Saint Thomas Aquinas
Father Mark, Sermons

Proper 28B; Joshua 2; 11/18/18

Proper 28B; Joshua 2; 11/18/18

Saint Thomas AquinasThere was a philosopher who visited a monastery and conversed with a monk.  In the context of the conversation, the philosopher challenged the monk: “Why are you so wary of thought?  Thought is the one tool we have for organizing the world.”  The monk responded, “True. But thought can organize the world so well that you are no longer able to see it.”   

A thought is a screen, not a mirror; that is why it is easy to live in a thought envelope, untouched by Reality.”

Three questions:  What has influenced our lives in the past?  What is influencing our lives now?

What influences are we able to choose and are there influences where we lack the ability to choose?   

Past influences have shaped us to be who we are now.   Our pathways of perceiving, thinking and acting can be so normalized that we are hardly aware of their influence over us.   

What has influence over our lives is a combination of external and internal forces that are presently acting upon us without our always realizing this.  

How much of what we approach or avoid comes from our own choices or by outside influences?   

All of this may sound rather tedious but the spiritual leaders of the Old Testament including Jesus were very specific about directing us in the choosing of our influences—when to interact and when to withdraw.  

Our reading from Judges might have us questioning if what Joshua heard was really from God.  Joshua is very specific: Do not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars…because they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.

This seems a bit harsh to the multicultural experience of our present day and the cultural value of tolerance. Yet the Old Testament writers throughout history make it very clear that when the people co-mingled with the peoples, religions and practices of other cultures, their moral fiber began to disintegrate and their culture fell apart.  

Jesus further instructs his disciples: Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  What influences give us life and which influences pretend –the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing—to break us down?  When livestock veer from the path, often they become vulnerable. Amish culture has maintained their practices within a closed community and they still appear to prosper.  There may be some downsides to the Amish way of life but their culture has remained intact for several centuries.  

Influences consist of people, places and things.  What are the people, places and things that manifest the presence of God’s image and likeness within us that bear the fruits of peace, love and joy?   What are the influences of people, places and things that inhibit, detract or deteriorate our souls?  

Jesus himself modeled this in his own life.  He went about the people, teaching and healing.  But at the day’s end, he would withdraw to be alone or with his own.  Jesus gave warnings beginning using the word, beware.  Beware of the Scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus would begin a sentence: “You have heard it said that…” followed by old influence and then add “But I say….” giving a new influence.

We’ve left the altar red since Pentecost to emphasize the Season of the Spirit given to the disciples, creating the church, and us.   This season is quickly coming to the end of another year.  The Season of the Spirit is a period of continual discernment of listening for direction of the Spirit’s influence—bypassing discordant influences. 

Spiritual discernment is an intricate process.  Everything we encounter we have some level of relationship with.  Withdrawing is an important part of the spiritual life.  Withdrawing is not passive but active.  We withdraw from the distractions which inhibit our focusing on the presence of God.

Withdrawing is an Advent practice. 

The other item that the Book of Judges addresses is that fact that Joshua’s generation remained faithful in their spiritual covenant and intact as a people.  

But the generation that followed did not and the culture atrophied.   

Throughout scripture there is a pattern of spiritual practice, intimacy with God and cultural harmony in one generation which becomes lax and later abandoned in later generations resulting in cultural depravity and suffering.   The church itself has a history of thriving and decay.  History reveals that the act of withdrawing from and choosing spiritual influences not a once in a lifetime choice but a daily lifestyle.  

We are preparing for a New Year: assessing the influences in our lives and which ones we should approach and from which ones to withdraw.  Advent is a season originally intended to give us the opportunity to withdraw and listen for the Spirit’s direction so we are able to fully receive the Christ coming into the world.   

What are the influences that will shape our Advent?  Do they mirror in any way the intent of original purpose of the season?  

Influences—to withdraw or attach.   Where are we being led?  What is God doing in this time and place? 

