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Wednesday
Sep052018

Heartlands

 

HEARTLANDS

Mk. 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

9/2/18

This morning, my last Sunday at Saint Andrew's, I want to talk about the heart, or more specifically, the landscape of the heart. Today Jesus tells us, "For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

Now, how many of you have a namesake saint, someone who shares your name? It used to be customary to name children after saints, e.g.: Mary, Joseph, Margaret, etc. and for people to have a patron saint, one who watched over you.

Last Monday was the Feast of St. Bartholomew, more or less my patron saint. He was a disciple, but not much is known about him. Sometimes he is called “Nathaniel.” (But that’s all right, my mother-in-law, Mary, and my father-in-law, Paul, were called Gladys and Charlie.) St. Bartholomew may have journeyed to India, or he may not. He may have been a martyr, or he may have died of old age. He may have been significant, or he may have not have done much at all. There is a church in New York named after him, but no one really knows why. Moreover, no one can figure out whether the church is wealthy or broke. So St. Bartholomew is really, my kind of guy.

Although I am called, Bart, my full name is Bartlett. So in a sense I am not really named after Bartholomew. In fact my Swedish grandfather's name was originally Bartelson, which means "son of Bart". My grandfather, Fred Bartelson, came over from Sweden in the late l800's, was a harness maker, but worked in a factory as a cabinetmaker. His boss couldn't pronounce Bartelson, so he called my grandfather Bartlett. Why "Bartlett" was easier to pronounce than "Bartelson", I'll never know. I do know, however, that "Bart" means, "beard". Hence Bartelson means "son of the man with the beard." So my genealogy goes back to a man with a beard. That is kind of weird, since I do not have much facial hair and no matter how hard I try, I can't grow a beard. Instead of having a full bushy beard like Eric the Viking, I look like Frito Bandito. It is over this landscape of my heritage and genealogy that my patron saint, Bartholomew, resides.

Now the point of my anecdote is that our lives are shaped both by our genetic heritage, such as our genes and DNA, and by external forces, such as economics, language, social conditioning, and the mores and folkways of society. On the one hand, Fred Bartelson had the genetic components of Swedish black moods, plus amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and other physical attributes. But Fred was also shaped by economics and even ended up changing his name. The landscape of Fred's heart was shaped by external and internal factors, including the Swedish Lutheran Church. The results of Fred's life, his virtues and vices were likewise shaped by internal and external forces. What I am saying may seem obvious and part of modern scientific theories of human nature and behavior. But it is really quite ancient, and goes back at least to the time of Jesus.

Jesus' disciples were criticized for eating with unwashed hands. The issue was not hygienic cleanliness, but ritual behavior. The Jews understood themselves as a people with a strong genetic heritage, plus a covenant heritage of observing the Torah. Their nation had been disciplined repeatedly for disobeying the will of God, for not keeping the Law. To live in a right relationship to God meant to keep the moral, priestly, social laws, doctrines, and teachings. Similar to those Jews who keep Kosher today, the Jews of Jesus' time valued maintaining the sacred laws of their tradition as over against the secular and profane world.

Jesus does not denigrate ceremony or tradition. Rather he censures His critics for playing "Gotcha" and for hypocrisy. Jesus kept Passover; He went to the temple, read the Torah and taught with other rabbis in the synagogue. But Jesus went farther. He broke with those around Him by asserting that one must not be tied down by ceremonial laws and rituals. Genetic heritage, to be a Jew, was important. To follow tradition and the Law was also important. But what was most important was for one to live in the presence of God. A person is made holy or whole by that presence, not by racial heritage or traditions. If one's heart is unhealthy, unholy, then one will violate the Ten Commandments and commit adultery, murder, theft, blasphemy, etc. The disciples, St. Bartholomew and the others, who follow Jesus, are living in the presence of God incarnate. The landscape of their hearts is being transformed by God's love and forgiveness and by the Holy Spirit present in Jesus Christ. That landscape is eventually transformed also by bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ.

Throughout the centuries, men and women, like you and me, have tried to live sincere, devout, and moral lives. Jesus Christ has been glorified in song and monument, in liturgy, and ritual. In reaction, reform movements have stripped away all that to the bare essentials. There has been a constant ebb and flow over the heartland of the Church. By the grace of God, the Church has endured because of the realization by men and women, saints, that it is the presence of God, it is the power of the Holy Spirit, it is the bread and wine, it is the pulse of the life of Christ in our lives that count most, not the laws, externals, nor our Christian birthright.

