Father Mark, Sermons

It’s Sorting Out Time

Pentecost Last; Mt 25:31 ff; 11/23/20

We all go through times of sorting things out—what do we keep and what do we get rid of?   Jesus’ story is about sorting out—sorting out sheep from the goats.  How can one tell the difference? 

Goats and sheep in Jesus’ time grazed together.  Both are needed for the resources they provide—hair from goats and wool from sheep while both provide milk and cheese. 

When it came time for feeding, the sheep would be separated into a sheep fold while the goats would be sent into a field.   The sheep would be fed fine grass while the goats would continue to graze off the land.  Sheep are the ones that were given real food.

Back in that time, breeding wasn’t a science like it is now and the distinction between sheep and goats weren’t as visibly apparent.  Sorting sheep from goats is discerned by their behavior.   So let’s look at the difference. 

Sorting goats:  I learned what I know about goats from the late John Farqueson from Junction who sorted me out on goats.   As I drove up the dirt road to his ranch I saw a goat standing on top of the cab of his pickup—not good for the paint job, I thought.  John was in the goat pen with several goats around him.  I saw a goat ease up on the side of John.  The goat then stepped out in front of him and a moment later he turned 180 degrees and rammed right into him, almost knocking him over.  Goats are spontaneous, impulsive and unpredictable.

Sorting out sheep—they tend to clump together—but will stray off from the others.   Sheep are nearly blind so they can eat their way apart from the flock becoming lost.  Sheep use the master’s voice as a homing device to find their way to become found again. 

Sorting out sheep from goats can be witnessed in how the shepherd works them. 

Shepherds lead sheep from alongside them.  One usually sees goat herders chasing the impulsive wandering goats.

We all have goat and sheep within us.   How can we sort out the difference? 

The sheep part of us is oriented and balanced coming from our hearing and following the master’s voice.   This is the key difference.  Sheep listen to their master’s voice.  The goat side of us listens to our own voice and thus become more self-referencing, impulsive and reactive.

So our question is, which voice brings harmony and life—the master’s or my own?  Can we sort out which voice we’re hearing?   What voice or voices do I hear me?  Do I experience harmony or discord?   Can we hear the voice of Jesus moving through us? 

Sometimes it’s difficult to see the Christ in others.   Sometimes it’s easy to find the weakness in others rather than the beauty such as in the hungry, sick and the prisoner.  We’re all prisoners of something you know.

One of the greatest challenges for the Church is to know the One Voice who reveals our soul.  Only then can we see the Christ in others instead of focusing on their unpleasantries. 

This large wafer is called the priest’s host.  In a few minutes we’ll prayer for Christ to become present for us in the breaking of the bread.   Christ is our host for himself.  By receiving Christ, the host, we become hosts for the living Christ ourselves.  As living hosts for Christ, Jesus comes through us to touch all that cross our paths during the week.  To become and remain hosts for Christ, we like sheep must receive the Master’s Voice so that it his voice and not ours that comes through us. 

We are living hosts for the living Christ.  By being carried by Christ we carry Christ to others.   Be who you are—the hosts of Christ.

Amen.

Father Mark, Sermons

Servanthood is joy–most of the time.

Proper 28A Pentecost 24 11/15/20      

Jesus’ message seeps into places we least expect.

I remember my sophomore year in summer football practice.  We were the bait for the varsity players to practice on.   One of my most dreaded drills was when the linebackers would practice their reaction time and tackling—on us.  

There were four tires laid down in a line about a yard apart.  The two senior linebackers, both larger and stronger than myself, were on one side and I was on the other—alone—no one in front of me blocking.  Coach Morrill would give me the ball and whisper in my ear in which gap between the tires to run.  

After a couple of runs where I was obliterated and then peeled off the ground, I had the wind knocked out of me.   When it was my turn to run the ball again, I hesitated and didn’t run toward them as fast.  After they flattened me again, the coach picked me up, stuck his face into my face guard, his eyes glaring red, the chewing tobacco oozing out of his mouth and he began to scream at me for not giving my best effort when I ran into them.   I made an excuse as I gasped for breath and before I could finish, he laid into me again telling me what a baby I was.   That hurt as much as the two linebackers grinding me into the ground. 

He yelled that the linebackers needed a real situation in practice to prepare them for the game.   At that moment, I crawled out of my cave of self-preservation and grew up a lot. The coach had revealed my victim consciousness and cowardice.  

I realized that I had value and that it was important for me to give everything I had in me to help the varsity prepare—even when it hurt.   

Translating this to the parable of the talents, I learned that even though God loved me, there was more to it than this.  We have the choice of a lifetime to open our hearts to merge with God’s presence.    The spiritual life is forged through faith, endurance and challenges, forged by hammer and heat.  

Servanthood is a way of life to which we are not accustomed. 

Used to our autonomy, we do not easily fit in a subordinate role, often equating being subordinate with a lack of self-worth or value. 

Servants back in that Jesus’ day time were actually guardians of the master’s estate and family.  The servant who did not invest himself in the work his master gave him to do made excuses, falsely blaming the master for exploiting him when it was his responsibility as a servant to invest his talents in some way, even if it were only to go invest them for a little interest.  

The Master didn’t buy into the servant’s blame game and victim consciousness that the slothful servant was playing.

The story never ponders the question of why the servant was slothful.  Perhaps he was fearful?  Ever been afraid to invest yourself in something?  Fear keeps us from receiving the love of the master and loving him in return.

In the Middle East, if the servants do not do their allotted tasks, they are not mollycoddled, they are released.  This is similar to if you have a fruit tree in your yard that doesn’t produce, sooner or later do you decide to cut it down.  

Jesus speaks of preparation and investing ourselves in him.  We walk with Jesus over the threshold as one.  

Being a servant of God is like being lost in his presence.  We’re not really lost—but so absorbed in the presence and what the Spirit is doing through us that we often lose track of what we are doing because we enter the timelessness of his presence. 

The master invites the servants to “enter the joy of your master.”  There is joy in co-creating with God.

Being in the presence of God, immersed in his Divine Rhythm,  is a foretaste of eternal life where we co-create with God on earth, sharing Divine Joy.  We often lose track of time because in those moments we are living in eternity—the place of true joy.

Get lost in God to be found—and to find yourself in joy. 

Father Mark, Reflections

The Cup

What have you been carrying around lately in your life?   A Hebrew metaphor for what we carry is cup, as in “What is in your cup?”  The life we’re experiencing is our cup.  Isaiah taught Israel that they drank from the cup of desolation having followed evil ways.  At a wedding, the couple and family share in the cup of joy. Sometimes I think someone’s switched cups with me when I think, “that can’t be my cup,” meaning I don’t much like or want it. 

The cup is the life that we’re living—much of the time the life we have chosen.  Sometimes a cup we haven’t asked for is handed to us. 

Jesus used the word to ask his disciples, “are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” meaning will you be able to follow me and the way I have taught and to endure whatever comes which would be similar to the sufferings of Jesus.

There is a cup of sorrow and a cup of joy.   We would often prefer to skip the cup of sorrow.  We often do not like the cup we are given for what’s in it can be bitter as in sour wine.   Jesus felt the same way we do on that evening in Gethsemane when he prayed, “Father let this cup pass from me.”   Henri Nouwen wrote that Jesus’ prayer helped him work through his resistance to drink from the depths of his spiritual bond with Abba.   It wasn’t that Jesus summed up the willpower, found determination or the hero within.  “Thy will be done,” came from a deep spiritual communion with Abba from which Jesus was able to say, “yes.” Note that “an angel appeared to give him strength.” (Luke 22:43).   

When suffering, often we are only able to see the suffering because it narrows our vision that there is an Abba underlying all and who is the ultimate foundation on which we stand.   The grace helps us to go through our cross—our suffering and transcend it.   I have heard it said that “the only way out is through.”  It is so easy to be tempted by counterfeit ways.   Grapes have to be crushed to make wine—the wine that we will become, says Nouwen.   There is a lot of sin in the world.  To touch the sin with God’s love means that we will sometimes feel its effects.

So suffering and joy are intertwined.  This isn’t logical to the human mind but can only be experienced and understood by the spirit whom God carries through the center of it all into another example of the resurrection.

Lift your cup and say yes to the unique life that God gave only to you.  You have a part to play in his design.  Ask God to help you drink your cup of life to the dregs for in your cup you will also be drinking of his cup. 

Peace,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Sermons

Preparation

Proper 27A Pentecost 23 Matthew 25; 11/8/20

When I was younger, I felt confused because this parable of the wise and foolish maidens seems to convey a theme of rejection and I wondered how Jesus could reject anyone when we were taught that he loves everyone unconditionally.  Understanding the background for the parable helps us to understand that Jesus wasn’t rejecting anyone. 

Five of the ten maidens were invited but did not prepare their lamps. 

Middle East weddings were planned in the late fall or winter, after the crops had been harvested.  This meant less daylight in the evenings and since streetlights hadn’t been invented yet, it was exceedingly dark outside. 

People were dependent on either candles or lamps not only for light on the inside of the house but to travel outside.  Lamps were fueled either by butter or olive oil.  If your family didn’t process its own butter or olive oil, it would have to be purchased in shops that were open limited hours. 

Weddings would be held in the evenings between dusk to midnight depending on when the wedding party was ready and were sometimes a week long.  

One would have to arrive early enough to be invited into the home with lamps as space was limited.   

Arriving early enough to enter didn’t mean the wedding started on time.  “On time” meant whenever the bride, groom and all the arrangements were ready.  

One might arrive at 5:00 p.m. and wait outside until the wedding started near midnight.  If one didn’t bring enough oil for their lamps, they’d run out before the wedding even started.   Not only would they struggle to find their way to the door in the dark but it was a requirement that each guest would bring lamps to light the home as light represented happiness.  If you look at pictures of churches in the Middle East at Easter, this is why you’ll see hundreds of lit candles bundled together all over the sanctuary. 

Jesus is teaching us that the spiritual life involves preparation.  This doesn’t mean that we have to work our way into heaven.  Preparation means we allow heaven to work its way into us.   Preparation is our work of opening up our heart, mind and will to make room for Jesus.  The five were not ready to enter because they did not prepare and had no light to offer.  

One reason Jesus told parables was because they made a point about the spiritual life.  But the parable doesn’t give easy answers as they often leave us with more questions.  In our age of street lamps and flash lights, it may be difficult to realize this parable working in our own life.  

I am left with questions:

What kind of preparation is Jesus talking about for us? 

What are our lamps today?   What are we to bring to the wedding feast?

If the maidens were to bring oil and lamps, what are we to bring? 

And how do we prepare? 

Last week we reflected on the Beatitudes:  the qualities of a Spirt led light filled life.  Maybe the Beatitudes are a good place to begin.  How do we prepare to receive the One who will fill us with his presence without measure?

Father Mark, Reflections

I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours

I remember sharing secrets with my inner circle of friends growing up.  At that young age, telling one’s secrets was a nervous endeavor as we had sworn not to tell another soul.  Cross my heart and hope to die and stick a needle in my eye was our oath of anonymity.  But what if someone broke the oath and told another?   The vulnerability was intense. 

What I’ve found after decades in the church that for the most part, few of us tell our experiences of how God has touched our lives.  It’s like we’re sworn to secrecy and that we might be laughed at or some other vulnerable way face rejection if we tell our story of how God has impacted our lives. 

I never ask anyone to do what I won’t do myself.  So I thought I’d ask the question to all of us:  How do you recall your first meetings or experiences of Jesus?  Since I don’t ask others to do something that I won’t do myself, I’ll offer two of mine. 

The first experience is vivid in my memory while I am surprised that I remember back to the time when I was between two to three years old.  My mother and father sat in church in the back row on the Epistle (right) side of the congregation (children were at the risk of making noise).  At age two, the distance to the altar seemed to be endless, looking at two individuals at the altar dressed in black and white robes (surplice and cassock) moving objects while talking, having no idea of what they were saying.  Everyone else was wrapped in silence.  Something was happening up there but I couldn’t tell what it was.  But I felt it—whatever it was.  A mysterious presence was happening.  I felt it Sunday after Sunday—and the feeling got bigger as the Sundays passed.  The mystery held me in its grip with a sense of awe and wonder. 

The mystery continued even when we moved across town to a 19th Century brick Church building when I was three.  By late elementary school I would sit in the balcony—perhaps the old servants seating area and had the supreme picture of looking down at the altar with no obstructions being able to witness the whole event which I had learned was called “Holy Communion.”   I communed when I wasn’t old enough to receive communion. 

I was held by a presence I could not even describe much less name.  The presence still remains today and as the bread is broken, it’s like all of heaven breaks loose around us.  Still, there are no words to be found but a presence to be received and remembered. 

A second experience of meeting Jesus was during a large children’s chapel in the gym on Palm Sunday when I was in the upper grades of elementary school.  There must have been fifty or more of us crammed into the gym.  I remember Lew Thomas, the children’s lay reader that everyone loved, had a whole cart of small potted plants.  He was telling a story of Jesus at the time of Palm Sunday and he spoke of Good Friday when all of a sudden he took one of the plants and literally mashed it down flat with one of his hands when he said that Jesus was killed—crucified.   I wasn’t expecting that at all.  The room went “uhhh” and then fell silent.  Then he gave the crushed plant to one of the children to bring back to life.  The rest of us received our own potted plant.   I didn’t have the heart to crush mine. 

This was my first image of Christ’s suffering and death.  We always talked about the resurrection but somehow the suffering and dying part we never got around to until then.  The words of Gabriel to Mary later described what I was feeling at that moment in his words: A sword shall pierce your heart also (Luke 2).  That’s what I felt and I’ve never forgotten it.   Somehow, Jesus is present in the suffering. Even when I’d rather run away from the suffering, Jesus doesn’t.  This has given me strength all the way up to today. 

So I’ve told you two of my childhood stories of meeting Jesus.   What’s yours?   

Tell someone.  You never know who Jesus will bless through your story. 

Peace,

Fr. Mark