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 the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. (From the Daily Office Readings, Mar. 8, 2012, Mark 4:30-32)
When I think about religion and trees, I remember that Evelyn Underhill, writing not about this parable but about St. Paul’s prayer in the Letter to the Ephesians that the church might be “rooted and grounded in love” (Eph. 3:17), wrote: “By contemplative prayer, I do not mean any abnormal sort of activity or experience, still less a deliberate and artificial passivity. I just mean the sort of prayer that aims at God in and for Himself and not for any of His gifts whatever, and more and more profoundly rests in Him alone: what St. Paul, that vivid realist, meant by being rooted and grounded. When I read those words, I always think of a forest tree. First of the bright and changeful tuft that shows itself to the world and produces the immense spread of boughs and branches, the succession and abundance of leaves and fruits. Then of the vast unseen system of roots, perhaps greater than the branches in strength and extent, with their tenacious attachments, their fan-like system of delicate filaments and their power of silently absorbing food. On that profound and secret life the whole growth and stability of the tree depend. It is rooted and grounded in a hidden world.” (Quoted in Radiance: A Spiritual Memoir of Evelyn Underhill, Bernard Bangley, ed. [Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004]). We see the tree, its trunk, its branches, its leaves; below in the soil, however, there is a huge unseen network of roots. Love and prayer are the earth which nourishes these roots. Referring Ms. Underhill’s metaphor to Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, and understanding (as one interpretation of the image) the “kingdom of God” analogized to the tree which grows from it to be the church, we are left with the unmistakeable inference that it is our prayer life which provides the fruitful ground in which the church must grow. I am reminded of a story told by Martha Grace Reese in her book Unbinding the Gospel (Atlanta, GA: Chalice Press, 2008) that when she was consulted by a church growth committee and asked what they should do, she told them to do nothing but pray for at least three months. And I remember another church leader saying, “This year’s level of church growth cannot be sustained on last year’s level of prayer.” Active, sustained, community-wide prayer is an absolute necessity for the church to grow into the abundant, live-giving place where “the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The parable challenges us with the idea that God created the church (us) for the birds (those who are not us). Are our churches, through our love and prayers, places where the birds (the ones who are not us, may not be at all like us) can come and abide? Let us pray that they are.