You and I know that to be healthy and productive individuals we need a strong constitution. good genes, good DNA, and good natural ability. It takes all of that to handle the responsibilities of our children, our work, and our emotions. It is also necessary that we follow good habits and be intellectually and morally educated if we are to be successful in our lives and in our relationships with others. And yet we constantly screw up. We cheat, lust, swear, yell at our spouse and children, and stomp upon respectable behavior. We violate one or more of the Ten Commandments with regularity.

What Jesus taught 2,018 years ago, what the Church still maintains, is that there can be and there must be conversion. Conversion can be sudden, like St. Paul, or gradual, as with the disciples and other saints. The landscape of the heart is composed of internal and external factors. That landscape can only be changed and made productive through God's action, through the presence of the Holy Spirit. If not, the fruits of the landscape of an unchanged heart are fornication, theft, murder, adultery, pride, greed, etc.

From the time of our baptism, you and I sin, fail and are always in the process of Christian formation. At baptism we receive the power of the Holy Spirit. Throughout our lives we are not alone, dependent only upon our own internal and external resources. At baptism we are promised the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the presence of God in our lives. We are assured that our spirit will at the time of physical death join with the spirit of the saints who has gone before in the presence of God, the source of life and of Spirit. At baptism we are called to be one of the saints of God, to be like our namesake, or like our patron saint. Some of us are called to dramatic conversion, others to conversion by nurture, all of us to repentance and forgiveness.

In times of trouble, it is appropriate for you and me to turn to the secular world for help, to social workers and psychologists, to lawyers, and doctors, and even Swedish chefs. We should draw upon our own inner resources of intuition, talent, and intelligence. Our hearts can be especially open to the help of others and to self-help when our hearts have been prepared by the sacraments and the Holy Spirit, and are open to God. Encouraged by the example of the saints, we can rejoice in the forgiveness and love of God.

Just as the landscape of our hearts needs to be open to the presence of God, so too does that of our parish. St. Andrew’s needs always to be open to God's presence. Our history, our liturgy, our mission, our fellowship are important. But first, last and always we need to be Christo-centric, to focus on God's presence in Jesus Christ in our life.

Likewise, I believe the health of society and the world depends to a great extent upon an awareness of the power and presence of God. A society that is secular at best and profane most of the time is a society with a corrupt soul. The fruits of such a society are fornication, murder, theft, greed, etc. There should be a separation of church and state in our society. But we also need to be aware of the blessings and demands that God makes upon us as a society and as a people to love, heal, bless, respect, and support one another.

Being Bartlett, grandson of Bartelson, looked after by St. Bartholomew is kind of neat and it is an important part of my heritage. But what leads you and me towards sainthood is not just our internal and external connections but rather having hearts, which are open to the Holy Spirit, and to that which is good, true, and beautiful. To let our conscience be our guide is not enough. Jesus calls you and me to follow the commandments of God, and to be Christ to our neighbor and to the world. If you and I want to strive to be a saint in today's world, to be a keeper of the heartland of the family, society, the nation, then we need to rejoice in the power of the Holy Spirit, and to allow the heartland of our lives to be recreated by the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is what I sought to preach while I have been here. “Lift up your hearts. We lift them up unto the Lord.” Amen.  –Fr. Gage-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday
Jul232018

The Middle Part

The Middle Part

7/22/18

Mk. 6:30-34,53-56

“I was born about ten thousand years ago. And there is very, very little I don’t know. I saw Peter, Paul and Moses playing ring around the roses, and I’ll bop the guy who says it isn’t so.

I saw Adam and Eve go through the garden door. I saw Adam and Eve and a whole lot more. Through the bushes I was peak’n at the apple they was eat’n, and I’ll swear that I’m the guy that ate the core.” (Source unknown) This week another Bible story.

Two weeks ago we had a passage in which Jesus’ disciples are charged to go through the villages and to preach and heal. They are to expect resistance. Jesus tells them that although a prophet is without honor in his own country, they are to keep “moving on.” The mission of the Church, I said was to prepare people to “move on,” to go somewhere else, be it college, retirement, old age home, or heaven. We need to look at the context in which we live, the two worlds of the sacred and the profane, the secular and the holy. You and I are challenged to speak truth to power, which is difficult to do and which carries with it many ambiguities and paradoxes.

