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Monday
Aug212017

Peaches

"Peaches"

Matthew 15:21-28

 

When she came down the aisle, she was like a moveable feast. Her wide brim hat was loaded with artificial fruit. There was a fruit bracelet, pin and matching earrings. She was big. Probably 5'll" and weighed in at 200 lbs. In the pre-spandex era, she packed all she had into the outer limits of rayon's elasticity. When she flashed her pearly whites on me and smiled, the whole universe lit up. She introduced herself to me with, "Honey, I'm Peaches!" All I could think to say was, "Okay."

    Thirty years ago I served at St. George's Episcopal Church on the Southside of Chicago. The parish had a solid core of sincerely dedicated parishioners. Most of their families had come up on the Rock Island Line's "Southern Crescent" from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana in the l930's and 40's. Many were what we would now call "the working poor." They were porters, bus drivers, mailmen, schoolteachers, longshoremen, clerks, etc.         

All parishes have their idiosyncrasies. At St. George's, the service on Sunday morning really didn't start until Peaches made her grand entrance. She was the successor to the Queen of Sheba. Peaches was the precursor to Pearl Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald. She made Gladys Knight look like a Pip and Diana Ross look like a teenager. This lady defined the term, "Arrived." Every time she "arrived" in all her splendor, Shakespeare’s phrase, "the barge she rode upon was like a burnished throne" rang in my ears. Peaches had an incredible sense of presence.

     She was not enthusiastically received by all the parishioners. The children loved her. The men were fascinated. But the women were cool and wary. They would clutch their purses tightly, snug up against each other and find important conversations to share. Occasionally they would snap at their men folk and try to pull them away from exchanging more than civil pleasantries with Peaches.

    Please do not be offended by Peaches' story. As it turned out, Peaches was not exactly what one might call "acceptable."  She was divorced, on welfare, social security disability, and aid to dependent children. Because of a serious heart condition, she could not hold a permanent job. Her ten-year-old son had a bone disease in both legs, had had several operations, could not walk, and needed more operations. Current welfare legislation would have devastated her. To make ends meet, she ran policy slips for the local Donald Trumps of the betting industry. Occasionally gentlemen callers would escort her to various clubs, where they would chat, and she would sip iced tea. The frequency of her dates usually coincided with the end of the month when the rent was due.

Although Peaches was a marginalized individual within a marginalized group of society, yet she was also accepted because she had an indomitable faith and was incredibly generous. Peaches was always the one who took in the stray child. She was always the one who visited the sick and the frail elderly. She gave freely of her time and money. She remembered the birthdays and anniversaries of others. She cried at the wakes and comforted at the funerals. She encouraged the unemployed. She loved the unlovable.  At a potluck, wake, or wedding, there was always her trademark dish -- fried chicken smothered with peaches.

I often wondered if Peaches did not represent a Christian of true faith and piety. For although she transgressed the standard boundaries of morality, she knew she was a sinner. Jesus was her salvation and her Lord. She loved Jesus, and she dearly loved her son. She was deadly serious about her faith, lived on the cusp of desperation in her concern for her child, and was overwhelmingly compassionate. Who would want to cast the first stone? No one in the congregation, and certainly not I.

You and I have in The Gospel of Matthew the story of another marginalized woman of faith -- the Syro-Phoenician, or Canaanite, woman. Jesus went to the district of Tyre and Sidon to get some distance from the crowds who were following Him. There He is accosted by a Canaanite woman, who begs for mercy for and for help for her daughter, who is tormented by a demon. The disciples want to turn her away. Jesus, Himself, is not a knee-jerk liberal, rushing out to embrace everyone. He tells her that His mission is to the lost sheep of Israel, and that He cannot dissipate his work by throwing food to the dogs. But the mother will not let Him off the hook. She picks up on the pejorative term, "dog," and replies that even the dogs eat the scraps, which fall from the table. Moved by her persistence and deadly seriousness, her commitment of faith, Jesus replies, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." The daughter is instantly healed.

The Canaanite mother was as marginalized from the Israelites as one could be. For her to appeal to Jesus was about as likely as a Syrian to appeal to a Jew today. She is also apparently marginalized within her own society. Where is her husband, her relatives, her other children? In a patriarchal society, where women are of little value, why this big deal about a daughter? Why isn't she working at home or in the fields or bazaar?

