Archive for the ‘Mark’ Category

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

August 31, 2015

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

James 1:17-27

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Collect of the Day Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

When I hear the story of Jesus’ hygiene critics, I think back to 1985. I was a new priest in the Diocese of California, serving as assistant rector to a stickler of a priest. The poor altar guild came in for his special attention. God forbid there should be a finger print on the chalice or a wrinkle in the altar cloth! One Sunday during worship he actually chastised a member of the altar guild from the pulpit. Why? He detected a faint lipstick stain on the purificator.

He had another characteristic. He had a few favorites in the congregation and the rest of the people he scarcely spoke to. What did it take to become a favorite? Wealth. He gave occasional dinner parties for those few, but the others would knock on the door of the rectory in vain.

Jesus was not saying in response to his challengers that washing hands, food, and cooking vessels was not important. It was; but those are externals, and God does not measure us by externals; God looks into our hearts. In other words, I could scrub my hands and food and vessels, and as I did so I could be planning a bank robbery; I could be working out the lie I would tell my spouse in order to see my lover. Religion would be very easy if washing is what religion consisted of. Jesus was simply saying that true religion (as the Collect puts it) is about inner scrubbing.

There is more to be said about what is inner. Let’s turn now to Jesus’ difficult words at the end of the reading. He speaks of what defiles us and lists “evil intentions”. It’s a daunting list, and I doubt any of us can say: none of that applies to me.

Here is one of our biggest challenges. On the one hand we know that what the Gospel calls “evil intentions” lie within us. On the other hand, as the reading from the Song of Solomon tells us, God calls us “my love, my fair one.” Hasn’t God noticed those evil intentions? Is it possible that God only sees what is external after all?

Some years ago I was on a one-week silent retreat. Not only was there to be no speaking, we were to keep our eyes lowered at all times — no eye contact, no awareness even of who we were passing. The silence and forced inactivity made it impossible to ignore what was going on in my mind. I heard such thoughts as this. How rude she is! How self-important he acts! How pushy. Look how much food he’s taking! I discovered a zoo full of ugly, judgmental thoughts! Is God calling that “my love, my fair one”?

How do we get past the contradiction? Are we God’s love, God’s fair one? Or are we full of “the rank growth of wickedness” as the letter of James says? It depends on who we mean by “I”. Yes, my mind was full of ugly, judgmental thoughts; but there was also the one who was noticing those thoughts and who was saddened by what she saw. That one who noticed, the witness, that is “I”.

I cannot disavow those ugly thoughts, but I do not need to define myself by them. “I” am not my “evil intentions,” though I do have them. “I” am the one who notices them and notices the pain they cause.

I also notice this: as long as I identify with “the rank growth of wickedness”, I am not free; my “evil intentions” hold me in thrall; I’ll be locked in mortal combat with them as long as I live.

Yet if I define myself as the one who notices, I am free. I can look at those thoughts, I can see what a source of unhappiness they are, and I can choose how to respond. I can choose self-contempt; or I can choose compassion; I can choose love; I can choose to see them as the products of ignorance, fear, self-doubt, and treat them as I would a toddler who is up to no good. In short, I can see myself as God does, as “my love, my fair one.”

Think of it this way. When God says, “Arise my love, my fair one, and come away,” God is calling us to come away from identifying with the rank growth of wickedness. It’s as if God is saying, You are not the “rank growth of wickedness.” It is there, but it is not you. You are the one who notices. You are the one who is free to choose how to respond. You are the one onto whom I have “grafted” my love. You are the one who lives eternally in the kingdom of God.

Is this denial? Like Holocaust denial, all those “evil intentions” never happened? No. It is simply self-clarification. If I act out my evil intentions I will suffer the consequences. No denial there. If I hurt other people I will feel pain and grief. No denial there. Self-clarification puts me into the only possible position from which I can deal with those “evil intentions” and make a change. Let me put it this way: the only effective weed-killer for that “rank growth of wickedness” is compassionate understanding on the part of the one who notices.

