Father Mark, Sermons

What we can learn from Joseph

Proper 13A; Pentecost 9; Genesis 32:22-31 8/2/20             

I remember my friends and I watching Big Time Wrestling on TV when we were young.  We thought it was hilarious.  We would cheer for our favorites, Dick the Bruiser, Bobo Brazil and Flying Fred Curry to whup the tar out of their opponents. 

Jacob’s wrestling with the angel was of a differing nature.  

Recalling the ancient belief that a human being could not see God face to face and live, Jacob is wrestling with the angel, not to overcome the angel but to remain in intimacy with the angel so the angel could help Jacob overcome his spiritual faults as a blessing.

It’s odd to use the term, struggle, to describe intimacy with God.  Intimacy is something we human beings do struggle with.   A part of us can be terrified to allow God to come this close and the struggle is to remain open to the intimacy without cutting it off and withdrawing.   Intimacy, as the writer of Hebrews says, can be a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a loving God.   Intimacy often awakens pain before it brings peace because God’s love touches our wounded places to initiate healing. 

I remember the first time I fell off my bike and skinned my knee.  I ran to my mother and she put Merthiolate on the scrape.  I yelled in pain and she told me that the pain meant that the red liquid was destroying all the bad germs so that my knee would heal.    The next time I fell off my bike and skinned my elbow, I started to make tracts to see my mother but then I stopped for a moment remembering the pain of the cure.   It took me awhile before I acquiesced to the double bind of the fear of the pain and healing that it brought, seeking her out.

Jacob lived by his wits in order to negotiate life.  Living by our wits usually means that we are ego driven, planning our movements to benefit ourselves, sometimes not thinking of others around us.  Self-centered is a better term. 

Jacob took the opportunity of his dullard brother Esau to trade lunch for his birthright, which was legal at the time.  Jacob took advantage of his mother’s favoritism to escape from his angry brother instead of having a family meeting to sort things out.  

Now he was sending servants with an entourage of gifts one at a time, to attempt to soften up Esau so that he wouldn’t take revenge on him.   Manipulation of the other instead of a face to face relationship.

When Jacob came to wrestle with the angel, and ended up with a wounded hip joint causing him to limp, Jacob crossed not only over the river, but from being able to live by his wits.  Now being physically challenged, he could no longer run nor fight.  He was at a dead end and now was faced with learning to trust in the grace of God.                            

Where do we have difficulty trusting in God in our lives?  Are not we all like Jacob, wanting to live by our wits in some areas of our lives when we feel threatened instead of seeking spiritual guidance?               

Another point of this story reveals God’s love for us in the midst of our imperfections.  God meets us where we are and then begins his spiritual massage of all our sore spots, working out the kinks so that we are healthy and free.               

This is the first time in scripture that the term, “children of Israel,” is established.  By this, the author of Genesis does not mean solely the children of a country, but children of the transformed Jacob himself. 

We are the children of Israel—of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and so on to Jesus himself.   Our roots go all the way back and on our family tree, we all end up sharing the same roots.  We really are brothers and sisters.

We are on a learning curve.  There is a correlation between learning to remain in intimacy with God and our ability to maintaining our vulnerability with others.   The more we learn to live in intimacy with God, hanging in with the relationship while we ride through our fears and challenges, the more we will be able to live vulnerably with one another when times are difficult.

Else we live by our wits.  And we all know where that ends up.  It’s called conflict.  And there seems to be an abundance of that hanging around.

There’s a better way—hang on to the angel.  Hang on to one another.     

Father Mark, Sermons

Hot and Spicy

Proper 12 Pentecost 8 Matt 13:13 ff; 7/26/20

Mustard seeds are a lot like Texas botany.  They grow wild.  In the Middle East, most people consider mustard a weed.   The plant and seed are considered “hot.”  It is so hot to the taste that many Middle Easterners did not eat the plant because they believed it caused insanity.   They may be right.  After eating authentic Indian Curry, I spent most of an hour desperately trying to find a way to put the fire out in my mouth.  If you think Jalapenos are hot….  

