Saturday, August 09, 2014

The Calm Below the Storm

The Calm Below the Storm

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 10, 2014; 9 Pentecost, Proper 14, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 14:22-33)  Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."


Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
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St. Paul tells us today, You don't have to ascend into heaven or descend into the abyss to be in God's presence, "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart."

Elijah, fearing for his life and hiding in a cave, experiences "a sound of sheer silence," and Elijah knows himself to be in the presence of the LORD.

After a full day of work that including the feeding of 5,000, Jesus "went up the mountain by himself to pray." When he finishes praying, he can walk across the storm.

"It hurt even to wake up in the morning."[i] That's how theologian Martin Laird begins the true story of Josh, who "looked fine, but emotionally was black and blue." Josh's depression robbed him of sleep. In the morning, "it took him twenty or thirty minutes to peel his blank stare off the wall and get off the edge of the bed. Shaving could take another half hour. [Yet] it took several years for depression's clamp to tighten its grip enough to make Josh want to see his doctor. The doctor recommended medication and then asked him, 'Have you ever thought of meditation?'"

Years before Josh had a solid practice –sitting still for a half hour, silently repeating the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." But as happens sometimes, after a few months "his initial enthusiasm went flat. Josh replaced his regular praying of the Jesus Prayer with the TV remote; he would flip obsessively through countless satellite channels, blinking bleary-eyed at all the television programs he didn't really want to watch, yet halfhoping that the very next program would give him some sense of being alive. So he flipped around and around TV channels. Meanwhile his contemplative practice fell down somewhere behind the sofa and remained there a few years."

But he took his doctor's advice and returned to his Jesus prayer practice. A few months later, something happened. "'The Jesus Prayer quickly led me back to the monotony that had defeated me some years ago. But I stayed with it this time. One night I fell asleep praying the Jesus Prayer, then, when I awoke in the middle of the night as I usually do, I felt a cleansing warmth welling up within me. The name, 'Jesus' was a living presence streaming within me. Something inside started being freed up and I started to weep in this cleansing warmth and compassion. I wept much of the night and awoke in the morning still praying the Jesus Prayer. For the first time in many months I awoke with no anxiety but instead a reverent joy. When I went downstairs for breakfast, my sister had come over. She said, 'What's wrong with you? You look happy.' That was the first and last time anything 'spiritual' happened like that, but I'm more or less faithful to the periods of praying the Jesus Prayer. Even if there are no more experiences like this one, there is still something deeply attractive that keeps drawing me back, a sense of being just on the verge of finding life again."

It still took Josh "quite some time for medication and meditation to mop up the kicked-over bucket of a decade's despair," but Josh had found the word near to him, on his lips and in his heart, in the sound of sheer silence that is God's presence beneath his contemplative prayer.

Josh started to see dimly the trail of negative thinking that created and fed his depression. Here's some of the thinking that he began to notice.

Josh had a number of devoted friends, but inside his mind he thought he was disliked by everyone. He had these "running commentaries" in his head. If people were nice to him, a reflex commentary would whisper, They're just being nice. They don't really like me. If ever there was a conflict or a misunderstanding and Josh thought someone was angry or frustrated with him, the commentary would tell him, They're never going to speak to me again.

"By far the most crippling and subtle thought that shaped much of his lifestyle and demeanor was the thought that he didn't count. Part of that came from being a middle child" between a gifted older sibling and a younger sibling born with spina bifida. "All the family dynamics focused either on his older sibling's brilliant successes or on his younger sibling's unquestionable needs." Josh felt invisible. "He said, 'I feel cut off from people, from God, from everything, like I'm living inside a sealed envelope.' He said he knew something was wrong when he was reading the words of the Carmelite author Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, on accepting God's love: 'Let yourself be loved.' He said, 'I knew her words were meant for me, but I felt absolutely nothing.'"

As Josh practiced his contemplative prayer, an inner calm slowly came to him, letting him see into his mind. The ancient spiritual guides say that the mind is like the ocean. St. Diadochos writes, "When the sea is calm, fishermen can scan its depths and therefore hardly any creature moving in the water escapes their notice. But when the sea is disturbed by the winds it hides beneath its turbid and agitated waves what it was happy to reveal when it was smiling and calm; and then the fisherman's skill and cunning prove vain."

For Josh, contemplative prayer calmed his mind enough for him to "see the thoughts and thought-clusters that maintained [his] low mood and low energy. Being able to see the thoughts and thought-clusters in tern helped loosen the grip of depression…

"He could now see how certain thoughts would cluster together: the feeling that he did not matter to anyone caused him to withdraw, which caused him in turn to feel isolated. Feeling isolated, he lost interest in life. A depressed mood moved in on the heels of this train of thought and became a permanent resident."

