Father Mark, Sermons

Tests

The author facing his test of his fear of heights

Proper 8C; Pentecost 5; Genesis 22; 6/28/2020

How many of you have never ever experienced test anxiety?   Life is full of tests from the time we learn to walk,

maintaining our balance, learning how to tie our shoes; learning not to sneak the cookies from the cookie jar,

school tests, achievement tests, tests to certify licenses and certifications for our vocations.

Remember your driver’s test?   Athletic and musician tests of skill and endurance.

Then there are those tests we experience in relationships which involve a dual focus.   We are tested in being a means of grace for living with other’s faults while at the same time attempting to reduce the number of our own faults so that the relationship can grow. 

We are in the midst of numerous tests to our lives such as how we face the COVID pandemic.

So when people ask me does God test people, the first thing that comes to mind that is that life itself is a series of tests or if you’d rather, challenges.   Forks in the road are a common occurrence.  Every choice we make is in some way a test.   Tests are a part of our spiritual, mental and social development.

Our choices in response to life’s tests questions come from the authority on which we choose to base our lives. 

The authority we choose determines the guidance we receive and values inherent in that authority by which we make our decisions.  The God or gods that we choose determine our response to the tests we take in life. 

There are courses in test taking—how to take tests—that I have attended.  Sometimes it can be helpful to learn how others take tests.  The story of Abraham is one example.

Abraham discerns God’s calling him in a dream to walk a three day journey to a land called Moriah, which 1000 years later would be the location of Jerusalem and the Temple.  He hears the words, take your son.  The words in Hebrew do not indicate a command but more of an appeal to sacrifice Isaac.  This request gives Abraham a choice without the fear of guilt for not doing so.  This must have been mind boggling and agonizing for him. 

Abraham left and lost his home and extended family in Haran for the promise of a new land and extended family and nation that would become as numerous as the stars. Sacrificing Isaac, would nullify everything that God had promised.   It didn’t make any sense.  Since guilt had been removed from the equation, Abraham faced a free choice to walk away or sacrifice Isaac.  Abraham’s response indicated the depth of his faith.  The angel’s intervention, and the provision of a ram indicates God’s distaste for child sacrifice which was a common practice during those times.  

The story may also reveal how difficult discernment can be.  Understanding God’s movement in our lives can be difficult to ascertain.  Cultural influences can contaminate our receptivity.  In Abraham’s case, child sacrifice was not uncommon in those times.  Could the child sacrifice in the culture have influenced Abraham’s dream?

God’s loving corrective nature adjusts our vision and behavior as we move along.    Discerning unexpected changes in direction is not out of the ordinary.  Often times when God calls us to move we aren’t given the total blueprint in how everything fits together and how the finished product will look. 

Following the trail for the Holy Grail takes time—the Grail meaning Christ himself.  The Grail is the vessel that contains the presence of God.  We are now that vessel.   

The three days in the story did not represent a specific 72 hours but signified a long period of time.  

How difficult it is for us to take “three days” to sit in prayer and to listen for the voice of God moving in us and to move out in the direction we are being led?  

I believe we’re in a similar situation to Abraham in that we are being tested during this COVID pandemic.

Our “three days” are faced with the limitations it places on us and how we are to respond to those limitations. 

How do these limitations, and the impact they have on us, affect our physical, mental and spiritual lives?  

What message might an angel of the Lord bring to us in the midst of all this as the virus drags on and on and on and on?   As the psalmist (137) said, “how do we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” when the people of Israel had been exiled to a different country. 

Our “exile” is of a different nature.    Where in our lives do we experience a sense of exile?    Where do we experience a sense of exile within? 

We as Abraham can respond to God, by saying, “Here I am.”  We’re in this situation we really don’t like. 

What path do you want us to take in our minds, hearts, and spirits?   Help us to listen.  Help us to hear.  Help us to follow. 

Amen.

Father Mark, Sermons

Do Not Fear….

Proper 7C; Pentecost 4; Matthew 10:24-39.

I have a question for you.  How do you publish news quickly?  Tell the person to whom you speak, “Don’t tell anyone.”   Word will be around town in a couple hours. 

Luling isn’t much different than Galilee in getting the word out, except for how we do it.  Back then, houses were small and extra room was found by using the flat roof.  People would congregate on roofs and hold conversations to neighbors on roofs adjacent to them. 

I wonder if residents hid by laying down on the roof when the Roman soldiers came to town.  There was probably as much or more fear back then than we experience now, some for similar situations.