Jesus uses irony to compare the tiniest of all seeds, so small that they cannot be easily seen, to be the most intensely hot, potent and powerful.   The mustard seed is so hot that wherever mustard seeds are planted other plants will not grow.  What does this image cultivate in you?    God is stronger and more real than any ideology.   There is no room for anything false around God.   A mustard seed multiplies from a millimeter seed to a three foot bush in a matter of weeks.  Mustard seeds spread. 

What would it be like to be so “hot” with God that no evil could grow close to you?  Imagine the heat of holy love permeating through you.  What would that be like?  Allow the Spirit to carry you for a moment with this image…. 

Jesus is showing us the mustard seed and that when that seed of faith is incarnated within us-planted within us,  evil slips off of us like fried eggs in a new Teflon pan.  No stick.  

Heaven and Leaven

Jesus reveals his sense of humor here which because of language and cultural differences we find it difficult to understand.  A woman takes a small bit of leaven and places it in 50 pounds (three measures) of flour. 

Notice Jesus’ exaggeration of the amount of flour to the comparison of a pinch of leaven or yeast.  Once the yeast is in the flour, you can no longer see it—nor see it working.  A little bit of God within each of us continues to ferment.  It’s the same with you beer makers—once you put in the yeast, you can no longer see it.  But over time, God is brewing in us. 

What I would like for you to do right now is take a few moments to come up with your own parable.   Begin with something like, The Love of God is like…, and then await for an image that represents your experience to come to mind.  

The image you receive most likely will be more deeply experienced than any words you can say—and the image will remain with you.  When you recall or see an image representing your parable, you will be deeply reminded of God’s presence. 

Buried Treasure                                                             

Notice that the treasure is hidden in a field.  The person who buys the field still has to search for it. 

How do we search for God?   The paradox here is that we search but we do not search.  When we awaken to the Kingdom of God, we realize that the search was not to find but to be awakened—because the distance was never there in the first place.  God has been in our midst all the time.  

What is the one pearl that we would sell everything we have to get? 

Everyone is living in the realm of God’s love but few realize this.  How do we realize the Kingdom? 

I’ll leave you to it to ponder all of this. 

Be still and know that the Lord is God.

Amen.

Father Mark, Sermons

What Do We Do With Evil?

Pentecost 7; Proper 11; Matthew 13; 7/19/20

A man who took great pride in his lawn found himself with a large group of dandelions.  He tried every method he knew to get rid of them. Still they plagued him.  Finally he wrote the Department of Agriculture.

He enumerated all the things he had tried and close his letter with the question: “What shall I do now?”  The reply came: “We suggest you learn to love them.”

The Aramaic word for tares is ziwanhe, meaning “to commit adultery.” 

Tares grow uncultivated, even when they are carefully separated from seeds of wheat before they are sown.  Some tares remain hidden in the soil from the last harvest and spring up and commingle with the young wheat shoots as they grow faster than the wheat.  Since the tendrils of the tares wind themselves around the roots of the wheat, they cannot be removed without pulling up the wheat with them.  They cannot be separated until the harvest. 

It takes years of hard labor for a farmer to eradicate tares from his wheat fields. 

This is only to be outdone when another farmer, holding a grudge might sow tares during the night in his neighbor’s field.   Generally, retaliation follows and the sowing of tares escalates.

Getting to the point of the story we can ask ourselves, “How can we get rid of evil?”    This is a much more complex question that we might think.   We can’t get rid of evil.   God can.  But if we try to do it, we end up killing what’s good while attempting to eradicate what’s bad.

Good and evil have always existed together.  It is difficult to separate them because when trying to remove the bad, the good will also suffer. 

Good and evil will continue to exist together until the end as tares and wheat exist together until they are separated at harvest.

The tares are separated from the wheat by placing both in a smooth wooden instrument where they are shaken.   Tares are then collected and burned. 

