Our scripture lesson today comes from Ezekiel 17:22-24, the Contemporary English Version.
Someday, I, the Lord,
will cut a tender twig
from the top of a cedar tree,
then plant it on the peak
of Israel’s tallest mountain,
where it will grow
and produce large fruit.
All kinds of birds will find
shelter under the tree,
and they will rest in the shade
of its branches.
Every tree in the forest
will know that I, the Lord,
can bring down tall trees
and help short ones grow.
I dry up green trees
and make dry ones green.
I, the Lord, have spoken,
and I will keep my word.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Poet Joyce Kilmer of New Brunswick, New Jersey, in the early part of the 20th Century offered these words:
I think I shall never see
a poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
and lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
a nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with the rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
but only God can make a tree.
Ezekiel, the peculiar poet of Israel, a man caught in exile and held by the elusive hand of God - his words are not like the straightforward declaration of Elijah or the tear-stained prose of Jeremiah. There is a contemplative mysticism to his gaze. The world of Ezekiel is not driven by materialism or post-modern projects that reject encounters with mystery, but he’s driven by what we call “sacred sight.” His eyes are cast upon wheels within the middle of a wheel, bones dry in a valley until God’s breath causes flesh and sinew to reanimate upon the skeletal remains of a lost nation.
Ezekiel’s pronouncements are not for the faint of heart nor appetizing to those stricken with a fundamentalist gaze. The poet called a prophet is a contemplative mystic who believes one can encounter God yet still be distant from the unknowable known God of Israel. Ezekiel knows God’s hand haunts the periphery of human action. No one can encounter God with literal words and simple phrases, for God’s realm must be traveled with the couplets of the poet and the canvas of the artist.
Ezekiel, the poet - Ezekiel the prophet - the prophet, the poet - dares people who are brave enough to listen to the ways of the God who restores people after humanity has eaten a plate full of folly served by human hubris.
So, this reading of scripture today catches us off guard with its images and poetic structure. We want a simple faith, most of us do - one that will not cause us to think or to question. But there is a problem. Poets and poetic prophets refuse to allow people to move into easy and quaint spirituality. They demand we think, reflect, pray, question, and then repeat the process again.
Ezekiel, with all his declarations about God and God’s restoration, embeds in each stanza language that causes the human being to be forced to travel an inward journey and just scratch at the surface of God’s action.
It is the great Howard Thurman who tells the story of being connected to God in a unique way when he discovered his “inward sea.” Thurman says it this way, that there is an inward sea that all human beings must travel. And in that inward sea there is an island, and on that island is an altar, and on that altar there stands an angel with a flaming sword. It is not until you make it to the altar, bringing your fears and your joys and placing them there, that you can truly connect and see God in the periphery of your vision.
Mystics know mystics. And Thurman understands the vibe of Ezekiel. The prophet’s poetry demands the reader travel the inward sea, find the island of the soul, stand before the altar of the heart, and dare place our questions before God.
This Word, if we travel the inward sea, is not simply eschatological. It’s not just talking about what future action God will move toward, but it is an inward indictment of our failures. And yet it is wrapped in a declaration of victory if we walk with God.
The poet speaks of God’s power and restoration simultaneously. The nation of Israel that has been cast into chaos by the political malfeasance of previous generations shall be restored. No longer will exile be the address of Israel nor shall the people be bound by the foolish and insecure leadership of Nebuchadnezzar or the feckless political cowards who collude with foreign powers for monetary convenience and political acceptance.
But let us not rush past this moment of joy and failure that is wrapped in this prophetic indictment of the people. The prosperous and the poor are called to account by the prophet. The nation has failed because the leadership of the privileged class has cast aside the spiritual mandates of the Torah while the ordinary citizens, the people who are just the working class and the poor, have accepted the broken and unethical actions of the monarchy. For they believe that that it will be a quick path to make Israel great - again?
God shall restore the nation because of God’s love. God shall restore the nation because God’s love is one that flows with grace. But the nation is broken because of the people’s arrogance. This idea that “we know better” and can cast aside simple acts of decency and fairness without consequence has plagued humanity since our days in the garden. Exile was the effect, but our hubris was the cause.
