Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. Here God proclaims that he will take a shoot from the highest branch of the cedar tree and will plant it on a high mountain where birds will be able to live beneath it. “And every tree of the field will learn that I, the Lord, am the one who stunts tall trees and makes the low ones grow, who withers green trees and makes the withered green.” In Mark’s Gospel Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed. He described the mustard seed as being “the smallest of all seeds on earth” but it grows “into the biggest shrub of them all and puts out big branches so that the birds of the air can shelter in its shade.”
As many of you know I used to be a priest and my last assignment was in South Carolina. When this reading came up I spoke about how we often misunderstand mustard plants. Many of us read today’s Gospel and think of the mustard plant as almost as big as an oak tree and it’s not. Those who live in the American South are more than familiar with kudzu, a shrub that takes root and overtakes pretty much anything else. I suggested that the mustard plant was much like kudzu, not thinking I would get feedback. I was wrong. An elderly woman in the parish dressed me down in no uncertain terms. She was angry that I ruined her image of mustard seeds and plants and wanted me to know that.
I look back on this with a sense of bemusement. Much of Scripture tells us that our ways are not God’s ways and God’s ways are not ours. Left to our own devices we tend to think that bigger is better. We admire people who are strong, or smart, or articulate. When interviewing for a job we talk about “the strongest candidate;” statistics show that taller men enjoy an advantage over others when it comes to hiring.
Again and again we find both God and Jesus choosing people that were overlooked, and frankly we need only look at Jesus’ disciples to see this. But I think if we focus only on this, we miss something else.
Both Ezekiel and Mark speak of protection for birds. In the time of Ezekiel, cedar trees held a treasured place: they grew slowly but strong and the First Temple was built on its wood and he speaks of every kind of bird will live beneath it. Mark describes the mustard shrub as enabling “the birds of the air can shelter in its shade.”
Birds hold a special place for many of us. In my backyard we have birdfeeders for finches, orioles, and hummingbirds. We all know people who describe themselves as birdwatchers and spend insane amounts of time looking through binoculars to find an elusive specie.
And we see birds as fragile. Their ability to fly requires them to have low body weight and hollow bones. Even eagles generally weigh less than 15 pounds (6.8 kilos). Nearly any damage to their wings will prove fatal as they won’t be able to survive.
And yet they are beautiful. In the summer of 1992 I was gifted with three months near Fairbanks, Alaska and saw an dozens of bald eagles. They are predators and scour the land and the sea in search of food; but to see a bald eagle flying just above a lake with his wingtips brushing the surface of the water, well there’s just nothing better.
I think these readings speak to us not only because birds of the air are beautiful, but also because we are the cedars and the mustard shrubs. I think Ezekiel and Mark speak of these trees to show how powerful God is but also to show that God has chosen us to be part of the power that brings this protection.
In our lowest moments we think of ourselves as weak and unable to protect others. Parents are well aware that they cannot protect their children from harm and we all worry about bad things happening to people we love.
But recognizing that we can always prevent danger from happening to those we love doesn’t get us off the hook. I think most of us reading these words know that we are able to provide protection to the fragile. Let me give a few examples.
As I write this, the United States Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has ruled that people fleeing domestic cannot enter the United States and apply for asylum. In other words, if you fear your your government will kill you, you can come to here and apply for asylum. But if you fear your husband will kill you, you can’t. I’d say this is a fragile population that we can protect if we choose.
OK, let me get less political. I also believe we all have a neighbor, or a classmate, or a coworker that just doesn’t seem to fit in. They may be socially awkward, or depressed, or they may just say things that make the rest of us cringe.We are normally advised to avoid these people, lest they drag us down. But we have the ability to be their shelter, to protect them. Maybe it means we invite them for coffee, or we advocate on their behalf with the boss. It doesn’t have to be anything spectacular but it does mean we need to acknowledge that they have hollow bones and we have strong branches.