This is what true religion is about. I invite you to accept God’s invitation to, “Arise, my love my fair one, and come away.” This is a valid, tender form of prayer, just to spend time being the one who notices. Notice the “evil intentions,” the “rank growth of wickedness.” Surround them with your compassion as you would someone struggling under a needless burden. This is inner scrubbing and Jesus would approve.


MARK 9:2-9

February 16, 2015


2 Kings 2:1-12;  II Corinthians 4:3-6;  Mark 9:2-9

Suppose through some accident you got left behind.  You’ve been exploring the Carlsbad Caverns, part of a tour group.  Maybe you strayed off the path.  Maybe the guide didn’t do a head count; just started back up to the surface.  Suddenly you realize you are alone and the light has gone.  You’re afraid to move, afraid of becoming even more lost, afraid of falling or hitting your head.  You pat your pockets: no lighter, no matches, no flashlight, no iPhone or other device.

I’m trying to recreate the situation that challenged the early Jewish sages.  They weren’t thinking of caves, of course, but of the cosmos.  How did the first light arise?  Before suns or stars, and long before there was anything to burn, how did light begin?  With nothing to originate from, how did light originate?  They solved this mystery by embedding it in a larger mystery: “God said, ‘Let there be light.’”

No wonder the church dedicates a whole season of the year to the mystery of light.  Today is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany, and I propose to grope around with you in that mystery.

Here’s one possibility.  Perhaps the sages wrote Genesis as a metaphor.  The darkness they wondered about was not physical darkness, but the kind of darkness that prevails when we have no moral flashlight, when we really don’t know what steps will lead us to the kind of society where every member can feel safe and secure — where we can feel free to be ourselves, free to express ourselves, free to love.

This would be like being in a cave without a match.  In this moral cavern I’m picturing, any move could make things worse; any move is fraught with fear; because we are lost in the dark.  Where, then, would this moral light come from?  We cannot answer: from the Ten Commandments; from good civil laws; from the teachings of parents and schools.  Because remember, we are picturing a moral cavern where, like the cosmos before God created light, no source of moral guidance exists.  Commandments and precepts would be like matches, oil lamps, or flashlights.

So we are thrown back again on God.  Where, then, could this moral light originate?  Might God have said, “Let there be Wisdom”?  And out of God’s own being, as spontaneous as the light that fills the universe, would come Wisdom.  And, just as light does, wisdom would manifest itself in countless ways, — in laws, in proverbs, in moral precepts, in parables, and most succinctly in the Ten Commandments.

That should be the end of the story; because moral light does fill the universe; but if so, why are we beset by violence, injustice, poverty, and fear?  I often lie awake at night, feeling as if a tidal wave of moral darkness is descending over us — over our nation and the world.  Do the sages have an answer to this?  Something isn’t working, but what?

We need to follow the story further, this time to today’s reading about Elijah and Elisha.  As Elijah’s disciple, Elisha looked to Elijah for his moral light.  He observed how Elijah conducted himself, how he treated people, what he taught — in short, how Elijah lived.  He noted that Elijah had tremendous power.  I don’t mean political power.  Rather, think of that third grade experiment with iron filings, a sheet of paper and a magnet.  Until the magnet is applied to the underside of the paper, the iron filings are scattered around chaotically.  Once the magnet draws near, the filings form into beautiful, orderly patterns.  Elijah’s presence among people acted like the power of that magnet.

Elisha knew he did not have that power, but he wanted it.  Elijah had the moral light we are speaking of within himself.  Elisha did not; he needed Elijah the way we need precepts — what I’m calling a flashlight in a cavern.  Elijah knew he could not hand over that power to Elisha.  If Elisha wanted that power it would have to come from God and would spring up from within Elisha, himself.

Elisha’s chance was coming.  The test was this.  Elijah would be taken away in a burst of light.  Perhaps it was the same light that Moses experienced when he came into God’s presence — a light so searing that any impurities of the soul would be consumed.  So if Elisha had any ulterior motive in seeking Elijah’s power — for instance, personal aggrandizement — he would be forced to look away.  Only purity of heart could follow that searing process through to the end.