What is Jesus’ response?  Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 

A little confused perhaps? 

There is a lot of fear in the world right now.  There are many and different kinds of fear some of them healthy, some of them not.  Fear is hard wired into us as a means of self-preservation.   Fear awakens us to discern and follow a wise course of action. 

During our present situation, most of us have taken great precautions to sequester ourselves from others.   I take it that it is healthy fear that I’ve never wanted to be a pastor in a snake handling church.  But there are times when fear moves beyond self-preservation to inhibit our ability to live.   For example, the fear of failure inhibits people from trying; fear of being hurt, keeps us from reaching out; fear of being alone can reveal a fear of abandonment.  Fear of dying can come from the fear of non-being. 

Jesus speaks of fear—fearing as the disciples what others might do to us if we live out or share our faith.   Jesus is explicit not to fear those who can kill our body, but only the one who can destroy both the soul and the body.   This can be confusing.  Who or what can kill the soul? 

Jesus is explicit for us not to fear death of the body as the body is not who we are. 

The body is only an outward expression.  Jesus teaches us that we don’t have a soul, because who is it that has the soul?  

Jesus teaches us that we are souls.   The Kingdom of God is His present reality within us.  Any teaching that holds that human beings are separate from God places our soul in hell. Separation from God is the essence of hell.

Hell refers in this instance to mental and spiritual suffering, inner torment. 

God does not create hell.  We do.  False teachings can distort our mind, compromise our actions and create a draught in our souls where there is no living water—leaving us truly dead on the inside. 

This is what Jesus teaches to be fearful of—not crippling fear, but awareness of evil forces and false teachings that deny or distort that God and we are one.

I was never made so aware of this soul death as when I did prison ministry. 

There’s a term used in prisons called, “dead eyes.”  Dead eyes is when you look in a person’s eyes and there’s a vacancy, an emptiness, or a crazed look.  Dead eyes is when you cannot find the soul of another because it’s been sealed away in some way.  The severity of this goes far beyond mental illness.  Chronic lawless behavior reveals that the life that was once in the person has in some way disappeared.   Wisdom as a source of guidance and action are replaced by compulsion or impulsive reactivity creating more hell.  Instead of a lake of still water resonating within there are either churning, stormy gales or a dry hole. 

Hell is a place we create when we have lost the presence of God in the present moment.   Metaphorically, this is the Gehenna or hell of which Jesus spoke of the trash dump southwest of Jerusalem when useless items were taken and burned as trash because there was no more useful life within them.

Confessing Jesus means to allow the Spirit of Jesus to live through us—realizing we are One.  Jesus realizes that the world is afraid of Divine Love and will resist it, placing fealty in other things such as wealth, power, government, possessions and other false idols.  By living the truth in love in word and deed, others will sometimes react to us, as if we were transgressing against them. 

The Peace of God is to be embodied before we can be used to be a source of the Spirit’s peace to be implanted in others. 

The peace of God is an inner harmony that sustains us when there is conflict in the world.  At times like these, we must allow God to take us deeper into himself and his peace—a peace that the stock market, politics and other things of this world cannot give, even though the world promises a paradise that only turns out to be counterfeit.

We lose things because we are forgetful and cannot recall where we put them.

Jesus is telling us that we will lose things—people and places too as we continue to make choices about what we regard as ultimate in our lives.  

A question to ask ourselves is:  “What is it that we fear losing most?   Jesus taught us that what we are to fear most is the loss of our soul.  

Fear not.  God has a hold of us and he will never let us go.  Be still and feel the heartbeat of God within your own.

Amen.

Father Mark, Sermons

How to Pray

Pentecost 3; June 14, 2020            

I’ve been asked in our parish survey to reflect about “How to Pray.”  One sermon will only allow me to present an “appetizer” about prayer.

The purpose of prayer is to realize and experience our Sacred Unity in being One with God.  There is no distance between God and us.  Prayer in its various forms helps us to realize our Sacred Unity.  To think that God is far away is actually an illusion as we are the ones who for whatever reason have created the feelings of distance.

The Psalms are full of examples of prayer, both liturgically formed and organized to be said by the community and personal expressions of the heart and mind.  

Corporate prayer found in resources such as our prayer book, help us to pray by shaping the mind and heart to pray in line with God’s nature and will.   Else prayer could be attached to self-will run riot, such as in the words of the song, “O Lord, why don’t you buy me a color TV, or a Mercedes Benz and so on, imagining God to be a celestial bell hop who waits on our every whim. 

