you sink your roots deep into the soil of God’s love, you are drawing into your hearts something that will last forever.  You are being fitted for immortality.  

We have this treasure in earthen vessels; the vessel may be frail and mortal but the treasure will last forever.  Sink your roots deep into the soil of God’s love, tend it and draw upon it daily, knowing that what God is creating within you will give you strength for today, strength for tomorrow, and will cast your soul indelibly upon eternity. 


Footnotes:

1.  This is a simplification of the description of phytoliths by Steve Archer, a scientist with Colonial Williamsburg.