This week we are asked to look at the healing power of Jesus Christ, the promise that He brings healing (not necessarily a cure) to our fallen and sinful world and to our fallen and often desperate lives (perhaps as a result of Adam, Eve and the apple). The lectionary Gospel readings for today are the passages 30 -34 and 53-56 in the sixth chapter of Mark.

    I am going to make some observations about Biblical interpretation, and then I am going to tell a story and make some theological comments. To begin with the matters of interpretation, I am not a Biblical literalist nor do I think the Bible was handed down directly from God. It has to be read with a critical eye, with historical knowledge and with the realization that the Gospels are compilations of material that were handed down from initial oral tradition. I think that you have to read the material as it is given to you. You have to look at how the various passages play off against one another and what kind of language is used, whether this is wisdom literature, analogy, allegory, etc.

What we have in today’s reading are the passages before and after the story of the feeding of the five thousand. The lectionary gives us the prologue and the coda, or postlude, to the story of the feeding of the five thousand. In both the prelude and the postlude we are told that Jesus taught and healed and that the disciples shared that ministry. Jesus is not only a prophet, preacher and teacher, he is also a healer.

The lectionary scholars recognize that the material in the prelude and postlude are similar in theme and in style. By dropping out the middle part, the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle story is eliminated. But just as the story of the beheading of John the Baptist dramatically illustrated that a prophet is without honor in his own country and foreshadowed Jesus’ execution, so too the story of the feeding of the five thousand illustrates that healing is a miracle, that healing is a matter of feeding a hunger (for God), that healing is not just something “spiritual” (sacred) but that it is part of the material (profane) world, and that it foreshadows the Last Supper and the Eucharist. In the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples play an important role in distributing the elements, just as they will in the communion meal following Christ’s crucifixion. Since there is almost no food at the beginning of the feeding, there is a sharing and a sacrifice of sharing and giving to others that which Jesus has blessed. The whole story, prelude, the feeding and the postlude, leads us to and infers the sacrifice on the cross and the presence of Christ in the body and blood, the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Healing is part of the grace and gift of Christ. It needs to be presented in physical terms in order to see it in its fullest and as affecting our physical/spiritual lives.

Now for my story. For many years, each summer my wife, Faye, and I would spend a week at Booth Bay Harbor in Maine. Our motel room looked directly out on the harbor. Boats glided in and out, were silhouetted against the sky. The water is clear and chuckles against the pilings. We took our meals on verandahs and never tired of watching the water and the sky. Occasionally we explored roads or walked around what there is of the town, which is up the hill behind our inn.  It took me some time for me to figure out that we were at the end of the bay and that it was possible to cross to the other side by means of a footbridge.  Since there were a number of inns and docks on the other side, one afternoon I suggested to Faye that we walk over and look around. We sauntered over only to discover that there was nowhere near the amount of activity at these inns as there was on the side from whence we had come. So we sat on the verandah of one of the inns and watched the comings and goings out on the water.

At the end of our dock was a very large sailboat, which was for hire. It was skippered by a woman in her mid forties, who was muscular, overweight, and sort of a modern day Tug Boat Annie. I was fascinated watching her raise and lower sails, haul on ropes, and shove around the cargo. Obviously she was rugged, independent and self-reliant.

After a while, a family came down the walk toward the verandah and dock. There was a grandmother, a mother, father, young boy about fifteen, and a boy in a stroller who was perhaps twelve. He was severely physically handicapped. He could barely speak. His head lolled to one side, and his legs were about as big around as my wrist. After the father wrote out a check to the skipper, the mother, son and grandmother climbed on board the boat. The father reached down and lifted his younger son out of the stroller and held him up to the skipper. She reached down and with one motion lifted up the broken child, cradling him in her arms, and turned and paused for a moment looking tenderly at his face. All of this was done in one gracious and graceful movement. There she was, a tough, homely sailor, balanced on the deck with her back to the sun, holding a young boy. I have never seen anything more beautiful in my life. Tears were rolling down my face as I turned to Faye and we both said, “It’s Michelangelo’s Pieta.” With utter ease and the gentlest of motions, this contemporary Madonna seated the child.