In the dim light of awareness opened by his prayer, "Josh eventually became able to observe thoughts as they rise and fall. Instead of getting caught up in reactive commentary on the fact that depression is present, he can look right into the depression and say, 'Oh, look, I'm blaming again; or 'There's the thought, "Nobody likes me"'; or 'Look at how I run myself down before anyone else gets the opportunity.' Like a spider on its web, Josh is aware of anything that lands in the silk-spun web of awareness. This gets Josh out of a reactive mode and into a receptive mode of meeting inner conflict. Once Josh allows depression to be present, instead of resenting or panicking in the presence of depression, he can live in peace with the fact that depression is present, without feeling a need to comment that it should be gone if it does not happen to be gone. Josh became aware that there was something within that is untouched by depression.

"Josh had no further spiritual breakthroughs, but he still has many decades before him. While his depression has never cleared up entirely, his life definitely has more vitality and joy."

At the center of your being, you are always one with God. Below the storm of your thoughts and circumstances, God's divine presence dwells with you. Practice moving your attention from your outward circumstances and from your inward commentaries into the vast, compassionate presence which brings life and light from within. In the sound of sheer silence, the word is very near you, on your lips and in your heart. With your hand in Christ's, you too can stand still in the storm.


[i] Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, Oxford U. Press, 2011. The quotes in this sermon come from chapter six, Creative Disintegration: Depression, Panic, and Awareness. Highly recommended book, along with his volume one, Into the Silent Land, A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Living with the Weeds

Living with the Weeds

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
July 20, 2014; 6 Pentecost, Proper 11, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary


(Matthew 13:24-30)  Jesus put before the crowd another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, `Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, `An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, `No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
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Last week’s sermon focused on Paul’s paradoxical message:  we are all a mess, and we are also all united within God. It’s a both-and situation. We’re a mess: I can will what is right, but I can’t do it!, Paul cries. And simultaneously, There is no condemnation. The Spirit of God dwells in you.

Today’s gospel about the wheat and weeds continues in the same spirit. There are a couple of ways to look at it. You can look at the field of wheat and weeds as your own internal condition – each of us is both wheat and weeds; the Spirit of God dwells in each of us, and each of us is a mess. Or we can look at the field as the human condition. We’re all wheat and weeds together; the good and bad coexist on this earth.

I’d like to borrow from the spirituality of contemplative prayer and talk a little more about this experience of the weeds.

If you try something like Centering Prayer, staying still and silent for a period of time, you will experience the weeds. If you set your intention on something of the Spirit – like spending twenty minutes consenting to God’s presence and activity within – you will find yourself assaulted by a multitude of thoughts and feelings. Some people call it “monkey mind,” like the chatter of a thousand monkeys in the branches of your mind. Some call it “mind-tripping.” It’s like someone hit a button and an inner video starts up. It runs like tape loops that chatter and repeat over and over, snagging our emotions. We are simply being still and silent for a time, then something pops into our consciousness, and we start playing our reactive tape loops.

These thoughts – these emotionally charged tape loops – are nearly always playing somewhere in our consciousness, and part of us is always listening. Most of us think we are our thoughts and feelings.

We live so much of our lives reactively – stimulated by a thought or feeling, we start our tapes, “talking, talking, talking, talking to ourselves about life and love and how everybody ought behave and vote.”[i]

You are standing in the grocery line. A kid starts whining for candy, trying to get a distracted parent’s attention. Tell me your tapes won’t start. Are you irritated? Isn’t there a bit of judgment. The tapes start with all the advice you’d give to straighten them out. You might even expand into a full mental commentary on the horrible way people are raising children today. You are in the weeds.

Contemplative prayer teachers have a way of dealing with these conflictive thoughts and emotions that bombard us. It’s a practice that works in contemplative prayer, but it’s also available when you are in the grocery line or whenever you are hooked by those nearly constant thoughts and emotions that distract us from being simply present.

Benedictine monk Thomas Keating offers this technique for gently releasing ourselves from our attachment to our afflictive emotions and thoughts: the Four-R’s. Resist no thought. Retain no thought. React emotionally to no thought. Return ever-so-gently. In Centering Prayer, you return to your sacred word. In ordinary life, you return to your center, the givenness of your union with God as God’s beloved child. Resist not. Retain not. React not. Return.

What contemplative spirituality says is that we are not our thoughts and feelings. We are much more than our thoughts and feelings. Behind and beyond our thoughts and feelings we are one with God. Our deepest, truest, authentic self is continually one with God at the center of our being. That’s the wheat. The Spirit of God manifest uniquely in you. The wheat is always growing.

But the weeds are also always present. They are present in our inner consciousness. They are present in the wider external world. The weeds are not unlike what Paul calls “the flesh.” I preached about that last week.[ii] The weeds are related to what some call our “shadow.”

Parker Palmer says that there are four common expressions of our shadow – four species of weeds, if you will.  The first is a deep insecurity about our own identity, our own worth. Sometimes we attach our identity with something external — a title, a relationship. If that role or relationship is threatened, our very being feels threatened. The internal tapes bombard us.

A second shadow inside many of us is "the perception that the universe is essentially hostile to human interests and that life is fundamentally a battleground." Listen to the battle language that pops up in casual conversation — "we’re going to fight for that; let’s bring out the big guns; if I don’t finish this I’m afraid it’ll kill me."

A third shadow is the belief that "ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me." You may say you believe in God, but you work like it’s all up to you. Parker Palmer calls that "functional atheism" – "if anything decent is going to happen here, I am the one who needs to make it happen."