Father Mark, Sermons

Stewardship in 2018

As children, we are like sponges, soaking up everything from our environment. Our experiences form our perceptions, beliefs and shapes our behavior. Parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, peers, the media, environmental events all influence us so that our basic understanding of the world and our habits are formed by the end of our 7th year. In the meantime, life begins to rub up against us and challenge our perceptions and beliefs. We usually resist incongruent experiences before we examine our beliefs and behavior because changing our life perspective and habits for the unknown can be uncomfortable—unless over time our original beliefs and behavior create a level of unpleasantness where we realize a change is in order. We learn faith partially by allowing ourselves to walk through the fear holding us to our attachments to people, places, objects and beliefs that hinder us—and Then let go of beliefs and behaviors which no longer serve us to embrace a new way of seeing, believing and acting in the world.

I may have mentioned some of my experience of stewardship before. I was reminded at clergy conference that sometimes we have to hear something 20 times for us to remember and integrate it into our lives. Stewardship of my time and talent has never been a problem for me. I was blessed with a hunger for learning and sharing what I learn. After my graduation from high school I have been involved for at least 24 years in formal education: learning amassing various knowledge and skill sets to enhance my life as a priest and a human being to be able to serve humanity. Sharing time and talents has been a joy and relatively easy for me. Part of my stewardship of treasure has involved investing thousands in these educational endeavors of self-development. In other ways, stewardship of treasure has been more challenging for me.

Church was an early influence that shaped my perceptions, beliefs and behavior. Church was like my second home, a place where I belonged. My dad took me there often and I helped him with various chores around the church. We had a living creche in Advent where we constructed the frame and built walls with bales of straw. We also had to catch the animals for the creche which was a whole lot of fun. Then we took turns dressing up as Mary, Joseph, and shepherds standing in the creche under the evening lights. Sunday evening of the 4th Sunday of Advent we would sing carols and listened to Luke’s birth narrative. I have many warm memories of my childhood. We were given small children’s envelopes with our very own number on them. We put our quarter into them every Sunday that our parents gave us. It was fun giving my offering—I felt a part of the community of giving. During all these wonderful formation experiences there was another environmental current affecting me.

I will preface this with the fact that no one is perfect, including parents: and this has no effect on how much I love and respect my parents. My mother was a product of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and my brother heard numerous stories over and over such as how they scraped by eating beans and wearing hand me down clothes. I didn’t like Brussel Sprouts at that time and I was constantly reminded of the poor starving people in China who had nothing to eat. There were other incidents woven though my early years which transmitted my mother’s anxiety and belief of scarcity into my mind and life’s outlook. Since then, my studies have revealed that anxiety is transmuted from parent to child—even in utero and children absorb our emotional states because they have no identity to differentiate from their parents.

After leaving home, I began to make my own money and my own bills. It had been easy to put the quarter in the envelope as a child because my parents gave it to me. But now, I had to figure out how much went where. Stewardship at the time was a low key endeavor. One gave to the church to keep the doors open. There was a disconnect between stewardship and faith formation. Then came marriage, children, and the increased fiscal challenges that come with it. The following is a fact of life and not a complaint: While in suburbia, I learned that one of the challenges of running a clergy household is that most church members have a much higher income. It was difficult to participate in some activities because we couldn’t afford to keep up with the level of their lifestyle and there were many times where we overspent our budget in order to participate. Relocating to another church can also be costly. When we sold the first home we bought, we lost all the equity we put into it due to a slump in the housing market. By this time the church began to teach about stewardship as proportionate giving, working toward the tithe.

There were many years when I had a lump in my throat due to the fear of how could I manage to be faithful without going into debt. This is when we learned to set priorities. During those few difficult years, we still looked at our income and stewardship proportionately and had to back up our percentage of giving a couple of times. But each year we’d bump it up another percentage point. However, the core issue for me throughout was the parental infused anxiety birthed in my belief in scarcity and fear that God would not provide. My head knew the theology of God granting us abundance. But my mind and feelings feared that we just might not have enough. Relocating to Luling was a blessing. Fiscal changes involved higher taxes and real estate costs, going from no mortgage to having one, Kathy moving from full time to part time work and my change from two income sources to one.