This, I suggest, is the sages’s answer to my question, which is:  If moral light does fill the universe, what isn’t working?  Why is our society beset by violence, illness, injustice, and fear?  The answer?   Because it makes a difference where the light is coming from.  Too many of us are dependent on Elijah, so to speak, and not enough of us have taken the step Elisha took.

Picture those ancient tombs of the Pharaohs.  Passageways led deep underground, turning one angle after another, until finally no light penetrated.  How did they get sunlight down to the interior?  Mirrors.  One slave stood at the entrance and reflected sunlight down the stairs.  Another stood at the first corner and reflected that light down to the next corner; and so on many times, until the light of the sun shone, however weakly, in the burial chamber.

In a similar way, we can ask, “How do you know this is right?”  Answer: “My friend told me.”  “How do you know your friend is right?”  “Her mother told her.”  “How do you know her mother is right?”  “Her priest told her.”  “How do we know the priest is right?”  He read it in the Bible.”  How do you know he interpreted the Bible correctly?”  In other words, the light of truth can grow dim if it reaches us at all..  We need more strong sources of light and fewer, weaker reflections.

This is another way of saying what Paul was writing to the people of Corinth in today’s Epistle.  Paul was another who had, so to speak, passed the test as Elisha did.  Paul confessed, “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”  In other words, Paul, too, had stood up to the searing light of God’s presence and allowed it to burn away any self-seeking.

He went on to explain, “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Among Jesus’ followers, some of us are like Elisha before Elijah was taken away, looking to someone, or some thing, outside of ourselves to provide the moral light we need.  All of us start out that way.  For Christians, that someone is Jesus, as mirrored through Scripture and the Church.  Some of us are like Elijah; we have the light within us.  As Christians we call it the light of Christ.

What can we do, supposing we, too, want that light within?  We, too, want that power of the magnet among iron filings?  One of my favorite hymns holds out the answer.  “Immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”  What is that light inaccessible wherein God hides?

Let’s go back to the Carlsbad Caverns.  Supposing you got left behind.  Supposing, instead of panicking, you relaxed.  You recognized that at last you were in a place of absolutely no external distractions.  Supposing, gradually, all the internal distractions — all the busy thinking and planning and worrying — subsided and settled, matching the stillness and peace of the surrounding cave.  Then supposing you opened yourself to God’s presence, opened your eyes to the light behind all light, opened your ears to the silence behind all sound; opened your heart to the love behind all love.

Lent begins this coming Wednesday.  Why not find a Carlsbad Cavern, so to speak, somewhere in your daily routine?  Why not make it a practice to enter once or twice a day.  What might happen?  We might find ourselves, in the words of today’s Collect, “beholding by faith the light of his countenance….”  We might find ourselves transfigured.  AMEN

Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

November 12, 2012

These readings were on my mind when Hurricane Sandy hit.  Often people see in a devastating event, such as Sandy, a punishment for sin.  “Why, among all the houses in my neighborhood, did a tree crush my house?  Why was I singled out?”  And then… this may follow: “God must be punishing me.”  Since the reading from Hebrews invites us to think about sin, I want to address this issue of sin and punishment. (more…)

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

September 23, 2012

“The quest of the human heart for meaning is the heartbeat of every religion.” This insight comes from a spiritual leader of our own day, David Steindl-Rast.  “The quest of the human heart for meaning is the heartbeat of every religion.”

The reading from James invites us to pursue our quest for meaning; because once again he writes of works.  In the previous chapter he wrote, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?”  The implication is: no it cannot. (more…)

Mark 6:14-29

July 15, 2012

What is a soap opera doing in the middle of Mark’s Gospel?  We are so used to hearing the story of the beheading of John the Baptist that it no longer strikes us as strange; but think about it.  For one thing, paper, or its equivalent, cost a lot in Mark’s day.  For another, Mark wrote the rest of the Gospel in a terse style, but here he writes at length and in gruesome detail.  Why did this story matter so much to Mark? (more…)

Mark 6:1-13, II Corinthians 12:2-10

July 8, 2012

Does prayer have the power to heal?  I believe it does; but I have questions.  For instance, did Jesus heal every person, every condition, that came to him – I mean apart from this group of skeptics in his home town?  Did no one have Type I diabetes in his day?  Or pancreatic cancer?  Or clinical depression?  In his home town, where everyone thought they knew him, he could not overcome the power of their negative expectations.  In every other case, however, the Gospels report uniform success.  Are we meant to take that at face value?  Uniform success?  This sermon addresses that question. (more…)

Mark 5: 21- 43 July 1, 2012

July 1, 2012

On the surface, today’s Gospel tells of two miraculous healings, and yet there is more to the stories than that.  You notice that one story is embedded in the other; it interrupts the other.  This is no accident.  The form the passage takes signals us to dig for deeper meaning.