Faye and I watched the sailboat glide out into the bay and disappear. Neither of us spoke for a long time. We were overwhelmed by the image of the woman holding the child and the metaphor therein implied. In Michelangelo’s sculpture of Mary holding the broken Jesus in her arms, the Pieta, the artist caught the agony of the crucifixion. In his physical depiction he conveyed the spiritual agony of divine suffering in the material world of our blood and bones and earthly home. The compassion of Mary is more than a mother’s sorrow; it is divine sorrow.

You and I err, I think, and scholars do too, when the abstract is set free from the concrete, when the spiritual is distanced from the material. In the boys’ broken state he represented graphically our broken human condition. In Tug Boat Annie’s graceful graciousness and compassion, she hinted at the divine grace and compassion that has been implanted in the human race since the time of the Garden of Eden.

To read of the teaching and healing that Jesus and the disciples did, and to leave out the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, is to leave us spiritually poorer. When taken as a whole, the prelude, the material feeding and the postlude, we have a passage that is loaded with connotations, inferences, echoes of the past and fore shadowings of the future. To present Jesus as simply a teacher, prophet and healer is to give us just another holy man. It is to separate the sacred and the profane, the physical and the spiritual. For it is in the material of Christ’s body, His physical sacrifice, that you and I receive the compassionate and graceful healing of God. That is why we have the Eucharist. It is to receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, which is given for you and me. It is to receive His sacrifice as He takes upon Himself our pain and our brokenness. In Christ’s receiving our pain and sorrow, you and I are given in return the assurance of His compassion, grace, forgiveness and power to carry on and to be His life on earth, His physical and spiritual body, the Church.

    You and I live in a community of grace in which our brokenness is held in God’s embrace. Like the child in Tug Boat Annie’s arms, like the crucified Jesus in the arms of Mary, so are you and I cradled and carried in the arms of our gracious God, upon whom we ultimately place our trust. Amen. - Fr. Gage

Monday
Jul092018

What to Do

WHAT TO DO

 Mk. 6:1-13 

Do you  still  have  your  elementary school  report   cards?   My mother saved mine. You were rated as follows: Unsatisfactory, Should Do Better.  Excellent.  My parents were attentive to my progress and supportive, but  even  when  I  occasionally   got  an  "Excellent,"   the overall  message  was "Do better. Try Harder." Now that is not  a bad message. It worked well as a motivating factor  in my life. It certainly fit the  Protestant Ethic  of my Midwest  upbringing, and  it seems  to dominate much of the corporate world. "You increased profits by 20% this year?  Good. Next year increase them  by 22%. The year after  by

25%." "Do better. Try harder."

 

Wednesday I got a letter  from a bank that said, "You Are Preapproved!" Well, that works for Christians as well as homeowners. By that  I  mean  that  as  Christians we believe  in  a creator God,  in whose image we are made,  and  who created  the good earth. We also believe in a redeemer God who is compassionate and personally concerned about  each  one  of us. For the  Christian, history  is linear and our lives are always on a journey of faith, or a pilgrimage. We are always "moving  on." The Church's task is to prepare you and  me for the next stage in our life. Today's lesson from Mark  makes three suggestions about  what  to do as you and  I move along  on our faith Journey.

 

The commission given by Jesus in Mark 6:1-13 to His disciples is to 1) face the  unclean  spirits, 2)  urge  people  to turn  around from the direction they are going (repent), and 3) to cast out demons and anoint  and heal the sick. The disciples are told to take very little with them. Now much has been made about  the difference  between "plain" and  "fancy."  The  Puritans wanted   "plain"   and   the  traditionalists wanted   "fancy."   Cromwell   wanted   "plain"   and   James  I  wanted "fancy." The roundheads were for "plain" and the "cavaliers" were for fancy. Mennonites and  Quakers  were on one side,  Roman  Catholics and  Greek  Orthodox on  the  other.  Each  side  had  to  deal  with  this


passage.  Frankly  I don't  think  the  passage  is about  the  number of socks  you take  on your  Christian  Pilgrimage.  It is about  facing  the forces that are evil/destructive and seeking healing. It is about getting people to stop giving into false gods and spirits  and instead accepting the positive presence  of God in Jesus  and trying to cure physical and spiritual illness.