What’s really important to me in this is not the money itself but transcending the fear that plagued my life in the past to be given a heart of gratitude in its place. So this year we will step up a percentage point to 8.2%. The fear still raises its head periodically, but the decision to move through the fear by acting in faith has helped to dissolve it. Peter walked on the water toward Jesus until he began thinking too much and sank due to his fear. Reviewing the salvation of history of God working in my life has also helped me realize that we have been carried this far and God has never let us down. Reviewing one’s salvation history is a powerful antidote to fear. Being delivered from fear into freedom is a part of salvation. I have learned that I need to give in order to discover my identity as a child of God and as a co-creator with God—in order to know in the words of St. Paul: “whose love and service is perfect freedom.”

Will you join me in walking the path of stewardship as a spiritual practice?

Father Mark, Reflections

Part 2:  The Problem of Evil in Mythology

Part 2:  The Problem of Evil in Mythology

Since the beginning of time, cultures and their religions have tried to account for the presence of evil and its destructive forces in nature.  Turning on the news leaves little doubt that there are destructive forces in the world and it seems as if sometimes seems as if some are possessed by a devil.   Sanford writes that both Analytical Psychology and mythology share a common view: that autonomous psychic factors beyond conscious control afflict persons or groups which are both destructive to themselves and others.  Also, outside of physical reality there is an inner spiritual reality.  This line of thought runs counter to the prevailing world view based on sensory experience which limits itself to the material world.  Instead, present day culture believes that the evils of our time do not exist in the human soul or spiritual sphere, but have political or economic causes, and could be eliminated by a different political system…does not want to see that the enemy is to be found in the devils and demons in himself.

The late Morton T. Kelsey, Episcopal Priest corroborates Sanford’s premise that at the origins of evil and the reality of a destructive principle: …secular man in this century has been brainwashed by materialistic thought.  In a rational and materialistic world, there is no place for such a principle of destructiveness.  It is neither rational nor material, and so it cannot exist. If one is to consider the possibility that evil is something more substantial than just the absence of good, then he has to overhaul his whole world view, and this is a very painful and difficult task. It is better simply to deny the reality of any such principle out of hand. 

Early Christian heresies of Gnosticism and Manichaeism project a split between good and evil, the spiritual as good and the material world as evil.  American Indian mythology was perplexed at the Christian idea of a satanic being.  They accepted it as a fact that human beings combine in themselves both good and evil, and did not need to invoke the idea of a devil to explain why some people had a bad heart and some a good heart.  Mankind has a dual nature.   Most mythologies have two assumptions: the autonomous power of evil that is beyond man’s control and there is a balance of opposites in life or polarities, such as light being opposed by darkness.

In-depth psychology accepts the reality of the dark side to human nature that can refuse to be assimilated into the good.  If we deny the possibility of evil in ourselves by trying to be better than we are (loss of humility) then we risk that evil may run rampant through us because what we are unconscious of can control us.

Next:  Evil in the Old Testament

Reflections

The Shadow Knows…

Oftentimes I find that the older books I’ve read in years past actually have a more profound grasp of the subject matter they address.  One of these texts is by the late John Sanford, an Episcopal Priest.  I read his book, Evil: The Shadow Side of Reality, many years ago.  I recalled Sanford’s work in the context of the tragedy at Sutherland Springs.  I’ll be reading and reflecting on this work in future editions.  One thought that Sanford conveyed is that wherever there is evil, there is suffering.  I ponder if the converse of that statement is true.  Perhaps our culture is looking in places for answers that have none to offer.  Perhaps a greater understanding of what evil is and proven ways of addressing it (today’s image of best practices) might be worth our while to explore.  Sanford addresses the history of an understanding of evil in the Old Testament, New Testament and in-depth psychology.  I find the connections between in-depth psychology and the biblical understanding to be quite fascinating.