The Canaanite mother is driven by desperation and by her love for her child, just as my friend Peaches was. Is this so hard to understand? When my son, Chris, was in Mass. General Hospital following a car accident, I would have done anything for his recovery. All I could do was drop to my knees and pray, "God help us." At such a moment, all one's defenses, all the veneers of piety and acceptability are stripped away. One is thrown back on his or her faith and the love of God.

Throughout the Gospels there is this constant theme of God's compassion for the marginalized, for those who know their brokenness, for those who know that salvation can come only through an extra-ordinary act of compassion on God's part.  One of the implications of the story of the Canaanite woman is that the purpose of the miraculous healing is to underline not only the faith of the mother but also the divine compassion of our Lord.

It is easy to say, "So what? I'm not like Peaches. I'm not like the Canaanite mother. I'm not marginalized." Well, when Chris was in the hospital my life was not all together. There were areas that were spinning beyond the normal bounds of balance and control. That was true of my mother when my brother had a brush with polio. It was true of my father when my mother had cancer. And I expect it is true for each one of you. Do you not recognize in your life a brokenness? Is there not an area where the easy answers don't wash, where there is a lack of balance, where there is pain, where there is a crying need for the consolation of God's love? For some of us it is psychological depression, for some grief, for some bitterness, for some a sense of failure, for some desperate fear of the fragility of life. Loneliness, old age, unemployment, crushing responsibility for a relative, divorce, disappointment time and again mark our lives. Time and again you and I feel the pain of a Peaches or of a Canaanite mother.

For them, for you, for me, Jesus Christ offers acceptance, forgiveness and compassion, the fruits of which bring healing to the spirit. The love of Peaches for her son, the love of the Canaanite mother for her daughter, the love of a parent for a child, these are but a reflection of the love of our heavenly Father for His children. This is why Jesus turned from His disciples to show pity and compassion upon the Canaanite woman. In Jesus Christ God's compassionate love is made known to the world.

Today, this Sunday, come to the Lord's Table. In faith receive Christ's body and blood. Be assured of the healing power of God's compassion and love. Amen.

 

Monday
Aug142017

A Ministry of Presence

A MINISTRY OF PRESENCE

MATT. 14:22-33

8/13/17

Last week we talked about transfiguration. I pointed out that miracles are epiphanies or moments of seeing into the nature of things and the relationships between things, persons and events. We all have miracles, those moments when we stand right at the point between the possible and the impossible, the real and the imaginative, the now and the then. It can be a moment of transfiguration.

I am by training not only a Biblical scholar but also a chaplain. I worked for my first three years doing college chaplaincy. Hence I am more an observer of life and interested in the pastoral dimension to things. I ask the question, “What is the relationship between Christianity and culture?” Or to put it more simply, “How do we live out our faith in the everyday world?” My focus is on “Christian living skills” and how the seeker finds God in the world around him/her. Because we are all on a pilgrimage, much of what I see and learn is always “in process.” For me, the Kingdom of God is always in a state of becoming.

So for the next couple of weeks, I invite you to look with me at Gospel passages and ask, “What is the meaning of this passage, and where does it touch or reflect in my life and experience?” As usual there will be stories because we make sense of our lives through telling stories. Jesus was certainly the primary storyteller of His time.

Now for today’s Gospel story. St. Matthew tells us that following the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand; Jesus withdrew to renew Himself and sent His disciples on ahead. When evening came, Jesus was alone on the shore. The boat with the disciples was far from the land and battered by the waves. Early in the morning Jesus, walking on the sea, came towards them. The disciples were scared half to death. He said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter responded by asking that he too might walk across the water. Jesus replied, “Come on.” Peter got out, started walking on the water, noticed the strong wind, became afraid and began to sink. He cried out. Jesus caught him and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” They got into the boat and the wind ceased. The disciples exclaimed, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Well, that is quite a story. It is often called a “nature miracle,” because Jesus stilled the storm and defied nature. I am not sure that classification really does much for us. Some say that this is a legend of wondrous deeds, such as those told about the Greek gods or Buddha.

But this seems to me to be more than legend and also has too many rough edges (the weakness of the disciples). Others rationalize the story by saying that it was an optical illusion, or Jesus was really stepping on stones. Maybe so. But there are other references in the Old Testament in Psalms and Habakkuk to God’s walking on water. It is also possible to see the story as an allegory pointing to the life of the early Church and the promise that Jesus would be with it during the persecutions. Or, if you like, you can see this as a story foreshadowing the post-resurrection narratives. To turn it around you could say that the post-resurrection narratives were read back into this story.