 

 

So here is the bottom  line. To live the Christian life is to 1) face unclean  spirits  and demons, 2) encourage others  to repent, and 3) to heal.  You and  I, as  disciples  of Jesus,  are  empowered by Jesus  to engage in these tasks. In fact, we are told so to do and He promises  to back us up. That is a lot different  from "Do better. Try harder. You're on your own, bud. I got mine, you can go get yours." To oppose  evil and  to seek  to heal  are  pretty  simple  injunctions. The living out  of them, the unwrapping of them, is very, very hard.

 

 

Now, let me sketch  out some assumptions. First of all there  is the  assumption that  the  world  and  reality  are  really  complex.  We know that  through  art,  through metaphor, through intuition as well as through reason  and empirical science. Within  this complex  world and  reality, there  is such a thing  as evil, or the demonic.  Look at the killing fields of Pol Pot, Rawanda  or Auschwitz. Look at a Jim Jones or a Charles Manson. Look at the slaughter in Syria. We can describe what happened in political, sociological and scientific terms, but to do so misses the total  atmosphere and impact  of what happened. Many atheists and agnostics will agree that evil exists and must be resisted.

 

 

Secondly,  people  are  possessed   by  unclean   spirits.   We  use different  terms,  but  the  end  result  is close, if not the same. When  I was  a  child   and   did   something  wrong,   my  father   would   say, "Whatever  possessed  you to do that? It could have been anger, envy, fear or jealousy. We don't  use the term, "possessed," much any more. But aren't we sometimes "possessed by our possessions?" Aren't some of  us   possessed    by  frames   of  mine   that   are   psychological   or pathological  and  are  skewered?  When  my mother  had  a "bad  hair day," her  black  moods  were high  octane.  Ninety-five  percent  of the time she was fine. It was the five percent  that you feared. So when the Bible  speaks   of  unclean   spirits   and  of  demons, the  world  of  the temple, the synagogue and of Jesus is not so far away.


Thirdly  it  is  possible  to  heal  people  and  even  to  cure  them. Medical practice  is becoming  more  open to the relationship between mind-body, spirit-body than it has in the past. Turn up the stress level and  you can  knock  someone into  a psychotic  state  or a stroke  or a heart  attack.  Is it so hard  to believe  that  if you bring  some  peace, grace,  compassion and  reconciliation into  someone's life that  their psyche  might  not  be  better, their  blood  pressure less,  their  stress factor  down  and  their  ulcers  quieter? My brother, age 82,  recently had  open-heart surgery.  He is a high stress  guy. Hence  he has been prescribed  physical   therapy  that   in  includes   message,   yoga  and prayer.

 

 

So  Christian living  means  in  your  own  corner   of  the  world facing those  things that  are destructive, divisive and debilitating. For some it is drugs, for others  alcohol, mental  illness or greed. For some it is resentment, bitterness, hatred or shame. You can parse those out for  yourself.  Your  task  as  a  Christian   is  to  seek  healing  and  cure through your  thoughts and  your  actions. That  means  being  positive and creative,  compassionate and fearless  in the pursuit of physical/spiritual wholeness. Some of you may lobby for better  health insurance, others for special classes, or attention to the pandemic illnesses such as AIDS, malnutrition, or cancer.

 

 

You know, when  you try to "Do better. Try harder," that  isn't enough,  because  you  will often  fail. And  then  what  have  you  got? Shame.   Guilt.  Despair.  But  if  you  place  your  life  in  a  Christian perspective,  you are "preapproved," "movin'  on" and  commissioned by Jesus  to do something worthwhile: face the  demons and  seek  to cure those  who are sick in mind  and  body. Often we are called to do something not only about  the physical body, but also about  the body politic, where  it is skewered  and  justice  and  fairness are  cast  aside. You and  I know that  we will be rejected  and  fail from  time  to time. (Failure is often, I think, my middle name.)  Jesus  knew that he would be  ignored  by his  kinfolk  and  ultimately be  was  rejected.  But  the message  of the  Passion  Narrative (which  dominates The Gospel of Mark) is that in His death and resurrection, Jesus  has shown that the forces  of  death   and  destruction  are  overcome,   principalities and powers,  the spiritual forces have ultimately lost. (St. Paul spells  this out  clearly  in  I  Corinthians  15:54-58. "Death   is  swallowed  up  in victory." 0 death,  where  is thy victory? 0 death,  where  is thy sting?


