Saturday, September 06, 2014

A Joyful Mind

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
September 7, 2014; 13 Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Ezekiel 33:7-11)  You, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, "O wicked ones, you shall surely die," and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.
 Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: "Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?" Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? 

(Romans 13:8-14)  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
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Following the news lately has been terribly demoralizing.

I hear the scriptures today:  "God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die…?"

I admit to a sad feeling of relief when I heard this week that drone strikes had killed Ahmed Abdi Gondane, the leader of Al-Shabaab. I hope that some future evil he might have planned may have been thwarted, even as I recognize God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Oh that he might have turned.

Sometimes I think, If we could only defeat the powers of darkness… If we could rid the world of all those bad people. But violence seems to beget more violence. Saddam Hussein is dead, but Iraq is not a peaceful democracy. My mind is restless over these things.

Cynthia Bourgeault tells of a student who watched the movie Cold Mountain and couldn't sleep that night, bothered by the human atrocities the movie portrays. Distressed, she approached Cynthia the next day, saying, "How could this darkness exist? How can we remove this darkness from the planet?"

Cynthia said that she heard herself saying in response, "Don't you see… that by judging it you only make it worse? By trying to stop the black to make it all white, all good; by saying that this we can accept and this we must reject, you keep empowering the cycle of polarization that creates the problem in the first place… (T)he orientation that cleaves to the light by trying to deny or reject the shadow… only winds up empowering the shadow and deepening it… Something has to go deeper, something that can hold them both." [i]

Jesus in his passion and cross goes deeper and holds both light and darkness together. Up until his arrest, Jesus has been remarkably active – preaching, teaching, healing, feeding. Upon his arrest, he does nothing. Shackled and imprisoned, he takes no action. Questioned and tried, he remains virtually silent. He doesn't instruct, he doesn't defeat, he doesn't fix. He just lets everything be, while he remains solidly grounded in trusting love. In his body, love remains present as his life descends into the deepest places of darkness and evil, not overriding or canceling them, but "gently reconnecting them to the whole." [ii]

An anonymous nun put it this way, gazing on the cross:
            In stillness nailed,
To hold all time, all change, all circumstance in and to Love's embrace. [iii]

The Gospel of John calls the Cross the glorification of Jesus, his triumph. Yet what Jesus does is simply to let it all be – Pilate, Judas, the Sanhedrin, the mob – he does not fight or defeat them, but simply he lets it all be, and he holds everything in love's suffering embrace. From that embrace, God creates an eternal, transforming sacrament of love which embraces everything. As Colossians says, "In him all things hold together." (1:17)

Jesus is our model for facing the dualistic world of evil and good, war and peace, life and death. Jesus goes to the root of the dualities, embraces them, sheathes them in a greater love that can hold it in place until resurrection happens like the sun touching a snowflake. [iv]

But my mind fights against this transcendent embrace. I want things fixed. I want right to conquer wrong. I want evil defeated. I want my way. Now. My mind seems trapped in dualities of judgment, desire and conflict.

In his book about seeing as the mystics see, The Naked Now, Richard Rohr challenges my mind's habit of judgment and conflict and duality. Rohr cites the work of twelfth century mystical theologian Richard of St. Victor, a monk whose life under a malignant abbot was so unbearable that he had to appeal to the Pope for relief. Richard St. Victor writes expansively of the joyful mind. Richard Rohr has published a profound reflection on that, asking himself, What might a joyful mind be?

Listen carefully to this series of one-line descriptions of a joyful mind. Let them wash over you like water over a sponge. See if you can imagine letting your mind be in this way. Letting your mind be a joyful mind:

What might a joyful mind be like?
When your mind does not need to be right.
When you no longer need to compare yourself with others.
When you no longer need to compete – not even in your own head.
When your mind can be creative, but without needing anyone to know.
When you do not need to analyze or judge things in or out, positive or negative.
When your mind does not need to be in charge, but can serve the moment with gracious and affirming information.
When your mind follows the intelligent lead of your heart.
When your mind is curious and interested, not suspicious and interrogating.
When your mind does not "brood over injuries."
When you do not need to humiliate, critique, or defeat those who have hurt you – not even in your mind.
When your mind does not need to create self-justifying storylines.
When your mind does not need the future to be better than today.
When your mind can let go of obsessive or negative thoughts.
When your mind can think well of itself, but without needing to.
When your mind can accept yourself as you are, warts and all.
When your mind can surrender to what is.
When your mind does not divide and always condemn one side or group.
When your mind can find truth on both sides.
When your mind fills in the gaps with "the benefit of the doubt" for both friend and enemy.
When your mind can critique and also detach from the critique.
When your mind can wait, listen, and learn.
When your mind can live satisfied without resolution or closure.
When your mind can forgive and actually "forget."
When your mind can admit it was wrong and change.
When your mind can stop judging and critiquing itself.
When you don't need to complain or worry to get motivated.
When you can observe your mind contracting into self-preservation or self-validation, and then laugh or weep over it.
When you can actually love with your mind.
When your mind can find God in all things. [v]

If we could live with joyful minds, we might contribute our part to God's work of reconciliation and peace. And we might do a little less damage in the process.

St. Paul puts a similar frame of mind in more familiar words: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. And Paul reminds us to extend that same loving courtesy of love toward ourselves, and toward our own minds, for only then can you Love your neighbor as yourself. (Rom. 13:8f)

When you can actually love with your mind.
When your mind can find God in all things.


