Worship

Ezekiel 17:22-24 - Psalm 92:1-4,11-14 - 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 -  Mark 4:26-34

The six-and-a-half acres where I grew up were full of all sorts of trees. There was the large sugar maple from whose branches hung various swings my father had devised, and the weeping willow down by the road where I was convinced all sorts of snakes lay in wait to wrap themselves around my ankles. Off to the side of the yard, Chinese chestnut trees dropped nuts with vicious spiny outer husks – no summer was complete without impaling our bare feet on one of them. I loved the gingko tree that turned yellow in the fall and dropped all of its leaves at once in one bright shower of gold that carpeted the ground.

But my favorite of all was the copper beech tree – it had a trunk at least three feet in diameter, and its branches formed a great dome so dense no grass could grow underneath. Once you slipped inside, you found yourself in a grand hall of sorts, with branches for rafters and hulking roots like elephant legs for furniture. For me and my brother and sister, and for our friends, it was a refuge, a place of wonder and imagination and safety. We climbed as high as we could go; we danced around its trunk; we knew ourselves connected to something holy.

Throughout the scriptures, trees appear and reappear as symbols of God’s determination to provide for the creatures of earth – all creatures, including human beings. In Genesis 1, the earth brings forth vegetation: “plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it” (1:12). God’s promise to human beings is that the trees with their fruit are to be for nourishment, and it is very good. In Genesis 2 – a slightly different story – the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, though not for sustenance, are still meant for human flourishing, just in more carefully monitored ways.

Later on in Genesis, God appears to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre in the form of three visitors, who are invited to wash their feet and find refuge from the burning middle eastern sun under one of the trees. Trees mark the places where there is water, and shade, and where life can flourish. They stand, among other things, for the abundant care and steadfastness of the LORD God.

Have you noticed, in our readings today, how the sprig planted by God and the bush that grows from a tiny mustard seed each become a refuge? How their nobility and beauty come from the fact that birds nest in the shade of their branches and find nourishment from their fruit? How their power as symbols of God and the Kingdom of God comes from their capacity to be shelter from the storm, sanctuary from all that threatens life?

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “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.” The kingdom of God is refuge, and safety, and blessing. I think I knew that, implicitly, as I played under the beech tree all those years ago.

The psalmist tells us that “The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon… shall bear fruit in old age…that they may show how upright the LORD is” (92:11, 13, 14). I imagine, then, that those who would follow in God’s way of righteousness would also find themselves mirroring the qualities of the kingdom of God. I imagine that the righteous, like palm trees, will flourish by providing shelter and shade and food to those who are in danger, because that is the way of God’s righteousness.

Which is why it is so unfathomable to me that people of authority and power in this nation would turn to Holy Scripture to defend the practice of tearing children away from parents who are seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border. It is beyond my capacity to understand how anyone with basic human feelings, let alone a professed follower of Christ, could take the practice of traumatizing children and their parents and align it with the teachings of Moses, or Jesus, or the Apostle Paul.

Throughout the Bible, a clear distinction is made between God’s reign of justice on the one hand, which cares for the orphan and widow, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and frees the captive; and on the other hand, human empires that thrive at the expense of the weak and the vulnerable. The law given to Moses on Mount Sinai is founded on love of neighbor and care for the stranger. And the prophets, like Ezekiel and Isaiah and Amos and Jeremiah, make it clear that governments that pursue self-interest and power over the needs of the stranger are not of God, and will be judged.

When, in Romans 13, the apostle Paul says that every person should be subject to the governing authorities and that there is no authority except from God, this is no blanket approval of the Roman empire and its policies. This is a plea to a vulnerable community of Christians to keep their heads down and stay under the radar – it is not a vindication of Rome’s status in God’s eyes. I wonder if those who use this passage to justify American actions at the border with Mexico realize that by doing so, they are actually identifying America with the Roman empire – an empire that ruled by violence, subjugation, and terror. An empire that used public cruelty to deter any flouting of the system. An empire that assumed the gods were on its side.

As we know, public cruelty is an effective means of keeping a vulnerable population in check. Such cruelty is a mainstay of authoritarian and repressive regimes, regimes like North Korea. It is also a violation of the law of Moses, the teachings of Jesus, and of basic human decency. There is nothing biblical about enforcing a policy of tearing children from their parents when they are seeking refuge from violence and poverty. There is nothing remotely human or humane about it either.

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. The kingdom of God is refuge, and safety, and mercy, and blessing. God calls us to watch for where the seeds of refuge and mercy are being sown and to nurture them into full growth – what, friends, does that look like when those who represent us are inflicting trauma on parents and children who are seeking refuge?

 We are the Church, which means that Christ dwells in us and works through us, grows the seeds of refuge and safety and mercy in and through us. The collect we prayed together at the beginning of this Eucharist invited us into this holy work. We prayed:

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion.

 Proclaim God’s truth with boldness, and minister God’s justice with compassion

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? The parable is now ours to tell, and to live.

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