And a fourth shadow is fear, especially fear of the natural chaos of life. If I can just get things organized... If we can get some functional rules around here... We forget that God created out of chaos, "chaos is the precondition to creativity, and any organization (or any individual) that doesn’t have an arena of creative chaos is already half dead." Of course, the biggest fear is fear of death, and its cousin failure. Yet, chaos and death are natural; failure and death is never the final word.[iii]

The weeds:  Insecurity, defensiveness, control needs, and fear. If you are like most people, the weeds of insecurity, defensiveness, control, and fear are deeply rooted in your consciousness, particularly in your unconsciousness, below the ground of your awareness.

The Gospel speaks to us with disarming acceptance. Jesus tells us that we are each held in a wholly loving gaze. We are known, and we are infinitely loved. Therefore we don’t have to be anxious about our insecurity, defensiveness, control needs and fears. The gaze of God loves the whole tangled bundle that is you, loves with an utterly free, utterly selfless love. So, you need not be anxious about your weeds. Leave them alone. Relax. You don’t have to pull them out. You don’t have to fix yourself. You don’t have to feel defensive. Resist not. React not. Retain not. Return to God’s love at the center of your being.

In fact, it is that gaze of love that disarms us. We are held by a gracious love "which undermines and overthrows the selves we have built from defensiveness and calculation."

The end of this Gospel today says that ultimately the weeds will be collected and bound and burned. We already know what the foretaste of this heavenly fire is. It is the fire of Pentecost. It is the wonderful, purging fire of love which alone can refine and burn away all that is not Christ, and do so without harming.[iv]

In the meantime, we live in the both-and world of wheat and weeds. We are all a mess of insecurity, defensiveness, control needs, and fear. Whenever the noise of their tapes begins to roar in our consciousness, we can leave the weeds alone. Resist not. React not. Retain not. Return.


[i]  Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, Oxford, 2011, p. 18.
[ii] http://stpaulsfay.org/14-07-13We'reAMess.pdf
[iii] Parker Palmer, Leading from Within, http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker/writings/leading-from-within/
[iv] Beginning with the Parker Palmer material, much of this comes from an old sermon of mine that I’ve lost, but it is archived with goodpreacher.com: https://www.goodpreacher.com/backissuesread.php?file=6356
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The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.

For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
More sermon texts are posted on our web site: www.stpaulsfay.org
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Saturday, July 12, 2014

We're a Mess, and There is No Condemnation

We’re a Mess, and
There is No Condemnation

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
July 13, 2014; 5 Pentecost, Proper 10, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Romans 8:1-11)  There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law-- indeed it cannot,  and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

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Last week we heard Paul moan, I don’t understand myself. I can will what it right, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t come through. I decide not to do bad, but then I fall right in the same trap again. Sound familiar? It does to me.

Paul continues: I truly delight in God, but part of me sabotages myself. I’m my worst enemy. Wretched man that I am!

Now if Paul stays there, he’s stuck. Maybe even doomed. When we get a true glimpse of our darkness and our potential for evil, when we get a big taste of our own weakness, it can be overwhelming. We can feel worthless. Like a fraud. We can feel powerless. Maybe even helpless. There is an urge to give up. If I can’t even control myself, what good am I?

But the whole thing turns when Paul cries, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? At the moment of his anguished question, he already knows the answer. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” That’s where we ended last week.

We read today what he says next: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” I want to unpack some of that today.

Here’s Paul’s version of the cosmic story. God gave Israel the Law, the old covenant – a good gift. But it was a total failure. No one completely obeyed the law. Paul came as close as you can, and he was miserable.

God saw all of this, Paul says, and God decided humans just couldn’t keep the covenant, so God came to us in Christ Jesus in a one-sided covenant. God gives everything; human beings just receive.

In Christ, God assumed our human condition completely. Christ enacts God’s full union with humanity. Jesus experiences the consequences of all of our brokenness and evil, and returns only love. Finally, he hangs between heaven and earth, completely identified with the cursed – a victim of not only of personal evil, as people spat and struck and cursed him, but also of structural evil, as religion and state legally conspired to kill him. Jesus took all of this into his heart. He took the whole human experience into his very being, including all that is wrong with us, and he willingly entered into our death. Human death. He died, offering all to the Father. God received Jesus’ offering into the very life of the divine, and God raised Jesus from the dead.

And now, Paul says, the risen life of Christ is expressed in the life of all humanity. All humanity is assumed; all humanity it raised. Paul identifies the presence of Christ with humanity itself. And there is no condemnation. There is no Jew or Gentile. That’s everyone. 100% of the human race. All are one, because the risen Christ lives in all humanity.

We’re still all a mess. But we are also all alive in Christ. It’s a both-and situation for everyone. We’re a mess: I can will what it right, but I can’t do it. And simultaneously, There is no condemnation. The Spirit of God dwells in you.

Paul insists: It is the same for every one of us, every human being. We’re all a mess. And there is no condemnation.

