The Earth is in constant flux. Environmental conditions, weather systems, and human use of the land, can change a place that once was lush pastures into a desert—or what was once a verdant forest into a treeless wasteland. But the reverse is also possible. Lands that have been over-farmed can be brought back into fruitfulness when the people who live there begin to interact with the ecosystem differently.
A few years ago, I happened upon a short documentary called The Church Forests of Ethiopia: A Mystical Geography. The filmmakers bring before our eyes visual evidence of how vast swaths of Ethiopia that were once forested are now dry, dusty wastelands. But what one discovers, looking down on the terrain through aerial photography, is that islands of trees are to be found amidst what otherwise is desert as far as the eye can see.
Why are there trees growing in these circular pockets? Because these are where the Ethiopian Orthodox churches are found. Around each church, the neighboring farms did not encroach onto the church’s property because a wall is built around each church to demarcate its sacred land. This observation caused forest ecologists to propose a partnership with these churches. They have worked together to ask the clergy and people of each community to consider moving their church walls further outward, extending the protective, sacred space around each church—thereby allowing the existing trees to flourish and new growth to emerge on the margins of each island of trees.
In today’s Gospel from Matthew, we hear Jesus speaking in parables, including this one: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Mustard plants are considered by many to be weeds that get in the way of the other, more desired flora. This is because mustard plants, by virtue of their very tiny seeds, can spring up easily and spread to places where we may not have planned for them to grow. And when they grow, they really grow. Because of this, many gardeners would say that mustard seeds, and the plants they become, do not belong in the garden.
But even the seed of a weed can flourish and become life-giving: a safe place for birds to find food, shade, and a place to nest. In the kingdom of God, boundaries are crossed. Categories come into question. And the tiny seed of a weed becomes “the greatest of all shrubs.”
And yet, for an audience steeped in images from the Hebrew scriptures of the great cedars of Lebanon, a mustard shrub evokes a much humbler vision of God’s plans and promises. And yet, because of its smaller scale and more humble reputation, the mustard seed is the most appropriate sign of what it means for us to grow into a kingdom for God. However, as Jesus well knew, the mustard plant is not great because of its size but rather because of what its branches can provide: shelter and shade. The mustard shrub grows from the tiny seed of a sometimes-unwanted plant into a thriving plant whose expansive branches provide for the needs of many other creatures in its ecosystem.
In today’s reading from Ezekiel we do hear about the lofty cedars—among the tallest and most revered of trees. However, God knows that even the lofty cedars need to be trimmed—not only so that existing trees will flourish, but also to allow for new trees to take root. We are like these cedars: We cannot flourish and propagate new life unless we first prune some sprigs and branches away—and then allow these cuttings to develop their own roots. These will then be transplanted into untilled soil to grow into something new, and so the cycle of growth and regeneration continues.
The kingdom of God expands in both of these ways: by planting the tiniest seeds, hoping the small grow up to become great. And by pruning the great cedars, ensuring that new life will spring forth from cuttings of the old. What is low is brought high, and what is high is brought low.
God’s economy is based on such reversals or incongruities. The weak become strong. The poor become rich. A little child shall lead them. The people of Israel were long expecting a kingly messiah who would come to save them with royal grandeur and military might. Instead God sent them a savior born into poverty, a child of asylum seekers, who fled with Mary and Joseph to Egypt. Jesus saved his people not by conquering or vanquishing other peoples, but by sacrificing himself.
So, it makes sense that when God tells us about how we can expand his kingdom on earth, that he tells us to go about it in a different way than many worldly leaders would. It’s not about making earthly empires great (again) and gaining power over other people. Rather, growing from a tiny seed into “the greatest of all shrubs” is about growing into a plant—or a church, or a community, or a culture—that is, in fact, an ecosystem that provides sustenance and shelter to a diversity of living things.
Meanwhile, back in Ezekiel 17, we hear about “the lofty cedar.” These tall and majestic trees are often used in Scripture to symbolize power and might. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God tells us how he will take a sprig of the cedar, “a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs.” God himself will plant this twig—a small, pliable piece—on a “high and lofty mountain.”
God does this not to create some sort of shrine to himself as many a human leader would. Rather, God is planting this young shoot on top of the mountain to build a kingdom through which he will provide a safe place for his people: “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.” In this prophetic analogy, God is showing us that the kingdom we are to join him in building is one in which people are provided for—because this kingdom bears fruit. Not only that, but the kingdom we are to build for and with God is one in which diversity is at the core—there is room in God’s kingdom for everyone: “Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” This is repeated, highlighting its importance to what God is telling us through this prophetic picture.
So, too, do we build an exalted, noble kingdom of God in this world when we provide for each others’ needs, give others a safe place to be, and welcome every kind of person. The kingdom of God, then, is not something that we look to experience only at the end of time, but it is a kingdom that God calls us to build now, in the world and the time in which we live today.
A former university colleague of mine, Anne Hallum, founded a non-profit organization that seeks to spark both environmental and economic renewal. The Alliance for International Reforestation (AIR), was founded by Hallum, now a political science professor emerita—bringing together her Christian ethics (as an elder in the Presbyterian church) with her concerns for improving the health of the earth and the well-being of its people.
Focusing their efforts in Guatemala, AIR’s work includes teaching regenerative farming, planting trees that fertilize the soil and prevent mudslides, helping people start tree nurseries that positively impact the local economy, and building more efficient brick stoves that both improve air quality and decrease the number of trees being cut down for fuel. Over the 30 years since AIR’s founding, over 5,000 rural families have participated in training to live more sustainably in their local ecosystems, over 7 million trees have been planted, and 880 stoves have been constructed. But the Guatemalan communities are not the only ones who are changed. Anne Hallum describes the story of how she volunteered on whim to lead a university study abroad trip to Guatemala, and then returned with the inspiration to found AIR: “God rescued me in Guatemala, and I found his purpose for my life.”
Don Eladio Iquique Socoy, a Mayan leader from the town of Cerro Alto, worked for 10 years as the first tree planting technician for AIR Guatemala. He shared this reflection on the interconnectedness of nature, humanity, and the divine:
The relation between the natural resources and what it is to be human: When we are in a forest and where we see and listen to the songs of the birds, the sound of the rivers, when we feel the fresh air, enjoy the beauty of nature, then we ought to think that God is there because it is His creation and He desires that we are able to be happy. But also, we have the responsibility to have a very tight relation with her, so He wants to say that we ought to care for her because our children and our grandchildren and all the generations that come after also have a right to enjoy these natural resources that God has created.
To love God then is to love nature. When you work for nature, you are working for the people—directly. There is no separation between helping Nature and helping people. Do you understand? God manifests himself in nature. He shows himself to us in nature and also, he shows himself to us in every face.
So how can we build God’s kingdom now? Growth and new life require changes in state. A seed ruptures open whenever a new plant begins to germinate. A tall plant or tree requires pruning. A plant cutting must first form its own new roots in water before it can be transplanted into the soil and begin to grow.
The question we must consider today is this: Are we willing to have parts of ourselves broken off, rooted, and re-planted by God so that we can grow into a noble cedar, embodying God’s provision and protection in this world? Likewise, are we willing to be tiny mustard seeds with the determination to grow into the greatest of all shrubs—even when we grow within the boundaries of a garden in which we may, at first, be seen as just another weed? It only takes a small, tender sprig, planted in the right place and cared for, to grow into a noble cedar that bears fruit and provides shelter for every kind of creature. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Rebecca L. Bridges, Incumbent
Delivered Sunday, September 17, 2023