Last year, the long period of lockdown was a period when many of us felt set apart from others. We were essentially 'under house arrest', dependent on food deliveries and with limited opportunities to interact with anyone except those who shared our home.
That was of course still a very privileged position to be in, when hundreds of thousands are either homeless or living in severe poverty in England alone. It did mean though that we found other outlets for our hopes; for us it became a pair of nesting ospreys, over at Rutland Water, an artificial reservoir that nowadays has the appearance of a nature reserve. The ospreys are part of a relocation and breeding programme that has restored these magnificent fish-hunting birds to our skies and lakes, a century after they had been persecuted into UK extinction.
So late last summer we were able to watch a webcam focused on the nest, in which there were already four chicks. We watched them grow as they were fed by regular fish deliveries by their father, with each fish carefully chewed over by their mother and the bits fed evenly to each chick. We watched them learn to walk, then to jump up into the air and hover before finally learning to fly. By September, all six birds had left separately for their winter grounds in Africa.
This year, the parents arrived back at their Rutland nest within twenty minutes of one another and rapidly produced three eggs; two hatched but sadly the third was cracked during incubation and did not hatch. The tiny chicks are now the size of chickens and growing rapidly. Like all youngsters, they spend most of their time either feeding or sleeping, usually the latter. Their parents have watched over them, defended them from intruders and provided a steady stream of fish to feed their growth.
Meanwhile, without the need for a webcam, two robins decided to set up home in our garden barbeque just as it was about to be brought into action for the summer. Several eggs appeared quickly, then the chicks and now we are getting ready for them to fledge in a few days. Perhaps we might use that barbeque yet! It's not the first time that the barbeque has seen visitors; a few years ago, a leaf-filled hollow developed under one corner that turned out to contain a nursing hedgehog with a couple of youngsters. As with the robins, we left them to it and allowed nature to continue.
So we are not alone. In the midst of this pandemic, creation continues regardless, with most of God's other creatures completely oblivious to our troubles and only too happy to take advantage of reduced human activity.
Creation and growth are included in one of this week's Bible readings. It covers two parables in Mark's Gospel, the shortest of the gospels and the oldest. In the parables, Jesus is trying to describe the kingdom of God to his listeners, who include the disciples. In the first, Jesus describes the kingdom as the result of the growth of a scattering of seed, with each seed finding its own way forward (or not) over time until at last it produces the grain (or not) that God harvests. In the second parable, Jesus speaks of the tiny mustard seed that, when sown, grows big enough for birds to nest in its shade.
These parables chimed with our experiences with the robins and ospreys; you may have your own stories and examples. This is the power of parables: we don't have to think with cold logic about things we don't understand properly. Instead we have real-life examples that we have seen, heard and perhaps touched, experiences that have definitely touched us and where we have had emotional reactions.
When Jesus tells us of some seeds scattered on the ground that eventually produce a mighty crop for God, he is really speaking of the way in which the Gospel is spread to the people to produce a mighty kingdom of believers on earth; he is speaking of how people can develop when allowed to flourish. When Jesus speaks of a tiny seed producing a large shrub providing a home for birds from afar, he is telling us of how his church, starting with his tiny group of disciples, will grow into a church so large that, on any of its many branches, many different people, from all around the earth can find their home. This is a mighty kingdom and he is telling everyone in the world that they will be welcome and have a home so wonderful there that they can safely bring their family into it too.
And we react to that because we have seen plants grow from seed, giving us crops to sustain us, making us happy as they grow and healthy as we feed on them. We have seen plants grow (or a barbeque find another purpose) and birds nesting in them, bringing up their families safely. We know how we feel when we witness such things: we feel great! This is how the kingdom of God will be and it is how the kingdom of God is: we don't have to wait; it is here right now, waiting to welcome us, to keep us safe, to make us happy with our lives and confident in living them. That is the gift that Jesus is talking about. Let's accept it and learn to live in his kingdom. Amen.