The poet spends much of his book making the case of Israel’s frailties and brokenness, but this is not the crux of the story. It is the audaciousness, the audacious grace of God, that God shall create a new nation even though this nation has broken the heart of God. Hear what the poet says - taking a twig that God shall plant upon the tallest mountain in all of Israel for everyone to see! This tree shall be a model of what a nation can be, what beloved community must be, and what a spiritual village must exist to be.
This tree. This tree Ezekiel speaks of, the image of the tree Ezekiel places before all who hear, did not hit me until I stood outside my home and witnessed God’s wondrous act in the sublime and simple beauty of a tree.
There’s a tree outside my house that stretches toward the heavens no matter the weather, like the poet speaks. In the tree are all kinds of birds, insects, and mammals living together. It dawned on me what kind of nation God seeks. The tree gives a map to a new political reality and spiritual consciousness of just by being a tree.
Ezekiel’s image - God’s creation speaks of how we may gain democratic ideals in an un-democratic age. Look at this! Right here in this scripture, God is speaking of a tree. Ezekiel has pointed to us with this poetic vision. He is speaking to the diversity of an ecosystem.
Now, look at this. This is a tree. A tree, as I mentioned, the tree that I saw outside of my home, a tree that has blue jays, robins, and cardinals all enjoying the same tree. Bees and ants, even cicadas show up every decade or so. There is no segregation. There are no first-class branches, there are no gated communities, there’s no suburban or urban divisions - just a tree for the entire community.
Everyone is welcome. No one passes laws for a cardinal-only language. Birds can chirp and sing their own song without anyone saying, “Go back to the blue jay forest.” I saw a bird, as a matter of fact, that flew from another tree, a tree that had been hit by lightning. He had to migrate - and immigrate - into the tree in my yard and there was not a single bird that said, “I’m going to place you in a bird detention camp because you come from somewhere else.”
As matter of fact, all the indigenous creatures living in the tree never lost their space, land, or branch. They were all in the tree. The diversity of the ecosystem! Maybe there is something we may learn from the tree.
It’s not only the diversity of its ecosystem, but the equity of the tree. The fruit was available to all. Some may need more, others may not need as much, but no creature offered a filibuster to keep certain creatures from eating the fruit. The fruit was available to all and if it was eaten up, the tree produced the fruit, and even if there was no more fruit, the tree would produce some more fruit! Maybe there is something we may learn from this tree.
The diverse ecosystem and the equity of this tree, but what I am fascinated by is the strength of this tree. The tree’s strength is not in its branches. Its strength is not in the trunk. But the power of the tree is found in the roots. The strength is not in the leaves of the branches, but in the roots. Literally, the leaves, the branches, and the fruit are sourced and strengthened and nurtured by the soil, and the soil nurtures the roots so that the majority of the tree, the strength of the tree, is not in what you see but in what you cannot see. What is invisible is what allows the tree to be strong. It stands in the midst of all types of weather because it has roots.
Roots in soil. Soil that nurtures the roots and those roots nurture the trunk, the trunk then nurtures the branches, and the branches produce fruit. But one must understand that this soil - this soil that is made up of past branches and past leaves - in other words, the history of the tree is rooted in that soil and the tree’s strength is connected to its understanding of its history.
But the final thing that I must share with you about this tree that Ezekiel speaks of is where its power truly comes from. Yes, the soil is necessary, it has equity in how it operates in the diversity of its ecosystem. But even if it has good soil, even if it is connected to some good water, or it has beautiful fruit, its power comes from the sun. If there is no sun, there will be no tree. The tree literally by stretching forth is saying that my power comes from the sun. I stretch every day trying to reach my power source.
Maybe our nation can learn a little bit from a tree. It can learn that it can survive and actually thrive with a diverse ecosystem if there is equity in what we do. And we know that there is strength within our history and we are willing to stretch toward the Son, our power source.
I think that I shall never see
a poem lovely as a tree...
Poems are made by fools like me,
but only God - God can make a tree.
Let us pray.
Lord, we thank you that you continue to plant us next to living water and soil that allows us to grow as we stretch towards your Son. May we learn the lessons from a tree. May our nation and our leaders learn the diversity, the equity, and the compassion that a simple tree has for all of its inhabitants. May we learn from your creation. May we seek to live better lives this day than we did yesterday. We offer this prayer in the mighty and wonderful name of Jesus. Amen.