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Mustard Seed 2018


Mark 4:26-34


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.     







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.






This passage prompts me to think about my life, not only in relationship to the Sabbath, but also in relationship to the Church.

Permit me to tell my story.

My grandfather was a Methodist minister. Therefore my father grew up in a culture where Sunday was for church. You didn’t work on Sunday. You didn’t play on Sunday. Sunday was a day for contemplation, worship and rest. As a child I went to Sunday school and church and I was quiet. There was no going to the movies, no baseball, no working. This was the period of 1935-1945. The pressure of necessity impinged upon us. There was a war going on. We had victory gardens. Therefore Dad worked on Sunday after church. Gradually Sunday became secularized. There were chores, socializing, movies, sports, studying and homework.

I went off to college. None of my nine roommates went to church on Sunday. At Yale, our dorm was diagonally across the quadrangle from Battelle Chapel, the university church.

I realized that Yale was a secular university devoted to rationalism and science. There was no real exposure to religion, which a large chunk of life. So I decided I would go to church on Sunday. So for four years I went to Battelle Chapel and sat in the balcony. I heard all the great preachers and theologians. I took notes on the sermons of H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Billy Graham, etc.

But better yet – I heard the Battelle Chapel Choir: thirty male voices and a superb pipe organ. Glorious music that sixty years later still sends chills down my spine.

I learned that it was important to be theo-centric, not ego-centric; and that the path to theo-centric  is Christo-centric. Great thinkers and philosophical theologians thought about and talked about life and where meaning is to be found.

During the week I was under huge pressure from my academic workload. So at 5 p.m. I would step into Dwight Chapel, which was in Dwight Hall and right next to my dorm, and sit for twenty minutes. That meditation and contemplation got me through an incredibly strenuous academic life.

My solitary religious life was for the most part unnoticed. But one of my roommates announced in his junior year that he could not remain agnostic and an atheist. He had to have meaning and love in his life. He became Roman Catholic, eventually a priest and served at Madonna House in Canada.

I also had a letter when I was in seminary from an undergraduate classmate, who said that he remembered that I always went to church on Sunday and later to seminary. Should he do the same? I wrote a lengthy reply said, “yes”. He went on to become the chaplain at MIT.

So, I guess there was witnessing.

When I came back to Connecticut from working seven years on a PhD at the University of Chicago, and took over the family personnel agency, the stress and pressure led me to seek a place where I could meditate. St. John’s was locked. St. Andrew’s was open. So every noon for twenty years I would come to St. Andrews and sit and pray. It got me through the death of Faye’s parents, Faye’s sister, Faye’s nephew, and the death of both my parents. The ups and downs of being an entrepreneur for twenty years were over whelming. Coming to St. Andrews kept me going and saved my life. Eventually at the suggestion of Fr. DeWolf, I re-entered the ordination process and became ordained in 1990.

I believe in the importance of a church being in the midst of a university land of the importance of a church as a sanctuary, where people can not only heard the Gospel, but also meditate on and contemplate the meaning of life as found in God’s actions in Jesus and in the presence of Christ in the liturgy of the Mass.

“The Sabbath is made for man/not man for the Sabbath.” The rules and regulations, forms and liturgy are meant to help you and me find and know God in Christ through our aesthetic sense, our emotional sense, our reason and through service with and to others.

The Gospel passage today underlines that God in Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and of the Church.

You and I find and experience the love of God in Jesus and through the life of the Church. Through contemplation, meditation, prayer and liturgy the Church enables us to so believe on and find the love and presence of God in Christ, that we can have a sense of meaning in life as well as meaningful lives.

That is so terribly important in this secular city and in this time of chaos and conflict in the world.

Today, listen to the prayers of the Mass. Let them warm your heart, challenge your life and stimulate your thinking.

Then, “Go forth in the name of Christ.” Alleluia. Alleluia. Thanks be to God. Amen.