To try to explain that, Paul uses the metaphor of “flesh” and “Spirit.” We are both flesh and Spirit. But the flesh is simply inadequate, and life in the flesh leaves us miserable. We were created for life in the Spirit.

But what in the world does that mean? Flesh? Is he talking about sex?

No, not really. That word “flesh” needs some fleshing out. Translator and interpreter Eugene Peterson uses these more contemporary words and phrases in the places where Paul uses the Greek word sarxflesh: The human condition, fractured human nature, obsession with self, focusing on the self, absorbed with self, thinking more of yourself than God, compulsions of selfishness, erratic compulsions, trying to get your own way all the time, needing to look good before others, the disordered mess of struggling humanity. That’s our problem – our sin.

For Paul, sin is a corporate state, like a force field we live in. It’s our fractured human condition that plays out in our self-centeredness. We’re all infected. We’re all stuck in flesh.

We’re also all living in the Spirit. We are infinitely loved and accepted. We don’t have to do anything to earn that. It’s a gift. We are beloved. Bulletproof. We can’t fail because we belong to God. God dwells in us. God is one with us.

So the issue becomes one of attention. Where will my attention be?

Will I forget that I am perfectly loved, perfectly safe and secure? Whenever I forget, I start living in the flesh – self-absorbed and compulsive. What a waste. But that’s all it is.

When I relax into my True Self, all is well, all is given. I can simply be, and enjoy.

I have two selfs – my false self and my True Self. Flesh and Spirit. Where will my attention be? My real self or my cartoon self? My anemic, insecure, proud, anxious, preoccupied, worried, distracted, score-keeping self or my grounded, relaxed, humble, grateful, trusting, and open Self? They are both part of me. But I’m most alive, most really me, when I’m in my real Self.

How do I know the difference? The false self is easily offended. That’s a great clue. Whenever I take offense or my feelings get hurt, I’m probably living in my little cartoon self.

The false self makes decisions with only part of us. Like when you intellectualize something and act without heart. Or when you get sentimental and act stupidly. Or when you let your sex drive or your appetites overrule your wisdom.

We’re most alive when we bring all of ourselves to the moment – we use our reason, our emotions, the wisdom of our bodies, and our intuition. Then, completely engaged, we act freely, humbly.

I’m most likely to live in the True Self when I’m looking for the good. Whenever I’m grounded in my own best space, and I’m looking actively for anything that is good or true or beautiful, I usually see what I am looking for. Whenever I live in my small self, my attention tends to gravitate toward the little stuff that ticks me off. Often it’s only a matter of attention and expectation.

Living in the Spirit is like being in the zone. I experience it sometimes. I’m in the present. I let God run the world. I know I’m loved, so I can love. I’m safe, so I can be open. Sometimes even the colors change.

I remember one Sunday morning that started very anxiously. I had written a sermon. It was a stinker. I decided to throw it away and just wing it. I moved into a trusting space. This was in Jackson, Mississippi, and I had to drive on I-55 to get to church. Releasing my worry about what I was to say, I passed one of those green interstate signs. It was so beautiful. Have you ever really looked at one of those signs? What an exquisite, exciting, alive color of green it was. In an expression of awe, I found myself laughing out loud. Then the sun rose over the trees and everything was unspeakably beautiful. I don’t remember what I preached that day, but it was just fine.

Yesterday I woke up anxious. I didn’t have an idea for a sermon. There was an interment at 10:00 and Chuck’s wedding was at 2:00. So I started looking for the good, thinking about how happy he and Betty are, and how much fun we were going to have celebrating their love. And I relaxed and wrote some stuff. More words than I needed. That’s why this sermon is too long. But I reminded myself, it will be just fine. The congregation will hear what you will hear. God knows. I don’t have to save anybody. God’s already done that.

I’d just like to use this sermon to remind everyone that in your inmost being, you are continually one with God. St. Theresa of Avila says it “is like rain falling from the sky into a river or pool. There is nothing but water. It’s impossible to divide the sky-water from the land-water.” Not the same, but one.

There is no condemnation. There’s only the curiosity. What kind of soil will we be as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout..; so shall [God’s] word be that goes out…; it shall not return… empty, but it shall accomplish that which [God] purposes, and succeed in the thing for which [God] sent it. Go forth in peace, and simply be, in Christ.
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The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.

For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Family Values

Family Values

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
June 22, 2014;  2 Pentecost, Proper 7, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 10:24-39)  Jesus said to the twelve disciples,
"A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
"So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 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. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
"For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one's foes will be members of one's own household.

"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
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Family is so central to our lives and to our well being. It was even more so in Jesus’ day. Yet we hear Jesus say in Matthew’s gospel, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…” Let’s explore that a bit.

In Jesus’ day, the family was the focal point of personal identity. Individualism as we think of it was, well unthinkable. You were known by your place in the family. You were the son or daughter of your parent in your particular birth order and gender. That was your identity – you were a part within an extended family system.

Your occupation, your spouse, your place in the community was determined by your family’s occupation, relationships, and place in the community. If you father was a fisherman, you would be a fisherman.