The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But thanks  be to God, who gives us the victory thorough our Lord Jesus  Christ. Therefore,  my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the  work of the  Lord,  knowing  that  in the  Lord your labor is not in vain."

 

 

So, brothers and sisters, your and my labor is not in vain. Christ has gone before us and Christ is with us through the authority He has given us. In The Gospel of Mark you and  I are called to lives of high calling and  great adventure. We are given spiritual authority to cope with  serious  issues.  We are  given  difficult,  but  not  hopeless  tasks. Mark tells us that Christ walks with us; that we are not alone.

 

 

Moreover, in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which Jesus celebrated before Calvary, you and  I are given the presence  of Christ in our lives, and the assurance of the presence  of our lives in His.

 

Confront  evil, encourage repentance and  seek  to heal.  On my report  card,  that  is a lot  better  than  "Do  better. Try  harder." The Christian  life holds the promise  of challenge,  adventure and spiritual reward. Confront.  Repent.  Heal. Pretty elementary, my dear Watson. Amen. - Fr. Gage -

Monday
Jun182018

Mustard Seed 2018

MUSTARD SEED 2018

Mark 4:26-34

6/17/18

How many of you ever had a mustard plaster? Do you remember what it was? It was one of those home remedies, which, while scientifically questionable, seemed to work anyway. When I was a child back in the thirties and forties, I would get a deep chest cold. At night I'd 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 full light of 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 and take out a box of dried mustard powder. This was made from the ground up mustard seeds. She would put this in a bowl and make a paste. Then she would cut a square of flannel from an old nightshirt and spread the mustard on the cloth. The mustard flannel would be held in place by a couple of safety pins to my pajama top, and I would be told to sleep on my back. After about eight hours sleep, I would awaken with the congestion broken and be on the path to recovery. Was this a miracle cure for the inner body? Doubters will say no. At the very least some -thing was done, I felt better, and I lived. (A side effect is that I have no hair on my chest, but that may be coincidental.)

To talk about a mustard plaster is kind of hokey. But we had then a greater sense of natural ingredients. Perhaps we were closer to an agrarian society. Certainly we were closer to the elemental forces of nature. We didn't need Martha Stewart gushing over spices as though she were Madame Currie discovering radium. There were dried cloves, bay leaves, pepper, mustard and yeast in the cupboard because they were used. Not because they were "an exciting way to bring a new dimension to our dining experience." The mustard not only had medicinal uses, it was important as a spice. It gave a special zing to life, quickened the taste buds, and enhanced certain foods. No one has ever equaled my mother's special mustard sauce that went with the Easter ham. It always made the ham twice as good. Later in the 50's she made a mint sauce for lamb from the mint in the yard. That too was incredibly good. But that is another story.

Now Jesus knew about spices and about basic cooking and baking, just as he knew the elemental details about farming and trading. He knew about mustard, and he uses it as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven. In today's Gospel lesson from St. Mark, Jesus reminds us that the mustard seed is very small, and yet from this seed there grows a large bush, which eventually becomes a tree. Birds come and roost in it. Within that small seed there is incredible potentiality. There is a latent future, nascent capacity for growth. There is form and color and strength and pungency. There is that which can give zest to life, that which has curative, medicinal and restorative power. There is that which can give protection from the harshness and the storms of life, and that, which can provide a home even for the birds of the air. All of this is implicit and explicit in the mustard seed as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven (also called the Kingdom of God.)

Just as you and I bring our associations and experiences to the teachings of Jesus, so did men and women around Him. In temple and in synagogue they heard the Torah and the prophets. When they heard of a great tree in which birds came to rest, a tree, which sprung from a small seed, perhaps they thought of the images of the trees in Daniel (4:12,20-1) and in Ezekiel (l7:23; 31:6). Daniel uses the image of the tree as an image of hope and of promise. For Ezekiel the tree image suggests that God's people will become an empire which rules over subjected nations (the birds). In both prophets the idea of the Kingdom of God is an apocalyptic and eschatological one. God's Kingdom will come with great upheaval and at the end of time. It will be a glorious rule. When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as being worth great sacrifice (a pearl or treasure) or as a place where some will be excluded, His hearers could understand that. Many looked for a military victory. Others thought that the Kingdom of Heaven would come through keeping ritual purity and through keeping the law. These of course were the Essenes, the Levites, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

