Several years ago when I was several years into my advanced middle aged gardening career, I finally took a leap forward in my gardening efforts. For the first time ever I planted seeds. That may sound silly to you, but I’ve always found seeds a little scary. Plus I tend to be impatient. It’s so much easier just to go to the nursery and buy healthy little plants that someone else…who actually knew what they were doing, planted at just the right time for me to be able to pop them in the ground after the danger of frost is past. But that year I did it. The sunflowers that John loved were shooting straight up. The nasturtiums I love were flourishing. The morning glories didn’t fare so well…not enough sun, but they’re still created a bit of a show. Most of the years since that first taste, I’ve hardly been able to wait until following year to try again.
This week the readings are full of images and metaphors about growing things. In Ezekiel, God says he will take a sprig, a small tender sprig, from the top of a lofty cedar and plant it on the mountain height of Israel. And he promises that this little sprig will grow into a grand and noble tree that will shelter all kinds of birds. It will be a sign to all the other trees that he is the Lord. The psalmist picks up the theme when he likens those who are righteous to a tree. Such people will flourish and spread abroad. They will bear fruit even when they are old, and they’ll remain green and succulent. They will be a sign to all about the goodness of the Lord.
And finally, in the gospel Jesus tells two stories about seeds. The first one kind of speaks to my anxiety about starting seeds. He says that when you plant a seed, you just have to wait. And then, without a clue about what causes this wondrous thing to happen, the seeds sprout and grow and finally bear fruit. The farmer and you and I may know that certain things are important like good soil and enough water and some sun and warmth, but what happens in the darkness under the soil remains a mystery. The second story highlights the disconnect between the size of some seeds…he uses the example of a mustard seed…and the plant they end up producing. Like God speaking through the prophet Ezekiel many years before, Jesus emphasizes the sheltering of creatures.
So what in the world does a cedar sprig have to do with you and me today? What bearing does a mustard shrub have in your life or mine? All of this “plant” talk is actually kingdom talk. The Ezekiel passage is about God establishing the kingdom of Israel. The parables Jesus tells are about the kingdom of God.
I find myself wondering if all this plant talk is a way to help us think differently about kingdom. Kingdom is a political term for most of us. Governments may or may not have a monarch at their head, but the issues of power and who wields it and to what end exist in every nation and tribe. From the simplest to the most complex form of governance, it matters who has power, and it matters how they use that power. But God who is, in fact, all powerful, wants you and me to imagine a different kind of kingdom. God wants us to desire a kingdom where even the frailest of creatures is embraced and held safe and close, a kingdom which is not about “what’s in it for me,” but trusting that God will provide all that is needed.
And that would be the kingdom of God. I think one of the gravest errors you and I fall into from time to time is equating the kingdom of God with the afterlife, with heaven, a place we hope we’ll go when we die. But the kingdom of God is about now. It is yesterday and today and tomorrow and the day after that. It’s about trusting God’s goodness enough today to be willing to risk something. In the prayer for today we ask the “we may proclaim [God’s] truth with boldness, and minister [his] justice with compassion.” Speaking the truth boldly is risky business because the truth may offend the comfortable and it will definitely threaten the corrupt. If you don’t believe me, just read the newspaper. And justice tempered with compassion is just as risky. If you don’t believe me, recall how moved you and I are when someone who’s been grievously wronged seeks leniency for the very one who wronged them. And people who seek justice for the poor and the dispossessed are often ridiculed or even endangered even to the point of death themselves.
Each and every one of us carries within us the seed of the kingdom of God. We don’t really believe it, and we can’t really imagine it, but who we are and how we are can have a profound effect on this world. The depth of our inability to nurture and grow that “seed” of the Divine planted in each of us for the good of the whole world was eloquently captured by the great South African leader Nelson Mandela in his inaugural address as the first black man elected president of South Africa. Listen to what he said.
Our deepest fear is not
that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that
we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness,
that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so
that other people
will not feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest
this glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people permission
to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fears,
our presence automatically liberates others.