The psalms also offer examples of the spontaneous sharing of ones thoughts and feelings with God, emptying ourselves to God and then after fully emptied, listening in wait to receive the Presence of God in whatever form it may come.  

Another brief prayer I often use when suddenly faced with an unexpected situation or when feeling overwhelmed, is simply saying “Help!” “Help!” can be the most heartfelt and genuine prayer we can make. 

I like the Road to Emmaus story when Cleopas and his friend are simply emptying their minds and hearts to Jesus spontaneously as they walked with him.  It was only following their conversation when they sat in silence with Jesus as he broke bread with them, did they realize who he was and receive his presence.   Sometimes we need to talk or write out our internal state of affairs as a preface to pray while the silence that follows is really where prayer and the bonding as One begins. 

Jesus also gave us the Lord’s Prayer.   The Lord’s Prayer is both a prayer in itself but also reveals the dynamics of prayer—its substance and its movement.  The Lord’s Prayer reveals the Mystical Union into which we are invited into our all-embracing God for there is nowhere that God is not.  

Mystical Union, impossible to define, as the outcome of prayer was described by St. Hildegard nine centuries ago as breathing in and breathing out the one breath of the universe.  Our minds, unable to comprehend both what prayer is and who God is, must drop into the heart to meet God who lives within us.

The drawback to the Lord’s Prayer is that we have memorized it.  This might sound confusing.  Having memorized it, we too easily slip into automatic pilot, tending to increase our pace as we go along, and losing the depth and heart contact of each phrase with the Spirit who lives under the words.  

This is why I suggest, when praying the Lord’s Prayer, of saying each phrase, then pausing for an inbreath and outbreath before inhaling again and voicing the next phrase on the outbreath.  Give yourselves a chance to sink into the prayer and God to sink more deeply into us.   I will address the Lord’s Prayer in its dynamic Aramaic roots and way of praying it another time. 

Another prayer, taught beautifully in a brief text by our beloved late Bishop, Bob Hibbs, An Altar in Your Heart, leads us in the Jesus Prayer:  Lord Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, based in the story of the Publican and the repentant tax collector in Luke 18.  Our generation struggles with this word, “sinner,” due to a misunderstanding the word as a way of shaming us and harming our self-esteem.  Unfortunately the word, “sinner,” is misunderstood.  God isn’t shaming us.  We do this to ourselves and others. Sin is simply the fact that we’re disconnected from God, we’re in a mess and that we need help to become centered again in our Sacred Unity.

Contemplative Prayer is a prayer of allowing ourselves to merge with God’s presence after allowing the distractions in our mind and heart to be released. As we descend into the Presence of God we slowly are carried into his transcendent Being, thereby transcending the limitations of the mind and its conflicts because we find our true home in the heart of God. 

In the Heart of God we begin to hear or feel the Spirit’s movement in us.  Like Jesus says when he’s giving his mission orders to the disciples, “Do not worry what you are to say for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  Contemplative prayer is learning to listen until God speaks through us. 

For a brief description, we begin by choosing a sacred word from scripture that resonates with you.  The sacred word, (I often use the Aramaic, schlama, for peace, you could use “peace” as a sacred word) is to be repeated on the outbreath after you have found a quiet space and a place to sit with a posture that is comfortable but not so relaxed that you cannot focus. 

It may help you to relax by scanning your body for tense places and then, tensing and releasing any areas which might be tight.  Closing one’s eyes or leaving them relaxed so that they rest open, without visual distractions with your focus on a spot between your eyebrows. 

As you continue to breathe in and exhale the sacred word, you might find unexpected visitors in the form of random thoughts.  Some people keep a pad and pen next to them so they can put the thought on paper to deal with later, others are able to refocus on the sacred word. 

Cynthia Borgeault’s directive (The Heart of Centering Prayer) on dealing with random thoughts disturbing our silence can be summed up in what she calls The Four R’s:  Resist no thought.  Retain no thought.  React to no thought.  Return focus to the sacred word.  Whatever we resist we become attached to, blocking our ability to be still. 

After a while you might discover yourself in moments of silence where you have forgotten to say your sacred word.   This is normal as the sacred word is only to be used as a tool to take you into the silence of God.   When in the silence of God you won’t need it.

Prayer manifests itself in many ways to discover our sacred unity with our Creator.  Prayer is a practice of allowing God to find his home more deeply in us.  

I am always available for coaching on developing a prayer life. 

