There’s a saying that “You can count how many seeds are in an apple, but you never know how many apples are in a seed.” Creation is full of surprises.
When we lived in Portland, back before the city picked up our compost, we used to dump it into a backyard box. I would occasionally go out to the box to empty our under-the-sink bucket and find a 3-foot avocado stem in full leaf shooting up from the box. Or I’d wander into a neglected corner of the yard and find a bunch of tomato plants sprung from seeds that had worked their way into mulch I spread a year earlier. Or a pumpkin vine stretching the length of the patch we called the “back 40.” Each one of these surprises would present me with a choice: do I want to try and cultivate this avocado, see what it does in a damp, shady corner of the Pacific Northwest? Should I nurture those tomatoes, or focus on what I’d originally planted? Do I want to tame that pumpkin vine into the sun to see if it will bear fruit?
The everyday things that happen in our gardens, or our kitchens, or on a walk in the woods or on the beach—remind us of the providence and surprise in nature. This is why the germination and growth of plants makes such a great metaphor for God’s providence, God’s surprise, and the work God sets before us.
“The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground…” In the Kingdom, we scatter seeds not only without knowing how they come up, but also without knowing whether or not they will come up. Here at St. Paul’s we have done a lot of scattering seeds. The overnight women’s shelter, the Karen Korn Project, monthly choral evensong, conversations about race and about food justice beginning this summer...the list goes on, as it should. I admit that sometimes I have no idea of what will grow from these seeds, or what next steps might be. Sometimes seeds come up right away; sometimes they come up very slowly. Sometimes they don’t come up. What is important—our part in the Kingdom—is the scattering.
Jesus’ hearers would have been surprised and a little amused by the parable of the mustard seed. They are used to the imagery that we find in Ezekiel and in this morning’s psalm, of cedar trees, which were a symbol of national power, of empire, huge trees that provide protection and shelter in their shade. Cedars of Lebanon were special, extraordinary trees, especially in the high desert climate of much of the region. One didn’t come across grand, tall trees there, except these cedars. Mustard seeds and the shrubs they produced were ordinary, commonplace.
When we come across phrases like “all the cedars of Lebanon,” we’re usually hearing about imperial wealth and power. In today’s verses from Ezekiel, the prophet gives hope to exiles in Babylon with the promise of a new tree that God can grow starting with nothing but a young twig from the top of a cedar. God, not the wealthy and powerful, will plant this twig, and from it will grow a tall tree, under which every kind of creature will find shelter. God intervenes in the history of the people of Israel as an arborist, a grower of sheltering trees.
Shelter is one of the things God does, through these symbolic sheltering trees and shrubs, and through us. I won’t take time to recount all the places in scripture where God’s love of the homeless, the poor, refugees and outcasts is made known. God’s concern for shelter is part of our identity as people of God and as followers of Jesus.
When we hear that the Kingdom of God is like this or or the Kingdom of God is like that, I do not believe Jesus is saying: when you die and go to heaven, this is what you will find. That may well be true, but Jesus is saying: Being my followers means seeing this world, here and now, through the lens of the Kingdom, and acting in this world, here and now, as if the Kingdom were already here and we are its citizens.
Just as shelter is part of what God does and part of what we are called to do as God’s heirs and citizens, shelter has long been part of our national identity. This is how many of our families got here. Remember the words on the statue of liberty? We’ve all heard them, but maybe it’s been a while since we really listened:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
(I’m not sure any of the people invited by Lady Liberty when these words were written in 1883 would make it under a merit-based immigration policy.) Shelter has been part of our spiritual heritage, our identity as Christians, for far longer than it has been part of our national identity. As people of faith, followers of the God of the exiled Israelites and of Jesus the Refugee, it is okay to cry out as citizens of the Kingdom of God, when we see that the nation where we live is failing at shelter.
If we are outraged at asylum seekers being turned away from our national borders, if our hearts break and our spirits burn at the specter of children being taken from their families and warehoused, if we are troubled and overwhelmed by the numbers of vulnerable people at our borders and in our city, and if we cry out in our outrage and our heartbreak, we are in fact affirming our citizenship in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that is already here and not yet here, the Kingdom that longs to come in to being.
Just like God’s surprises in our gardens, circumstances in our city and in our country present us with a choice: What should we do? Pray? Advocate for the kind of shelter that Ezekiel and Jesus promise? Seek in our own big and small ways to be, ourselves, sheltering trees? Yes.
The parable of the mustard seed teaches that tiny, ordinary seeds, ordinary mustard shrubs, can provide shade and shelter, rest and refuge. In the Reign of God, the most ordinary, everyday things are at our fingertips for you and me to make into signs of God’s kingdom.
We affirm our citizenship in the Kingdom when we respond to people in our midst who need shelter, shelter from isolation, shelter from cold and hunger, shelter from every kind of abuse. We might not be able to reach those held on the Texas border and unite them with their families, or stop victimized women being returned to violent, abusing husbands, or house all the homeless in Seattle, but we might. We can pray for the safety of children and vulnerable people everywhere, and pray for those in a position to ensure that safety. We can take the little actions that we think make no difference. What if every phone call, every rally, every signature, every conversation with a person of faith who sees things differently, is a mustard seed?
In the Kingdom that God has given us, even a tiny seed can provide shelter for all the birds of the air, all the creatures of the earth. Let’s scatter those seeds.