A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of delivering the Sunday message at the Brookline Church of Christ, where my dad guest preached almost exactly 30 years ago. Here’s the link:
Also, here it is written out:
“Be a Fungus”
Sermon for August 12, 2012
Copyrighted by Steve Holt
A few years back I had the unusual opportunity to join a squirrely, gray-bearded, thoroughly eccentric man on a mushroom foraging excursion. Ben Maleson lives here in Boston and has become the area’s preeminent expert on mushrooms — or, as he calls them, “fleshy fungal fructifications.” Not only does he hunt for, collect, and sell the mushrooms to some of Boston’s top chefs, this guy totally geeks out mushrooms. He regularly goes to mushroom conferences. (who knew, right?) He owns more than 50 books on mushroom identification. He met his wife because of mushrooms. When I first met him, he’s even wearing a black T-shirt with a big mushroom on it. (he even believes wholeheartedly that the manna described in Exodus 16 is actually mushrooms, but that’s another sermon)
So, we’re driving along in his tiny, red hatchback, the interior of which absolutely reeks of mushrooms. We’re on our way to hopefully find some mushrooms. It’s mid-July, though, and we haven’t had much rain at all. Mushrooms need moisture to thrive. Ben starts to tell me about the three groups of mushrooms: mycorrhizal, saprophytic, and parasitic. Saprophytic mushrooms grow on dead or decaying matter. Parasitic mushrooms prefer a living host, which they eventually overtake and kill. Micorrhizal mushrooms form a symbiotic relationship with plants and trees. As Ben starts to talk about the mycorrhizal variety, he’s clearly excited excited. He tells me they receive nutrients —sugars, mostly — from the chlorofil-bearing plants around them. In return, the mushrooms give back micronutrients and other minerals. One really neat thing they do is hydrate the roots of the trees and plants around them with their excess stores of moisture. They tend to help baby trees, especially, survive until they grow tall enough to reach the light. Ben tells me enthusiastically that micorrhizal fungi are his favorite. I didn’t have a strong opinion about them before that day, but after hearing Ben’s description of them, micorrhizal mushrooms became my favorite as well.
I never thought I’d say these words, but I aspire to be a mycorrhizal fungus. I want to root myself around people and in such a way that not only my family and I are blessed, but that we bless everyone around us. That everyone has the opportunity to prosper, especially those who need a bit of help. That’s the message of Jeremiah 29. “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Put yourself in the Israelites’ position. You’re away from your homeland, in exile under a Babylonian dictator, Nebuchadnezzar. Through Jeremiah, God instructs you and your neighbors to settle in. Build houses. Plant kitchen gardens. Get married and have children. That is all scary enough for a bunch of displaced people. But God’s last direction for you takes the cake: work for the peace and prosperity of your city – a city that is not your home and in which you are, essentially, prisoners.
Your impulse, I would think, would be to duck and huddle. To eek by, just trying to survive. To focus inward, trying to remember what your homeland was like. To bide your time patiently until you could return to that beloved homeland. Certainly, there wouldn’t be a strong desire to bring children into such a scenario. But God tells you,
Engage your city.
It’s not too difficult to tie this text into the way we Christians live out our faith today. Many books have been written and sermons preached about our tendency to make getting to Heaven the principle objective of the Christian walk. Longing for a heavenly home, we build walls between ourselves and our neighbors. “So Heavenly minded that we’re of no Earthly good.” We immerse ourselves in Christian activities with people who look eerily similar to us. Many of these people had childhoods that look eerily similar to ours. We often tend to live with our bags packed, so to speak, hesitant to plug in any meaningful way into the world around us, to allow ourselves to become entwined in seeking the peace and prosperity of our city.
Let me narrow in a bit more. I think this is all the harder here in Boston. If you’re like me and didn’t grow up here, our tendency is to focus on how different it is from what we know. It’s an expensive city, and we have to work hard just to afford to stay. Many of us may stay for a job or for school but never really put down any real roots here. We gladly utilize much of what the city has to offer us, but giving back in any meaningful way – working toward the peace and prosperity of Boston – is a challenge. And then, often times, people move away. Since we moved here six years ago, Chrissy and I have gotten quite used to seeing those with whom we’ve become friends move away from Boston back to more familiar territory.
I’m not saying people should stay here forever. Lots of people have great reasons for needing to go elsewhere. Even fungi produce reproductive spores that are carried by the wind to other places. But imagine with me, if you will, a scenario in which more of us who follow Jesus in this city formed a symbiotic relationship with the people and institutions around us, feeding and nourishing our city and in turn welcoming all the good it has to offer? Regardless of how long we think we’ll be here, what if more of us built … planted … married and multiplied … and sought peace and prosperity where we live? How might that change our city, and us?
This looks different for everyone. For Chrissy and I, this looks like joining the board of a youth music nonprofit in East Boston, where we live; joining hands with neighbors to keep a casino out of our city; dreaming with fellow Jesus followers of ways we can bless, with no strings attached, our community; making an effort to get to know the others who live on our block – even the weird and grumpy ones; literally planting several gardens from which we give food away to neighbors; leading the parent council at the public school where our son goes; supporting our neighbors’ concerts, art shows, small businesses, and charitable causes; and trying to be available when someone stops us on the sidewalk to tell us all about how their back pain has returned, they got their fifth parking ticket this year, and the mayor stinks. That’s our list. Yours would probably be pretty different.
One thing we’ve found is that this kind of life is much easier when lived alongside others with a similar commitment. Maybe that’s why you often see a cluster of mushrooms living together at the base of a tree instead of just one. I’ve always loved the description in Acts 2 of the faith community that formed after Pentecost:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
“Enjoying the favor of all the people.” I think that’s my favorite part. This was not a country club where Christians could huddle together and await the Second Coming. The first Christians, as were the Israelites in Babylon, were also actively engaging their city. They kept their heads up and their eyes open as they walked, which let them see both the goodness and the pain of their surroundings. They were able to directly respond to the pain with generosity and respond to the goodness with joyful praise. And here’s the crazy part: their city took notice and held them in high regard. This is almost unbelievable to those of us who hear more about Christians warring against the culture rather than engaging and loving it.
The beautiful image we see in Acts 2 wouldn’t have been possible were it not for God’s people implanting themselves in a place and staying for a while. Rootedness, stability, and a sense of place and purpose are good news to a culture that is weary from turnover, constant movement, and change. When we root ourselves, we are able to sit still long enough to recognize the ways in which we can live symbiotically with the people and institutions around us. The thing is, when we seek the prosperity and peace of the city, we prosper as well. Not just economically, although that is often true. We also prosper in joy. Some religious people believe the opposite is true: that joy and contentment is found primarily at church, church camps, and church retreats and with church people. This can be true. But we’ve actually found that we experience just as much of God’s presence when we’re out in the neighborhood and fully engaged.
The fingerprints of God are everywhere around us – sometimes in the most unlikely places. Like mushrooms.
My benediction for all of us today is this: go in peace. And be a mycorrhizal fungus. Our city will thank us.