In scripture, trees have a majestic quality. The opening chapters of Genesis and the creation stories describe the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. Abraham, that wandering Aramean, took part in tree worship, even after he was called by God. In the book of the prophet Hosea, God says, “I am like an evergreen cypress” tree, strong and mighty, and which we can imagine, looks a lot like the Christmas tree we know.
In our reading from Ezekiel today, God takes the part of a master gardener, or landscaper, if you will, when the LORD God takes a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar, and goes to plant it on Zion, the highest and most lofty mountain in Israel, or, the Temple mount. Though the house of King David has ended, God will replant and renew. God will transplant and start over. God can make a new dominion on earth. Not that Ezekiel had Jesus in mind, in his writing. Prophet’s spoke to their own time and community. But how can we not see ourselves in this beautiful poem of restoration for Israel, having a clear vision of new life that will emerge from the stuff, and DNA, of the people of God. And it is God who will do it, God the master gardener.
The image of the tree is one of the most common religious symbol archetypes. The ceiba peace tree of ancient Mayan days, the Shinto sakaki tree decorated with paper streamers in Asian homes, the legend of the Native Americans of the eastern woodlands, of the tree growing on the back of the turtle, and the Australian aborigines palm tree, all reverence the fertility and majesty of trees. And, interesting in many cultures, including Palestine and the ancient near east, was the belief that the earth herself was the greatest source of life. And so in the parable of the sower that Jesus tells, the sower doesn’t do anything but scatter the seed, then goes to sleep, eventually gets up, not to water the crops or weed them, but to go back to work, while “the earth produces of itself,” Jesus says, which is the life-force of nature, the power of God deep underneath, the “Ground of our Being.” (Tillich) These are seeds of wisdom Jesus gives us that we can scatter wherever we go, a rich story of life and faith, hope and trust, in our God.
But when it comes to trees, Jesus, whether intentionally or not, subverts the male-centric pattern of the mighty cedar and evergreen, in favor of a large shrub. To be sure, it grows phenomenally and secretly from one of the tiniest of seeds, the mustard seed – but, it’s rather hilarious, however you come to see it – the dominion of God is not like a giant cedar, but grows to be a good sized bush! Jesus has a playfulness with the non-dominant symbol of bush vs. tree, which has a kind of gender-bending, or queer orientation, this amorphous shrubbery. The mustard plant is a weed, an invasive species, actually, and grows subversively, and like a Pentecost wild-fire, spreads itself around, crossing borders and boundaries, ending up somewhere near you, even in your own garden! In common with the tree legend of Ezekiel, is that, the birds of the air, of every kind, come and nest in its branches or shade, whether tree or bush, signaling the inclusion of all people’s, into God’s promise to Israel.
For many, this promise of inclusion in its macro-application, points to the “new covenant,” and our inclusion, the Gentiles, through Jesus. And, just this past Friday, in an exciting micro-application, another strong move for the inclusion of all God’s people here in the United States, was announced. President Obama, after careful study, has made a way by executive order, for undocumented youth to live their ‘dream.’ Speaking of the policy he said, “These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag, they are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.”
But now, on paper, undocumented immigrants will be immune from deportation if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16 and are younger than 30, have graduated from high school, or served in the military. Of course there’s politics involved, but what I’m interested in is the way it fulfills the biblical promise that, birds of all kinds, by which was meant, peoples of all nations, are welcome in the neighborhoods they live and work and go to school.
Here in Chicago, Brianda, recent high school graduate, lives in an apartment with her mother and older brother. Brianda hasn’t seen her father, who she described as “abusive,” since she was 4 years old. And until Friday’s announcement by the president, Brianda lived in fear of being sent back to Mexico, even though what she knows about her parents’ hometown there, she’s mostly learned from looking at Google Maps. Brianda came here as a babe in arms – not unlike the Christmas story when Jesus fees to Eygpt to live undocumented for a time. “I’m a person who always does the right thing,” Brianda said. “I don’t like to break the law.” So it didn’t feel right to have to fake papers to land a waitress job recently. This hiding and living in fear sometimes makes her angry, even at her parents. But now she has great hope, and is excited about the opportunity to go to college without fear of being discovered, she said. Bianda plans to study photography at Truman College.
The trees and shrubberies that grow, we know not how, bring life in the most unexpected ways, though by faith, we know they derive their sustenance from the deepest of roots in the good green earth, the Ground of our Being that God created.
We grow here too. Yesterday we continued painting and also began laying our new flooring in the lower level back rooms at Unity. And if it wasn’t for little Alena, who wanted her uncle Jim to stay another day, for Father’s Day today, we wouldn’t have had our expert tile layer yesterday. God continues to make a way for things grow and bloom beyond our understanding, even as we sleep and rise.
How about you? Do you hear yourself invited anew to this biblical story, or will you invite another, your uncle Jim, to be one of those trees that comes to know Jesus and to rejoice in God's gracious beauty, and join in God's praise? Who is "every kind of bird" that has not yet been invited to nest in God's noble cedar, or differently oriented mustard shrub? With whom can we share this inspiring Ezekiel poem, and wonderful gospel parable, in a way that might make them think about this God thing in a different way? God as tree tender? God as one who invites all to nest in God's tree? (questions inspired by Fred Gaiser on workingpreacher.com) And to see it maybe as a Christmas tree, springing forth in July?!