Harrowing Of Hell
June 16, 2024

RELATA and Community Transformation: From Mustard Seed to Mustard Tree

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

Last week I was at my annual retreat with my prayer group which has been meeting for 23 years. It is a significant event for me each year. We gather, we eat, we walk, we take turns sharing our stories, and we pray together.

The formation of this group started my very first day of seminary. I was sitting in Dr. Cook’s Old Testament class, and as an experienced student, I knew that the best way forward under the mountain of academic expectation was to divide and conquer the workload.

So, I looked around the room wondering who the smartest people were. You always want the smartest people in your study group. My first choice was a tall skinny African American man with glasses perched on the end of his nose. I introduced myself. Turned out it was a good choice. His name was Ron, a medical doctor, a Harvard professor, the medical director of DC General, who set it all aside to become a priest.

He was the mustard seed that would grow into our study group, which then grew into our prayer group. He was also the mighty mustard tree, in the moment, already mature and vibrant, who, in those first days of seminary provided the sturdy branches on which the other study group participants rested.

As I reflected on the Gospel of Mark today, with its famous mustard seed parable, it becomes pretty clear that there are three distinct ways we connect to this story:

1) there is being the mustard seed,
2) there is being the mustard tree,
3) and there is being a bird that flocks to its shade, and rests in its branches.

God is the sower who scatters the mustard seeds. God scattered them in that Old Testament classroom. I was a seed. Dr. Ron was a seed. Professor Cook was a seed. My new colleagues were all seeds planted in that space by sacred intention. And embedded in each seed was a unique DNA, a divine blueprint that guides growth and development. And even when that seed is us (you or me), with the DNA right here, ever present, we don’t have the clarity to see our own blueprint; we don’t quite know what that story is that will unfold. So, at best, we engage with hope and optimism, believing that what will grow in front of us will be exciting and revelatory, and even joyful. 

My study group indeed became a mustard tree that others found shade in. I took all of our first semester assignments for the standard curriculum and divided them up assigning them to the seven members of the study group, to write up notes on the material they were responsible for.

We then shared those notes with everybody in the class. My self-interest was rewarded by only having to read a 7th of the material and everyone else was blessed as well. That is how things work in the Kingdom of God.

It wasn’t our intention to become a prayer group, but that is what we became. It wasn’t our intention to stay together for 23 years, but that is what happened. We’ve grown into a mustard tree, with the trunk wound around our seven lives, our seven stories, revealing interlocking blueprints by God’s design.

One of the birds that has landed within our branches was the Haiti Micah project. Father Joseph Constant, who many of you have heard preach here, is the founder of the Haiti Micah project, and part of my prayer group. Many years ago, as he was starting this nonprofit to benefit orphans in Haiti, I put him in touch with Holly Boone. By her efforts, he was introduced to the Service and Outreach team, who nurtured the relationship into a mighty mustard tree of service.

Joseph reminded me this last week. And encouraged me to remind you all, how much you have done for the children in Haiti over these many years. You have changed thousands of lives. You have given hope in a way that we never anticipated. Well done, Epiphany. On behalf of the children of Maribelle, HaitiJoseph says; “Thank you.”

I’m pleased to pass that message on to you this morning. It is what a mustard seed planted in the hearts of our Service and Outreach team has grown into. From a seed to a mustard tree, to a place where others find shade.

Growth happens through the intentionality of cultivation. Motivations may be mixed. Certainly, my motivation for starting a study group was very self-centered in pursuit of good grades. Nothing wrong with that, because even when we are inspired by something that we think is good for us, the better life of the Kingdom of God can show up. Human and divine motivations can collude to bless to the world.

This cultivation happens through sharing our stories. At the core of our prayer group gathering in Montana each year is telling our stories. What I find so beautiful and wonderful is that over time we see these stories change and blossom. And we have the grace within the group to allow them to change and blossom. One year I may be complaining about this, and the next year that complaint may have been resolved, or fell off my complaint radar. And the group never asks me to revisit something that had happened in the past, they always meet me where I am in the evolution of my spiritual journey.

The important point is knowing the story. It is knowing the story, sharing it, and hearing it repeatedly that allows us to invest in the nurturing intention at the core of the seeds around us. The seeds God has scattered.

We participate in this theology of seed nurturing by storytelling. At Epiphany we’ve started to call this storytelling RELATA. RELATA is the class many of you have been taking, 82 to be exact, that allows us to hear stories told around tables. Here we witness the mustard seed sprouting, then intertwining with other stories.

It is important to know that the RELATA conversations, aren’t just nurtured around the tables, they are alive between the tables, and alive within the imaginations of the team formed to create RELATA. And what has been so exciting and revelatory to me is how RELATA has become a program of parish rejuvenation.

RELATA has become an Epiphany community co-creation that has changed and shifted significantly from what I originally imagined it would be. That shift has taken place because of the relationships within the RELATA groups, and the development team, and the parish as a whole. Through listening and wondering about what God is doing, we adjust to the climate, and the soil composition, and the seasons, and the watering, and the weather, and all the other stuff that goes into letting a mustard seed become a tree…the metaphor matches well to RELATA.

That’s how life in the Kingdom of God works: mustard seeds scattered, stories told, that grow interlocking trunks, with wide, beautiful branches that people can rest upon.

RELATA started like my prayer group with something else in mind…with the intention of reaching beyond the wall of the parish to share with others the dynamic spiritual life at Epiphany; and that can still happen, and God has done something unexpected, rejuvenating our community through the stories told around the RELATA tables.

That’s what Jesus is talking about in this parable of the mustard seed, that’s how the Kingdom of God works. We look for the mustard seeds and we are the mustard seeds. We cultivate the seeds we find, and we let ourselves be cultivated by others. We grow into trees, allowing the branches to be places that people can rest, and also places where we go to rest.

All of that happens within the Kingdom of God by design. And the blessing that we participate in, with RELATA being one example, and Epiphany Service and Outreach another example, and the Haiti Micah Project another example, and my Prayer Group another example, and Epiphany Seattle another example; all represent co-creative interaction with God, that spreads joy by design from the mustard seed to mustard tree to a place where shade is provided for any and all who need a place to rest.