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, Reflections

Zooming Isn’t What You Think It Is

I’ve been into photography since the late 70’s, only getting back into the hobby recently.  One of the tools of the trade that makes the hobby easier is a zoom lens (not the internet social media tool).  

Photography, like most other things, mirrors life—always requiring decisions.   What angle do I choose to look through and use?  Should I through a telephoto lens to make the subject larger, eliminating the surroundings or should I get a wide angle to be able to take in the whole picture?   Sometimes I feel like Tevya from The Fiddler on the Roof:  “On the one hand… on the other hand.”  Life seems to be a polarity of opposite tensions much of the time.   Sometimes, since digital cameras are cheap to use, not having to pay for the cost of film like I used to, I take both a wide and a close up telephoto shot just so that I have both views. 

Jesus did much the same.  On a mountain, he would do two different activities:  he would pray and he would look out over the landscape or the city of Jerusalem.   He focused on both the inner life up close and the wide angle of how he would bring that inner life into the larger world.  Both the wide angle and the telephoto view bring necessary perspectives.  Without both we lack the whole picture. 

When I am alone pondering a course of action, or even with a group, using a telephoto lens to get up close to see what needs to be initiated or solved is necessary to put everything in motion.   This is usually the easy part.  What is more difficult and requires more patience, is to zoom to the wide angle view of things to see how the intended act might create various positive and negative outcomes in the environment at large.  This keeps us from making those “knee-jerk” reactions which most of the time prove to be disastrous.   Taking the time to get the wider and more long range perspective conflicts with our need for instant gratification which is endemic in our culture.   One doesn’t need to look far to see the maladies and suffering created due to instant gratification.   Instant gratification and its underlying anxiety reveals a lack of mental and spiritual development.  I sometimes struggle with it, especially when I am under stress when I seek to sublimate the stress by seeking gratification elsewhere that will not solve the problem.   This is one reason I don’t eat donuts anymore.  There are as many false ways to assuage anxiety as there are people.  We all have our ways of substituting alternatives for instant gratification to decrease anxiety. 

Of course, there’s always the mountain offering us the space for a more telephoto look at our distress, allowing us to sit with our suffering and to invite God into it, seeking healing and direction instead of running down the mountain to seek the next diversion to divert our attention from what is really going on. 

Coping with COVID requires both the wide angle and telephoto zoom approach.   Looking up close to spiritually assess our inner life while using the wide angle lens to negotiate how our decisions of how we live with this unpleasantness helps us to better maintain a rhythm in our home life and the limited way we interact with the community. 

It’s no surprise that depression and anxiety mental health stats are rising and if we’re affected by the same it’s nothing to be ashamed of.   It has nothing to do with a lack of toughness or independence.  It does have a lot to do with loss and the grief therein.   I have noticed a significant drop in the amount of humor I observe and the laughter I hear.   I once had a client in therapy who had high blood pressure.  She brought their blood pressure monitor to sessions and we attempted various approaches.  For the client, the best intervention was laughter.   We tried watching humorous scenes, funny stories and other things which lowered her blood pressure. 

I notice that in my own life, when my spiritual life is in balance, I tend to have a more playful way about me and I laugh more—not an anxious laugh but a belly laugh.  I believe this is because that when I am spiritually centered, that I my fear or whatever else is bothering me dissolves. I John: “Perfect love casts out fear.”   It takes a much greater effort and intention to focus on God now in the midst of COVID-19 and all the political turmoil that comes mostly from the lack of seeing the bigger picture of the wide angle lens.   My father and my uncle taught me to look at the wider picture.   I learned to value the bigger picture when learning systems theory in grad school.   Most of all, I have learned that Jesus was a natural at zooming in and out, integrating the inner Spiritual Kingdom with the outer way in the world.   

Take an up close view:  what do you need most now in the center of your being?   Then find ways to manifest this and to then zoom to the wide angle to see how the Spirit creates your vision to see what is really happening in the bigger picture in the environment around you.  Allow the Holy Spirit to help you blend both. 

Jesus offers us a better way than knee jerk, impulsive living as he is the one who can still the waters in our souls–offering us a full frame life.