The first story is this.  Jesus has had a busy day.  Earlier, he had been in the territory of the Gerasenes, across the Sea of Galilee.  There he had exorcised a demoniac and caused a herd of pigs to rush into the sea.  Then he and his disciples sailed back across the sea.

As today’s reading opens, Jesus has just stepped off the boat when Jairus runs up and throws himself at Jesus’ feet.  We may judge Jairus’s desperation if a man of his stature — let’s say the Bishop Sisk of his day — loses all sense of his dignity in this way.  His daughter is so seriously ill that they fear for her life.  He entreats Jesus to come and heal her.  Immediately Jesus sets off with him, followed by a crowd.

They are on their way when story two interrupts.  An equally desperate woman sidles up to Jesus wanting a healing for herself.  Being dirt poor, she was used to rebuffs; for not only was she destitute, but she was sick.  She dares not call attention to herself, but she thinks that if she can just touch the fringe of Jesus’ garment, she will be healed.  She doesn’t get away with it though.  Jesus catches her.

Now the story takes some strange twists.  First, the audacious woman is not rebuffed.  Second, Jesus treats one of society’s no-accounts on a par with one of society’s most prominent members.  Third, in spite of the urgency of Jairus’s need, Jesus takes time — quite a lot of time — with this woman.  I say that, because she told him her whole story, to the point where he could recognize a deep and sincere faith in her.  So, in spite of the surrounding context — the urgent need to save Jairus’s daughter — Jesus stopped and gave this timid woman his whole attention.

Put yourself in her place.  Here is someone listening to you with his heart; someone with the capacity to feel a fundamental bond with you; someone who can see the whole of you, not just your pitiable condition at the moment; someone who is able to give you his complete attention; someone who values your uniqueness and teaches you to do the same; above all, someone who sees meaning in your meeting.

Let me give you a present-day example of one story interrupting another in this way.  It comes from the book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, by Rachel Naomi Remen.  Remen is a medical doctor, who also counsels medical practitioners.  Harry, an emergency room doctor, told her how, one evening on his shift, a woman was brought in who was about to give birth.  Her obstetrician was on the way, but arrived too late.  Harry was actually pleased, because even though he had delivered hundreds of babies, he still enjoyed the challenges: making quick decisions, sensing his own competency, moving with speed and skill.

The baby girl was born, and as usual Harry held her along his left forearm, with the back of her head in his hand.  With his right hand, using a suction bulb, he began clearing her nose and mouth of mucus.  Suddenly the baby opened her eyes and looked directly at him.  In that instant all of his technical expertise fell away, all of his medical understanding.  A new realization swept over him: he was the first human being this baby had ever seen.  His thinking mind became still, while his heart went out to her in love.  With tears in his eyes, silently, he welcomed her into the world.

Later he told Dr. Remen that never before had he experienced the meaning of what he was doing.  This baby felt to him as if she were the only baby he had ever delivered.  For the first time he was there as a human being, not just as a physician.

This is the spiritual challenge these stories put to us: that we learn to live in the present moment.  Jesus gives a dramatic example of doing just that.  To the ears of almost any audience it was obvious what he should do: ignore the no-account woman, whose condition was chronic, and dash on to the emergency.  But Jesus didn’t do that, because he was alive in the present moment, always.