The questions that I ask are “What is the point of this story, and why is this story remembered?”  It seems rather clear to me that the point of the story is to emphasize that God is present in Jesus. Jesus is divine. Or as the disciples declare, “You are the Son of God.” Why is the story remembered? It is remembered because it says something about God, and God as seen in Jesus Christ. It says that God is steadfast. He is compassionate and powerful and does not abandon us when we are in dire straits. As through out history, God is present with us. By Christ’s actions we are reminded that God stays with us.

This is a powerful story with a powerful message. The central concept of the story is that God is present in Jesus and the meaning for our lives is that God is always with us. Is there also an ethical dimension to this story, an indicator for action on our part?  Is there an imperative in the indicative? I think there is, and I speak from my own experience.

Some time ago, I received an email from a young man whom I had known in the nineties. He had emigrated from Nigeria, was an architect and couldn’t find work. He bounced from one thing to another, selling cars, bad marriage, mixing with the wrong kind of people. He now has a good job, as an IT in Britain, is married again with two children. He wrote to thank me for always having time for him and for always encouraging him, even when things seemed hopeless. I never thought much about it, because that is what I always thought one was supposed to do.

Faye and I may go to our ancestral cottage in Old Saybrook for a few weeks. Whenever we get ready to go there, I am always reminded of an experience that I had when Faye was still working. Our cottage is right on Long Island Sound. The weather was good, and every evening I would walk Ben, my black Labrador retriever a mile and a half along Maple Avenue in the Knollwood section of the town. There is a sidewalk, a road, a walkway, a twenty-foot drop off and then the beach and shoreline. Sometimes there are joggers, dog walkers, skate boarders and bicyclists. The traffic is generally light.

One evening the weather turned foul. It was misting and a high wind came up. Now I am half-Swedish and Ben is all Lab, so this is the kind of weather we were born for. A little after five o’clock I grabbed Ben’s leash and we headed out into the brewing storm. We walked East for a mile and then turned around and head West. The wind had gotten serious and the waves pounded against the breakwaters. Ben and I muscled our way into the storm. About half way back I noticed a fisherman out in a boat that was being tossed around like a matchbox. The outboard motor strained to keep the boat heading into the wind, and the fisherman was staggering back and forth from bow to stern tossing stuff around. Any minute I was sure the boat would swamp. I stopped and sat on a bench trying to figure out if the fisherman was in distress and what I should do. I had no cell phone, there were no passing cars I could hail to call 911, and I cannot walk on water. I finally decided that if there were an accident I would go across the road, break into the house of a friend of mine and use the phone. By this time the fisherman stood up and put on rain gear and waders. No life jacket. “Brilliant,” I thought. “If he goes over, he will sink like a stone. Or maybe he would hold onto the side of the boat.” The fisherman saw me and made no indication that he wanted help. So I sat and waited.

I thought immediately of today’s Gospel story. How I wanted to be able to walk on water! How I wanted to do the heroic thing! As I turned the story over in my mind I realized that the story emphasized the steadfast presence of God. In Jesus Christ you and I are assured that God does not abandon us even when we are being tossed about in life. Gradually it dawned on me that there are times in life that we, as the body of Christ, individually and collectively, are called to be present. We are called to manifest God’s love by practicing the ministry of presence. We are to sit and stay, pray and be there for the other person. So Ben and I sat in the rain and waited. We watched and kept the man company as he struggled in his boat on the tossing waves. He moved boxes around and then held up large black fish that were in the bottom of the boat, tossed a few over board and re-arranged them. Finally he got the boat balanced, pulled up a bait can, tossed some bait into the water and settled into fishing. The storm had not relented, but the boat was tethered to a buoy, was balanced and seemingly under control. Finally I said a prayer of thanks, asked God to keep watch, knocked the tobacco out of my pipe and leaned into the wind, returning home.

Faye called up that night. “What did you do today?” “Oh, I watched a guy fish,” I replied. “Exciting,” she said. “ Well, I said a few prayers and it was kind of interesting. Ben seemed to like it too.” I answered. We then moved on to other topics.

When you read the Bible it kind of sticks to you. It doesn’t always give you clear directions. Sometimes it suggests an angle or a perspective or leads you to insights and epiphanies. That day it reminded me that there are times when all we can do is practice the ministry of presence, and often that is what we are called to do. Some of you do it in your work in hospice, others in childcare, some in education, others in medicine and its allied fields. You and I do it in our life in the parish, listening and paying attention to one another and often by just showing up.

