Things that grow: Cedar Trees and Mustard Seeds

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A meditation for Beloved Community

Ezekiel 17:22-24; Mark 4:26-34

17 June 2018

Ezekiel 17:22-24

Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.

On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.

All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.


Mark 4:26-34

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,

and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “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.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.


Grounding in the Text

A note about context:

The prophet Ezekiel was active between 593 BCE and 571 BCE. This was a turbulent time in biblical history. In 598 BCE, the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem and deported a number of Jerusalem’s leading citizens, including Ezekiel, to Babylon. In 587 BCE, Jerusalem was destroyed and many others were taken into exile. By 571, when this period of prophetic activity ends, Ezekiel’s community has been in Babylonian exile for 16 years.

Generally speaking, the first 24 chapters of the book of Ezekiel are directed against Israel and speak of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. In chapters 25-48, the mood shifts towards restoration of the exilic community, the Davidic dynasty, and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.

Chapter 17 begins with metaphorical images to describe the impending exile of Israel and the death of their king, but it ends with something different, a poem that doesn’t seem to belong in the portion of the text that is largely about the impending death and destruction of Israel’s way of existence.

Hear these words again:

I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out.

I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs;

I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.

On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it,

in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,

and become a noble cedar.

Under it every kind of bird will live;

in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.

Here, God is not portrayed as an angry warrior bringing about justice with God’s mighty arm… or as an authoritarian Father doling out the punishment Israel deserves… Here, God is portrayed as a gentle gardener who takes a small branch, places it in the ground, waters it, cares for it, and watches it grow. The text says that this tiny sprig that God cares for “will grow into a noble cedar with room for every kind of winged creature under the shade of its branches.”

It’s an image of hopefulness, a foretelling of restoration, even before the destruction that looms. “I will take you, and replant you,” God says. “I will return you to your land, and you will flourish. So much, in fact that there will be room for every kind of creature under your branches.”

Jesus picks up on this theme in Mark 4. He reaches back into the depths of his memory and recalls an ancient prophetic text about “God the Gardener” and the abundance that God brings from the smallest shoots of life. Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed, when planted, it grows into a shrub so large that all the birds of the air can make their home in its branches.”

Expressions of Peace

So we’re in the middle of this emphasis on peace in our little church.

For seven Sundays during the season of Easter, we explored the theme, “Breathe Peace: Disrupt Death, Celebrate Life.” We looked at issues of our times like gun violence, systemic racism, economic inequality, sexual assault, capital punishment, war, environmental degradation, and we wondered: what does the resurrection have to say about this? As the resurrection disrupts death and brings about the fullness of life, what does it have to say about the issues of our times?

Coming out of that series, we’re thinking about “Expressions of Peace.” What are some ways that peace might want to be expressed in your life? How is God wanting to disrupt death and celebrate life through you?

Another way of asking this is, “Where do the prayers of our heart, become the prayers of our feet?”

As I’ve been thinking about that question in my own life, I find this image of the Gardening God to be quite helpful. This God that takes a tiny little shoot of life, plants it in the soil, waters it, tends it, prunes it, and watches it grow into something that can hold the entire world is the God that is wanting to disrupt death and celebrate life through me… through you.

As you know, my work has me engaging deeply with the problem of homelessness each day. For 11 months now, we’ve housed about a dozen people at a time in the Beloved Community Village. That is fantastic, and it’s worth celebrating… but let’s be honest. It also feels like a teeny, tiny amount of people. There are over 5,000 people experiencing homelessness in the metro area right now… a dozen people is less than 0.25% of that population.

From the beginning of this work, we’ve wanted it to be something that would impact more than a dozen people. We’ve hoped that it might become a model that we could replicate to rapidly house hundreds of people around the city.

I now spend most of my time thinking about how to do that. How do we build an organization that could house hundreds of people? How can we build policy that could house hundreds of people? How could we raise the money that could house hundreds of people? Pretty soon these questions start to become quite complex. We start talking about employee handbooks, and density overlays, and financing mechanisms, and record keeping and reporting. At some point, we get so far into the weeds of all this stuff, and we pull back a bit and we wonder… are we even talking about people anymore?

I wonder if that connects with you at all? What are you working on… what are you dreaming of… what are you building… and where are you getting bogged down and overwhelmed in the mess of it all? In your professional life, and your home life… what are you finding in front of you, and where are you finding yourself feeling as though this problem is just too big to tackle?

When I get to the point of wondering if I’m even talking about people anymore, I find God walking up to me like a gentle gardener… with a cedar sprig in one hand and a mustard seed in the other. God doesn’t say much in these moments… but when God greets me, God hands me the seed and the sprig to hold for a little while.