Harry, too, became alive in the moment.  At first, as he was holding the baby, his mind was elsewhere.  He was thinking about the other emergency room needs.  Suddenly he was interrupted by a look.  He could not ignore it and get on with his preoccupations.  Like Jesus, he stopped and gave his full attention to the moment: he opened his heart; he felt his fundamental bond with the infant and through her with the entire universe; he saw with wonder the whole of her, not just her fragile being in the moment.  Above all, he felt the meaning in that meeting.

The stories in today’s Gospel are embedded, one within the other, to highlight a spiritual challenge.  It is this.  Like Jesus, we make plans, set goals and agendas, have schedules, have intentions.  His immediate plan and intention, for instance, was to go to the house of Jairus and heal his daughter.  Then some interruption occurs.

This happens to me all the time, and I feel sure it happens to most of you.  I do make plans, have schedules, etc.  But things come up, which, if I allow them to interrupt me, will put at risk what I had hoped to accomplish.  More often than not, I brush them aside and get on with my  agenda.  Once in a while I do turn my attention to the disruption, and I become so wrapped up in it that I lose track of everything else.  I missed a plane once that way.

Many of us are like that.  If we are engaged in a task, our minds have already jumped ahead to its completion.  If we are in conversation, we are not attending to what is being said, but framing what our own response will be.  An interruption, then, could serve to call our mind back to the present moment.

Part of what made Jesus our Christ is that he dwelt continuously in the present moment, giving the present moment all the attention that Harry gave that baby girl.  That is not to say he lost touch with the overall context.  He also dwelt continuously in the flow of time.  He did not forget Jairus’s daughter.  He always responded to the present moment, but without betraying other, overarching concerns.

These two stories in the Gospel passage challenge us to practice our faith in a new way.  They are asking us to go through life aware that every passing moment — if I could put it this way — is reaching up to touch the fringe of our garment, asking us to open our hearts to it, wanting us to feel our bond with it, to recognize the wonder in it, the meaning in it.  To put it another way, this is a call to live simultaneously in eternity and in time.  Eternity is found only in the present moment; time surrounds the present moment.

To practice our faith in this way calls for training.  We need to learn to call ourselves back to the present moment again and again, until it becomes second nature.  But at the same time we need to stay aware of where we are, and what time of day it is, and what the surrounding needs are.  This is the proverbial journey of a thousand miles, but it begins with the first step.  One simple, doable step is this.  Set aside ten minutes each day, find a place that is still, and spend that time just being in the present, gazing, so to speak, into the face of God.


Mark 4:35-41, Job 38:1-11

June 25, 2012


Did Jesus really calm the sea? Or is this a story meant to teach us a spiritual lesson? Was the storm really violent, or did the disciples’ fear make it seem more terrifying than it was? Was the real miracle calming the sea? Or was it that Jesus calmed the disciples’ fear, so that they no longer perceived the storm as threatening?

If you were Jesus, how would you have responded to the disciples’ terror? You could calm the waters, and that would have impressed them, but what would they have learned from that? Dependency for one thing — not to look within themselves to meet a challenge, but to look around for someone else. (more…)

Mark 4:26-34, June 17, 2012

June 18, 2012

“Jesus did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”  We are his disciples.  What do you suppose Jesus would have explained to us in private?

His topic was the kingdom of heaven.  Few people hearing these two parables would conclude that the kingdom of heaven is a seed and we should search for it in the soil.  Some might hear the parables and rightly conclude that the kingdom of heaven is a process.  But where does this process take place?  In the sky?  In a place we go to when we die?  Until this question is answered, it doesn’t really help us to know that the kingdom of heaven is a process.  (more…)

Mark 3:20-35

June 10, 2012

What is the eternal sin that Jesus speaks of that “can never have forgiveness?”  That has an ominous sound!  How can we avoid it?  Let’s have a go at those questions, starting with the reading from Genesis.

We have to bear in mind that the person who told the story of Adam and Eve had achieved immense spiritual insight.  I’d like to call that person the Holy Sage.  The Sage had lived deeply enough to see through the shifting surface of life to the unchanging realities below the surface.  Think of a pond.  At first leaves floating on a blue sheet capture our gaze, then our focus may pass through all of that to the brown twigs and mud resting on the bottom.  In a similar way the Sage saw through to deeper truths and passed them on to us in story form. (more…)