Sermon Title “Nests” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden

Good morning!  I hope you are not tired of the parable of the mustard seed: there is a lot of good stuff about the kingdom of heaven packed into those 2 verses from Matthew 13.  For the past few weeks we have been considering how the kingdom of heaven is Like a mustard seed . . . Here’s the entire parable:

‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

In the past few weeks we’ve talked about the importance of tiny things, the potential of seeds when they are planted in good soil, being rooted and growing into the fullness of Christ.  This morning I want to talk about the part of this parable which isn’t about seeds or plants or growing or soil.  I want to talk about those birds who come and make nests in the branches of this shrubby mustard tree, which is the like the kingdom of heaven.

This parable is not the only reference to birds, or even birds of the air, in the Bible.  There are many more references to birds in the Old Testament than in the New Testament.  The best-known verse about the birds of the air is also found in the gospel of Matthew, the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, chapter 6 verse 26, “Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap not gather into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them.”  In Psalm 50 verse 11, God says, “I know all the birds of the air.”  The context of these verse is different, but their sense is the same: God knows the birds, small and insignificant as they seem to be.  God knows them and cares for them: birds of the air — not necessarily chickens and those domesticated birds, but the wild birds, are completely dependent on God.  Gpd cares for them because there is no one else who does.  It does not take a huge leap of imagination, and it is supported by other biblical texts, to see the birds of the air as a metaphor for people who are dependent on God.  In the Bible, those people are the poor, the widowed, the outcast, and the immigrant.

We can find references to the poor throughout the Bible, especially in the law of Moses, which lays out for the children of Israel what a just society should look like — and it is not everyone for themselves.  Exodus 22:21-22 says, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien [foreigner] for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.”  Widows and orphans, like the birds of the air, depend on the support of others to survive.  In Jewish society, children with no surviving parent and women whose husbands had died or been killed had no means of support; they were dependent on the good will and the resources of those around them. God’s law is intended to keep the strong from taking advantage of the most vulnerable.  Jewish law, among other things, created a safety net so that society as a whole would not trample on the poor and the weak. A nest is, of course, a temporary refuge where a bird can hunker in to shelter eggs or raise chicks.  The mustard seed, which is like the kingdom of heaven becomes a place where birds of the air can make those nests and find a safe haven.

Many of you are aware of Creekside’s Outreach Team’s ongoing relationship and ministry with Safe Haven women’s shelter in Elkhart.  Cheryl Borem has a compassionate heart for the women and children at Safe Haven — and I know other women from Creekside have been there to paint nails, give massages, and deliver greetings and flowers — all acts of support and care.  These women may not be technically widows, but they have been abandoned or abused by the partners who were supposed to be caring for them and their children.  I’m sure you can think of other contemporary examples of the birds of the air: refugees of war or political violence, the addicted, the mentally ill and the unhoused.  We can debate all day about whether these people made good choices, or were irresponsible, or ignored helpful advice when it was offered, but spending our time thrashing through those issues is not the point the Bible or this parable of Jesus is trying to make.  The witness of Jesus is that he showed compassion to folks that his culture said were despicable or disposable.  The early Church grew because of its care for the widows and orphans, not just of Jewish families, but of Gentiles too.  This parable says that the kingdom of heaven is for everybody — the mustard tree doesn’t choose who nests in its branches.

Our text for this morning comes from later in the book of Matthew, chapter 23.  Matthew’s gospel has 28 chapters — the final chapter is the account of the resurrection. So you probably have some idea where chapter 23 puts us in the trajectory of Jesus’ life and ministry.  He has been preaching, teaching, healing and generally getting under the skin of the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders.  Most of Matthew 23 is a series of curses on the Pharisees, in the form of “woe to you scribes and Pharisees . . .” verse 13 says “Woe to you scribes and Pharisee, hypocrites!  For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus has a whole lot of other things to say about the Pharisees, including calling them a brood of vipers.  He knows that they are out to pursue and kill and crucify him.  And he knows they will succeed.  And in one of the most poignant passages of the New Testament, Jesus says in verse 37, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.”  There are two pretty amazing things happening in this speech.  1. Jesus is declaring his affection for a bunch of people who he knows want to kill him   2. Jesus is comparing himself to a mother hen.  Jesus is serious about both these things, and they are statements about the radical nature of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus has already forgiven the people who hate him and wish him harm; the crowd who will first admire him and then call for his death by crucifixion.  Eve now, when his arrest is imminent, Jesus wishes he could draw them close and keep them safe from harm.  Jesus knows what these children if Israel are going to do, but his love is even greater than their hatred.  And this image of the hen gathering her chicks is such a sweet and homey one.  If you’ve ever seen little chicks peeking out from under their mother’s wing, it can melt your heart.  It is also an undeniably feminine image of God — and for anyone who has ever had to wrestle with overcoming a negative image of God, a mama hen protecting her chicks is a far cry from a guy with a long white beard condemning people to hell.  I think there is room for many images of God in the kingdom of heaven — maybe even within the gospel of Matthew — but I am partial to the God who cares for the birds of the air.  Even, as in this case, when the birds aren’t entirely innocent.  Jesus loves them because they are all God’s children.

I have learned a lot about the birds of the air as a pastor.  I know that some of you — social workers, teachers, physicians, those who volunteer in our community — likely know more than I do.  Here is the most important thing I have learned: we are all dependent on the care of God.  We all need the shelter of a cozy nest and a sturdy mustard tree sometime.  If you think your good works or your good choices or your good connections will save you from the winds and storms of this world, you are foolish.  And when you get blown around with no shelter to go to, don’t blame that on God.  But here’s the good news: God loves us even when we are foolish.  God welcomes us even when we are lost and battered.  Jesus loves us even when we are misguided, and even hateful. The kingdom of heaven is for everyone.  Only the arrogant will not find a home in the mustard tree — and that is not because they aren’t welcome, it’s because they’re too proud to admit their need for God’s care. God offers that shelter to us, and in my experience, that shelter often comes in the form of other people. 

I hope you have had an opportunity to post a note on the banner in the Gathering Area with a few words about what small things nurture your faith.  If you haven’t done it yet, please consider what you might add to that mustard tree in the next two weeks: I have enjoyed reading what you have written there.  But know that you may be the tiny things which gives someone encouragement, hope, or faith that God is with them.  If you have signed a note for a woman at Safe Haven, or supported the work of Susanna’s Kitchen in serving lunches to unhoused people in Elkhart, or helped purchase tables and chairs for Elkhart Child Development Center, trained for Children’s Disaster Ministries worked at local outreach or helped grow produce for the CCS food pantry — these are all ways that we have helped to provide nests for those who need a safe place to land, even if just for a little while.  We cannot know the impact of these ministries as they happen, but we do them because they are one of the ways we help to make Elkhart County and wherever we serve a little bit more like the kingdom of God.  These are some of the ways we demonstrate God’s care and the love of Jesus to our neighbors and the most vulnerable among us.So let the tiny seed of possibility be sown within us.  May God’s love cover us and nurture us.  May we be rooted in the depth of Christ’s love so that we may grow into who we were created to be. May our work be a gift from God, and may our faith be in God’s purpose.  If the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, then we all need the safety and shelter of God’s care, and we are called to extend that shelter to others.  God bless you.