He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32 (NIV)
This weekend I participated in the 50th anniversary celebrations of Reba Place Church and Fellowship. Reba Place is the mother congregation to Living Water of which I am a part. It was an amazing experience to listen to 50 years of Reba history during the day on Saturday with an hour allocated for each decade.
We are all likely familiar with the parable of the mustard seed and have seent it used as a metaphor for the work of the kingdom of God. During the telling of the Reba story, the metaphor was taken a step further with a look at the metaphor of the Mustard tree. Reba’s history was told with a refreshing honesty and a frank look at some of the failings and shortcomings of that mustard tree as it struggled to support all the birds that landed in its branches. Over the years this has led to many prunings that have been painful but have also opened the way for new growth.
While this metaphor may have its limits, I think it is a fruitful way to take a hard look at the structures that come after the mustard seed begins to grow and the idealism and glow begin to wear off. A friend of mine, Pete Rollins has pointed out that the images of birds perching in the branches of a tree had a darker tone in other places in the scriptures. Ezekiel 31:5-6 describes the tree of Assyria in this way:
So it towered higher
than all the trees of the field;
its boughs increased
and its branches grew long,
spreading because of abundant waters.
All the birds of the air
nested in its boughs,
all the beasts of the field
gave birth under its branches;
all the great nations
lived in its shade. (NIV)
In verse 10 and 11 God goes on to pronounce judgement on it because it was so tall and because “it was proud of its height”. There appears to be some ambivalence in this image that we often miss. There are some dangers in growing tall and strong so that the birds of the air perch in your branches. This is not a reading of the mustard seed parable that we hear very often from the pulpit. But rather than being afraid of this reading, I think we should see it as a challenge. How do we grow a mustard tree that does not “tower on high, lifting its top above the thick foliage” (verse 10).
I believe that many of the institutions the church has created over the years have hindered the Kingdom of God more than it has helped it. Anabaptists in the 16th century were certainly aware of this reality as they challenged the structures of their age. Mennonites in the 20th century were much more willing to embrace the trend of institution building, looking to our neighbors for models built to survive beyond the life cycle of a movement and provide a stable structure for further growth and development. We have entered the 21st century with an alphabet soup of acronyms to support the ministry of the church.
I’ve personally benefitted from these systems in a myriad of ways. Most of my education happened in Mennonite institutions, both my parents have been employed by Mennonite institutions for much of their working careers. My two and half years of working in London would not have been possible without the support of our mission agency. But what is the cost of these structures? What movements of the spirit do we not miss as we pour our energy into supporting the many branches of our trees? What seeds are chocked out in the shade of our canopies? I’ve seen many of my peers grow deeply disillusioned with church structures and drift away. Do these structures control us more than we control them? I am reminded of Walter Wink’s description of the powers as good, fallen and being redeemed.
In the midst of these concerns, I see many seeds of hope as well, some in unexpected places.
This winter the board of bishops of Lancaster Conference (my home until age 13) sent out a letter to members in which they gave a glimpse of a vision very different from the one I have long associated them. They asked, “What would it look like to start over as a fellowship of congregations, uniting around a shared mission and functioning as a nurturing community rather than a controlling community?”
This evening I attended the first sessions of the Shalom Mission Communities annual gathering and heard reflections from some of the 14 different communities from around the US that have gathered to share their experiences. Like Reba many of them have been through very difficult times as they have struggled to grow mustard trees and discovered the pain that inevitably comes out of the struggle to live together. But I also sensed a willingness to change and adapt in radical ways that are simply impossible for traditional instiutions. I saw many of my peers listening, watching and learning. We enter the experiment of community with vision and energy, but also with our eyes and ears open to the mistakes and failures of those mustard seed conspirators who have gone before us. I hope and pray that together, across the generations, we can follow God’s vision for shalom in our lives and in our communities.
P.S. Thanks to Pastor Sally at Living Water whose sermon this morning highlighted the metaphor of the mustard seed and tree in the history of Reba Place and Living Water and tree and inspired this post.