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November 30, 2016

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December 2016
Susan S. Phillips

Jesus said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it?It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”~Luke 13:18-19

   The parable of the mustard seed evokes thanksgiving and a sense of advent. What was small and humble has grown and is useful! Even so, it remains a humble plant that people might not notice among the cultivated plants of the garden. Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is like this.

   Jesus’ followers recounted this short parable in the three synoptic gospels. One mentions a garden (Luke) and another, a field (Matthew). Mark writes that the seed became the greatest of all vegetables, while Matthew and Luke write of a tree. In one account the seed is sown (Matthew), while in another it’s simply tossed into the garden (Luke). All three enable Jesus to tell us—millennia later—about a small mustard seed that became a dwelling place for birds.

   Jesus’ parables are condensed, metaphorical stories that enable the heavenly to be viewed through the lens of the earthly, captivating our imagination and schooling our character. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that when sown in the earth grows to shelter living creatures. Imagine that! How then shall we live?

   Parables tell the truth in such a slanted way that they provoke, disturb, challenge, illuminate, fortify, and teach. Like a dazzling sun the parable sheds light, offers orientation, and anchors us with gravity. Jesus tells us that the small seed becomes a home. Do you register that dazzling, orienting, anchoring truth?

   Jesus tells truth and also is the Truth which dazzles. Jesus speaks metaphors and is one, too: “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). In his parables the natural world becomes witness to the spiritual world. What is the mustard seed’s testimony?

   Mustard is hardy, ancient, and no respecter of borders. It germinates with abandon, without cultivation, wherever it’s sown. People throughout time and around the world have benefited from it as food, spice, and medicine. This humble, reliable herb is neither delicate nor gorgeous, sprouting with little more care than that provided by sunshine and rain. Mustard sprouts and spreads exuberantly!

   In the third millennium after Jesus told this story, situated in the Global North which so wholly embraced Christianity for centuries, many people are wondering about the Kingdom’s mustard in our neighborhood today. Note that Jesus identifies a process: sowing, growing, and sheltering. He doesn’t describe pearly gates or a pristine garden. His story is about a seed bursting forth from its shell, spilling life force into the earth, and bursting upwards in wood, leaf and flower. He points to the energy of grace, not fixities of doctrine and structure.

   Grace flows from the one who takes the seed of life in hand and scatters it on the earth; through the development and flourishing of the plant; to the harboring of the nesting birds (who themselves participate in the flow of generative life). Do we trust that this grace is flowing in our time and place? Do we recognize it?

   Mustard plants are sometimes accused of being weeds. The name has been applied to a toxic gas in which the plant plays no part. Maybe Jesus is not only saying that the Kingdom is fertile and generative, but is also telling us that the Kingdom is alive and well, even though overlooked. We’re invited to participate in God’s grace; not manufacture or control it.

  For nearly forty years at New College Berkeley people have sown spiritual mustard seeds, tiny capsules of life-changing grace. We hear from people who were part of NCB in different decades, with different teachers. More than what they learned in books or lectures, they tell us how their souls were nourished. In one person’s words: My walk with God has been deepened and expanded, and I have learned and grown in ways I never expected.

   Mustard seeds are sown. We at New College Berkeley are grateful to be part of God’s grace as it dazzles and spreads, orients and anchors, feeds and prunes. To God be the glory.

Posted on November 30, 2016 at 12:22 PM

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October 31, 2016

November 2016
Margaret M. Horwitz


   Shortly after relocating to the Bay Area fourteen years ago, I came across a New College Berkeley flyer at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley. One of the upcoming events listed there was a meeting for "independent scholars." I attended it, and when Susan Phillips asked those of us present for a description of our interests, I mentioned that I had conducted extensive research on Jane Austen.Susan suggested that I give a seminar on the subject—a great encouragement for me, as I had not known when, or even if, I would be able to bring my work to light.

   As NCB's 40th anniversary approaches, I recall that invitation which eventually led to my becoming a member of the NCB faculty. I have been given many opportunities over the years to teach on a variety of subjects: the Christian significance of novels by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, C. S. Lewis, and Charlotte Brontë, along with their film and television adaptations, as well as films about people of great courage, including Holocaust rescuers and Mother Teresa.

   Along with serving as a faculty member of NCB, I have also had the role of student many times over the years. One of the first of such occasions was in 2002 when I attended the 25th anniversary celebration and heard edifying talks by John Stott (through a video recorded specifically for that event) and Eugene Peterson. Since that time I have taken part in other conferences, celebratory events, annual talks, and classes conducted by NCB faculty members. For example, at the NCB Reel Faith film conference in 2005, I was a student as well as a speaker and organizer, along with Sharon Gallagher and Keith Criss.

   Another privilege was taking part in a book signing for Susan Phillips's pioneering work on spiritual direction, Candlelight. I also participated in last year's celebration of her most recent book, The Cultivated Life. At this event, Susan's accomplishments were acknowledged by members of the GTU community and by others.

   Some events, held annually, have become part of the rhythm of my life. Susan's Lenten and Advent retreats have for many years given attendees an opportunity to hear wise words and to experience time for reflection. Each year I also anticipate attending the all-day class taught the Rev. Earl Palmer. He often teaches on a book of the Bible, sharing from his deep knowledge of Scripture and his many years of experience as a preacher. At his engaging talks on C. S. Lewis, I have gained new insights into the life and work of one of my favorite writers and apologists.

   Other courses and seminars that have contributed a great deal to my understanding of spiritual principles and their application over the years include Sharon Gallagher's courses on women in ministry, Celtic spirituality, and on writing one's journey; Bonnie Howe's on Biblical exegesis; Walt Hearn's on science and faith; Virginia Hearn's on journal writing; and, Chris Corwin's on the Psalms.

   I look forward to continuing my involvement with NCB. All of the opportunities that I have been given to teach and write since moving to the Bay Area have come from my initial connection with NCB and, in very great part, from the continuing encouragement I receive from its members. At this time I want to express my deep gratitude for NCB's forty years of being a light in our community, an institution whose influence reaches far beyond it to a world in need of the illumination of knowledge and ministry in the context of faith.

[L]et your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16 (NIV)


Margaret M. Horwitz, Ph.D., has a doctorate in Film and Television Studies from UCLA and is a Visiting Professor of Christianity and Literature for New College Berkeley.

Posted on October 31, 2016 at 10:57 PM

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