There are many times in life when activity and action are called for. There are times when we need to be reminded that when we work with Christ there are limitless possibilities. But there are also times when we can’t walk on water, when we can’t throw the “hail Mary pass,” when we are called simply to be present. And it is not always simple. It can be wet and uncomfortable, tedious or even painful. But God is steadfast. There are times in our lives, when being steadfast, just being present, is paramount. That is what Jesus did when he came to His disciples in the storm. That is what you and I can often do, and often really do, every day, and every week as we embody Christ on our pilgrimage of faith.

God be with you. Amen.

– Fr. Gage-

 

 

 

Monday
Aug072017

Transfiguraton

TRANSFIGURATION

Lk. 9:28-36

8/6/17

 

“In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in His bosom, that transfigures you and me….” So wrote Julia Ward Howe in 1861 when she penned the words for what we now know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Her words were put to the tune at that time that was called “John Brown’s Body.” The hymn is rather bellicose but that single line carries the sweet element of truth. No, Christ was not born among the lilies, but His life was one of transfiguration and transfigures your and my lives, as well as the life of this parish.

Were you to go over to St. John’s Episcopal Church at the corner of Main Street and Grove, you would find over the high altar a magnificent depiction of Jesus at the time of the transfiguration.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Luke tells us that Jesus took His disciples and went up on the mountain to pray. As He was praying His appearance and raiment became dazzling white. He was seen talking to Moses and Elijah about what was to come. Peter said, “Master, let us make three booths, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” A cloud overshadowed them and a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.” The disciples were cowed into silence.

The passage marks the time at which the disciples came to the realization that God was fully acting and present in Jesus. Jesus is seen as transfigured from being a holy man, a prophet-preacher-healer-rabbi into the Son of God. God’s power and glory are present in Jesus, who is to be understood as the Messiah, the Savior of the world.

The presence of God in Jesus transfigured not only the disciples’ understanding of Jesus, that presence transfigured the very lives of the disciples. From that time on, the Church recognized that the power of God in Jesus Christ, some call it the Holy Spirit, changes things. Jesus’ followers no longer live simply in the secular, work-a-day world. They live caught up in the power of God into a different dimension, into a holy other world, into a world that recognizes the numinous, the truly sacred. It is a world that recognizes that which is holy and sacred and changes lives and even history. The power of God in Christ, the glory of God in His bosom, does in deed transfigure you and me.

During the 1860’s in England and abroad, there was an upsurge of interest in liturgy and the sacraments, combined with an evangelical passion that energized the Anglican Communion. Much of the movement’s focus was upon things “catholic,” attitudes and liturgies found in the Catholic Church in Europe. A great reverence was given to the presence of Christ in the sacraments and to the offices of the church. This movement within the Anglican Communion was called the “Oxford Movement.” It was the parent of the Anglo-Catholic, or “high church,” wing of the Anglican Communion. Here in the United States priests who were part of that movement founded Kent School in Kent, Connecticut, and Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York, as well as Trinity College, Hobart College and many other institutions. The Anglican Church was going through a phase of transfiguration, from the staid, church of the manor and  “middle” or “broad church” traditions. One of the “middle church” parishes was St. John’s here in Stamford. Some within that parish sought a more “high church” liturgical and sacramental Anglo-Catholic orientation. Hence they established St. Andrew’s Parish as a mission here in Stamford.

One of the first priests who worked here went on to establish St. Saviour’s in Old Greenwich. Later he went out to the Southwest to establish a mission there. With each priest or rector the parish was transfigured by the piety and vision of that priest, as well as by the Holy Spirit working within the lives of the parishioners within the congregation.

The first priest that I remember was Norman Catir, who later became rector of The Church of the Transfiguration “The little church around the corner” in New York City. Many remember his fastidious emphasis upon liturgy. I met and briefly knew Tom Peterson, who brought a strong intellectual seriousness to his work. (As an aside, I might note that after he died, I discovered that he and I had almost identical theological libraries!) Upon his death the parish called Mark DeWolf. I remember standing on the front steps of the church when he and Jennifer arrived to begin their ministry here. Their lives transfigured the parish and mine as well. Since Mark’s retirement, there have been a series of interims and priests-in-charge. The parish was revived under Fr. Beattie, who brought calm to the parish, made many changes and led to the call of Fr. Alton to the parish. Under Fr. Alton’s supervision there was a sharp focus upon the Anglo-Catholic heritage of the parish, while at the same time there was a huge physical transfiguration of the fabric of the parish and its buildings. We are now in a new period of transfiguration, with an emphasis upon building up committees and a shift of greater responsibilities to the vestry and laity.

