“Consider the birds,” says Jesus. Not here, in the passage we read today; but he says it. I was drawn to consider the birds when we read from Ezekiel, about the twig from the top of the majestic cedar tree that would be transplanted and grow to new heights, attracting all of the birds of the air to its shade and strong branches: eagles and hawks and owls. Then there’s the mustard bush, the greatest of all shrubs, which seems like a comical commendation. The very word “shrub” shrugs off majesty. It is no cedar tree. Yet it provides shelter to the little birds that live on the ground, nesting in the earth under its shade, resting in its protective shrubbery, hidden from predators and the noonday sun.
There are a lot of birds in the Bible. They seem to have a special place in the divine heart. And as I read more and more of them – the birds of the Bible – I was reminded of a book I read as a child, about the special place of birds.
“Do you know about storks? Storks on your roof bring all kinds of good luck. I know this about storks; they are big and white and have long yellow bills and tall yellow legs. They build great big messy nests, sometimes right on your roof. But when they build a nest on the roof of a house, they bring good luck to that house and to the whole village that that house stands in. Storks do not sing. They make a noise like you do when you clap your hands when you feel happy and good. I think storks clap their bills to make the happy sounds when they feel happy and good. They clap their bills almost all the time except when they are in the marshes and ditches hunting for frogs and little fishes and things. Then they are quiet. But on your roof they are noisy. But it is a happy noise, and I like happy noises.
That is all I know about storks; but my aunt in the village of Nes knows a lot about storks, because every year two big storks come to build their nest right on her roof. But I do not know much about storks, because storks never come to Shora. They go to all the villages all around, but they never come to Shora. That is the most that I know about storks, but if they came to Shora, I would know more about storks.”
So writes little Lina at the beginning of the book, The Wheel on the School, by Meindert de Jong (HarperCollins, 1954). Lina decides that the reason the storks don’t come is because the roofs are too sharp – in her aunt’s village, every house has a wheel on top, so that the storks have a safe and comfortable place to land and build their large nests. But an older woman who had lived long enough to remember the storks coming to Shora wondered if they wouldn’t also want trees, to rest in; to take shelter and shade, and to hide from prying eyes. It’s difficult for trees to grow in Shora, because of the salt spray from the sea; only one survives, and it is in a walled garden behind one of the houses. That shows, suggests the teacher, that the trees need our protection, and sanctuary from the salt sea spray in order to grow and offer protection and sanctuary to the storks. As the story continues, and the quest for a wheel, trees, and most importantly storks to stay in the village broadens and deepens, it draws everyone in, from the youngest to the oldest, and draws them together, to share their stories, their ideas, their inspirations, their abilities, their selves. They learn to give shelter and shade to one another as they seek to offer sanctuary to the storks.
And that, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of God is like. The seed, the germ of a mustard seed plant, or of wheat and barley, or the cedar tree, or of an idea, or of a story, or of friendship, of love: “Friendship,” wrote the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “is a sheltering tree.” These things can grow to great heights and breadths and bear fruit for those that need it, bring heat and flavour to life, and provide shelter and shade and rest to the birds of the air, the large and the little, the strong and the vulnerable. All share together in the bounty of the seed, the germ of the kingdom of God.
And as birds tend to do, they themselves will raise fledglings who will fly from the nest and reach new trees and shrubs and spread their seeds and the cycle start over again. All from one little seed, says Jesus.
Which might lead us to consider how careful we must be about the seeds that we plant.
If we plant weeds, they will strangle the newly sprouted seedlings before they get a chance to grow. Negativity and pessimism and prejudice and habitual self-interest, all will eat away at the root that the kingdom of God is trying to set in our hearts, and we will struggle to see it grow if our hearts are turned only to the darkness. I rarely find evidence of the kingdom of God in the online comments section of the news sites, where bitterness and bile run rampant.
If we plant thorns, they will not only keep our enemies out but they will pierce us too, close in as they grow. They soon get out of hand, even if when we plant them we think we can control them, like the habits of fear that feed on themselves and breed further fear, until we are afraid of our own shadows, our own mirror image. The kingdom of God, to my knowledge, has never been compared in parables to a thicket of thorns from which no one can escape.
And if we will sow the seeds of enmity, of violence, of oppression, of jealousy and pride, then we will find that the trees we thought to see grow into majestic cedars have all been cut down for crosses.
The good news is that no one is too small or insignificant to make a difference in the landscape in which we live. The girl in the story, Lina, was the only girl in her school: excluded from the boys’ games because of skirts and such: but she was the one who dreamt of storks and the seed, the germ of her idea got the whole village not only dreaming but acting and … well, I won’t give away the ending.
The seeds that we sow can give real and needed shelter to those that need it. When we say, “God loves you. No exceptions,” do we understand that there are people who have never heard that? There are people who have heard that God watches the fall of a sparrow but never known that God reaches out to catch them? When we say, “God loves you. No exceptions,” do we mean it? If so, we are planting seeds that shelter and shade and offer safe nesting material to all sorts of strange and familiar birds, no exceptions; and both we and they are blessed.
The cedar tree sends out eagles as messengers across the land and sea to proclaim the kingdom of God. But just like the mustard seed, the tiniest grain, even the smallest and shyest of God’s creations can branch out to offer shade and shelter to the birds of the air and the little ones that nest close to the ground, and camouflage from danger, and rest for one who leans in the little branches.
Think of a hotdog without the hope of mustard, and consider how fortunate and elevated and blessed we are to have been scattered and sown, little seeds of God’s kingdom.
Featured photo: our own little visitor attracted by the hedgerow outside the church, napping.