Blessings as you practice our most important purpose of falling into the hands of a Loving God. (Hebrews 10)

Amen 

Father Mark, Sermons

Trinity Sunday

There was once a well-known ship maker who decided to make an elegant ship. 

He constructed the blue prints and then made lavish plans to decorate the ship with beautiful furniture and furnishings, ornate deck flooring, wall paper, chandeliers and curtains.  He had fine paintings decorating the walls.  

Finally, the day came for the ship to be launched with a festive occasion and the ship went out on its first run out of the harbor and into the sea.  What wasn’t public knowledge is that the ship builder spent the majority of his expenses above the water line.  The unseen keel underneath the water was not deep enough and lacked reinforcement. 

On its first run, the ship ran into the storm and the inferior keel did not hold the ship steady enough in the stormy waves and it sank.  The ship builder learned that a ship’s life was dependent on the construction below the water level.  Had the ship builder transferred some of his expenses to the keel below the water line, the ship would still be afloat.   Superficiality doesn’t float. 

Welcome to Trinity Sunday:  the three fold approach to daily living.   The Creator continues to create in us–below the waterline. Jesus continues to redeem, forgive and heal below the waterline: reaching our structural issues within us.  The Spirit, acting as a rudder guides and with Divine Energy empowers us to be vessels the Spirit’s presence in our daily lives.  

Matthew, tells us just before Jesus’ ascension, some were still doubting what Jesus was telling them.   Well, who doesn’t doubt?   Who hasn’t doubted that God might act in ways we cannot know?  How many of us doubt the goodness that God has created in us?   How many of us doubt that God can use us as a messenger of his Spirit?  Who hasn’t doubted that God not only loves but delights in us?    Doubt is just another step into sacred unity with God. 

I remember going to the San Antonio Zoo when our children were young.  As most children they wanted pony rides.  Our youngest, Ashley was about 3 when I put her on the pony’s back for her first ride, holding her closely. 

All of a sudden, the pony jolted and Ashley went out from my hands off the side of the horse onto the ground. 

Fear began to grip me when something within me moved me to pick her up. 

I said a few soothing words as she was wondering whether she should cry or not.

Within 5 seconds I had her back on the pony and we continued, and Ashley settled down.  What I learned from this is that when we attach to doubt, we give it power by doing so. 

As a metaphor for doubt, we all fall off our horses.  When you fall off your horse, don’t think.  Our thoughts can never reach to God.  God already knows our thoughts and God is already in our midst.  This is why the action of revelation exists:  God initiates.  We respond.  

Just get back on the horse.  Faith is getting back on the horse and trusting that God will restore our spiritual balance.   

I learned a new meaning for Baptism that I want to pass on to you.  In the Aramaic which Jesus spoke, the word, baptize, means to stand up, to stand firm, like a pillar. 

It’s very interesting to notice how wobbly the disciples were when Jesus left and how strong they stood and bold they were when his Spirit filled them on Pentecost.  

We’re living in the season of the Trinity.   God continues to create.  Jesus continues to forgive, restore and heal us while the Holy Spirit continues to guide and empower us to be a container through which others can drink the presence of God.  Have you ever pondered about being a container for the Spirit of God?  We don’t have to be the drink. This is God’s job.  We just need to be the container.  The Trinity is about building our foundation under the water. 

Not to get two hokey, but it’s like the old laundry detergent commercials that advertised to clean three ways.   The Trinity works to create, forgive and make us vessels of Life for others.  

We might doubt him at times.  It’s not that we doubt.  It’s what we do with the doubt. 

Tell it to God and get right back up on your horse.   

The Holy Spirit intends to leak his Spirit out of you all over the place.  God is creating order out of chaos.  May God bless the chaos right out of you.

Peace.

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Sermons

The Second Pentecost

Pentecost 2020; Acts 2; May 31, 2020

What song has the Spirit placed in your heart?

When is the last time something unexpected happened to you?   When is the last time you experienced God’s unexpected movement in your life? 

One of many themes running through scripture is:  “Expect the unexpected.”  Being human beings, we prefer having a sense of order, knowing ahead of time what’s coming so that we can place it within the rhythm of our daily life.  As a young priest, I was taught by my superiors about the importance of communication—that “no one likes surprises” in order to prevent the unexpected.  They continued their teaching with the saying, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.”  But God and life do not always work that way.  Another message throughout scripture is “things aren’t the way you thought they were.”  Expect the unexpected.