More to come.

May the peace of God pervade your entire being.

Fr. Mark

Sermons

Proper 27- A Veterans Day Observance, Matthew 25:1-13

The parable of the wise and foolish maidens surprised me as I never have juxtaposed marriage and its similar image of being “married” to the military before. Being in the military is like being married—once committed you’re in it.

The preparation for a wedding in the Middle East symbolically represents the preparation and training that a civilian goes through after signing the dotted line on the enlistment papers. Your life is no longer your own. The soldier, sailor, airman or Marine becomes a servant. Most weddings take place in autumn or winter in the Middle East as the growing season is over and more time is available to spend what can be a week-long series of ritual events. Candles and lamps were used to provide light and would be procured in preparation for several months beforehand. Weddings begin when all is ready, not by chronological time, and can be delayed until the late evening hours.

Jesus tells the story about 10 bridesmaids. Only half of them made the preparation to obtain and bring enough oil for their lamps. The other 5 expected to be able to find some when they arrived in town only to find the shops closed. Lamps were necessary as processions would go throughout the town down unlit narrow streets. One could not participate if they did not prepare enough oil to provide light.

Preparation is a key word paralleling this story and the lives of veterans. Veterans spend much time in preparation and training for the difficult and often multifaceted work that they volunteered to embrace.
This reveals a basic truth that unless one invests in the will to act, nothing is gained and failure is imminent. This is both true in the military and the civilian world. But it is also true in the spiritual life.

Unless one practices stewardship of time and energy investment, one does not grow spiritually. God did not create us to fit His life into ours but Jesus came so that we might learn and practice how to fit our life into God’s in order to receive our true nature. It takes intention, time and practice. It also takes a willingness to journey within to discover who we really are and the God who waits for us in the depth of our being.

The greatest virtue that the veteran embraces is embodied in the words of Jesus in John 15: Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends. It is important to realize that Jesus was not a victim but that he chose to hand his life over. Veterans lay down their lives for their fellow veterans and country if the situation necessitates it. There is no greater act than this. One hands his or her life over so that others might live.

There are many levels of handing one’s life over. A loss of personal freedom where the veteran was told where to go instead of having a more pleasant choice. Or putting oneself in harm’s way with unpleasant consequences besides being a casualty and the ultimate sacrifice.

When veterans are discharged and make the adjustment—the sometimes long, tedious and difficult adjustment to civilian life, many of them, from my experience as a therapist, enter what I call, their second deployment. This second deployment involves adjusting to the civilian world, but for some, the adjustment is made more difficult because they are still living the memories of their previous deployments either physically, psychologically, spiritually or any combination of the three.
The explanation of these three domains is beyond the time we have here to address.

But the experience of the second deployment is known not only by the soldier, sailor, airman or the Marine, but by their families, friends and sometimes neighbors as well. This is why it is important not only to recognize the veterans but the family members and friends as well. Notice the proportion of our congregation whose lives are involved with veterans. We are grateful. Thank you.

How do we recognize veterans when and after they return? Our good intentions of honoring veterans may not turn out so well unless we do so with knowledge and insight. Veterans are individuals. And being individuals, each has different needs and outlooks on their varied experience. Welcoming veterans home and thanking them for their service is generally, a more sound approach than emphasizing that they are heroes, even though they are. Not knowing the individual veteran’s mind, emphasizing that they are a hero may not be congruent with their experience. When one suffers from moral injury, PTSD and other factors, being called a hero may feel incongruent to a veteran and lead to feelings of alienation. We have the choice also to serve by making sure that our intentions are clear so that our gestures are helpful to veterans first instead of the temptation to make us feel good.

Both Jesus and veterans model the mission mindset of a servant. We would be good to emulate them.