So I roll this tiny seed around in my hand while God, bends down to work the soil with a garden trowel. To my surprise… it appears as though this garden trowel was formerly a gun… weird. So there’s God, quietly turning over the soil… adding a little compost and some fish emulsion… and then turning back to me, and grabbing first the cedar sprig and then the mustard seed. God takes these tiny little shoots of life from me, and buries them in the ground. Waters them for a moment, and then leaves me there with them in the garden as God wanders on to do more tilling, planting, and keeping.

There is so much to think about in our world. So many issues that demand and deserve our attention… mass incarceration, systemic racism, homelessness, war, sexual assault, climate change, gun violence… these are global issues and sometimes it feels like there is nothing we could possibly do about them… where would we even start?

Especially when there is stuff to worry about at home, like paying the bills, and raising children, and cleaning the toilet, and folding the clothes, and putting dinner on the table… and lets be honest sometimes all of that feels overwhelming and it feels like there is nothing we could possibly do about it… where would we even start?

And then God the Gardener walks up and hands us a cedar sprig and a mustard seed and says, “Would you hold this for me?”

L’Arche and the mustard seeds

The reality is that the biblical wisdom gives us more than a hopeful image in these texts… When God hands us the cedar sprig and the mustard seed, God actually hands us a theory of social change.

It wasn’t by accident that Jesus used the phrase “The Kingdom of God,” in this parable about a mustard seed. Jesus’ friends and followers talked about “The Kingdom of God,” in a world where Romans spoke of “The Kingdom of Cesar.”

The Kingdom of Cesar was powerful. It was the largest empire the world had ever known. It connected the entire western world, and taxed, controlled, and governed  territories all around the Mediterranean region through force.

When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, Jesus is talking about the world where the wolf and lamb lie down together; where swords and spears have been transformed into plowshares and pruning hooks and people study war no more. When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, he’s talking about the world where the River of Life flows through the heart of the city and the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations. Jesus is talking about a world of jubilee, where the land has been restored, where the merchant tables have been overturned in the temple and there is more than enough to go around.

When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, he’s not just talking about what happens to our souls when our bodies die. He’s talking about a community that is planted in a place on this earth and breathes peace. Jesus isn’t talking about governments or political parties either… Jesus is talking about the kind of human community where we’ve all been liberated from the oppressive forces of racism, where we all have access to good housing, good food, and good healthcare… and a lot of love.

Jesus came into this world as the son of an unwed, teenage, refugee living in an occupied military state. As he entered into Cesar’s Kingdom, the shepherds working in the field had the audacity to claim that he was the “King of the World.”

Jesus’ community had all kinds of ideas about how he would make his claim to power, and restore his nation to peace and prosperity. There were at least four good ways that others within the Jewish community had worked towards this… we’re familiar with these paths: the Pharisees, the Sadduccees, the Essenes, the Zealots. They all sought to return Israel to freedom in their own ways.

Jesus had another way, rooted in a deeper theory of change, that wouldn’t just change the house of Israel, but the entire world.

God’s theory of social change says that we take a cedar sprig, and a tiny seed, and eventually they will grow into a house so big that every kind of creature will find their home among the branches.

God’s theory of social change says that we start a community of 12 people that love one another, and break bread with one another, and share their lives with one another, and slowly we will come to find that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

God’s theory of social change says, that death (even death on a cross) will be disrupted, that life and love will always win.

I’ve taken inspiration lately from the L’Arche Community, which began under the leadership of Jean Vanier in France in 1964. Vanier is a brilliant philosopher who spent time as a student visiting asylums for mentally handicapped people throughout France and it changed his life. He was so affected by the inhumane atmosphere of those places, that he decided to purchase a house across the street from one and invited two men from the asylum to live with him.

Vanier never had a grand theory of changing the way we think about services for people with mental handicaps, he just wanted to live in community with people and transform his understanding of family. He knew from the beginning that his work would be limited, but he knew it was important.

L’Arche’s website says,“L’Arche knows that it cannot welcome everyone who has a disability. It seeks to offer not a solution but a sign, a sign that a society, to be truly human, must be founded on welcome and respect for the weak and the downtrodden.”

Vanier didn’t set out to change the world, but to change himself. Today, there are 147 L’Arche communities worldwide, made up of approximately 8,000 members with and without intellectual disabilities who share their lives together.

In 60 years… this effort grew from one house with 3-4 members to 147 communities and 8,000 members. I would venture to say that when Jean Vanier purchased that house in 1964, he got to know the Gardening God.

This is the way the Kingdom of God comes about. This good and beautiful community that is wanting to be born among us now… it comes about in sprigs and seeds… In 12 person communities… in 3 and 4 bedroom homes… where the gardening God goes to work bringing about the fullness of our own humanity.

What are some ways that peace might want to be expressed in your life?

How is God wanting to disrupt death and celebrate life through you?

Where do the prayers of your heart, become the prayers of your feet?

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