In contrast to these secular and religious expectations Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of a mustard seed. (That is like going to an organizational development seminar at General Motors and talking about your cooking ingredients!) There is an intentional iconoclasm here. Jesus is saying more than the old saw that "good things come in small packages". Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is part and parcel of the power and will of God. Like the nascent power of the mustard seed, it is partly unseen. And yet this potentiality, this power, emerges into a great tree. The essence of the Kingdom of God can be found within the paradox of that which is hidden and that which is revealed. Hence it is that God often has chosen the least likely (such as the shepherd boy, David, or the youngest son, Joseph) to be the greatest of leaders. The Kingdom of God is often found within the least likely and most unexpected. Like the smallest of seeds, the Kingdom of God is within the potentiality of growth; it is energy; it is process. It explodes and bursts forth becoming inclusive, and thereby forcing choice. As with the grain of mustard, the Kingdom of Heaven is not only in the future it is in the here and now. This message of the Kingdom of Heaven is part of the good news, the Gospel which Jesus proclaimed, and which He embodied. With His life, death, and resurrection the Kingdom of God is corporally initiated within the world.

In this parable of the mustard seed Jesus proclaims a message of incredible contemporary relevance and hope for those of faith.  You and I are surrounded by voices of doubt and despair. The images of materialism, secularism, and violence saturate the market place and the media. In the work place often there is constant carping and complaining. We all know the power of the furrowed brow, the down turned mouth, and the cloying ploy of disappointed expectation. No individual, no family, no organization is immune from the corrosive power of the sarcastic comment, the deprecatory observation, the obsessive persistent doubting. All of this negativity, all of this chronic disappointment, all of this self-absorbed narcissism has the potency of battery acid, which when spilled eats it way through our protective coverings, then through flesh and finally through bone. This is the way of the world.

Over against this corrosive world, Jesus chooses the image of the mustard seed to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven. God's will, God's presence, is with those of faith and hope. God's Kingdom is one of power, potentiality, and growth. It is one of strength and healing. Through our faith and through our life in the spirit and in the Church you and I live in a kingdom of power and hope. Our lives can be lives of zest and color, of healing and of support. Jesus assures us that His kingdom is present even when it seems most hidden, is enlightening even when it is darkest, is strongest when we seem weakest.

Through life in the Church you and I are part of that kingdom. We are not perfect, even as the Church is not perfect. Yet you and I confess, as did the saints before us, that the life of faith and hope is a life of growth and power. It is worth sacrificing for; it is worth working for; and it is worth living for. Our Gospel, Christ's Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven, has potency and zest, cannot be stifled in the smallest heart, but explodes again and again with new vibrancy, new hope, and new strength. God's kingdom is here and now. Through our life in the Church you and I are part of it. Like a mustard seed, God's kingdom is potent. Like the tree, which the seed becomes, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of faith, stands against the harsh elements of death and destruction in the world. This kingdom, like the mustard tree, protects, shelters and is our refuge and our home. Amen.     

 

 

Monday
Jun112018

Clue

 

CLUE

Mark 3:20-35

While I was teaching a confirmation class to two very bright thirteen-year-olds, we had been slogging our way through the workbook and the catechism. One of the girls had just read the definition of a major tenet, the Trinity. She handled the religious language well and was quite attentive. I nodded approval and agreement with what she had said. Then suddenly on impulse I asked, "Do you have any idea what that means?" She smiled, blushed, and with the candor of youth stated, "I haven't got a clue."

Well, you know, it was sort of like that at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Mark the Evangelist tells us that Jesus had been teaching and healing throughout Galilee. It was really exciting. There was energy in the air. What Jesus was saying was touching people right on the nerve. He was giving a new slant to things, a challenge to some of the old preconceptions. As he went about he touched and even healed some. People were beginning to find a sense of healing and wholeness and identity in the person of Jesus. Everyone knew something was happening, but they couldn't figure out exactly what. Boy it was exciting! But they really didn't have a clue.

Now it was dinnertime in Jesus' hometown, and when Jesus appeared there were so many people following him that it wasn't possible to eat. You know what happens when your son or brother starts to become a star athlete, musician, or a successful politician. What do you do? You hope he isn't getting the big head or becoming extreme. You pull on the sleeve, start getting protective, and try to bring him inside. You might even say, "Don't forget who you are!" or "Do you know what people are saying about you? Some of your cousins and some of the neighbors think you are stressing out!" They hadn't a clue.