True discernment and proper judgment belongs to God.  There are both tares and wheat in the kingdom of God but only God can separate them. 

Evil, as destructive as it is, in the end destroys itself because it has no genuine foundation.   It’s like Jesus’ parable of a house being built on sand instead of a rock.

This raises another set of questions: What do we do about evil?    Are we talking about the evil in others?  Or the evil in ourselves?  

We don’t have the capability in removing evil from others.   Personal evil can only be wrestled with between God and the one who bears it.    This means that our focus is not on the darkness that might lurk in others but that we examine ourselves in the light of God’s healing love. 

The metaphor of being shaken in the ways the tares are shaken loose from the wheat, is actually what prayer is about.  Prayer is allowing God to engage us so that that the evil which destroys us and others within, is shaken loose from us. 

Prayer is much more productive than pointing fingers at others.   When people are busy pointing figures at each other they’re not looking at the log in their own eyes.  For us, instead of focusing on the love we’re not getting, we focus on the love we’re not giving.  

Only in God can the evil within us we be made whole.  When we experience the evil in others, sure it hurts.  But if we retaliate instead of seeking reconciliation, we’re no better than the farmers in the story who sneak around sowing tares in the fields of others.  And all we do when doing so is to sow more evil into the world ourselves.  Is this wisdom?

One of the beautiful privileges a priest has to be able to see the beauty of Christ in each of God’s children in the congregation served.  While witnessing your beauty, I also witness your woundedness and how it complicates and adds suffering to your lives.  

I am awed by your beauty and I pray for your wounds so that God might heal them.  Let us pray for the wounds of one another.  I also pray that each of us, including yours truly, participates in that healing process. 

I have witnessed some phenomenal healing of wounds and the separation of tares that God has wrought when persons have engaged with God for their transformation.  

The tares remain entangled in us while God waits for our invitation to sort them out.  Being shaken is part of the process.When I realize my own tares, I am more likely to understand and have compassion for others who have theirs. 

Our tares await the sorting out by the Holy Spirit.  We are both in the process of allowing the Sprit to work in us while remaining patient with our wounds and the wounds of others. 

Allowing ourselves to be loved by the Divine will be the fire that heals the pain of our wounds and transforms our tares into holy ashes.

Blessings.

Father Mark, Sermons

Seeds

Less soil
More soil

Matthew 13 7/12/20

Seeds are small but powerful.  Yet they are not self-sufficient.   They are dependent on their environment if they are to take root. Seeds thrive best in soil that is prepared for them.  

I tried some pole beans for the first time in our back yard and had plenty of leaves but no beans.  I roughed up the dirt, added a little topsoil, added fertilizer and watered them.   The only thing missing was the sun.  Our yard is blessed with shade from numerous trees but without enough direct sunlight to grow much of anything.  There are environments in which seeds do not grow. 

Jesus speaks of three of them: rocky soil, compacted earth and thorn infested. 

I am amazed when I go through the Rocky Mountains and will occasionally see a few Indian Paintbrush growing out of a bottle cap size of dirt collected in the rock.   But they do not grow as full and expansive as those that grow in locations with more dirt and less Rock.    You can see the difference in color intensity and size of an individual Indian paintbrush and one that had more soil surrounding it in the two images. 

Parables are intended to awaken the listener to hear a point of spiritual truth.   

Parables differ from allegories in that allegories are analyzed into parts, each part holding a symbol of meaning for the greater story.  It is easy to take a parable and slip into allegorizing it, which may or may not cause us to miss the point Jesus is trying to make. 

With so much information in this parable of the seed, it makes it more difficult to ascertain the poignant message truth Jesus is attempting to get across to us. 

Even the title of the parable is confusing, thinking that it is about a sower, because the words for seed and sower are near identical:  Zara for seed is the word used, not Zarua for sower.  