During this whole time that I have described, lives were transfigured and transformed here at St. Andrew’s. Various parishioners such as Kaye Jones, John and Elaine Lowdenslager, and Alvin Wellington played key roles in my life and in the lives of others. Many others influenced this parish by their intellect, piety, wit and devotion.

The testimonies to the transfiguring experiences in parishioners’ lives can be found in the various memorials and memorial plaques around the church and even by headstones in our cemetery. I interred the ashes of Janet Feeley along side those of her husband. I did Requiem Masses for Gloria Codner, William McNairn and Ruby Robinson. Poignant and profound have been the experiences of members of this parish.

What makes this all happen is what happens at the altar each time we celebrate Mass. In the Mass the bread and wine are transfigured into the body and blood of Christ. We in turn are transfigured by that body and blood, so that Christ dwells in us and we in Him. The power of the Holy Spirit renews us and bears us up. Fr. Beattie once referred to St. Andrew’s as a place of healing and prayer. He was absolute right. Healing and transfiguration take place here at St. Andrew’s through the offices of the church: the Mass, baptism, confession, absolution, anointing, marriage and burial. All of this is made possible by the celebration of the Mass and by the Holy Spirit working through the liturgy, the sacraments, and the lives of one another.

During the rest of this year we will seek to serve Christ through diligent, sacrificial and intelligent actions as part of the body of Christ. St. Andrew’s will continue to be a parish of healing and prayer, but most of all a center of transfiguration for you and for me, and for others within this community and city.

Let us go forth in the name of Christ. Amen.

-Fr. Gage-

Monday
Jul312017

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Mustard

THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS LIKE MUSTARD?

Matt. 13:31-33,44-49a

7/30/17

I talked last Sunday about the stories of our lives and how we live out those stories in the context of larger stories, which are the narratives of the major faiths found in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Our lives have to fit into a greater narrative context, and not be just “spiritual but not religious” if we are to make sense of our inner lives, our social lives and the lives of our histories.

Now in today’s Gospel lesson Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven. He uses the parable form and tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure, a valuable pearl and a bountiful catch of fish. In other words the kingdom of heaven expands, has growth and power, is emerging, is of incredible worth and offers great abundance of sustenance.

I have translated all of the Old Testament from Hebrew and all of the New Testament from Greek. I have read various books about the kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God. Some time ago I was surprised when attending a men’s Bible study. The participants were ex-cons and the leader was an evangelical minister. In our passage there was a reference to the kingdom of heaven. “What is the kingdom of heaven?” I asked. The minister went into an elaborate description of cosmology and time frames in which various events will occur. Most of it was based on the Book of Revelation. It was an elaborate schema of when only 144 Jews will be left and the angel Gabriel will appear at the final resurrection at the end of time. I was stunned. It had never occurred to me to build or accept a literal schema, which would lead up to the end of the age (the eschaton) and would deal with apocalyptic events. For me those references of time and events were metaphors and allegories, which pointed to the nature of God, His justice, His love and His bringing about His will. I realized that I am certain in my faith but in matters of future events and God’s judgment I am an agnostic. I don’t see apocalyptic language, or even metaphorical language as intending to have a one to one connection, “name a thing or event and there is a direct correlation.”  The kingdom of heaven is not a literal mustard seed, nor dough, nor a pearl. To take up one’s cross and follow Jesus does not mean that we go out and build wooden crosses and drag them around with us. Jesus is always inferring, implying, and using connotative language, leading us along. We seldom have a direct mathematical translation of things. To paraphrase St. Paul, we see through a glass “darkly.” When we die then we will see God face to face. (I Corinthians. 13:12) In other words we will have a closer relationship to God. Does God literally have a face? Heavens no!

Now I am going to talk about two of the metaphors in today’s parable. They are the mustard seed and the leaven (yeast).

