As the smoke from forest fires still stings our eyes and throats, and in this past week with all its news of death and destruction from all corners of the earth, I learned something new. I learned about a particular type of tree in the forest ecosystem called the “Mother Tree.”
Mother trees are generally larger and older than other trees in the forest,which means that their roots run far wider and deeper. The roots of mother trees are habitat to a particular type of fungus called mycorrhizal fungus, or fungi, which creates a network of fungal threads, connective tissue that runs beneath the forest floor among generations of trees.
These fungal threads carry nutrients and water from the mother tree to other, younger trees. If you stand at the base of a mother tree, and turn around 360 degrees, it’s likely that most of the trees you can see are supported and nourished by the mother tree or, more specifically, by the fungi attached to the mother tree’s root system.
It is a terrible thing for a forest to lose its mother trees. This often happens with logging, because you can make a whole lot of bookcases from a mother tree. It is an even more terrible thing, of course, for an entire forest to burn. However, forests are incredibly resilient. This is important good news for this week. Who knows how many years it will take for the tragic burns of this apocalyptic season to regenerate completely? Maybe not in my lifetime. While headlines flash across our screens telling us about whole communities being destroyed by natural disaster in the Caribbean, in Houston, in Florida, and around the world, these disasters are themselves symbolic of the every day catastrophe in the lives of people affected by the storms and fires of addiction, poverty, violence, and racism.
The resilience of forests is possible because of the network of fungi that grows off the vast roots of mother trees. Even if the tree is burned to the ground, the fungi continue to reproduce, and continue to carry water and nutrients to new trees, to the new seedlings and saplings that grow from the very seeds burst open during the fire.
At the point where we find Jesus in today’s portion of Matthew’s Gospel, he is like a mother tree awaiting the logger’s chainsaw, or waiting for the fire. Jesus has spent much of Matthew teaching his followers that he is going to leave them, that he is going to suffer and die. And, at the same time, teaching them to go out and cast out demons in his name, seek after the lost, give generously, care for those who cannot care for themselves. His teachings are essentially about how to be community, how to proclaim God’s reign once God’s son is no longer among them. We could say that much of the Gospel is laying the groundwork for Jesus’ community of disciples to become the Church.
Today’s gospel is a set of instructions for community life that is as layered and complex as the network of miraculous, nutrient-bearing fungus that supports new growth that is not yet able to support itself.
There are three pieces of the gospel worthy of our attention.
The first—and probably the part most often preached upon—is the set of specific instructions for community life. It never hurts to be reminded, and to remind one another, that the best starting point for any kind of conflict is a one-to-one in-person conversation. Most people will agree, and yet if I had a dollar for every time I find out through a third party—sometimes social media—that someone is displeased with something I’ve said or done, I’d be able to buy a whole lot of overpriced coffee drinks. And don’t even get me started about using tone and words in email that we would never use in a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation.
These specific instructions for community life are how we function in Jesus’ absence, how we grow a resilient and ever-expanding network that nourishes and protects, like a mother tree.
The second aspect of this gospel that bears noting is the wonderful irony of Jesus saying “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Lest anyone think this is permission to cast out intractable members from our communities, whom did Jesus particularly welcome in? For whose inclusion did Jesus risk his life? Tax gatherers and foreigners. Our resilient and ever-expanding web of connection includes those with whom we disagree, those we might rather exclude. If someone is to be to us a Gentile or a tax collector, that person is to be someone we never stop striving to include and nourish.
Finally, Jesus says: “For when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” He doesn’t say “whenever two or more are gathered—unless you’re arguing—I will be there among you.” For communities like ours, it’s helpful to read this gospel as a reminder that conflict is part of life and part of faith. As I was learning about mother trees, I found myself wondering whether the spirit of the mother tree, along with life-giving nourishment, is present in the forest’s new life after a horrific fire, long after the tree falls.
Forests recover. I look forward to visiting the Columbia River Gorge after this winter, and after the winter after that, and the winter after that. But some disasters, those of nature and those of our own making, don’t have generations in which to heal and recover.
This is why Jesus’ instructions about community life, about inclusion, about remembering his presence—these are things we need, here and now. We need the nourishment from this altar—itself made from a tree cut down—in order to go out into our networks and provide nourishment and care to others. Jesus has left us this nourishment, his very self, so it might be the food of community and new life. He has left us his very self so that we might be the web of connection for all those who hunger and thirst. What if we are to be, in our own neighborhoods, in our own city, in our families, in the schools and hospitals and businesses where we work, what if we are to be the source of new life for others in our hurting world? What if each of us, in our own way, is like a strand of miraculous connective fungus, bearers of hope and promise?