The parable is really about the seed not the clumsy sower who sows seed willy nilly all over the place, only getting some of the seed in the fertile soil.  So it’s not wrong to say, that we could learn from the story not to be like the sower and do a better job of planting the seed of life God gives us in places where it can grow.  Sowing seed properly is part of our spiritual stewardship. 

But this would be to allegorize the parable.

Is the parable pointing to Jesus giving us a reality check that not all seeds end up in good soil?  Three quarters of the seeds failed to bear fruit.  Is Jesus setting up the expectation that not every seed will grow?    Environment has influence over a person’s development.

Ok, so only some of the seeds will grow.  That seems to be borne out through historical evidence.  Not even all the green bean seeds I planted germinated.  

Was Jesus being apathetic here, saying, well, not everyone wakes up to the gospel, and that’s just the way it is, and then goes off and not care one way or another?  This doesn’t seem to fit as Jesus kept going teaching and healing. 

Is Jesus being indirect here, giving us a hint?  Is he saying that it important to create an environment where seeds can be planted and grow?  Several times in his parables Jesus follows with, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 

How do we prepare the soil of our environment to receive the seed?  Personally?  For our children, grandchildren and family?  In our community?  

Where in our lives has the soil given out or have the weeds of other priorities or values choked off the young plants?   What kind of soil do we need to grow our roots deep into God?   

Parables are for listening to.   When we hear Jesus speaking through [arab;es to us, what are we hearing?   Do we move on from the parable after we hear something, thinking, “Oh, I’ve got it. I know what it means?”   Or do we continue listening for the Spirit to rise again and again through the parable?   

Forgive the possible allegorizing of this parable, but one thing I can really identify with and I wonder if you can too is the soil.  I/we are the soil for the seed of the Divine.  God will plant himself in us but cannot prepare our inner soul to receive Him.  That’s our responsibility.    

During this COVID invasion, the stories that I am getting from many of you is that your soil feels depleted in some way.   We’ve spent four months adjusting to it hoping for deliverance of some sort but it appears we’re going to be dealing with this for a long time. We’ve all been trying various strategies to cope with the changes depending on how our lives have been affected. 

But the question remains, what do we do with our soil?  How do we get the rocks and thorns out with which we are faced?  How can we revive our inner soil that is spent?   Filling in the gaps with stop gap measures begins to break down because trying to find diversions simply obscures the boredom, parched meaning and sometimes even the flickering presence of God that used to burn more brightly than it does now.   

Listening for Divine Guidance saves us from the novelties and nostrums that keep us from reaching into the deep pain that many of us are experiencing.  

In the last two months, the Spirit has led me to make changes: to intersperse the Jesus Prayer into my day as well as become certified as a mediator to volunteer at our county mediation center.   I am also studying for a HAM radio license to volunteer as a part our county emergency communications and in case we have another hurricane at the coast, God forbid.   These new directions are not something to fill the time but plug into the Gospel’s imperative for ministry. 

Parables, like God, were meant to be heard, to be listened to, not something where we search for answers.   God is not an answer, but a Divine living Being. 

One of the risks of coming up with an answer to a parable is that when we think we hear it, we cut off listening to it for a greater yield of truth.   A parable is never figured out as it is still revealing more of God.

COVID has given us a lot of lemons.  How is the Spirit leading us to make lemonade? 

Father Mark, Sermons

Practicing Liberty

Independence Day; Matt. 5:42 ff. 7/5/20

From the rising of the sun to its setting my Name shall be great among the nations…. (Malachi 1)

I hope you have had a moment to thank God for your Liberty this weekend and for our ancestors who have sacrificed to maintain it.   I have found it interesting that the readings for Independence Day talk about a deeper Independence that comes from God.   With the way the world is sometimes, we need that deeper Independence.

The word, “love” used in the Hebrew and the Aramaic text from Matthew comes from the root word, meaning to warm, kindle, or set on fire.   Love has no sentimental or affectionate qualities but means being warm, kindly or amicable or well-disposed toward others.   This is the practice of peace and reconciliation. 

