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Catholic Church of the Beatitudes: A Parable for Our Time — The Mustard Seed

A few weeks ago, my husband and I went on a weekend trip to Lake Tahoe. On the last day of our trip, we hiked through Van Sickle Bi-State Park, a beautiful wilderness area that stretches between California and Nevada. As we climbed up the rocky paths, we were able to catch glimpses of an unbelievably blue lake peeking through a forest of ponderosa pine.

About an hour into our hike, the scenery changed. Suddenly we felt the harsh Nevada sun on our faces. We realized that we no longer had a lush canopy of trees giving us shade. The ponderosas, which only a few feet away had been strong and green, were bare and charred and dead.

We had stumbled upon a hillside where there had been a forest fire nearly 13 years earlier.

I was struck by how fragile our wilderness is — that a fire, which had lasted only four days, could still leave such scars on a mountain over a decade later. Looking up at the charred remains of pine trees, it was easy to think the whole forest was dead.

But by looking down at the ground, we were able to glimpse new life. Everywhere we looked the mountain was covered with green and red manzanita bushes — bushes that I hadn’t even noticed when we were hiking in more lush territory. But now they seemed to take over the area where the fire had been. While the ponderosas would take generations to recover, these manzanitas had found that this scorched mountain was the perfect location to take root and to bloom.

It was a powerful reminder that the things that look the most magnificent can actually be the most fragile, while the little things — the weeds and bushes beside our feet that we don’t even notice as we walk — often have the most resilience and strength.

The prophet Ezekiel writes about the cedars of Lebanon as a metaphor for Israel. These beautiful cedars defined the landscape of Israel for generations. But at the time Ezekiel wrote this passage, these same beautiful cedars — and the people they represented — were under attack. Israel was soon occupied by the Babylonians; its resources — including the cedars — were being seized and hauled away.

For Ezekiel, Israel was like a cedar, which stood tall for generations only to be chopped down by an invading power. And he longed for God’s reign to return as a new, strong and powerful cedar.

It’s an image that speaks to the way people often think of power — both in Ezekiel’s time and today. The cedar brings to mind majesty and strength. It stands high above everything else, like a mighty king.

But is that what the reign of God really is like? Solitary and inflexible? So big and stately that it is actually incredibly vulnerable to forest fires or deforestation? Is that really the best description of God’s power?

“What comparison can we use for the reign of God?” asks Jesus. And his answer is: a mustard seed. Mustard is the exact opposite of a cedar. In Jesus’ time it was commonly considered to be a weed. It’s not tall and majestic. It’s not even a tree, just a short, fat bush.

What lessons could we gain from the mustard seed? To get some idea of its power, we need only look to our own Catholic heritage. For centuries, the institutional Roman Catholic Church has acted as a cedar, slow-growing and not adapting to change. It’s so big and powerful that it has been totally detached from what was happening on the ground. It held itself above people instead of abiding with them. And as a result, it’s dying. Churches are closing, and people are leaving in larger numbers than ever.

But there is another story happening in Catholic communities across the world — a story that we in the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes know very well: the story of the mustard seed. It’s the story of worship communities that started in small ways: in church basements, living rooms or online. These startup communities may lack tall buildings and big budgets, but they faithfully welcome LGBT people, divorced Catholics, women called to ordination and others who have been shoved aside for too long. These communities are resurrecting the Catholic Church in new, exciting and, yes, smaller ways.

These intentional Catholic communities don’t grow too tall like cedars or cathedrals. Like mustard, they prefer to remain close to the ground, where they can best reach out to the marginalized.

And unlike the institutional Catholic Church, which like a cedar is so focused on being the tallest and most important thing in the forest, these intentional Catholic communities know that, like mustard, we’re strongest when we work collaboratively in the underbrush. That, to me, is the true strength in mustard: it’s never alone. It multiplies quickly, spreading more seeds wherever it goes. Sure, you can kill a single mustard plant, but good luck getting all the mustard out of your garden!

In a world of globalization and giant corporations — a world that worships the “bigness” of things — we are invited to take part in God’s revolutionary smallness: God’s reign of the mustard seed.

This is a new sort of calling that lets go of competition and embraces collaboration. It doesn’t try to get too tall, but instead spreads out, connecting with its neighbors. It tries to provide a home for the smallest and most forgotten of God’s creatures.

Like the inclusive Catholic communities we’ve built, we are personally called to embrace the way of the mustard seed—to follow what St. Therese of Lisieux called the Little Way, understanding that God, too, chooses little ways of engaging with the world.

This is a god that came to us in the form of a humble infant, who called beggars and prostitutes into ministry, and who calls us now to participate in the creation of a new world, where power looks like weakness, success looks like failure, and great things come from the tiniest of seeds.

In the mountains of Tahoe, it was easy for me to think the forest was dead and barren until I looked down at the small, hearty plants that had made a home for themselves in such hostile territory. These easily-overlooked bushes were leading the way for the much larger ponderosa and for the rest of the ecosystem to recover. They were quietly planting seeds of resurrection in places of death.

In our own work, in our worship communities and in our lives, may we also take the risk to grow where God has planted us, spreading our small seeds of love and justice, strengthening networks of communities, until — suddenly — we’ve revived the whole forest.

Christine Haider-Winnett, M.Div, is a candidate for Roman Catholic Womenpriests and was a guest homilist at the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes. Readers are welcome to join us for Mass on Saturdays at 5:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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