by the Reverend Craig Lemming, Associate Rector

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In the name of God, whose kingdom of love and belonging is found in the smallest sprigs and seeds of trust. Amen.

On a recent episode of Krista Tippett’s On Being,[1] I learned that in the 1900s, two ecologists, Clements and Gleason, came to two different understandings of how ecosystems function. Clements saw creation as a mutual aid society based on cooperation. Gleason, however, saw ecosystems as head-to-head competition. The first few decades of 20th century society were modeled on Clements’ ecology – a society steeped in cooperation, mutuality, and symbiosis. It was during the Cold War era around 1947 when anything remotely associated with communism or socialism, including cooperative ecology, was rejected in fear, ignorance, and terror. For the next 50 years society anxiously espoused Gleason’s understanding of creation as a ruthless competition. Capitalistic greed, selfishness, and hoarding defined American culture for a generation. Thankfully, we are slowly turning back to seeing existence as an ecosystem in which diverse organisms and species cooperate so that everything in creation can both survive and thrive together. The science of Biomimicry studies, imitates, or takes inspiration from nature’s models and designs processes to solve human problems. Biomimicry delves into the 3.8 billion years of natural evolution to discern what works, what does not work, and what lasts. Instead of a competitive mindset of extraction from the natural world, Biomimicry shows us how we can cooperate with and learn from creation.[2] I would argue, based on this morning’s scriptures, that Ezekiel and Jesus are proponents of a biomimetic theology. Cooperating with God and all of our neighbors with equity, mutuality, and reciprocity heals the wounds and profound devastation that competitive extraction, greed, and selfishness produce. When we choose to see creation as an ecology of cooperation, we recognize that the essential nature of being requires interdependent trust. Trust as small as a sprig of cedar in Ezekiel’s divine prophecy. Trust as small as a mustard seed in Jesus’s kingdom of God. Before we delve into Ezekiel and Jesus, a brief story from my prodigal days in Boston.    

It was late December 2001. I just finished my last exam of the semester as a freshman at New England Conservatory. I returned to the dorm exhausted. I found an official notice in my mailbox. The dorm would be closing in three days. All students, including immigrants, were required to vacate the dorm for the winter break. No exceptions. Based on my first Thanksgiving holiday, I assumed I could stay in the dorm all alone again for the Christmas holiday. My assumption was wrong. I was terrified. I combed every notice board and Craigslist, hunting for a place to stay. My income, despite working three jobs, could not compete with the sublet prices in Boston. On the night before my eviction, I looked out my dorm window, and there was Kokui.[3] A graduate soprano at NEC from Ghana dressed in an exquisite African outfit, walking home after a performance. I opened the window and shouted, “Kokui! The dorm is closing tomorrow. If you are going home to Ghana for Christmas, may I please stay in your apartment?” “Oh, my Zimbabwean brother,” she replied, “Come down and let’s talk!” Kokui was not traveling back to Ghana that Christmas. She and her flat mate Asha, a magnificent African-American soprano who was also in NEC’s opera program, said I could stay with them; under several conditions. I would need to help with all cooking and cleaning; make financial contributions, however small, for food and household supplies; and sleep on the floor because there was no guest bed. I was 19, with a strong back, mere hours away from homelessness, so of course I gratefully said yes. That small moment of trust led to three weeks of living with Kokui and Asha in their tiny apartment in Roxbury. My first Christmas away from family in Zimbabwe and an encounter with chosen family that changed my life.   

On Christmas Day, after Kokui, Asha, and I returned from singing our respective church gigs, Kokui cooked Ghanaian jollof rice with beef; and fante fante fish stew; Asha made a honey-glazed ham and collard greens; and I cooked my mother’s Cape Malay chicken curry and rice. Asha’s mother and little sister arrived from New York, several of our conservatory classmates piled in, and then two marvelous Black gay men who were not welcome at their families’ tables joined us. All were our guests for the Christmas feast. After the delicious meal, Asha dusted off her Chaka Khan record, and that tiny living room turned into Soul Train. What I remember most, was seeing the exquisite joy that an African-American, Ghanaian, and Zimbabwean could create for others on a bitterly cold Christmas Day. We were an incarnation of God’s radically inclusive and reconciling love. Isn’t this, after all, what it means to be “in Christ.” St. Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Lest I am accused of romanticizing those three weeks of living with Kokui and Asha, we also had our challenging days. We were so different. Our cultural norms and expectations around food and cleaning; entertainment and leisure; roles for men and women in a household; time and money; work and rest, were very different. We shared in painful and oftentimes raucously funny moments of learning what it means to build trust across our lines of difference. How to cooperate reciprocally and not compete selfishly. How to love your very different neighbor as you love yourself. Love is vulnerable work. Love requires small, consistent, and faithful moments of complete trust. Trust as small as a sprig of cedar or as tiny as a mustard seed.

Prophet Ezekiel ministered to God’s people during that decisive moment in 587 BCE when Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar. Ezekiel lived in solidarity with the community exiled in Babylon and also addressed those who remained in Judah. At a time when God’s people were embroiled in a crisis under three violent kings and a pharaoh all competing for complete domination, Ezekiel’s biomimetic Word from God, rang clear and true amidst colonial chaos and destruction.

On the mountain height of Israel
[God] will plant [a tender, young twig,]

in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.

Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.

Centuries later, when Rome was destructively, greedily, and selfishly competing for world domination, Jesus proclaimed God’s biomimetic Word in a new way:

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that all the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

How will we practice this biomimetic theology of cooperative trust at St. John’s; in our homes, places of work, schools, and neighborhoods? How will we cooperate with God and one another in cultivating trust in the wisdom of Creation? Will we practice trust in small yet powerful ways consistently, so that all of God’s creatures can grow branches of welcome and hospitality and flourish together in vibrant diversity?

As societies across the globe and in this country tear each other apart with competitive greed and violent selfishness, how will we as followers of Jesus, cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sowing seeds of trust in the clay of bodies very different to our own? God’s ecology and economy co-operate within the smallest moments of shared trust in one another’s capacity to change and to be changed for the better. The small sprig and tiny seed of trust Kokui, Asha, and I sewed together, grew into branches that provided food, music, dancing, and rest for every kind of person to come and simply be themselves and make a loving contribution to nesting together in that tiny, joyful apartment in Roxbury. We can incarnate small cultures of mutuality and reciprocity. Diverse ecosystems cooperating in the love of Christ. May we incarnate this biomimetic theology of cooperative trust so that Saint Paul’s words become more than words in each of us: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Amen.


[2] Janine M. Beynus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1997).


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