[May you and I always speak and act in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer.
It is utterly captivating! Discs they’re called – that is those heart shaped, white and ghostly faces, edged with hard feathers that collect the sounds of the night and turn barn owls into very effective killing machines. It has been just fascinating watching barn owl chicks develop those little disc faces and actually see them in action as they move their heads around in the dark…. unseeing but completely accurately pursuing the noise of a whirring fly (improvise). All this photographed in blackness with an infra red camera. Spectacular! And then Springwatch moved to the Goldcrests with a nest built precariously in the lower branches of a tree, and in which had probably been layed up to 9 ‘fingernailsize’ eggs by the female Goldcrest who weighed pretty much the same as a 10p piece. So very different to the owl…. and so vastly different to the rook as well who, it seems, gathers together a bunch of twigs and rather unceremoniously piles them on top of each other for a makeshift nest. I must say I am glued to the TV whenever Springwatch is on, Feet up, cat on the knee, eager to delight in the pied flycatchers’ brood or to see just what shenanikins the longeared owl has been getting up to, or even, one year, to grieve with the male kingfisher who so pathetically didn’t know what to do with himself, fish in beak, as he discovered his dead babies, cold and starved in his nest due to the excessive rain. Now there’s even a webcam on the top of the Parkinson’s Building in Leeds at the moment where peregrine falcons have just hatched out 3 little pure white gremlins. It’s fascinating to peep into their very private world hundreds of feet in the sky.
With Springwatch we have rejoiced in the birds of the air with the BBC, and we have now very conveniently and quite appropriately been offered a Gospel reading that is a ‘Kingdom of God’ parable, the one about the mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds on earth growing many large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
One reading of the parable could be thus: God’s kingdom can start with even the smallest of beginnings – that our seemingly insignificant acts of devotion can have a huge impact. Could be – it’s certainly a reading.
However, let’s go back to the mustard tree which sounds like a lovely image, but watching Spring Watch, you’ll know that a tree where every bird has a nest would be a pretty raucous, if not to say dangerous place. The chaffinches wouldn’t want the cuckoo nesting anywhere near them, neither would the dove want to be neighbour to the hawk.
But perhaps there’s a deliberate and somewhat provocative vision here of what God is creating when he speaks of his kingdom. If we focus on the imagery of the tree with all the birds nesting, we find echoes of this in the Old Testament, in Ezekiel, the OT reading today for example, and it seems to speak of the people of Israel as a focus for God’s blessing on all the nations: it seems likely that for Mark, the birds with their nests represent all the different nations finding a home in God’s kingdom. Put simply, Jesus is saying to his listeners that God’s kingdom isn’t just about you, it’s also about everyone else having a place. To the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day it meant that the Gentiles and the Romans were also to have a place in God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom was going to involve the often-hated foreigner and the despised sinner. And what Jesus said in this parable, he then went on to demonstrate, to enact in his ministry, as he caused offence by welcoming the sinner and embracing the foreigner on several different occasions that we can read about in the Gospels.
The imagery of the tree with many birds is not one of easy harmony – you only have to have seen one of the Springwatch programmes with the woodpecker deliberately attacking the pied flycatcher fledgling and knocking it to the ground. There is massive diversity and difference when all the birds of the air come together: it is the sort of vision that made many people uncomfortable in Jesus’ day, the sort of thing that makes many people uncomfortable today. God’s kingdom is to be a place where people from many different nations, from many different backgrounds find a home together. And of course when Jesus speaks of the kingdom, it is not just a future prospect but is something that is breaking in around us, something that we should welcome and embrace. Surely if we are looking for signs of God’s kingdom breaking into our world and into our lives, we should be working to build such harmony among God’s diverse people today, to see it reflected in our society, in our church.
It was a controversial message for Jesus’ day, which perhaps explains why he put it into a parable, and it contains challenges for our day that hit on some pretty controversial areas of our lives. ….dare I even say the word Brexit? The vision of the Kingdom challenges our political life. Occasionally there seems to be here an attitude to the foreigner that finds no echo in Jesus’ words or in his actions. Now this is not to say that the reality of living together in multi-cultural communities doesn’t present many challenges which need commitment on all sides to address, but it is hard to see how we can experience any foretaste of God’s kingdom if we refuse to embrace the prospect of such inclusive communities.
And Jesus’ vision of the kingdom as a tree with many branches welcoming the diverse birds of the air, maybe has something to say to the struggles of our Anglican communion, trying to hold together many different cultures, many different convictions. It often seems that we are looking for a degree of uniformity that is absent from Jesus’ vision of the kingdom – as if the tree were just for the crows, with no place for the diversity of God’s creatures. To pat ourselves on the back, we are a broad church and that for me has been a huge attraction throughout my life. But is that true now? Can the Anglican Communion really be said to reflect Jesus’ vision of the kingdom as it copes with sometimes deeply contrasting convictions? I don’t know. And what about our own church, how well do we reflect the variety of all the birds of the air finding a home among us? Or do we look around our pews and simply see people just like ourselves?
Churches….and not just churches…. have real problems with the challenge of Jesus’ vision of the kingdom because of something called the Homogeneous Unit Principle. Sounds like a milk-bottling plant, but if you want to know what that means, it refers to the observation that people tend to gather in churches with people from the same culture who share their faith: coming to faith doesn’t tend to have the effect of moving people much beyond the cultural point they started in. A lot of work today on church growth is based on this idea and it has had a big influence on what is called the ‘fresh expressions movement’, which is about trying to plant the church in those places where people naturally gather, those cultural points where like-minded people come together…… I can see how it also holds true for many traditional churches – like-minded people, here say, who love to listen to Stanford Te Deums and drink decaff coffee……and who wouldn’t? Even as Christians we tend to want to gather with people who are most like us. It’s not surprising at all. There’s nothing wrong in that.But also Jesus calls us to a kingdom which is like a tree in which all the birds of the air can build their nest. I was remembering our Easter Eve Confirmation here when 40 candidates came from 20 or so hugely different parishes. We just loved the diversity. Clearly we have a long way to go to get to that kingdom, but each small step we take, each small victory for inclusivity, is just like the planting of that mustard seed out of which God can bring world-changing growth.