Understanding the historical background of the first Pentecost is key to understanding the second Pentecost.  The Feast of Pentecost originated in the five books of Moses (Old Testament) as an offering of first fruits, decreed for Israel on Mount Sinai.  

One of seven overall Jewish feasts, Pentecost was one of three pilgrimage harvest feasts to Jerusalem, held 50 days after the Passover.  Throughout Jewish history, it has been customary to engage in an all-night study of the Torah on the first evening of Shavuot where offerings of wheat would be brought to the temple.

During this feast of Pentecost, something new, very strange and unexpected was about to happen.    The disciples were gathered in Jerusalem with the diverse numbers of people from far off lands.  Galilee was part of the former northern kingdom of the ten tribes that had been conquered some three centuries earlier— forcing the northern Jews out of the country and bringing in Assyrians, Chaldeans and other races so that the population would be so diverse, lacking cohesiveness, that they would be easy for the conquering kingdom to control.  Differing Semitic cultures are clannish and dominated by their religions, customs, language and other marks of their ethnicity.  Isaiah called this conglomeration of cultures in the former Northern Kingdom, “Gentiles,” meaning, “foreigners.” 

People only give up their culture when forced to by ethnic cleansing exercised by other oppressive cultures or governments which often involves war.  Rome required their approval of leaders of the Jewish nation which included their religious leaders who understood the fine print, “don’t make waves.” The dominated country would be allowed to maintain much of their culture as they were taxed into poverty.   

There could have been more than 12 different languages spoken in Jerusalem during the Feast of Pentecost.   Galilean farmers, fishermen and shepherds might learn two or three of these languages.   Imagine, being in a crowd of thousands with at least 12 different languages and cultures with differing customs and norms of behavior.  How would you manage without a tour guide?   The present Palestinian and Israeli situation is less complex than the situation in which the disciples found themselves.

These were the circumstances in which the disciples found themselves—until the Wind came. 

Wind, fire and speech—the traditional symbols of Divine Presence—were about to erupt. 

Unexpectedly, the disciples found themselves in a mysterious way, full of ecstasy and speaking in the various languages of those present at the Jewish Pentecost Feast.  And of course, the people around them, didn’t know how to take in this unexpected event, some saying that the disciples were drunk at that early hour of (;)) a.m. in the morning.

Then Peter gets up and tells the Greatest Story Ever Told, and the rest is history.  Three thousand people “heard” and felt something that they had never had before—enough to seek Baptism and a new way of being—a new way of life. 

Three thousand people, moved, transformed, and united by a Power that did not force them to relinquish their culture.  It has been said that God is the only Power in the Universe that can make two people one without destroying the integrity of each.  No games, no manipulation, no force, no trickery, no politics.  Simply the Presence of the Creator now joining them as one. 

This is why I have found it fun to go into Mexico and Guatemala without knowing much Spanish, and to celebrate the Eucharist with people I have never met nor understand.  

God holds us together, differences and all, and neither group attempts to change the other, only offering what we know to the other when they desire it.   Of course, missionary work through history hasn’t always been spiritually sound, often attempting to change others instead of joining with them, causing more harm than good in some cases

Since most of us haven’t been out of the country on a mission trip what does this story from Acts have to say to us? 

The immediate mission field for the disciples was in their own back yard, so to speak.  Ours is also.  There are at least three thousand people out there who are different than we are, who mostly speak English, who have yet to hear the clear message of what God the Creator will have the Holy Spirit place in their hearts.  I am wondering where these three thousand people are. 

The disciples first reached out to those three thousand people who were in their midst before moving on to far off lands.   I am sure we pass three thousand people within a year’s time.  I wonder who those three thousand people are among us. 

Can we ask for the same Spirit that filled Peter and the others?  Can we listen to the same Spirit to direct us to reach others so that we might offer a few of them the Presence of their Creator Spirit who longs to know them in a new and deeper way?   

Will we accept this invitation?  How can we receive the gift without also receiving the purpose of the gift?  Can we find creative ways during this COVID mess to reach people to receive the same Spirit that we desire for ourselves? 

We have it so much easier than the disciples did.  Up to this point, we remain a culture that allows freedom for those to follow God in the way the Spirit leads us.  We speak a common language or two.  Our cultural differences are minimal in comparison. 

Pentecost is the birth-day of the Church.  The day we were given birth—new birth. 

As Meister Eckhart experienced: “We are all meant to be mothers of God…for God is always needing to be born.”

Expect the unexpected.  There are three thousand people out there waiting to be born. 

Find one of them.

Amen.