[i] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus, Shambhala, Boston, 2008, p. 122-123
[ii] Ibid, p. 123
[iii] Ibid, p. 124
[iv] Ibid
[v] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, Crossroad, 2009, p. 178

__________________________________________

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
Click the “Video Online” button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Uncaged Dogs

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 24, 2014; 11 Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 16:13-20)  When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
______________________

Recently I've been reading a couple of wonderful little books by Martin Laird, a contemplative theologian.  He says that when he feels "pummeled by too many thoughts" that leave him with the "punch-drunk feeling of lifelessness," he likes to go on a long walk. His normal path leads him along some open fields, and he often would see a man who walked four Kerry blue terriers in those fields. Laird says, "These were amazing dogs. Bounding energy, elastic grace, and electric speed, they coursed and leapt through open fields. It was invigorating just to watch these muscular stretches of freedom race along. Three of the four dogs did this, I should say. The fourth stayed behind and, off to the side of its owner, ran in tight circles. I could never understand why it did this; it had all the room in the world to leap and bound. One day I was bold enough to ask the owner, 'Why does your dog do that? Why does it run in little circles instead of running with the others?' He explained that before he acquired the dog, it had lived practically all its life in a cage and could only exercise by running in circles. For this dog, to run meant to run in tight circles. So instead of bounding through the open fields that surrounded it, it ran in circles."[i]

Last Tuesday night I waited in line outside the doors of the City Council meeting room as the line of speakers was too long to fit into the chambers. If you've kept up with the news, the Council was debating whether or not Fayetteville would become the first Arkansas city to adopt a civil rights ordinance protecting LGBT residents from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Very good people come to different opinions about the ordinance, and the whole range of opinions was presented to the Council. I love the passion with which Fayetteville residents care about our common life and how respectfully we can engage in civil dialogue.

Outside, in the hall, a gentleman, seeing me in my clerical collar came up to me and asked, "Do you in your church marry deviants?"

"Why, no!" I answered. "Absolutely not! Everyone who is married or blessed in my church is a loving person and is committed to faithful, steadfast love."

He seemed to like that answer and relaxed into friendly conversation with me. He gave me his testimony about being saved in Vietnam when a colleague shared with him the gospel of the saving grace of Jesus Christ – all have sinned and come short of the glory of God; the wages of sin is eternal death; Jesus died on the cross for our sins; if you accept him as your Lord and confess him with your lips you will be saved. He accepted Jesus Christ that day and was saved. I could tell from his glowing demeanor how important that was to him. I told him I thought that was wonderful, and I was glad for him.

We probably would have continued to get along just fine, but my friend started to speak in a one-to-one conspiratorial way about some of these others down at City Hall that night, these unrighteous who don't know Jesus. He began to go on about unrighteousness and the wrath and the judgment of God, intended, he was certain, for many of our neighbors around us.

But think about Jesus, I said. Jesus loved everyone. He reached out to the tax collectors and sinners, the prostitutes and lepers. Jesus loved them and accepted them and welcomed them to his table and to his fellowship. Jesus wants us to be like him and to love everyone. To love our neighbor as ourselves.

Well yes, he said, I can love them, but I can't endorse what they are doing. I know the scriptures; I've studied the scriptures. "Be not deceived: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as God is righteous." (1 John 3:7)

Can you let go of the righteousness a little bit and embrace love? I asked. You know the scriptures. Galatians 5, the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and temperance. Let go of the righteousness a little and let yourself open to love, to all the fruit of the spirit – love, joy peace…

He began to shake his head. No, no. That would not do. God is a perfect God, a God of righteousness. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees… And he continued like that on and on into the night, to my mind, running tightly round and round a little circle of sin, judgment and the salvation of the righteous few.

"Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked. Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." …"Blessed are you, Simon…! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven." And Jesus empowered Peter with power to bind and to loose. Yet just four verses later, Peter is unable to imagine a suffering Messiah, and Jesus rebukes Peter with the stinging words, "Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." (Mt. 16:23)

Now Peter knew his scripture. He knew the Biblical expectation of a messiah who would restore Israel, expelling the military occupiers and raising the nation to pre-eminence, creating Jerusalem as the political and religious center of the world where all nations will come to offer obeisance, as peace and prosperity reigns eternally. No room in that vision for a love that suffers unto death. Peter's dog just couldn't run that wide. And since that day, Peter's descendents in the church have often bound more than they've loosed. The church often runs in tight circles.

But Jesus' love knows no bounds. He took into himself the whole human experience, including our evil and our death, and Jesus opened his arms in suffering love, forgiving all. Then he raised our whole humanity into the heart of God and returned to be one with us in the Spirit. God has honored his prayer, "May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us." We are all one with God. The field we run in our human life is infinite and eternal.

Paul puts it this way: "I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me." (Gal. 2:19)

Paul looks within himself, and what does he see? He sees not himself, but Christ. "I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me." He has a sense of immediate union with the divine. He has an awareness of that union. Paul has burst out of the cage of legalism and righteousness he once lived in.

Paul also knows Christ is the universal ground of total reconciliation of all humanity. "As in Adam, all die; so also in Christ, all are made alive." He knows that in Christ all of the cages of separation are broken down: "there is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Paul is aware of that full unitive reality at the core of his own being.

That is the unbounded truth of the infinite love of God, given to every human being and to all humanity. God is one with you. You are one with God, and thus united to all humanity. Unbounded. Uncaged. Released to run freely across the infinite field of divine love.

All we have to do us open our eyes and realize there are no cages anymore. No cages of division, condemnation, and separation, but an open field of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and temperance energized by the Spirit of God. Stretch. Look. Love. And run!
________________________

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
Click the “Video Online” button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived. 


[i] Martin Laird, O.S.A. Into the Silent Land, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 19-20.

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."
________________________

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.'"
_____________________

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
_____________________

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.
__________________________

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
And services are archived at www.stpaulsfay.org

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."
_______________________________
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