How many of you have ever had a mustard plaster? It was one of those home remedies, which while scientifically questionable, worked anyway. When I was a youngster in the 40’s I would get a deep chest cold. At night I would toss and turn and rattle like a horse. The room was dark and there were nightmares in the shadows. Just about the time I thought I was going to die, a sliver of light would appear at the door, then a figure would stand shrouded in a robe, outlined, nimbus like, by the light in the hallway. A compassionate hand would soothe my fevered brow, and a voice would proclaim, “You need a mustard plaster.” Mother would go into the kitchen, take out a box of dried mustard powder, add some water in a bowl and make a paste. She would cut a square of flannel from an old nightshirt and spread the mustard on the cloth. The flannel would be held in place by a couple of safety pins to my pajama top. I would be told to sleep on my back. After about eight hours sleep, I would awaken with the fever and the congestion broken and be on the path to recovery. Was this a miracle cure for the inner body? Doubters scoff. But at least something was done. I felt better and had new life. (A side effect is that I have no hair on my chest, but that may be coincidental.)

In reality, mustard seed is potent, packs a wallop in a little space, makes a big difference and expands. The kingdom of heaven is like that. It is elemental. It is taking place here in the here and now, is potent, gives warmth, growth, healing and is a vehicle for love.

What about the yeast? Leaven, or yeast, is essential for making bread (granted the Jews ate unleavened bread during Passover as a penance and a reminder of the Exodus.) There is something about making bread. It is universally engaging. Transformation, hiddeness, potentiality, and resolution – all of these concepts are implicit in the basic ritual-like experience of bread making.

Seventy years ago my Swedish aunts would gather in our kitchen to make bread. I remember flour on their arms, strong hands kneading the dough, patiently working the yeast, salt, sugar, oil, water and flour together. The dough would be pounded, shaped, and reshaped. Finally it would be set aside in a warm place, and covered with a moist towel. The kitchen would be cleaned up and my family would go about other matters for several hours. Meanwhile, a magic-transformation would occur. Hidden within the dough, there would be a burst of energy as the yeast performed its near miracle. The dough would move, stretch and expand, nearly doubling its bulk. The yeast would push the limits of the potential of the ingredients of what initially looked like a flat glop until the loaf looked hearty and ready to be baked to perfection.

Thirty years later my wife, her sister and her sister-in-law “discovered” sour dough bread. The essential ingredient was the “shot” or yeasty mixture, which was saved, passed from one sister to another (often across state lines), shared, divided and stored to be used eventually to make another new batch of bread. Unlike the tuna casseroles of the time, bread making struck a basic and shared response.

Twenty-five years ago my neighbor, John, a retired corporate lawyer, distinguished cultured gentleman of impeccable Yankee stock, appeared at our back door with loaves of bread he had made. “Neighbuh, I baked some bread for you.” He was proud of his endeavor. John was Harvard educated and a “lapsed Congregationalist.” He was a true product of the transcendental movement in New England. He considered that God might exist but was dubious of organized religion and denominations. He was also intrigued that I had become a priest. John had two gorgeous daughters who lived life fully. A justice of the peace, John married one of them in the family’s backyard. The couple wrote their own service, and the other sister sang “Love me tender, love me true” in Elvis Presley fashion. My wife threatened to kill me if I said anything.

One Saturday morning a year or so later John appeared at my back door with his bread. “Padre,” he said. “I have a favor to ask.” “Sure, John, what do you want?” “I’d like you to pray for my daughter, Jane. She has the cancer and they’re going to operate on her.” “John, I would be honored to pray for her.” So we stood in the kitchen and I prayed for the daughter. John said, “Thanks,” and left. A month later John was back with a loaf of bread and said, “The operation was successful. They got the whole thing and she’s fine now. Thank you for your prayers.” He turned and left. Eventually John moved back to Maine.

The kingdom of God is like yeast. It works powerfully and not always as we might expect. Through illness John and his family moved closer to God and to asking Him for help. Through bread making John and I made a connection that was supportive and sustaining. Through the love of a father for his daughter, a good and honorable man stood before God and said, “Please.” John took a step into the kingdom of heaven.

You see, the kingdom of God is unfolding in lives of petition, lives of support and lives of love. Through Christ we are given a glimpse of God’s love for us and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Individually and corporately as a church we are not left alone. We have entered the beginning of the realization of a closer relationship to God. For in the last analysis the kingdom of God is having a close relationship to God, one that is full of humility, compassion, sacrifice, trust and faithfulness. Sometimes that relationship to God is strengthened through the formal structures of the Church, and other times it is strengthened through relationships outside of those formal structures. It happens in the temporal but touches the eternal, and always it is through God’s presence in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.