Man(kind)’s Best Friend

Man(kind)’s Best Friend

Jn. 15:9-17

          One Monday night I was in my study trying to figure out what to do with today’s Gospel lesson about love. Ben, my 75-pound black Labrador Retriever, came in and climbed up in my lap. He proceeded to wash my face thoroughly. Every fold and crinkle was explored front and back. Ben took particular care with my ears, nibbling away any extra skin. I didn’t interrupt him, because I was curious as to how long he wanted to do this. After an interminable period, he pronounced me “finished” and curled up beside me and went to sleep with his head in my lap. There can be no doubt that Ben loves me, and I Ben. As my vet pointed out recently, there is often a very strong bonding between companion animals and their owners. Meaning, purpose, and affection are often derived from this bonding. While Ben’s bonding may be prompted by visions of an extra dog biscuit, our relationship is one of creaturely love.

          There are other kinds of love. Mystery, excitement, and adventure are associated with romantic love, which goes back in literature to the troubadours. Those who do not have a romantic bone in their body are brittle indeed. We are bombarded with images in the media of eros, or sexual love. Platonic love, which is the meeting of minds on a headier level of abstraction, is less familiar to most of us. Maybe it is limited to persons in white jackets working in controlled environments.

          Musing, I got out my trusty Thompson’s Chain Reference Bible and looked up references to love in the Old Testament. There were a handful in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc. In most cases, love had to do with the relationship between individuals, for example, Abraham and Sarah; Jacob and Isaac; etc. The prophet Hosea had a lot of references (his book is based on the image of a dysfunctional marriage). The Song of Solomon needed an R rating. I was surprised to see a long list of references to love in the Psalms. That should not have been surprising, for the Psalms are often songs of praise and thanksgiving, extolling the relationship between God and man. Throughout much of the Old Testament, the term hesed, meaning “steadfast loving-kindness,” is used to refer to God’s faithful relationship with Israel. The writers in the early Church knew about Platonic love, creaturely love, filial love, brotherly, and sexual love. For them, the most important is agape, self-giving loving kindness. This is the love of God, focused and mediated in Jesus, and which we are to emulate. By presenting and embodying this love, He has given us a priceless gift of forgiveness, sacrifice, and inspiration.

          To this thought, Ben snored his acceptance. Amen.




Easter 4



       One of my all time favorite movies came out years ago and starred Glenn Ford.  Ford was a fair to middling actor, who turned in an awful performance in the movie, “Carmen,” with Rita Hayworth, but later gave a nuanced performance in “Pocketful of Miracles,” with Bette Davis as “Apple Annie.”  In between he starred in the movie, “Sheepman.”  “Sheepman” was a somewhat droll take-off on the standard Western movie.  Instead of riding and roping, Ford was sauntering along with a drove of sheep.  Of course the cattlemen went bananas because of the invasion of the grass cropping sheep, and much of the plot was about a struggle for territories and boundaries.  In a sense Ford was “the good shepherd,” guiding and protecting his sheep as he led them into new territories.

        My colleague Leander Harding, the former rector of St. John’s, was a sometime sheepherder and was famous for his sermon on The Good Shepherd.  When I read the passage from John, in which Jesus is the Good Shepherd and his followers are compared to sheep, I immediately thought of Leander and his sermon.  But I then morphed into thinking about Glenn Ford and “Sheepman.”  I could picture the sheep in the movie, but not Leander’s sheep, for I have no graphic image of them.  To think of myself as a sheep is a little difficult for me, and only so much can be done with the image.  The connotations of needing care and protection, guidance and husbandry work well for me.  But if you and I are now the body of Christ, and if He dwells in us and he in Him, then you and I are also shepherds and have to deal with issues of boundaries, territories and difficult crises which involve those for whom we care or for whom we are given charge.

       Today I want to talk with you about being shepherded or cared for.  I want to explain how pastoral care is carried out in our parish (the subject of my sermon).  Later I will talk about how you can practice Christian caring in your lives.

       Historically, pastoral care has been defined as “shepherding,” Up until the 19th century the responsibility for pastoral care was primarily exercised by the ordained ministry.  Pastoral care was done by an ordained person, and it usually took the form of “the offices of the church.”  The underlying theological, moral and spiritual principles were those which derived from the sacraments.  In the traditional Roman Catholic Church there was a sacramental system, which was understood as the fundamental comprehensive expression of the church’s care.  It included confession, absolution, blessing, baptism, confirmation, marriage, ordination, burial, penance, contrition and penitential discipline.  This work was done primarily by the priest.  Anglican, Lutheran and Orthodox churches followed this pattern to some extent as well.