The father was the patriarch and authority for the family.  As long as your father was alive, you were a child under his authority. You were expected to do what your father told you to do – to work and to marry and to live your life as directed by the patriarch. You were expected to uphold the family honor.

Adult children were to obey their father and to respect their mother. Men were not allowed to speak in public to women outside the family. Everyone had a profound responsibility toward the well being and protection of the extended family. There was a significant but slightly less expectation of responsibility toward neighbors in one’s village, not unlike a tribal identity. People from the same village wore clothing of a similar and identifiable weave.

Rabbis debated the definition of “neighbor.” How many houses away marks the boundary of those I must regard as my neighbor? Answers varied. But certainly one did not consider as a neighbor someone living beyond the village or beyond what we today would call a mile or two.

Think of the obligation of family relationships as concentric circles starting with the patriarch in the center. Then the blood relatives in the inner ring. The village neighbors in the next ring. Outside that ring were strangers. You have limited or no responsibility toward strangers except as provided under the desert traditions of hospitality. In a desert world, it is important to be willing to offer shelter, food and water to a stranger who comes asking.

Jesus challenged all of those norms, except hospitality. He did not assume his family’s vocation or leadership as the first born male. Instead he became a traveling rabbi and healer living with his own circle of male and female disciples. We have scenes in the gospel when his family tries to reclaim him, thinking him crazy. “Who is my family?” he asks, and looks around the room. “This is my family. Whoever does the Father’s will.” He called God his father.

When asked his opinion about neighbors, he told a story that made a heretic Samaritan the hero for extending familial compassion to a stranger. When an unclean woman dared to touch his holy tallit, his prayer shawl, he called her “his daughter” and blessed her healing. His family table hospitality was scandalous, welcoming sinners and treating women with the same respect as men disciples. He healed and fed Gentiles with the same generosity as he healed and fed fellow Jews. He talked publicly with a Samaritan woman and made an enduring friendship with her and with her village by sharing living water. He touched lepers.

At the core of Jesus’ unconventional actions was a basic reformulation of the notion of family. For Jesus, all humanity is family under one Father. Every human being is a brother and sister. God’s blessing – God’s sun and rain – falls equally on the good and the bad. My neighbor is anyone in need, and my responsibility is to love my neighbor as myself. We are to regard every other human being with the same seriousness and value with which we regard our blood relatives and ourselves, because we all have the same Father, whether we know it or not.

That’s such an incredible challenge. Most days I’m not up to it. It does seem very hard, doesn’t it?

But let’s flip the picture a bit. There is a profound gift in Jesus’ way. It is the gift of freeing us from the dark side of family.

Family and tribe bequeath expectations upon us. Family and tribe impose limits upon us. Those expectations and limits are often unhealthy.

I’ve shared before how my grandmother motivated my father to succeed by imposing high expectations on him. I inherited all of those norms, translated into my childish brain as expectations of perfection. I believed anything less than a 100 was a failure. There was a lot of score keeping. When I succeeded I was rewarded and praised; I was proud of myself. Success was addictive. But it was also deadly. When my best wasn’t good enough, I rebelled. When I rebelled, I soured my relationship with my father. One of the reasons I was drawn into Christianity was my need to be embraced by unqualified love and to stop keeping score.

Jesus shows us a God who loves us all as we are. God accepts and calls us before we get our act together, as St. Paul so dramatically learned. We don’t have to be anything, earn anything, or become anything, before we are beloved family. We are all adopted and we are accepted before we even know it. I am drawn into that love.

But because of my early conditioning, that kind of world is unnatural to me. It was driven into my consciousness from an early age that I had to earn my place. So, if I’m going to accept the free gift of God’s unqualified love, my old self has to die. I have to give up nearly everything I was taught, everything I believed about my self-image, about my status and place, about what’s important. It’s like a death for me to believe that it really doesn’t matter what I do. It’s a struggle every day to remember that I’m already fully loved and secure without earning it.

Jesus said, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” When I die to that old way and just start the day fully loved and accepted – my status and place not dependent upon my performance – I can relax, just do my best, and leave the results to God. It’s a new life. But I have to die to my family values to live that way.

I find that when I’m easier on myself, I tend to be easier on my neighbor also. If I can love myself, I’m more open to love my neighbor. I’m also better to my family. It’s the story of cross and resurrection – let go of self; accept what is; and love one another.

Ultimately, Jesus invites us to accept absolute, unqualified love for ourselves and to let that absolute unqualified love flow out to every human being on the planet. One love. One God and Father of all. 
_____________________

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.

For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
More sermons are posted on our web site: www.stpaulsfay.org
Visit our web partners at www.explorefaith.org
Videos of sermons are posted at http://is.gd/tiwuyu

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Dance of Love

The Dance of Love

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
June 15, 2014; Trinity Sunday, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(2 Corinthians 11-13)  Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with all of you.
__________________________

From St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 8 in Sermons on the Song of Songs:
If, as is properly understood, the Father is he who kisses, the Son is he who is kissed, then it cannot be wrong to see in the kiss the Holy Spirit, for he is the imperturbable peace of the Father and the Son, their unshakable bond, their undivided love, their indivisible unity.”

