When I went on retreat at the end of April, I deliberately chose a place in Georgia, north of Atlanta, knowing that no matter what “spring” was doing in Chicago, they would already have the real thing down there—which we in June just barely seem to have now! And I wasn’t disappointed: all the flowers were in bloom, all the trees were leafed out, and I had even already missed the early flowers, which were just beginning to sprout up here.
Of all that life, though, what captured my imagination were the oaks: twice as tall as they ever grow here, not nearly as big around, but with huge canopies that filtered the light and the air. Even the smallest breath of wind made a rustling. The trees were so grand that beneath them it seemed they held up the sky; and truly they were holding the ground, with deep roots that held soil on the steep hills. They were for me living signs of the faithfulness of God.
I was thinking of those oaks as I heard today’s first reading, asking myself why the prophet Ezekiel needed to preach to trees: “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD,” says the prophet, as if they need reminding. In his own time, Ezekiel isn’t talking about trees, of course, but about how God was going restore Israel. And yet, couldn’t God’s word come to the trees? Why wouldn’t God address the trees? They too are God’s creatures, though unlike people, they don’t need to be reminded to be faithful.
I was thinking something similar about the parables in today’s gospel: The first seems straightforward enough: The kingdom of God is something like a rich harvest that grows from a scattering of seeds. That sounds great—plenty of food for people to eat. But that second parable about the mustard seed: Who would want a giant bushy weed, no matter how small the seed? Then again if we look closely at the parable, we see that the mustard bush isn’t really for people at all; it’s for the birds of the air to nest in. In this story, the kingdom of God is literally “for the birds.”
These parables, one about trees, another about plants and birds, have got me wondering about just whom the kingdom of God is for: It might be tempting to allow these just to be analogies, which they are, of course, stories to point us to a lesson for human beings.
But if the kingdom of God is about something bigger than us, if it is about all of creation, then perhaps these stories are really for my oaks, and for the birds. The reign of God is not just about human flourishing, but about the flourishing of all creation, including the trees and the birds, and Lake Michigan, and the Chicago River, and all the other lakes and rivers, and other birds and trees, wherever they are.
It would be tempting now to start moralizing about the environment and about climate change and pollution, all of which are a terrible danger not only to humans but to my oaks in Georgia, which will never survive the heat, and to the birds and other species who are losing habitat, and to the countless living things that will become extinct if we human beings don’t change our ways. And I hope we all agree that Christian faith obliges us to do something about those things.
But before we get there, I wonder how we might first allow these stories to shape our imaginations in ways that might make it clear why we why care so much about creation. I wonder how these stories might help us to be curious about, or to be struck with awe by a vision of the reign of God that is ever so much broader than any human hope or need, so broad that it encompasses the entire Earth and every living thing, the whole creation, all the stars and planets and galaxies, and not because they are useful to us, but because God values them all for their own sake, and they, too, are coming along to the fullness of redemption.
Our privilege as those made in our own particular image of God, is to know in our beings that in every tree, in every bud about to bloom, in every garden, in every bee whose work brings forth fruit, in every wave along the lake, and the fish within it, in every sunrise and star twinkle, God is doing the work of bringing forth kingdom, in hidden ways we cannot know or see, and the fullness of which we can’t really anticipate. It’s going to be a surprise, and not only for us, but for everything God has made and called very good.