Love is intended to bring out the best in human beings.  When we love our enemies and pray for those who hate us, we release the most potent force in the universe that is hidden within every human being—the likeness of God’s presence, shining on all creation.   Love bonds without the use of force. 

Love is more than a lofty ideal, but is a practical presence and means to win over anyone opposing God’s counsel, love and sovereignty. 

In fact, the quote Jesus uses from the Old Testament was a mistaken interpretation of the time, added by the culture.  There’s nothing in the Mosaic Law that directs one to “hate one’s enemy,” in contrast to loving one’s neighbor. 

The reference to the word “hate” is from Leviticus instructing not to hate one’s brother in one’s heart.  Nowhere in the Old Testament does it instruct us to hate. 

As far as cursing, there’s been a lot less cursing since COVID-19 because sports teams haven’t been playing.   All humor aside, it was a custom to invoke evils, misfortunes and proclaim calamites upon someone who offended you—

you know, the kind of desire hidden within that yearns that the one who hurts you deserves a ten-fold amount of suffering for what was originally dished out to you—something along the line of the old curse, may the fleas of 1,000 camels infest your armpits.  

The real danger with cursing others is that the negative energy builds, distorting our divinely inspired reason so that we assume God is right alongside of us joining us in cursing the dirty rotten scum who hurt us.   Instead God is hoping that we invite him into our pain instead of intending to inflict it on the other, while at the same time praying that the other part wakes up and realizes their mistake.   

Yes God does pray for us—that’s the sun shining on us with the same warmth and kindness that is shown to everyone else.  It’s a mystery why some people realize this presence of Divine Kindness and others do not. 

Our mistake is to attempt to take the inventory of the other instead of attending to our own inner distress and learning to let it go and open ourselves to God’s kindness again.  The other problem with cursing or vengeance, is that we wish on another, we also wish on ourselves.  This is a spiritual law built into creation, akin to the Natural Law of Physics that every action yields an equal and opposite reaction. 

So how does this play out in real life?   I would hate to be a business owner or resident in Minneapolis or Seattle and have my business or home burnt to the ground or have my family members and myself assaulted.   I would hope that I could hear and feel God’s presence after the cacophony of all that hate being inflicted against me.   Being assaulted and having your living/working space destroyed by violence is a terrifying phenomenon.   Being shocked, terrified, and angry to the point of rage is a normal human reaction to violence received. 

What would we do with all that psychological carnage within ourselves?  

Not wanting to experience the pain of it all, it would be human instinct to react by attempting to give the suffering back to the other in either an equal or greater form—thinking that by doing so we’d be getting rid of it ourselves.  

The infantile nature of this reaction is that we think we can stop hurting by giving the pain back to the other—which further deepens our own.   

Forgiveness requires that we accept the pain of the hatred of others, without the act of returning the same.   Accepting suffering without hating drives us to our knees to make a space for God to reorient us from that which has terrorized us, to heal our fear, to replace our identity as “victim” to our original identity as “child of God,” and then to listen for the discernment of the Spirit.  

Forgiveness means no longer being tied to the person in that event.                                                      To experience oneself as being victimized (act) without identifying with being a victim requires a deep foundational spiritual identity built over time.

This doesn’t mean we cannot establish boundaries to protect those we love, including ourselves, or even to seek justice for ourselves—but that our boundaries are not established in hate but in the peace of God.

If others bring violence, we have the right and perhaps the  responsibility to

Defend ourselves from it.  We are not to repay evil for evil but may defend ourselves from evil.  But to do so without hate or vengeance. 

The whole goal is to maintain our Liberty in God—living as free beings created in the Image and Likeness of God.  Being one with God is the greatest freedom there is—and the foundation of the freedom we experience on earth as it is in heaven. 

God invites all of us to live in perfect freedom in himself.

Perfection is being whole and complete in God.  The ultimate Liberty.