       Towards the end of the 19th century there arose a second school of thought, which saw pastoral care as “the cure of souls.”  The emphasis was upon the pastor’s personal involvement with a parishioner and the delineation of theological principles and ethics with the parishioner.  It was top down and deductive.  Think of this school as he school of sage advice.  (My Methodist minister grandfather practiced this approach to pastoral care.)

       A third school of thought developed during the first half of the 20th century.  It arose at the same time as Neo-orthodoxy and emphasized the mission and theology of the church.  At the same time it focused on the condition of man, existentialism and the insights of Freud and Jung.  Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr as well as Paul Tillich were the theologians behind this.  The emphasis was from the bottom up, inductive. Out of this there grew a focus on anthropology, sociology and soteriology,.  The Clinical Pastoral Care Movement was born as was process theology and situational ethics. (Notice that sage advice and the offices of the church are dropped.)

       In the second half of the 20th century emphasis in pastoral care shifted to the work of the whole church, laity as well as priests.  The theology of the laity movement flourished.  Clergy were seen as persons doing specialized work in only special instances.  Marin Luther’s priesthood of all believers of the 16th century was reformulated into everyman a priest and counselor.  Social concerns and social work were seen as impinging of the role of pastoral care.  For many, a social worker was the one who did real pastoral care.

       A fifth school of thought regarding pastoral care was the marriage between psychological therapeutics and Christian spirituality.  Partly as a result of the focus on the individual, of the school of sage advice, there arose an interest in doing Christian psychological counseling.  Seward Hiltner was a pioneer in this work, and Bill Matthews is a product of it. Because of he great emphasis upon spirituality, other religions are also examined as offering insights in the development and care of the soul.   

       So using our metaphor from Glenn Ford’s movie, a sheepman could wear the clothes of 1) a practitioner of the sacramental offices of the church, 2) a giver of sage advice, 3) an existential anthropologist, 4) a lay minister, or 5) a spiritual guru.

       Obviously, all five schools or classifications bleed over into one another.  There tends to be a progression from one to five, but is not absolute.  There were mystics throughout the life of the church.  Monks and deacons often did the social work.  A pious man was always seen as doing the work of God.  We have often turned to devout individuals for sage advice.  What we used to call, “being a good Christian” or “practicing Christian piety,” we now call having a lay ministry.

       Pastoral care is sacramental and worship oriented.  The clergy and the laity work together to help each individual within the parish move into a fuller worshipping relationship with God and into a more supportive relationship with  his/her neighbor.  We walk together on our individual faith pilgrimages.

       The pastoral (shepherding) role of the clergy is three fold:  a) it is sacramental.  We emphasize the offices of the Church.  The Eucharist is celebrated six days a week.  Thee is anointing for healing, plus funerals, baptisms and weddings.  We hear confession, give absolution and bless.  2) It is Scripture based.  We study and teach the scriptures and strive to proclaim clearly the Gospel.  3) It is spiritual.  We work hard to guide individuals and groups on the spiritual faith journeys.  This is done through prayer, instruction and reflective conversation.

       The pastoral role of the laity is also three fold.  1) Through the cultivation of a devout and holy life, laymen and women set an example for others.  2) Laymen and women support one another through building up the life of the body of the church by the use of their individual gifts and talents.  3.  Through study and prayer, lay men and women live out their baptismal covenants by walking with others and seeking to bring them more fully into the life of the Church.

       Metaphors can both amuse and enlighten.  You and I are sheepmen or sheep persons exploring new territories, pushing boundaries, caring for others.  But above all we are blessed and guided by Jesus Christ, who lifts us when we fall, carries us when we are weak, reclaims us when we are lost, and guides us in our uncertainties and faith pilgrimages.   In our separate and collective lives you and I know Christ through one another, hearing the Word and receiving the sacraments and offices of the Church.

  For now, this fourth Sunday in Easter, let us rejoice that “The Lord is our shepherd.  We shall not want.”  Amen – Fr. Gage