The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop, The Episcopal Church, USA
Did you notice that green cedar sprig Ezekiel mentioned? Can you imagine its fresh and pungent smell, and its tender green growth? We often see sprigs like that at Easter, and at baptisms and funerals, when the people or their mortal remains have water rained upon them—a sprinkling meant to remind us of our own death and resurrection. We, too, are sprigs planted by the gardener, meant to grow and flourish under God's care.
Ezekiel is confronting a wayward and warring people who've forgotten their planter and gardener. God takes a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar and plants it on a high mountain to become shelter for all the birds of the air. God is often described as high and lifted up, and that lofty cedar is meant to image God's tree of life for all creatures. Ezekiel is reminding his hearers that they are meant to be holy and just, like the one whose image they bear. This is about right relationship, sharing God's creative care of tree and bird and every creature under heaven. So, who finds shelter in the shade of your branches? Who needs shelter and isn't finding it?
Ezekiel's little parable follows a near parallel at the beginning of the chapter, only in that first vision a great eagle flies in to take a small branch from the cedar and then flies back to Babylon to plant it. The prophet is confronting Israel's exiled leaders in Babylon, political deal-makers who are trying to build a military alliance with Egypt, instead of relying on their planter and gardener. The prophet insists that the cedar twig high and lifted up is there in a position of service, not as a general's vantage point. The strategy is about caring for the weak, and it's repeated in Jesus' parable: the kingdom of God is like a gardener scattering seed, then watching and waiting for growth. The sower doesn't know exactly how the seed turns into a great plant, but he trusts that it will, for it is the nature of the earth to be fruitful. God's planting yields shelters like the mustard shrub, with branches supposedly broad and leafy enough to make a home for all sorts of birds.
The great joke in Jesus' parable is that mustard is a pretty puny bush. It's thin and fragile, and it's often considered a weed, by farmers and gardeners alike. Mustard plants aren't sturdy enough to hold big predatory birds like hawks and eagles, but a field full of mustard certainly could hide a flock of sparrows—those little ones Jesus is most worried about. The mustard's human scale, its commonness and ubiquity, and the tiny seed from which it grows, all make it a remarkable image for the reign of God.
High and lifted up—for what? We live in a world that often seeks to hold the peaks as castellated fortresses of righteousness. Their battlements are designed to keep out the unholy rabble, the dangerous or unworthy, hoi polloi, the wrongheaded and the subversive. Alliance building and struggles for power and dominance are not new, in the Middle East or elsewhere, nor is the urge to justify them religiously, as God's will for the rest of the world.
Yet whom do we follow but one who was lifted up on a tree to die? The same one who offers shelter for the world's rejected, sinful, wrong, and wandering beneath the arms and branches of what became a tree of life…
Those sheltering birds might be like the one who left the ark and came back with an olive branch. There are a fair number of them working in Pakistan right now, trying to vaccinate people against polio, and put an end to that ancient scourge.1 Those vaccinators are still too often misunderstood as tools of oppressive regimes or those who want to exterminate religious minorities, and some are being killed for their efforts. Yet for every one who is assassinated, another is rising to take her place. That bush is close to the ground, and it has many branches.
What of the Middle East? Where is the mustard bush or the olive branch? There are sowers at work, scattering tiny seeds in countless fields, nearby and far away. Rabbi Lord Sacks made a profound plea on Friday for a widespread public claim on Abrahamic values—the dignity of every human being, made in the image of God, and a rejection of the demonizing so prevalent in the world's conflicts.2 The rapid escalation of those conflicts, and the desperate scale of human suffering in death, displacement, sickness, loss of home and livelihood is enormous—there are more refugees and displaced people today than at any time since the Second World War. To many it feels entirely hopeless.
And yet, there are tiny signs of hope if we're willing to look—like the grassroots peacebuilding initiatives in the West Bank and in Israel. In January an American Abrahamic pilgrimage met with a group called Roots that included a settler rabbi, another Jewish settler, and a former Palestinian freedom fighter with a long prison history.3 They spoke about how their hearts and minds have been transformed by hearing one another's stories of suffering and injustice. Compassion has been lit in their hearts, and its fire is changing the landscape. The bush is growing—maybe even burning a little.
We met another group focused on building bridges around water use and environmental concerns along the Jordan Valley.4 Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims, Jews, and Christians are recognizing that they share the same trees and water sources, and that all their lives are bound up together in the health and wholeness of creation.
Yet another community is teaching negotiation skills to mid-level civil servants (Israeli and Palestinian) and to junior members of the international diplomatic corps, with the expectation that those individuals can change the dialogue about conflict in their own persons, and that they will be a ready resource to all levels of intergovernmental conversation. They are becoming a sheltering field of constructive possibility.
I met an interreligious dialogue group in Brazil last week that embodied the reality of the cedar and the mustard. Religious leaders from a broad range of traditions—Roman Catholic, Jewish, spiritualist, Anglican, indigenous Afro-Brazilian, Baha'i, Buddhist, and more—gather regularly to promote understanding among themselves and in the wider community. They hold up a mirror to society, saying, "see the image of God in this diversity. We are created to be people of peace." They even march into football matches hand in hand, wearing the colors of different teams!
Those very local initiatives can and do begin to impact the wider community. When Christians and Muslims, or even Scots and English, begin to hear each other's stories with open-hearted compassion, seeds begin to grow. The great religious traditions of the world do share a yearning for peace. The Abrahamic traditions insist that all are made in the image of God, and that we share a responsibility for the well-being of all God's creatures. We proclaim that our help is in the Lord, not in military power or a suicide vest.
The work is both local and global. The solidarity we build with anyone deemed "other"—a hungry person on the street, a new neighbor from a different country or religious tradition, or a fellow citizen whose political aims are robustly different from our own—each act of hospitable companionship provides a bit of shelter. Keep sowing seeds, growing branches, and building a holy place for all God's creatures. Whose branches have sheltered you? Where and how will you return the honor?