Christians make a daring and profound claim. We say that relationship is everything and everything is in relationship. Everything counts. Everything is included. All that is, exists in God, therefore everything that is, dwells in the imperturbable peace of the Father and the Son, “their unshakable bond, their undivided love, their indivisible unity.”

Each of us is a manifestation of the outflowing, creative love of God. At the core of your being, dwells the eternal peace, love and unity of God expressed uniquely in you. Every person is a Word of God to the world. We all live in intimate relationship with God, with each other, and with all creation. That is the nature of Reality.

Our Christian perspective accords with the insights of modern physics. Reality is not so much a bunch of separate “things” as it is relationships. All the matter in the universe could be condensed to a size no wider than the space between my hands. Everything that we see in this beautiful world and throughout the universe is actually fields of relationships dancing in and out of various states of energy.

In our Christian Doctrine of the Trinity, we declare that God is relationship. A traditional, classical image of God the Holy Trinity is the image of a dance – a dance of love – love given and receive and returned. Lover, beloved and love united and energized into a relationship of union. An eternal process of Interbeing.

The early church used the Greek word “perichoresis” to try to describe the intimate relationship of the Trinity. It is derived from the Greek peri, meaning “around,” and chorein, which has multiple meanings: “to make room for,” “to go forward,” and “to contain.” “God is a circle dance (perichoresis) of total outpouring and perfect receiving among three intimate partners, who receive their Total Self from another and then hand it on to another, who repeats the self-emptying act of love to a third.”[i]

The intimate dance of openness, making room for infinite love, fully given and fully received, goes on and on with an energy which creates and contains all that is. Joy. Wonder. Union. Fourteenth century mystic Meister Eckhart says, “Do you want to know what the Trinity is: God laughs and creates the Son. The Son laughs and creates the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit laughs and creates us.”

Can you feel this energy of infinite joyful creativity and love? At the center of your being dwells this same intimate presence, energizing and loving you into being. Inviting you into the divine dance.

I can’t understand people who think of God as an angry judge, determined to punish or eternally annihilate everything that God has created except those few who believe some narrow, particular theology or repeat some transactional agreement about their belief. Rubbish.

God can’t do what they think God does. The movement of God is in only one direction, the direction of self-emptying love. Therefore it is impossible for God not to be totally giving, outpouring, loving. Like an eternal stream flowing downhill, God only loves and gives, going “in only one, constant, and eternal direction – toward ever more creative life, and a love that is stronger than death.”[ii]

All humanity receives that divine love. We Christians know that truth through the incarnation of Jesus, for Jesus takes all humanity into his flesh and returns it to the Father wholly reconciled.

Jesus draws all humanity into the very life and dance of God. “That they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us.”

The Father and the Son not only embrace each other, but they also enter into each other, permeate each other, and dwell in each other. Therefore, God the Holy Trinity enters into us, permeates us, and dwells in us. Do not look for God “out there.” God is “in here,” intimately breathing us into being, loving and energizing us completely.

We don’t have to do anything to become one with God. We are one with God. So relax. Simply live in the energy field of divine love as surely as a fish lives in water.

And remember, your condition as a human being is the same as every other human being. You are a manifestation of the outpouring of God’s infinite love squeezed into time and space, and into the container of human consciousness. Created by love, in love, for love.

Therefore, be love, be in love, and, Jesus tells us, love one another.

In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, the dying monk Father Zossima offers his beautiful final exhortations to his monastic community. He tells them:

Brothers, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.[iii]


[i]  Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, SPCK, London, 2013, p. 157
[ii] Ibid, p. 158
[iii]  Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book 6, Chapter 3, (g) http://www.ccel.org/d/dostoevsky/karamozov/htm/book06/chapter03.html

__________________________________________
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.

For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
More sermons are posted on our web site: www.stpaulsfay.org
Visit our web partners at www.explorefaith.org
Videos of sermons are posted at http://is.gd/tiwuyu

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Hope -- A Truce With God

Hope – A Truce With God

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
June 1, 2014; 7 Easter, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11)  Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. 
___________

In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the terror of the crucifixion is over. The resurrection is now real to them. It has been forty days since the disciples first sensed that Jesus still lived. Now, resurrection has become their new normal. Resurrection was so real to them that they described Christ’s presence with them in physical terms.

They are all together and they ask Christ the big question:  “So, now. Finally! Are you going to fix things?” Their first priority – When are you going to throw the Romans out and put the good guys back in charge? That’s what we want God to do. Stop the bad stuff; empower the good.

Jesus answers: “It is not for you to know.” Aggh. I hate that. Then Jesus tells them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Then Jesus leaves. For good.  That was about 2,000 years ago.

So we move forward a few decades, to the second reading from First Peter. Sounds like not much has changed for the good. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Fiery ordeal? I thought Jesus had overcome all of that “fiery ordeal” stuff with the resurrection – casting down death forever and inaugurating the new creation. But here we are years later and the Romans are still in charge and the little people are still going through fiery ordeals. What good is the resurrection anyway? What good is God, if nothing changes for the better?

