This is the sermon I preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Westborough MA on June 17th, 2018 for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost. Texts: Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4:26-34. If you’d rather watch instead of read, a Facebook Live video is available here.
Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let me talk to you, for a moment, about the cedar.
Specifically: cedrus libani, the cedar of Lebanon.
This is the scientific name of the tree that Ezekiel references when he records the LORD saying: “Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar…. 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.”
This cedar, even without this special divine treatment, is already something special. These trees can grow to a height of 130 feet. That is the size of three brachiosauri stacked on top of one another, or 18 times taller than Shaquille O’Neal, or 20 times taller than Napoleon.
Full-grown cedars are valuable, majestic, noble—a clear choice for Ezekiel’s vision of what it will be like when the exiled kingdom from which he writes is restores to its former glory, when God finally takes home the exiles and set them on the mountaintop and calls them to realize the seed of splendor that is within them as God’s chosen people.
Against this magnificent tree, I invite you to consider…
…the mustard shrub.
The kind of mustard Jesus is talking about in today’s parable is probably black mustard, brassica negra. This is the same genus that cabbage belongs to.
Mustard is not particularly glorious, though the yellow might be considered very pretty—until you find that it’s gotten into your garden, where it will take root with what seems like vindictive delight, reproducing rapidly and without regard for your carefully cultivated flowers and vegetables. It can, if left alone, take over your whole field.
The mustard tree is not that tall. They generally grow to about 3 feet, maybe 8 in really exceptional circumstances, like if some crazy person decides to let it grow wild instead of ripping it out of the ground.
For a moment, I want you to consider the cedar, and consider the mustard seed.
And then I want to remind you that when Jesus was reaching for a metaphor to describe what the kingdom of God was like…
…he picked the shrub.
Jesus is speaking with tongue firmly in cheek. Mustard shrubs are not impressive. They are not sufficiently cedar-y enough, in the mind of a normal person, to represent the kingdom of God…which is glorious, right? Splendid! Magnificent! Full of honor and glory and wisdom and might and power!
We know this, somewhere deep down in our bones: that Ezekiel is right, that when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, it will be strong and it will be beautiful and it will be evergreen, and all the world will recognize just how splendid it is.
And it does not take an advanced horticulturalist to realize that that is not yet the world that we are living in.
So: Jesus has to be joking.
But what if he’s not?
The gospel of Mark rudely shuts us out of the room when Jesus explains everything to his disciples in private later, and so there’s a certain amount of guesswork going on, but here’s the thing that I keep coming back to:
Jesus’ own life and ministry are much more like the mustard shrub than like the cedar.
Jesus came among us by means of an unwed pregnant teenage mother, laid in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn. He spent toddlerhood as a refugee in the land of Egypt. He was a carpenter’s son, raised to do blue-collar work in a back-water corner of the Roman Empire.
And the ministry he did, he did among the people that others were ignoring. Among the women and the children and the tax collectors and the sinners. Jesus lived out the refrain of his ministry: the first will be last, and the last will be first.
And just to make sure we got the point—or maybe, maybe because it was inevitable for this story to end in any other way in a culture that strives for cedar-y-ness, in a culture that revolves around honor and stature and power and has no room in it for the weak and powerless—on the cross, Jesus showed us that his power, his glory, was only revealed in weakness as he hung dying between two criminals, naked and bloody and despised.
“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.”
Interestingly, the one similarity between these two passages, Ezekiel and Mark, is their agreement in the utility of the living plant: that the birds of the air would find their homes in it.
I confess to you that I do not have firsthand knowledge of what it is to stand in the presence of either a cedar of Lebanon or a mustard plant. But what I do have is: the Russian olive tree that grew in the backyard of the house where I grew up.
Russian olives, like mustard plants, are also weeds. They’re native to central and western Asia, and are considered an invasive species here. My parents tolerated the one in our backyard because it was the only green thing growing back there when we moved into the newly-constructed house when I was 5.
I grew up learning about birds because of that shrub. My parents set up a birdfeeder right beside it, and it immediately because popular with the local songbird and squirrel population. Watching from the window by the kitchen table, I learned to identify cardinals, goldfinches, juncos, bluebirds, chickadees, sparrows and finches, orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks. I would watch the sparrows be driven from the feeders by the grackles, and observed the temerity of blue jays firsthand.
But here’s the thing: whenever a hawk flew overhead or the birds were startled from the feeders, everyone flew to the Russian olive. Under those branches, the grackles and the finches got along, the cardinals raised several broods, the blue jays ceased their bullying. Everyone understood, by mutual, unsung consent, that the shelter of that tree was for everyone, and no one should be driven out when danger was nearby.
The kingdom of God is a place where all the birds can come and make their home. You, beloved people of God, you already know this, because you already live with one foot in that kingdom. Through Christ, you, you yourselves, have been gathered in by God’s everlasting arms. There is nothing, no power, no principality, no height or depth or anything else in all of this beloved but broken world that will ever take you out of that sheltering love. You are God’s beloved, and you are home, and nothing, nothing, nothing will every take that away from you.
As I prepared to preach to you this week, I did so all too conscious that this good news is needed, desperately needed, on our southern border, where displaced and fearful mothers and fathers who have already been driven from their homes by fear and violence beyond our imagining are being separated from their children.
But let me tell you something: though the despairing parents and the frightened children on our border certainly need the comfort of the gospel that the will of the God who has claimed them and loved them is for their safety and their peace…I think we might need it more.
We, who are sheltered in branches of relative peace and prosperity, who are regularly distracted by our perceived lacks and misfortunes to the point that we no longer remember the grace that we ourselves have received—we need that gospel good news more.
We need our hearts to be broken open by it, to be changed by it, to be transformed by it, so that the Spirit might knock us right out of our apathy and remind us again that this is what God’ glory looks like: not like the cedar, but like the mustard shrub; not through power and posturing, but through the welcoming and all embracing arms of a man who was the human equivalent of an invasive species—working from the margins, proliferating with the gospel so rapidly that it couldn’t and still can’t be contained, refusing to let even the smallest sparrow go without shelter, and identifying with those little ones so closely that he tells us, “Whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do it for me.”
Do you know how it is that the Russian olive spreads? The fruit—little red berries—are eaten by the birds, and then the birds—look, there’s no polite way to say this—the birds literally poop them out and the seeds grow right there, right in the middle of a pile of poop.
This is how the kingdom of God grow—right in the middle of the worst we can offer. It thrives in the Walmarts that have been turned into detention centers holding over 1400 immigrant children. It thrives along the border where people walk with a strange mixture of hope and despair.
It thrives in poor soil, even the soil of apathy and hopelessness, even when that soil is ours. It grows and matures and thrives, and it is never too late for your garden to be taken right over by it.
People of God: let it grow.
If the Spirit is stirring you to action, take a look at this list of action steps from the New York Times editorial board. Also consider learning more about, participating with, or donating to AMMPARO, an ELCA program Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities.