Father Mark, News, Reflections

Asking the Right Question

I was 29 when my first daughter, Erin, was born.  In my third year of ordained ministry I was beginning to slowly emerge from the condition of being “wet behind the ears.”   When we brought her home from the hospital, my wife put her into my arms, this beautiful mystery of being, and I looked at her with a sense of awe and wonder and said to myself: “Now, what do I do?” 

Sure, I learned to mix the formula, change the diapers and all the tasks that could be what I call, “measured” by following the directions.  But these matters were not what my question was addressing. 

There was a human being inside that little body and even more so, a soul.  How was I supposed to interact, connect, guide, support, love, allow the correct amount of autonomy, maintain boundaries and somehow father the child of God in my arms and who would be soon running around me revealing how little I knew the mystery of life that was living within her.  It wasn’t always about having the right answers, because people aren’t objects that respond to a general pattern of how things should be.  They respond uniquely out of their own sense of mystery contained within.   How could I help her find the God who created her, who lived within her while at the same time I was still learning (and am still learning now) how to remain connected to the One whose Peace passes all understanding?

There’s a danger in being a human being when we think we know the “answers” when we haven’t even known how to ask the right questions.   Our past becomes the conditioning of our present and future if we aren’t careful enough to gaze deeper and listen to the still small Voice that touches our soul more than our mind influences our thinking.  If we lose presence of mind and reduce God to a thought or set of rules, missing out on the omnipotence of Being who desires to immerse his Spirit within our own, who is already living within us and is waiting to emerge, then our lives can become a hollow shell without our even knowing it as we become lost in the details of the day. 

This is why worship, particularly the Eucharist, and a personal prayer life, specifically for me, contemplative prayer, is so necessary.  Anthony de Mello S.J. said that the most difficult part of the spiritual life is waking up and remaining awake to the presence of God in us, in our midst and in others.   Without this way of marking time, of maintaining contact, we go from awake to what is known now as a form of “woke” which can take many forms, none of which are worth living because woke isn’t life at all.

St. Benedict, nourished in Eucharist, the Daily Offices and in silence in the midst of a community of believers realized this and wrote the sacred truth: “Every day, we begin again.”   It brings me back to Erin as a babe in my arms, which was truly a new day begun again and leaves me asking still, “What do I do now?” 

May we all ask this question day after day because the idea of today being like the “same old, same old” of yesterday is simply a delusion.  It’s not the same at all. If we think so, we’re asleep again. 

By asking the question, “What do I do now?” means that I won’t see you today as I did yesterday, going by the past history of stereotypes that my conditioned mind acquires over time.  After all, God could have acted in you your life and if I don’t ask the question, I’ll never see it and we both will be the poorer for it.  Every time we observe God acting in another person’s life, God gets bigger.  It’s not that God gets bigger, but that our cataracts fall off. 

One of the saddest experiences I go through as a priest is to hear people talk of others, of their idiosyncrasies, weaknesses and faults without looking for the God and good who lives within them—for the beauty that does live within them if we just wake up long enough to look.   The result?  We screen out people. Then conflict emerges in the congregation between neighbors, in town, county, state and country. 

God knows I have my faults.  I struggle with organization sometimes, can forget things, be self-preoccupied with other “to do’s” so that I don’t hear what others are telling me and there are times when I need more time to make decisions because I’m in a spot where there are about a half dozen choices and the clarity just hasn’t reached the space between my ears yet.   These are the parts of life that defy an easy answer that Dear Abby could give you. Discernment is a lifelong practice of patience, listening and waiting.  It’s called being Spirit led and praying that the decisions we make on a day to day basis don’t come from our own perception but God’s Wisdom. 

Erin is now 40.  When I look at her, sometimes the question still comes from within:  “Now, what do I do?”  If I don’t ask the question, I am projecting who I think she is on her rather that look for the person that God created her to be within her—as she is this day.  Forgive me for the times that I forgot to ask.  

Peace,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Sermons

The Changelessness of God

Proper 25A Pentecost 21; Matt 22:32 ff; 10/25/20

At clergy conference we often share ecclesiastical humor.  Last week, one priest joked that we were in the 32nd Sunday of Covidtide.  Welcome to the 33rd Sunday of Covidtide.  In this season of Covidtide, how many changes can you recall experiencing?  

There’s an old saying that the only constant is change.  But there is an exception.  

I am reminded of my favorite prayer in Compline.  I’d like to pray it with you right now, even though the prayer is written for evening: 

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Eternal Changelessness of God.  The love of God doesn’t change even when we up to our necks in alligators trying to find the plug to pull to drain the swamp. 

The Eternal Changelessness of God.  There is the eternal still, small voice of God that has circled the universe before its creation, now encircling us. 

The Eternal Changelessness of God.  The eternal still small voice of God, hums the love of God to us like a mother hums to her child in her arms. 

When is the last time we felt like we were being held in the arms of God—hearing the hum of the Divine still small Voice—the same voice of Jesus that calmed the storm?  

The Eternal Changelessness of God.  As storms of various kinds rage around us—are we not in need of the Divine still small voice stilling the hurricane force winds that storm within us?  

Jesus sought the solitude of the wilderness so that he could meet his temptations—the storms within to discover the Eternal Changelessness of God.  

When the storms around us calm while we still experience hurricane force winds on the inside, we are still chained within. 

This is why the Great Commandment begins with loving God.  In truth we are responding to the love of God—to the presence of the hum of the still small Voice God has implanted in us.  The still small voice calls out to us from within beckoning us to release our hearts to him. 

Receiving the love of God and loving God in return is the core of loving our neighbor.  The attempt to love others without being grounded in the love of God is dehumanizing. 

The Eternal Changelessness of God.  God has placed his heart within us merging with the heart of God is our greatest longing, whether we are aware of this or not.

The Eternal Changelessness of God.  Go to your heart right now—listen for the still small voice who longs for you. 

Discover your greatest longing of all. 

Entwine with the Eternal Changelessness of God. 

The Father and you are one.

Father Mark, Sermons

Choose Life by Practicing Stewardship

Proper 24A; Pentecost 20, Matt. 23 October 18, 2020

For all of you out there who own cattle, how would you like to pay an added $100 tax per head on each of your cows?  For those who don’t, how many would like to pay the tax on your dog or cat?  I’ll get to this in a minute. 

Meanwhile, the Pharisees were desperate to get a political argument going with Jesus, trying to find a way to trap and get rid of him.  So they tried trapping him with one of our favorite subjects: taxes. 

Judah was a part of the Roman New World Order when it was conquered in 63 BC.  Rome allowed the Jews a puppet government subservient to the oversight of a Roman governor.  Roman citizens paid property taxes.  Others, like Judah that were called protectionaries were taxed by what is known as a head tax. 

Jews were resistant to a head tax to Caesar called a tribute.  

Not only did Judah resent being invaded by Rome and having to pay a tax for a government they didn’t want, but that the Roman tribute coin minted in Rome, bore the head of Caesar.  Since Caesar was worshipped as a god, the Jews believed that this was idolatry against God—violating the Ten Commandments by making an offering to a graven image.  Head taxes were also paid on sheep and cattle.  How would all of you who have animals like to pay additional taxes on each of your animals?  

It’s time to trap Jesus.  Is it lawful according to the Torah to pay the head tax?   If Jesus answers:  Yes means idolatry against the Ten Commandments and is unpatriotic.  By answering no means Jesus is guilty of sedition to the Roman authorities. 

Jesus transcends the polarization in his statement:  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”   In the latter half of the statement of giving the things to God that are God’s, Jesus teaches about stewardship. 

What are the things that are God’s?  

Let’s reverse the question—what doesn’t belong to God?  Living like everything belongs to God aligns us with the Father’s will.  Jesus is reiterating the Word given to Moses in Deuteronomy 30 when he says, “choose life, that both you and your seed may live: That you may love the LORD your God, and obey his voice…for he [is] your life…”    Choose life, says Moses.

Choosing life is stewardship. 

I’ve read that the average person makes 35,000 choices per day.  We’re rarely aware of how many choices we really make.  Most are based on our past history of conditioning and are done on automatic pilot. 

The Hebrew word for life is both singular and plural, meaning the temporal life we live on earth is coupled with the eternal life we can begin living now.  By choosing life we choose both life in the now and life forever as they are intertwined, not separated.

I wonder, what would it be like to be able to reflect on each choice we make prayerfully, asking God to help us choose life in each instant?   Would our lives change for the better?  Choosing life means our daily choices are in alignment with the Spirt of God’s order of creation, creating harmony in ourselves, others and in creation. 

By choosing life, our choices also have a cumulative affect increasing life exponentially within and in our environment.  Choosing life is stewardship—a spiritual practice in all that we do with all that we are and all that we have received. 

Choosing life—the practice of stewardship—is the place where joy is to be found.

Father Mark, Sermons

Preparation

Gardening, digging ground with a shovel.

Prop23A; Matthew 22:1-1410/11/20

I imagine that there have been times when you accepted an invitation only to at the time of the event, wished you could just stay home, get a beer out of the fridge and watch the game—or perhaps just find a good book and curl up in your easy chair and read. 

Invitations require preparation.  We have to shower to get the garden we were working in off of us and to put on a change of clothes.   Sometimes we’re not always clear as to the dress code and wonder what we should wear.  Sometimes we end up going to the event when we don’t always feel like it and many times at the end we’re glad we did.   

I recall my younger years when I didn’t want to go to Church but was glad I did after I went.   Sometimes the pull to not make the effort can be pretty strong.  

Jesus is meddling again, confronting the religious authorities.   He tells a story about a king who sends out two rounds of invitations only to be refused.  

The religious authorities knew only too well that he was talking about them and their ancestors who were beaten by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. 

The king’s next round of invitations were going to the people on the streets and shops—the very people the religious authorities didn’t mix with.  The king’s palace was filled, except this one fellow didn’t wear a wedding garment.  he term is misleading because a wedding garment was simply a clean set of clothes. 

Many only owned the clothes they had on their back.   It was customary to borrow second clean garment from a friend or relative to wear.   The problem was, it wasn’t easy to find a place to change as many families lived under one roof. 

So this fellow just did not bother to make the proper preparation to get cleaned up before going to the wedding.  He was later caught and thrown out. 

It may seem to us that the king could have cut the fellow some slack.  But this is our projection which misses the point of the story. 

Jesus is telling them and us that going to the banquet isn’t the same as getting a get out of jail free card.   To enter the kingdom of God, one must make the preparation to cleanse oneself of those things that impair our relationship with the king.  

Practicing the spiritual life with God—known as Divine Union, practicing forgiveness—seeking it and offering it, showing mercy and the like requires time, effort and practice in order to make the king’s presence a part of our life. 

There was a survey done years ago asking a large number of Episcopalians what their prayer life consisted of.   Well over half did not have one.  

Jesus is inviting us into the heart of God.  Every one of us has been invited.  What can we do to prepare?

Father Mark, Sermons

How Do We Know How to Live with Others?

Proper 22A; Pentecost 18; Exodus 2010/4/20

How do we live with one another? 

The people of Israel, having been slaves for generations, were under the law of their masters the Egyptians.  Once freed from their masters, how would they live?  What would be the central organizing source that would guide their lives and guide their interactions with one another?

The Ten Commandments cover a lot of interpersonal territory, setting boundaries for what maintains the integrity between members of a society.  Originally known as the Ten Words, the commandments cover a lot of territory as Spirit within them can be expanded to cover most everything as Jesus would later sum them up as “Loving your neighbor as yourself.”

The Commandments are in two groups: defining a community of individuals in relationship with their Creator and deliverer and defining relationships with one another.  The commandments are bound in divine will and revelation—not human wisdom, which means they remain eternally valid and unaffected by temporal considerations. Let’s take a look at them. 

One: Having no other gods but God, means that there are no other people, places or things that subvert our primary loyalty to God.   We make hundreds of choices in a week.  What criteria or authority do we use to make our decisions?  We are often tempted to want things or situations more than we do God, and thus they can become gods to us.

Two:  You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or likeness of an object to which you bow down or serve them. 

How easy it is to become attached to objects, as the golden calf story—where we spend more time and energy on the object that we do with God. 

Three:  You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God. 

Swearing means to take God’s name upon the lips; falsely can be perjury in a court, or an agreement.  Swearing can also mean using God’s Name frivolously without respect. 

My father taught me this at a young age after a using the Lord’s name in vain.  He asked me if I would like it if he went around saying Mark dammit, all the time.  It hurt—like a knife wound cutting deep within me.  I got the message for I was cut to the heart. 

Four:  Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.  

The day of rest, on which God rested is meant for us.  I remember when I was younger and the stores were closed on Sundays.  We spent the afternoons hanging out with the family or visiting, resting and playing. 

After the stores opened on Sundays, people stopped relating to each other and started doing things instead like going to the mall.  The mall replaced the home and family time evaporated.   Rest turned into activity devolving into restlessness. 

Our culture knows how to do but not yow to rest—so we lose out from the stillness of God in our souls because we give God no time to recuperate.  Resting in God who is the place of true rest. 

Five:  Honoring our fathers and mothers involves respect so as to protect the integrity of the family for the sake of the stability of society.  Honoring parents also means to develop into persons who contribute something positive to the world.     

Six:  Do no murder.   Life belongs to God.  Murder which infringes on God’s sovereignty of creation, is illegal killing that is against the law which does not include war and self-defense.   Jesus expands murder into more subtle terms as words and actions that can destroy the spirit and life of another.

Seven:  Committing adultery is theft of a marital relationship.  It was so serious that the victim had no ability to pardon the offender.  The commandment can be expanded to neglecting one’s spouse giving priority to other people or activity.

Eight:  Stealing covers a realm of subjects from theft to kidnapping.   Property rights were a part of life as an Israelite. 

Nine:  Bearing false witness, or lying, is addressed in a judicial setting for witnesses did not swear by taking an oath. 

False evidence violates the petitioner and defendant, the judicial process, public trust in the whole judicial system and the stability of society.  False witnesses in that day would receive the same punishment as the guilty individual.  Lying is a sign of spiritual alienation. The fear of being shamed for being in the wrong and the consequences of it is greater than one’s desire to be honest and real. 

Ten:  Coveting focuses on the objects of one’s desires, which creates the craving to possess them. 

Coveting reveals a lack of spiritual contentment, envy for what possessions and abilities others may possess.  Comparing oneself with another is a form of coveting.

Of course, the Ten Commandments are laws.  Laws are one thing.  Having the will to follow them is another matter.

The Hebrews prayed to have the Commandments written on their hearts, so that they would be given the grace to follow them.

It’s when the people forget to pray to have the Commandments and God in the center of their hearts that the commandments are minimized and forgotten.

The consequences of drifting from God and the Commandments are evident not only in scripture but in our present day. 

Write all your laws in our hearts we beseech you O Lord.