Blessings,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

How We Affect People

I am reminded of a story of my late Uncle Louie, who as a child was playing with a baseball in the back yard and by mistake threw the ball through the garage window.   He was dumbstruck, my dad said.  He was dumbstruck and terrified when my future grandfather/his father stormed out of the house onto the back porch to find out what happened.  Louie, exasperated and terrified, blurted out, “I didn’t do it because I didn’t mean it.” 

Much of the time, we’re not aware of our effect on others.   Much of the time, our presence in another’s life brings many gifts, joy and peace.    Other times, our presence, unbeknown to us, creates wounds in others. 

I can really identify with Louie, God rest his soul.  One of the most embarrassing times in my life is when I find out later that something I did or said hurt someone.  It doesn’t matter if I had no intention of doing so.  There’s a rift and something is broken and if at all possible reconciliation is in order.   The egg on my face and lump in my gut tell me that somehow, I need to meet with that person to find out what happened and to make amends.   But before all this there is a tension within me that screams, “I didn’t want this to happen,” wanting to magically undo the whole event.  After all, who in their right mind really wants to hurt someone, especially someone they really care about? Am I terminally unique here or can you identify? 

Other people matter as much as I do—not more nor less but as much.  Sometimes I forget this.  This doesn’t mean that I cannot be myself in order to please people.  I spent a couple years in therapy in my thirties dealing with this as it’s not healthy nor is it genuine.  People pleasing also restricts one from intimacy because instead of you “being there” present with the other, a false persona leaves the other by themselves with no real response.  It’s kind of like shaking someone’s hand and getting the limp wrist response.

Believing that other people matter requires that I do some self-searching in spiritual circles called, Examination of Conscience.   As the General Confession in our prayer book says we look for “what we have done and what we have left undone.”  We uncover what we can and even ask for feedback to be able to get to the truth of the matter and then seek to make amends. 

But what do we do when people are offended at us when we have not said or done anything to our awareness against them according to the Laws of God and Nature?   By seeking to understand what the other person is saying, we may recognize a misunderstanding, something we may have done or not done, or actually not done anything at all according the laws of God and Nature.  Sometimes people can be offended because their perceptions are skewed by faulty thinking or subconsciously by inner wounds that result in others crossing a boundary of our autonomy.  We equally have the need in our Examination of Conscience to discern whether our perceptions are within the boundaries of the Laws of God and Nature.  These are difficult encounters requiring great maturity to be able to sit down and dialogue without becoming inflamed.   If values and beliefs cannot find some common ground or be mutually understood, sometimes the best we can do is to agree to disagree while showing respect to the other and go one’s separate ways. 

The reason I say “Laws of God and Nature” is because one must have a criteria on which to base one’s thinking, actions and judgment.  I don’t have a better guide to follow than the one given to us by the One who created all things.   The word here is “authority.”  “By what authority,” Jesus was asked, “do you say and do these things?” (Mark 11).  We have to choose our authority.  In fact, whether we are aware of it or not, every day we choose our authority. And it is important that we choose well. 

I discovered a prayer that I like from the New Zealand Prayer Book (Anglican) that seems to fit this occasion: 

 “O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your Church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts.” Amen.

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

What Forgiveness Is

As I was engaged with our beloved late Bishop Bob Hibbs’ book, An Altar in Your Heart, the thought came to me about Easter again.  Easter was different this past year, not in the event itself but in the way we observed it.  Easter, if we are awakened to its infinite Reality, is every Sunday and every day.   We are fed both communally by the Christ who comes through each of us to others and individually through the time we invest in quiet moments to reflect, contemplate and receive the Divine Breath of “Peace be with you.”  Due to the COVID-19, the balance of being fed spiritually through the community and individually has been skewed requiring a more intentional focus on the individual prayer life to sustain our spiritual core.

Bob writes of mercy being like a river from God to us.   Mercy flows between our own personal and collective Good Friday’s and Christ’s benevolent, radiant Easter presence carrying us by the Spirit into Christ and the Father so that the words of Jesus become a reality:  “May we be one as the Father and I are one.” 