Things were getting worse. Here was Jesus in the countryside and small towns, healing and teaching. Now healing by exorcism and touch, as well as teaching, was fairly commonplace. No one really cares what you do or say as long as you are unsuccessful, irrelevant, and disorganized. But Jesus was appearing to be successful and relevant. Furthermore, he was getting organized, for he had appointed some disciples. And so the politically correct police were sent down from the metropolitan capital. Some scribes came down from Jerusalem and assessed the situation. No one could really be touching people's lives and driving away the demons in their lives unless he were neurotic, psychotic, weird. Jesus, himself, must be  possessed, doing black magic, or in cahoots with Beelzebub.

Jesus, the small town carpenter, called the scribes and others to him and told them that they really didn't have a clue. Satan cannot cast out Satan. A divided house can't stand. You can't turn something on itself and expect it to work. The healing and coming alive in people's lives is something else. It is one thing to sin and blaspheme. That is wrong, can be repented, and can be forgiven. But to miss seeing what is happening right in front of one, to willfully fail to see the activity of God in your presence, to label the healing and creative power of God as evil, why that is an unforgivable blasphemy! Ignorance, innocent naivety, natural sinfulness is different from willing to be clueless.

Of course it was still dinnertime, and Mary and the family called Jesus to eat. The crowd around him said, "Jesus, your mother is calling you." He may have been in his early thirties, but he was still Mary's son. The crowd persisted, "Your family, your mother, and brother, and sisters need you." They hadn't a clue. They knew what it was to have an identity as part of the people of Israel, and they knew what it was to be part of other groups. But Jesus is telling them that family is more than a biological connection. Those of you who have adopted parents or children can understand that. Family is to be actively engaged, to be involved, to be in touch with those things, which are most important. Family is to find healing and wholeness and identity in the same source. Jesus looked at those around him and said, "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." Those who were idle onlookers, who sought to throw stones, who were simply curious, or maliciously resistant, did not understand "real family". They hadn't a clue.

There were, of course clues all over the place. To not have a clue does not mean that there aren't shreds of evidence. From our post resurrection perspective we can recognize them. What Mark the Evangelist is doing as he organizes his material is to build suspense. Mark presents a process of realization, a gradual unfolding of Jesus as Messiah. Later Biblical scholars refer to this theological and literary device in Mark's Gospel as the "messianic secret". Other writers deal with the situation differently. For example, John, the Evangelist, uses the contrasts of appearance and reality, hidden and revealed, eternal and present to convey the same sense of a growing awareness and perception. What Mark is saying is that healing and wholeness and identity are found in Jesus Christ. Gradually, according to Mark, those around him came to understand what God was doing in the person of Jesus. Mark suggests that it is part of our existential condition to be confused, rebellious, and dense (look at the Genesis story this morning). Through God's activity in our lives and through the power of the Holy Spirit we become "clued in."

You and I know that healing, wholeness and identity are found in Jesus Christ. We receive them through our life in His body, the Church. Our "clues" are the sacraments, especially His body and blood. While my confirmand was, "clueless" regarding the definition of the Trinity, even she was "clued" through baptism and her life within the parish into the basics of a life of faith.

Each of us is at a different point in our faith journey. The "messianic secret" unfolds in our lives at its own pace. My role as a priest is varied; but I see one of its functions to be to walk along with, and to nudge, others on their faith journey. It is my prayer that my young confirmand will find the healing that faith and forgiveness brings. I pray that she will be able to hold her demons (and there will be demons) at bay. I pray that she will find the wholeness, which a life with Christ brings. Such a life is one of faith and joy and purpose. Finally, I pray that she will find her identity in Jesus Christ. By that I mean that she will share with people of all races in the Christian confession of forgiveness, atonement, redemption, resurrection, and eternal life.

Obviously, I pray that all of you will grow in your life of faith. It is vastly important individually, as a group, and for those in the un-churched world outside our Christian body. Christ called the twelve to be disciples. He calls you and me to a life of Christian service and to be apostles to the un-churched world. That is His challenge to us. Those in the secular world may think that they understand Jesus and the promise of Christianity. In reality, they don't have a clue. Amen.