My prayer for you and for St. Andrew’s is the collect of this morning.

“O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” – Fr. Gage -

 

Monday
Jul242017

I Love to Tell the Story

I LOVE TO TELL THE STORY

Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43

July 23, 2017

Some time ago, I did baptismal preparation with two sets of parents. They were lapsed Catholics and lapsed Episcopalians. A couple of them are engineers by training. All four parents tend to see the world as hard data and to have a secular view on life. All four parents want what is best for their daughters. I struggled with communicating with them. I knew that they would nod and agree with what I said, but that the odds on their darkening the door of any church (for some time at least) were slim. Some within our denomination would say that I should not baptize an infant unless the parents were grounded in the faith and I had a fair amount of assurance that the child would be reared in the Christian faith.

Well, last week we talked about broadcasting seed and how some of the seed falls on barren ground and some of it flourishes. I tend to be a rotary spreader and let it fly. I also do not believe in withholding the sacraments from someone just because his/her parent happens to be a jerk.

I went through the baptismal service and then talked about it. I tried to help them to see that we live within narratives of our lives and life. Yes, there are facts and logic, but we make sense of our lives by telling stories. Man/woman is a story telling animal. More than anything else, more than walking upright or having a thumb, it is our ability to tell stories that separates us from all the other animals in God’s creation.

A story can be imaginary and totally made up. As a child you may have been warned not to “tell stories” – things that are just made up. Or a story can be an account of something that really happened. Often stories are a little bit of both. They employ imagination and they connect to the real world that we know in every day life.

It is natural for us to put together a narrative, which has characters, a problem, the solving of that problem and then some reflection upon what has happened. Some of our stories are small and we can even be a character in the story. But there are also big stories, or narratives, retold and put together over thousand and thousand of years. Those big stories are what we call the world religions. They help us understand what has happened in the world and what is happening to us. There are religions that are highly imaginary and mythical, like those of the Nordic gods. They have little connection with the real world and events. Other religions like Judaism and Christianity connect closely with the world, history, events and with our lives.

Twice I’ve had a woman come to me with her children and say that she was a nominal Episcopalian and her husband was a lapsed Roman Catholic or that she was a Christian and her husband a Jew. The women did not know in which faith to rear their children. I told each of them that I didn’t care what tradition she reared her children in, but it was important that they be reared in a tradition (Christianity, Judaism, Roman Catholic or Episcopalian) because they needed to have a set of stories, of hallmarks, in which to work out what they believed and what kind of faith they had. To leave a child without any religious upbringing and then expect that child as a young adult to make intelligent and reasonable (or even mature) decisions about religion and faith was cruel. That child/young adult would have no narrative, no context in which to work out a meaningful faith. I’ve seen that when I have talked with college students, who were the products of Christian-Jewish marriages, in which there was no religious training whatsoever. The result was a young adult who literally didn’t know what he/she was talking about.

You and I accept our religion, Christianity, partly because it connects, or coheres with life as we experience it. Our minds, our hearts, our experiences and the experiences of others cause us to say, “This is true. This makes sense to me. This draws me into it. I want to be a part of it.” Through baptism, through hearing the Gospel stories, through the liturgy we become part of the community of faith. We are introduced to and we introduce others into the narrative of the story of the Gospel and Christianity. The Gospel, the stories of Jesus, becomes part of our story and part of the story of the faith community as well. As we sang last week, “I love to tell the story…”

Now I am going to tell you a story. I think it will help us to understand the passage, which was read this morning from Matthew. When I was fourteen, my neighbor, Mr. Brown, had the lushest garden I have ever seen. His corn was “knee high by the Fourth of July”, and his tomatoes were “Big Boys.” There were Hubbard squash and dark green Zucchini. Often he sent over corn by way of his son, Doug. I liked Doug because his sister was a dancer at the Edgewater Beach in Chicago.

There were other boys in the neighborhood. Freddy Johnson lived down on Main Street with his cousin, Willie, and the Smith brothers lived on Oak Street. I didn’t like to play with Freddy because he argued and was always up to mischief. Still, when things got dull, on a summer day in 1949, Freddy was better than no one. In the hot evenings we would roam around looking for a game of sandlot baseball or apples, which we put on the ends of saplings and whipped over rooftops. One day Freddy asked me if I knew of any gardens, where he could go and look around. I told him my father had one, but the best one was Mr. Brown’s. I went off to scout camp for two weeks and forgot about Freddy.