You know how it is when someone writes what you’ve been thinking, only says it better than you could? That happened to me recently as I read Lonni Collins Pratt’s little book Radical Hospitality, Benedict’s Way of Love. She’s lived through her own fiery ordeal, the six-month suffering from cancer that killed her first child before the baby’s first birthday. She says she’s got questions for God. Here’s how she frames some of it.

If I had it within my power to keep people from suffering with cancer, I would. If I could protect every child in the universe from abuse and neglect, I would. If I could feed every hungry person, bring justice to every injustice, I would. If my best friend had a brother she adored who was dying and suffering, and she asked me to heal him – if I had the power to do so, I would. No questions asked. No questions needed. I would do it because I love my friend. I would do it because it’s right. I would do it because cancer is a horrific disease. I would do it because I care – I care deeply.

Based on God’s track record, it appears that I am more loving than God. [i]

Have you ever felt that way? You might have had those thoughts repressed out of you by someone or some church that told you You can’t think that way. Well I can; and I do.

Lonni Pratt says that at times, doubt has driven a wedge in her relationship with God. She’s walked away, or tried to walk away. But she says her heart still yearns to believe, and her believer’s doubt leads her “back to God, deeper into God.” But in doing so, she’s had to give up some things she once believed about God. She finds she emerges from “the dark night of doubt battered, but clear-headed.” What she’s gained by doubting, is Hope.”  Here’s how she puts it:

Faith is a gift of God, a thing that overshadows us and chases us down. We do not find faith; it finds us. Hope is a choice to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that God is going to make sense of all of this insanity someday. Healing will come in the wings of God, a peace will cover the earth from shore to shore, and a thing so bright and beautiful will emerge that it will all have been worth it.

Faith crushes me sometimes, because I have found God to be maddening and inescapable. Hope is my response to this Divine Passion that chases me down when I run. Hope is the title of the truce between God and me.

“Hope is the title of the truce between God and me.”

How can you make sense of a horrible tragedy that happens to the innocent? Yet it happens thousands of times a day on this darkened earth. We can sound pretty silly saying something about knowing God’s will with one breath and then speaking of God’s unknowable mystery in the next? Maybe it’s more honest to surrender and admit that we don’t have a clue about what God is doing.

Lonni says this:  I have had to forgive God for being obscure and magnificently mystifying. I’ve come to realize that God is not intentionally baffling; it is not some part of the bigger plan that we find God inexplicable. There’s no big lesson in this state of God’s being. It is just the state of what is. All that godliness makes God completely other, completely unlike anything or anyone else, and beyond comprehension. In the twisting turns of my journey, I’ve learned that it is my ideas about God that need forgiving – my idea that God would protect me, God would heal people I love, God would grant me and mine special benefits, God would right the wrongs…

I believe God is good. I do not understand the goodness, though. I believe God loves, but it is a loving that in no way resembles my knowledge of loving. I cannot bring my knowledge or experience to this question of God and make sense of it. I hope in God’s love. I hope in God’s goodness. I don’t always comprehend the movements and presence of these realities in time and space, where I live.

Hospitality toward God has not come easy to me… I have had to make peace with God on the only terms that make any sense. Hope. I have lost all my ideas about God, but I hope in God more profoundly than ever before…

God, like any of us, insists on being accepted as is, even with the maddening obscurity, dark night of the soul, and rocks falling on innocent babies. Take it or leave it, but don’t paint it into a pretty picture, because it is anything but.

Welcoming God into my life is a daily exercise in faith and hope. When I extend hospitality to this baffling, enticing God, I also open myself to love the unlovable. To love God is to love the wild wind, the shaker of the universe, the fury of the stars, the broken child, the tortured captive; it is to find God where we don’t want to look and to walk where even devils flee. Can we really look up at the crossed beams on Good Friday and think otherwise?

As Christians, this is the God we receive. The bleeding one, misunderstood, judged, put into annihilation for nothing less than the truth. Like the long-ago disciples, we still look for the conquering God who sets up a kingdom among us. What we find is the God who suffers at our hands. Suffering may never make sense, but God is not indifferent. Christianity tells us that we do not suffer alone – God is present in our bleeding, aching, throbbing. We are not abandoned. Not forgotten. We are carved in the palm of God’s hand. We are unforgettable…

I have discovered a God I can joyfully welcome even though God is pure and absolute Stranger to me… the Divine who simultaneously bewilders and beguiles.

So the writer of First Peter tells his friends, “Don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you…, as though something strange were happening to you… (Y)ou are sharing Christ’s sufferings…  Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” Remain steadfast, he says, “for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kind of suffering.” Yet still, you can hope. Sure, “It’s not for you to know,” Jesus tells us. But we can hope.



[i] Lonni Collins Pratt with Father Daniel Homan, OSB, Radical Hospitality, Benedict’s Way of Love, Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2011. The quotes throughout this sermon are from chapter 11, Calling a Truce – Hospitality Toward God.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

She Became the Face of God

She Became the Face of God

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
May 25, 2014; 6 Easter, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(John 14:15-21)  Jesus said to his disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.