So what this forgiveness actually does—this never ending stream of Living Water, is carry us into God.  Forgiveness isn’t just an erasing of our naughty check marks on the black board.  Forgiveness, the Living Stream of mercy, changes us—heals us, transforms us, enlightens our darkness down to our toe nails.  We aren’t the same after we receive forgiveness because receiving forgiveness is receiving Christ himself.  We’re not meant to be our old phony, try to get by, afraid to reveal, scared to be honest, afraid to be still, resentful, afraid to be hurt, and scared to give or receive love, selves.   Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor scared the beegeebers out of Peter, James and John.  They couldn’t hold the Light coming through Jesus.   Light hurts before it feels good.  It’s like a stiff muscle.  We know we need to exercise it to get the full range of motion.  But boy does it hurt on the way getting there.  But once we’re there, oh what a joy to be free to move again!  The Transfiguration is like a holy laser that cuts through everything that afflicts us, either removing it or transforming it.  Let us bathe in your Blessed Light O Jesus and give us the faith to remain present through any discomfort to receive your healing. 

Forgiveness is a stream of mercy and Divine Light eternally available to us.   This is what Easter does.

Forgiveness doesn’t work like the commercial’s positive attitude of saying, ’”just do it.” Like Mary, let us with open hearts respond, “Let it (forgiveness) be done to me according to thy Word.”  

May the Peace and Light of Forgiveness be yours this day and hereafter,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

What’s in a Flag?

Yesterday was Flag Day, the anniversary of the adoption of our first flag of the colonies by the Second Continental Congress in 1777. 

Flags represent as symbols what a community of people value, their ideals and identity.  I remember first hearing in the 1960’s the term “flag wavers” used in a denigrating tone.  As much as a flag can be a symbol that people who hold the same values gather around,  a flag can also be seen or used as a divisive element by others.  The values which the flag represents must be continually reassessed as our lives in our efforts to live up to these ideals else we fall away from them and chaos results.

One of the problems with flags and the ideals that symbolize what the flag represents, is that we’re not very good at living up to those ideals.  I am not always aware of how I do not live up to the values represented in our flag and the Constitution which underlies it.  The fault is not with the flag nor is with the Constitution.  The fault is with me.

I don’t care what flag you want to talk about. No one can live up to its ideals.  It doesn’t mean the ideals are necessarily flawed.  But it does mean that I need to do a self-examination about how I might adjust my life to honor them. 

To make it more personal, I believe everyone reading this has at least one relative or friend who has died or suffered while defending the ideals which we feebly try to uphold.   Transferring the focus from the flag to my uncle who died and my father and brothers who risked their lives to uphold these ideals puts “flesh” on the flag for me.  When I see their faces on the flag, then the flag changes from an object or an “it,” to people who were and are very much alive–all the way back to our Founders and Framers.  None of them were perfect. None of us are. That doesn’t mean the ideals for which the flag represents are false. It just means we’re not true.

One of the ideals our flag represents is in being able to be free enough to seek God as individuals. Not every flag represents this. One of our flag’s ideals is understood as the human need to seek the Divine. The unencumbered liberty to seek Divine Inspiration enables us to fulfill the Great Commandment of “loving God with our whole, heart, mind, soul and strength” which in turn enables me to live more fully into the ideals that the flag represents and to respect those who, like me, live under it. I ask myself: “How can I love those faces known and unknown which I see on the flag—how can I love them back?”

I can love them in my heart, mind and soul because our hearts, minds and souls are no longer limited by this world because the Divine lives within us. We also have the freedom to love them in this world.   Vicariously, by passing on the same love to others we know—the true ideal—they might benefit from all the gifts that God showers on us and share in the ideals of the flag, which we cannot perfectly live up to.  Loving others as directed by God, allowed by the First Amendment, makes it a darn sight easier than in other countries where they are not. We allow others the same Liberty as we have under the flag and serve them as Christ serves us.  

In this way, we have freedom of religion which manifests itself by serving others and living the “Golden Rule” of allowing others the same Liberty. The love of God serves those in the state while not encroaching on their Liberty. Loving like this takes a lot of practice–a lifetime of it.

If you have ever read any works on spiritual development such as Kohlberg, Westerhoff and Fowler, we realize that the First Amendment of the flag we live under encourages us to grow into the full spiritual beings that we are and were created to become. We can live fully in both worlds: Jesus’ Kingdom not of this world, and the world under the flag in which we live.

To Liberty: the Liberty we have in Christ and the Liberty granted to us under the flag. May we be faithful in both.

Fr. Mark