Until the 20th century, humankind was often in peril of the sea, even a small one like Lake Gennesaret in today’s gospel reading, where a sudden squall could swamp a fishing boat during stormy weather. Human fear of an angry sea is far more ancient than the Book of Job and Psalm 107, and it no wonder that sailors and fishermen and those who lived on sea coasts sought divine protection. There was little else they could do. For, as have just heard in God’s great response to Job,
“…who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?–
when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?” [Job 38:8-11].
Small wonder the disciples were astonished when Jesus calmed the wind and waves.
But for the first time in the history of the planet, the sea is now in peril of humanity. I wonder if it will take an act of God to save the seas and their precious animal and plant life from industrial pollution, waste, and misuse. For all our good intentions, we have accomplished very little in that regard ourselves. And time is not on our side. On a massive scale, ecological change moves slowly in human terms but inexorably and as an interrelated whole. Irreversible environmental damage will be the price we, our children, and our grandchildren pay if this generation does not act to save the seas. For this time, it is up to us.
The earth has now reached mid-point in the yearly cycle – something western civilization calls the summer solstice (or the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere). The longest day of the year (or the shortest, depending on which side of the planet one lives on). It is a biannual reminder that we are citizens of a greater cosmos, sailors on Spaceship Earth, both beneficiaries and potential victims of an unimaginably vast universe. It is the only planet yet of the many thousands now within our view which can and does support life, intelligence, and civilization. But all that is poised on a knife-edge of improbability. Our little planetary boat is a fragile craft afloat on powerful and mysterious seas.
Our cosmic voyage is not a free ride. We bear responsibility for the Care of Creation, as People Francis insisted in his great 2015 letter to the human race, Laudato Sí. We are the gardeners of Paradise, whether we do it well or badly – “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” [Gen. 2:15]. Our care to tend the earth extends to the air and seas, and encompasses the animal and plant kingdoms as well. So far, we have increasingly made a mess of it. It is now well past time to support and encourage those intent on saving the planet, the greatest challenge ever to confront the human family. If we fail, then, well, God help us…
On this Father’s Day, we can no less than to dedicate ourselves to the work of protecting, enhancing and, when necessary, rebuilding our common home, as we learned so long ago. We are the caregivers of a great and glorious gift:
“God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
… And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good” [Genesis 1:9-10, 20-21].
God is a better gardener than I am, for sure. About fifteen years ago, I planted a Cedar of Lebanon sapling at the corner of the back garden. It took root and grew, and now is vying with the neighboring sycamores, ash trees, and the overbearing cottonwood poplars for a rightful measure of sunshine. A friend in Lebanon, who is trying to bring back these nearly extinct great cedars, places compost pots beneath the branches of the trees he has planted to catch the seeds when the mature cones open. When the seeds sprout, he plants them wherever he can. He is making great strides. In about 700 years, those hundreds of tiny seedlings will once again tower over the sides of Mount Lebanon. That requires patience and trust.
In today’s first reading, Ezekiel likens God to a forester who takes a short cut, snipping off a tender shoot from the crest of a cedar and
tenderly transplanting it to a mountainside in Israel, where Lebanon cedars normally do not grow. But God assures us that it will become a huge, majestic tree, home to all kinds of birds and wildlife. Expect great things, but be patient and trust.
In his parable, Jesus uses a much smaller and seemingly insignificant plant to make the same point, starting with a tiny seed (larger than a chia seed, but that doesn’t grow in Palestine). Carefully watered and tended, the little mustard seed develops into a good-sized shrub, which did happen in his time in the mountain regions. But Jesus is having a little fun with his audience, as he liked to do. His mustard plant will not rival the towering cedar, its frail branches filled with birds and wildlife, but that is not the point.
That would be the character needed for a good gardener or farmer, especially in fairly dry and rocky terrain, as much of Palestine is. Jesus, like Ezekiel and Paul, is referring to trust and patience, the ability to let nature – and nature’s God – work their miracle of life in the right way at the right time. Don’t expect instant success.
Patience is certainly not a virtue much in evidence today. As my venerable old first-grade teacher said, “I want what I want when I want it and I get it.” Sometimes. The waiting is hard. But that is where Paul’s advice to the Greek Christians of Corinth, a bustling port city, comes right to the point: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
At the moment, world leaders from the seven major economies of the world are meeting on the rocky shores of Cornwall to hammer out policies and programs for dealing with the enormous challenges facing peoples everywhere – the Sars Covid-19 pandemic, which is devastating the poor countries of world, fragile peace accords, and perhaps the greatest challenge ever faced by humankind – a drastic climate change that will continue to disrupt not only economies, but the very existence of hundred of thousands if not millions of animal and plant species, including us.
These challenges will not be met and resolved overnight. But with trust and patience, they can, and must be, and will be resolved, if we only learn the lesson of the mustard seed and the towering Cedars of Lebanon. It will also require some very hard work. But humankind was set on this earth to garden, to tend and nurture Creation [Gen 2:15]. It’s time to get on with it.