Bonsai Church

Some years ago, a friend who was going away on vacation for a week asked me to take care of a bonsai tree.  My friend had been taking a class in bonsai – the art of growing trees in small containers and miniaturizing their features to mimic full-sized, mature trees.  The tree my friend was growing didn’t need a great deal of care, I certainly wasn’t being asked to do the pruning of the leaves or the training of the branches that produces such elegantly formed little bonsai trees.  All I had to do was keep it watered every day, or every other day, as I recall.  Since I had a sort of a crush on this friend, I was, of course, thrilled to be asked to take care of the bonsai tree.  It seemed to represent some tacit but unmistakable bond between us: a little project we were now involved in together.  Never mind that we had never been on a date, or even contemplated such a thing (well, I had) – now we were raising a bonsai tree together!  What joy!  What rapture!

I have never been any good at raising plants; even the easiest houseplants seem a burden and a trouble to me.  But I can tell you I would have lavished attention on that little bonsai tree, if anything other than watering had been required of me.  I would have protected it with my life in order to return it to my friend in good health, a symbol of the deep bond that I imagined now joined us together in the raising of this tree.  That it was a tiny tree, with shallow roots going only as deep as its ornamental container would allow did not ruin the symbolism of it for me.  It was a thing of beauty, beloved, I supposed, of my friend, and I was not going to betray the trust, the bond, the layers of unspoken meaning held within that little ceramic tray of soil!

In any case, I returned the tree safely to my friend, never hinting at the meaning I’d invested in its care, which stayed hidden in the scant soil of its container.  My friend moved away, though we are still in touch from time to time.  I have no idea what happened to the bonsai tree.

Bonsai, as an art, I remember looking up at the time, is distinct from the horticultural practice of dwarfing.  A bonsai tree is made from a branch or a cutting of a full-sized tree that is restrained, pruned, trimmed, wired, trained to grow on a smaller scale than it would normally grow.  Creating a dwarf version of a plant is done by successfully and permanently changing its genetic makeup so that the plant and its descendants will always be small.

For some reason the image of the bonsai tree has been on my mind as this feast of Pentecost has approached.  In a kitschy way, Pentecost – the day when the Holy Spirit was first manifested to Jesus’ disciples – is sometimes called the birthday of the church.  This is the idea that Spirit, rushing into that community of people with a thunderous wind and tongues of fire, weaved the band of disciples together into a cohesive and purposeful body - the church – giving birth to this new thing, this community, this organization, this cause, this movement. 

It remained to be seen what all this would mean, what a diverse and disparate band of men and women joined by this almost tacit, certainly mysterious bond would amount to.  If you think in terms of horticulture, it remained to be seen how this new church would grow.  Was it a houseplant?  An oak, or an elm, or a quaking aspen?  Was it a fern, or a rose, or an orchid?  How would this church grow, gathered together by the Holy Spirit and given life?

The story of the church tells us that its growth has been prolific and multiform: an expansive garden with plants and trees and shrubs and flowers and succulents from virtually every culture, growing in all kinds of conditions.  Although it has not always been clear, we believe that this growth has been generally a good thing, that the Spirit’s multiplying power has been a blessing to the world.  A test of this, I would contend, is that wherever Jesus’ commandment to love one another in sacrificial service has been kept, you will find a healthy patch of God’s expansive garden.

All these centuries after that fist Pentecost, that birthday of the church, Christian communities, like us, celebrating the continuing gifts of the Spirit, and he weaves again a band of diverse and disparate people together into a body, a cause, a movement, have to decide what sort of thing will grow in this place where God has planted us.

It would seem to me that in many places communities are opting for a bonsai church: a diminished, miniaturized version of a larger original, that bears a striking resemblance to its parent, and can certainly live a long time, but that is smaller by definition, and kept within the shallow soil of an elegant container.

Smaller congregations,

smaller budgets,

smaller ministries,

smaller voices raised to God’s praise,

smaller prayers being offered for the peace of the world,

smaller promises of a smaller forgiveness,

smaller arms reaching out to a smaller number of people in need,

smaller expectations,

smaller blessings being given or being asked for,

smaller beauties,

smaller hopes for a smaller redemption,

smaller vision to heal a smaller blindness,

smaller steps in a smaller pilgrimage,

a smaller spirit to animate a smaller body,

a smaller song to sing a smaller Alleluia,

a smaller resurrection that leads to a smaller life in smaller heaven.