"I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."
_________________________

Jesus had just finished giving his disciples the new commandment – “Love one another.” Then tells his friends, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” So in this tense, dramatic moment, in the evening before his death, when everyone is so anxious, so afraid about what will happen to him – the one they love so much, the one they love more than anyone they’ve ever known, the one who has loved and nurtured and healed them – Jesus tells them simply, “If you love me, …love one another.”

I’m leaving, he tells them. But you will see me, because I live. I will live in the divine love which cannot die. I will send you that love, the Advocate/the Spirit, to abide with you. Abide in the Spirit of love and I will be in you. Keep loving me, and love one another, and you will see God’s Spirit revealed among you.

Lonni Collins Pratt is the author of a fine little book that we’ve used for one of our spiritual formation classes; it’s titled Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love. She tells a story of abiding love which revealed God to her in an ominous period in her life. Lonni’s was twenty, and her first child Angie was dying of cancer. At four-and-a-half months little Angela had a tumor on her shoulder. Six months later she was close to death.

In those last days the loving network of friends who helped her found it excruciating to be near little Angie. The child was a “tiny, dark-haired baby with huge eyes and a startling ethereal kind of beauty.” When you saw her, you wanted to be with her, to help. A friend organized a schedule for people to stay with Lonnie and baby Angie in shifts from two hours to overnight.  But, “it was the rare person who lasted the whole night.

“Angela was in terrible pain, pain like someone had dropped an anvil on her arm. She was prescribed pain medication to take every four hours to ease the suffering, and the medication did help – a little. About two hours after the dose she would grow restless and begin whimpering. Walking with her, holding her, singing to her, worked to quiet her and comfort her at this point.

“At about two and a half hours she could not be comforted and did not want to be held. She would lie in her crib and throw her head back and forth, her mouth open, often with no sound coming out, as if the pain could not be expressed.

“At three hours, she started screaming and trying to rock from side to side in the crib while still lying on her back. No caretaker ever made it past three hours before administering more medication…

“If the crying didn’t get you, the tumor did. She was not a large baby. The tumor on her little shoulder was the size of a large man’s fist… Her arm was engorged to the point of being useless, so when you held her, you had to prop her ram on your shoulder or support it for her.

“People avoided her,” Lonnie said. “We don’t deal with the hard realities, such as beautiful children suffering, unless we are forced to… It takes a whole lot of courage to do otherwise.” Lonni writes, “In the last few days of my daughter’s life a courageous stranger came to stay with us.

“I didn’t really know Linda very well. She was the pastor’s wife at a little conservative church one of my friends attended. They were the kind that were rather noisy about their ‘born again’ religion. I used to tell my friend that while she had a personal savior, I had the same one everyone else had and he was enough.” Lonni wasn’t sure about having Linda there with her. “I imagined her leaving religious materials in my bathroom and scolding me for not praying long enough or hard enough.

“But that wasn’t Linda. People are always better than the stereotype we try to stuff them into. She had a son who was only weeks older than Angela. Linda showed up one day and she stayed. She made tea and she cooked beef stew. She washed the sheets on all the beds and she handed [Lonni] a sleeping pill.”

Seared into Lonni’s mind is a picture of Linda one evening, looking out into a warm October night, her silhouette framed by the screen door at the back of the little house, “standing there, trying to make sense of it all, trying to understand what this child’s awful suffering said about the world and the God she loved…” Talking to herself in a shaky voice, Lonni heard Linda say, “I don’t understand why God allows children to suffer like this. I don’t know why this is happening and what it means. But I know this: You can trust a God who bleeds. When you can’t trust anything else, you can trust a God who bleeds.”

Lonni says, “Linda stood beside me during the darkest time of my life. She opened her heart knowing for sure it was going to get broken. Being with us would force her to look right into the face of realities and doubts she had been able to avoid, until she held the dying baby and thought of her own son. In becoming available to us, she paid a high price emotionally and spiritually.

“I don’t know how I would have survived without Linda. She became the face of God to me when God seemed gone. I could not find a way to pray or believe in a good God. I could not get past the anger and doubt, but I could hold on to this woman. I wasn’t sure how to take the next breath, but I could take her love and feel her love. I didn’t have to give back anything. Good thing, because I wasn’t capable of it. I could let her take care of us. I was the hardest time I’ve ever known and during it, God’s name was Linda.” [i]

On the night before his death, Jesus promises his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned.” The King James Version puts it, “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you…” Jesus comes to us in love, the Spirit of love. Jesus comes to us to comfort us in the love we give to one another.

In Jesus, God reveals the divine life as love incarnate, love in human flesh. Whenever we experience love from another person, it is God’s incarnation come to us yet again. The Spirit, the Advocate fulfilling the one divine commandment.

That also means that we too incarnate God on this earth. Whenever you show love another person, you make God present to them. You become the face of God. You become the Spirit and Advocate. We are the Body of Christ, Jesus’ hands and voice and caring.

Whenever you keep Jesus’ commandment, whenever you love another as he has loved us, God’s name is your name. Then and there, you are the face of God.


[i] Lonni Collins Pratt, Radical Hospitality, Benedict’s Way of Love, Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, 2011, p. 232-238.