When I returned there was Doug, dejected and forlorn, on my back stoop. He told me that one night some boys had trashed his father’s garden. They had trampled the turnips, smashed the squash and tossed the tomatoes. Did I have any idea who would do this? I didn’t, and I wondered what his father would do. His father, a veteran from WWI, was a patient man, and had decided to leave most of the stuff alone until harvest time and then clear out the waste. Doug said that his father had decided not to spend time trying to find out who the vandals were. He preferred to concentrate on harvesting the good vegetables.

Later I discovered that it was Freddy and his friends. I did not report this to Mr. Brown, for I figured there would be too many denials and evasions. So I simply stayed away from Freddy. Some said that Freddy had a bit of the Old Nick in him. Others said that he was a mischief-maker. I thought Freddy was just plain destructive. Shortly thereafter I moved to Connecticut and never heard any more about Freddy, Willie and the Smith brothers, I didn’t miss them, either.

Jesus told a similar story, the parable of the wheat and the tares (weeds). There was a field where good seed was sown. One night the enemy came and sowed weeds, intending to spoil the field. When this was discovered, the slaves offered to pull out the weeds, but their master told them to leave the weeds alone, lest in pulling them out they might damage the wheat. At harvest time the wheat and tares would be separated, the wheat put in a barn and the tares burned. The first half of the story focus on the patience of the landlord. The second half of the story is allegorized and focuses on judgment and punishment. The essential thrust of the parable is that you and I face an ultimate judgment in the kingdom of heaven.

So the first point is that all things are not relative. There ultimately is judgment and a separation. You and I are held to a standard and are accountable for our deeds. Secondly Jesus makes the point that evil exists. The field was not spoiled by ignorance or by chance. There are forces of sin, evil and destruction in the world. Those forces oppose that which is positive, creative and good. Those forces destroy the harvest of good things. (Consider the despotic forces of genocide in various parts of Africa and the world.) Thirdly, final judgment belongs to God. So there are three points: Although we often understand only partly, everything is not relative or a matter of perspective. You and I are judged; evil exists; and God is the ultimate judge (evil loses).

Now life is not an allegory. But I think our lives are very much like Mr. Brown’s garden. The parable of the wheat and tares gives us a perspective from which to view our lives. With the help of the Holy Spirit, you and I try to do the best we can with what we have. We try to be faithful, to do the good, and at the very least to do no harm. There are those in life who are mischief-makers, who are tempters, and who seek to do us and our children harm. They must be held accountable, as must we when we are sinful and tempted. Some evildoers and mischief-makers are obvious, such as drug pushers, child abusers and murders. Other mischief-makers are more subtle such as cynics, naysayers, vindictive individuals, abusive bosses or disgruntled employees or base politicians. You and I are often tempted into sin and mischief making. Although in the last analysis final judgment is with God, you and I have to resist evildoers vigorously, be it through law enforcement, the courts, reform, public opinion or other means. But even more so, we need to tend our gardens. We need to prop up that which has been trampled (such as the homeless and unemployed) to nourish that which is growing (our children), and to shelter that which is fragile be it through strengthening the family, counseling, social service or other means.

Five hundred times I have stood at a grave and realized that each of our lives has a final accounting. When all is said and done, what can we say we have done, and what can other honestly say about us as Christians? What kind of garden and harvest do we have? Is it cramped and unimaginative, parched and neglected? Or is it open, imaginative, fertile, faithful and well tended? To paraphrase Thoreau, “I do not want to find when I come to die that I have not lived.”

The occasion of a summer Sunday is an opportunity to think about what lies ahead of you. It is a time for new beginnings, reorientation and reaffirmation. Sometime today write down what you would really like to do with the time you have left. Perhaps it is to tell someone you are sorry, or someone that you love them, to make a memorial, to volunteer, to spend time in prayer. God gives us a bountiful harvest beginning here and now. The Kingdom of God begins with our faith and with our redemption in the present. You and I can with the energizing power of the Holy Spirit cultivate and nourish part of our garden now. We can enjoy some of the harvest.

Yes there are tempters, mischief-makers and evildoers in life. There are genocide, child soldiers, and heinous crimes. Rather than nit pick on so many things in Church and in politics, we need to take seriously the problem of evil. But for today it is sufficient to note that God promises you and me an abundant harvest. For those of us who live in the rhythms of the Church, that harvest is symbolized in the Eucharistic bread and wine, which satisfies and endures. Amen.

Fr. Gage