This is not to say that this smaller bonsai church is not beautiful and faithful, just that it is a smaller, miniaturized version of the church: smaller, I contend, than the church the Holy Spirit breathed life into on that first Pentecost, smaller than the fabric that Spirit began to weave all those centuries ago, smaller than the expansive garden that the saints planted and carried by ship and over land to Asia minor, to north Africa, and to Rome, and beyond.

But here’s the rub for us.  Saint Mark’s is a beautiful container.  And if we wanted to we could grow a beautiful bonsai church here.  We would be justified in doing it as a faithful expression of our crush on God, that has lasted here for more than 160 years.  In fact, it is precisely because our relationship with God is somewhat different from my unspoken crush on my friend with the bonsai tree that we might want to consider whether a bonsai church is what God is asking us to grow here.

God’s love to the people who have gathered here at Saint Mark’s since 1848 has been expansive.  He has sent the thunderous wind of his Holy Spirit to generations here, lighting tongues of flame above us, giving voice to many dialects of faith to hear and to heed his commandment to love one another in sacrificial service.

God gave the founders of this parish a bigger vision for a bigger beauty,

a bigger baptism leading to a bigger life in Christ,

bigger music to proclaim a bigger message,

a bigger call to repentance to pronounce a bigger forgiveness,

a bigger city to ask for bigger ministry,

bigger arms to welcome the weary,

a bigger hearth for a bigger hospitality,

bigger strides for a bigger pilgrimage,

bigger tears to shed for a bigger Passion,

bigger prayers for a bigger peace across this bigger world,

bigger compassion for the bigger suffering we see,

bigger room for a bigger inclusivity,

bigger basins to wash more feet,

a bigger Litany for bigger sins,

a bigger Magnificat of praise,

bigger wreaths of incense,

a bigger mystery of God’s bigger love,

a bigger Gospel for a bigger salvation

a bigger thanksgiving for God’s bigger Presence,

a bigger hope for bigger blessings,

a bigger song with bigger Alleluias to announce

a bigger resurrection to a bigger life in a bigger heaven!

There are some people who believe that the church in our day and age - smaller, weaker, less influential – has been dwarfed: permanently, genetically, unalterably diminished in every way.  But I think we have simply decided to opt for a bonsai church: elegant, beautiful, well-trained, restrained to survive within its container.  But the rushing wind and tongues of fire that come with the Holy Spirit have a way of blowing the lids off containers and shattering their sides.

And so the real question is about our crush on God - yours and mine.  The question is about whether we are willing to allow it to stay just a silly crush: un-talked-about, embarrassing, maybe even inappropriate.  Or have we been open to a real romance with God?  Are we willing to let his Holy Spirit all the way into our lives, to swoop us off our feet, lift us up and set us down in a new and bigger place?  Are we willing to feel the embrace of his spirit, blowing through this space even now, to hear his whispers of courtship in our ears, and to announce in full voice that we are head over heels in love with God?

When we do, we should not be surprised to discover, as generations before us have, that this corner of God’s garden cannot be contained in a small, ceramic pot.  We should not be surprised that God’s church has not, in fact, been dwarfed, that its roots are seeking deep groundwater, its branches are far-reaching, and its leaves provide a commodious shelter.

Perhaps in our romance we shall even discover that having been given what we thought was a bonsai church, we are compelled to take the restrained, carefully potted, perfectly formed tree from its container, and find a bit of good ground, and re-plant it there.

And will we lavish it with the attention it deserves and needs?  Will we protect it with our lives, in order to ensure that we can always offer it back to God healthy and whole?  Will rejoice in the deep bond that has formed between us and God, when we see what happens with this tree planted by his Son and watered by his Holy Spirit?  And will we know that this is what God has wanted all along, that his church should grow?

Come, Holy Spirit, come,

inspire our hearts,

set them on fire with your love,

and let your church grow!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Pentecost 2010

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on May 24, 2010 .