Sunday, June 13, 2021

Salvation in a Cedar or a Shrub?


June 13, 2021 – The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 6B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon, which is substantially different from the text below, is available here. Video of the service can be seen here.

Where is your home? Where are you at home? Not necessarily the place you sleep at night, though for many of us that is our home. Where in this world do you belong in a way that no one could ever take that from you? As Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Where is that home for you?

Three years ago, when Elizabeth and I drove for the first time to Northwest Arkansas, we noticed how dramatically the land changed as we moved from the rice patties of the Mississippi Delta through the Arkansas River Valley and on into the Boston Mountains. We grew up in places where pine trees lined every interstate and highway so thick you can only see a few feet into the woods as you drive by. We were trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a place where the roads are dotted by cedars that are spread out far enough that you can see the undulations of the rocky ground between them. 

Last week, I had coffee with Jacob Adler, the former rabbi at Temple Shalom, and we spoke about the ways in which where you live and where you’re from shape the way you read the Bible. A while back, he told me, he had been asked to translate a series of novels set in the Ozarks into Hebrew. One problem he encountered was the word “cedar.” Around here, he explained, we all know what cedar trees are—those scrubby, evergreen trees on the side of the road that, if you try to hang Christmas ornaments on them, the branches bend down to the ground. To someone who lives in the Levant, however, a cedar tree is something quite different.

In fact, to a botanist or arborist, the cedars of Arkansas and the cedars of Lebanon have very little in common except their fragrant, reddish wood. Rabbi Jacob explained that our cedar trees aren’t really cedars at all. They’re a form of juniper (Juniperus virginiana), which have narrow trunks and reach heights of maybe 50 or 60 feet. The cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), however, are, as the scriptures suggest, magnificent trees with massive trunks and branches that stretch upwards of 130 feet or more. When the prophet Ezekiel asks us to imagine a “noble cedar,” under which “every kind of bird will live” and in whose branches “winged creatures of every kind” will find shade, he isn’t asking us to picture the floppy cedars we know made cartoonishly large but the giant legends of the Levantine forest, big and strong enough to make a home for all of God’s people.

“I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar,” God declares, “I will set it out…I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.” The good news we hear in today’s reading from Ezekiel comes from the end of chapter 17, but that good news of a secure home for all people is actually the second half of a parable, which doesn’t begin so positively. At the beginning of the chapter, the prophet tells of a great and colorful eagle that came and snapped off the top of another cedar tree. That sprig, which represents King Jehoiakim of Judah, was taken off into exile by the eagle, who represents king of Babylon. When the sprig was planted in the city of merchants, a name for Babylonia, however, it died. That particular monarchical line was not to grow. 

In his place, we are told, the eagle-king of Babylon took another seed, Jehoiakim’s uncle, Zedekiah, and planted it back in Jerusalem as vassal king, allowing it to grow and prosper as long as he kept the peace and paid tribute to his master. But this seed, which had been planted by the Babylonian king, did not grow into a mighty cedar but into a vine more like a willow. At first, the vine showed promise for God’s people—a luscious, green, flowering vine that spread out beside the river. Soon, however, those shoots reached out toward a second eagle, this time representative of Egypt, with whom Zedekiah tried to establish a secret alliance that would lend military support for a rebellion against the Babylonian overlords. Yet, when the time for rebellion came, no help from Egypt was to be found. And, like the vine that he was, Zedekiah was pulled up from the ground with very little effort, and the city of Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, and God’s people were left without a home.

When the time comes, God declares, “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar…I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain…in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” The parable of the cedar tree and the willow vine teaches us that our hope for salvation—our need for a secure home that is big enough to house all people and strong enough never to be shaken—is answered not by the kingdoms of this world but by the kingdom of God. The hope we wait for comes from God.

No matter how good our intentions are, we cannot vote for a candidate who will make God’s reign come to the earth. No matter how pure our motives are, we cannot support a legislative agenda that will establish God’s rule in our land. No matter how enlightened our dreams are, we cannot build a church that will bring the fullness of God’s kingdom to this community. Yes, our prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” should affect the way we use our vote and our voice as much as it affects the way we build our church. But, no matter how good it may feel to see our preferred candidate win an election, we cannot confuse the kingdoms of our own creation with the reign of God. 

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” Jesus said, “[The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of seeds on the 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.”

In every generation, God’s people wait and watch for God to come and establish his perfect reign on the earth. In order to help us see it, Jesus borrows from Ezekiel’s parable and adds new layers of understanding to it. Instead of following the prophetic pattern that God’s people expect, Jesus invites us to see that the kingdom of God sprouts forth from the earth in ways that transcend human understanding. Instead of a mighty cedar, which grows up from the sprig that God has planted, Jesus asks us to think of God’s reign as if it were a mustard plant—something that starts as small as the smallest seed on the earth yet still grows big enough for the birds of the air to nest in its branches.

Don’t you want a place to call home? Don’t you want to be secure in ways that carry you all the way through this life and even into the next? Don’t you want to belong in a way that is so deep and so true that nothing could ever take that away from you? That is God’s promise to us, in the kingdom that God establishes here on the earth. God’s reign is the one in which all the birds of the air—all the peoples of the earth—can build their nests in its protective shade. We find that place of belonging in the one who unites the peoples of the world through his own sacrificial love. 

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