Saturday, July 23, 2016

The New Story

The New Story

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
July 24, 2016;  Proper 12, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Genesis 18:20-32)  The Lord said to Abraham, "How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know."
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" And the Lord said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." Abraham answered, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there." Again he spoke to him, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it." Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there." He said, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it." Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it."
(Luke 11:1-13)  Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say:
                Father, hallowed be your name.
                Your kingdom come.
                Give us each day our daily bread.
                And forgive us our sins,
                for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
                And do not bring us to the time of trial."
And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
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The folktales of Paul Bunyan the mighty lumberjack capture a part of the American frontier spirit. He is a figure of immense physical strength and wonderful skill, personifying the power of the pioneers who tamed the forested wilderness of the American west.

The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah teach a lesson about a core value of the desert—the law of hospitality. Like the frontier west, life is hard in the desert. If a stranger comes into your camp or village, the law of the desert demands that you graciously offer extravagant hospitality: water to wash the stranger's feet and to quench his thirst, the best available food, the choicest place of rest and shelter for traveler and flocks. We saw Abraham offer that desert hospitality to three strangers last week.

The people of Sodom and Gomorrah violated that sacred duty of hospitality. So God determined to punish them, according to the story.

Today we read of Abraham's engaging in Middle Eastern bargaining, talking God down from the immoral proposition of destroying the good in the process of punishing the evil. That is a classic dilemma of power, the problem of unintended consequences and collateral damage. In this story, it is Abraham who limits the wrath of God.

But human corruption is so endemic. There are not ten righteous men in the wicked cities. So, Abraham's nephew Lot and his family must flee as God destroys the cities. Alas, subsequently in the name of Sodom and Gomorrah, centuries of faithful people have practiced cruel inhospitality toward their gay neighbors, misusing power in a tragic misinterpretation of scripture. Human corruption is so endemic.

We misuse power. And just like the western pioneers projected their power into the stories of Paul Bunyan, we human beings often project our desire for ultimate power upon God. We humans are tempted to invoke God's wrath upon our enemies, or upon those we perceive as bring wrong or different. We humans will do terrible acts of violence in God's name. Stories like Sodom and Gomorrah sometimes offer Biblical cover for our human abuse of power.

Jesus is the antidote to the abuse of power and to the misinterpretation of God's nature. Christians see God through the lens of Jesus. Colossians speaks to us today:  "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition." Empty deceit is so endemic. Do not fall for it. Instead, we are to look to Christ, "For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority."

How does God in Christ deal with evil? Jesus is the story that reverses the evil story of Sodom and Gomorrah. How does God in Christ deal with evil? Colossians continues: "[H]e forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities, making a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross]."

Instead of using threatening, coercive power, Jesus overcame evil with love: a divine love that was willing to be crucified rather than to use violence, threat or coercive power. Instead of merely defeating his enemies with power against power, Jesus absorbed their evil into his vast loving heart, then he rose from the dead, bringing new life to all, the act of ultimate power. The early church called this the New Creation. Literally, a new way of being.

Some of you may have been brought up in churches that still live in the old creation, run by a god threatening Sodom and Gomorrah violence, a god intending to throw everyone who is not like us into fire and brimstone. That god is not the God of Jesus.

The God of Jesus chose to be one with us, all of us, fully experiencing human life. All of human life, including its suffering and evil and death; raising it all up into the New Creation. We are invited to participate in that New Creation by letting Christ live in us.

Thomas Keating puts very personally. "God seems to want to find out what it is like to live human life in us, and each of us is the only person who can ever give [God] that joy. Hence our dignity is incomparable. We are invited to give God the chance to experience God in our humanity, in our difficulties, in our weaknesses, in our addictions, in our sins. Jesus chose to be part of everyone's life experience, whatever that is, and to raise everyone up to divine union."[i]

You are loved. You are safe. So you are free, a new creation empowered to love as Christ has loved you. But that's hard. Richard Rohr puts it this way: "The cross is not the price that Jesus had to pay to convince God to love us. It is simply where love will lead us… If we love, if we give ourselves to feel the pain of the world, it will crucify us."[ii]

We see a life-giving pattern in Jesus. He works hard; he heals and teaches; he practices his active love. But afterward, he withdraws into prayer. That's where our gospel story starts today. Jesus retired to a certain place to pray, to renew his passionate union with God and to rediscover what is most real.

After withdrawing, he returns grounded, and tells his disciples how to pray. First, he says, connect with God's goodness and being; align yourself with God's good purpose. Then Jesus gets very practical. He says God's agenda includes our daily bread. Food, security, shelter. He tells us, accept your forgiveness and extend forgiveness. Then a he makes remarkable economic imperative: forgive debts. Finally, he tells us to pray, "save us from the time of trial."

Then Jesus renews the ancient law of hospitality with a new story. Can you imagine going to a friend at midnight to help feed a traveler and the one inside refuses? Of course not! How much more generous is God. Ask, seek, knock; you will receive, find, and be welcomed. Ask for love, and you receive divine love, the Holy Spirit. Receive love, and give it away. Hospitality in the New Creation.

The way of life in this New Creation is no longer the way of Paul Bunyan or of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is not the way of power or threat or violence or intimidation or control. The way of life in the New Creation is the way of love: to know yourself to be loved and accepted, and then to be willing to risk life's crosses in active love, including the practical love of daily bread, forgiveness, release of debts, and courage in the face of trial. That's our joy and our challenge.

"God seems to want to find out what it is like to live human life in [you], and each of us is the only person who can ever give [God] that joy."


[i] Thomas Keating, Fruits and Gifts of the Spirit, New York: Lantern Books, 2007. p. 39
[ii] Richard Rohr, from his "Daily Meditation" email, The Third Way, June 28, 2016

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Healing Legion in the Name of Jesus

Healing Legion in the Name of Jesus

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
June 19, 2016;  Proper 7, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 8:26-39)  Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" -- for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
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As Jesus crosses a boundary, leaving his homeland of Israel and entering the Gentile territory of the Gerasenes, he is confronted with a wild man—naked and homeless, unclean, living among the dead, violent and uncontrollable. The man reacts, afraid and defensive at Jesus' approach. Yet Jesus is the approach of loving compassion.

Jesus seeks to understand him. "What is your name?" That is a profound question in antiquity. In ancient days a "Name" is a deep word. It carries both a sense of one's identity and of one's vulnerability. To share your name with another is to reveal something of your inner essence, and to allow the other some degree of power over you. A name is not to be revealed lightly. To know the other's name is to have power over them. The name of the Hebrew God was never spoken aloud except by one person on one day in the year. The High Priest, alone on the Day of Atonement, would enter the inner sanctuary of the Temple and speak the holy name of God, trembling. Name carries power and identity.

"What is your name?" Jesus asks. The answer: "Legion." The wild man is complicated, his troubles complex, his afflictions myriad, entangled, multiple, knotty and tortuous. But Jesus willingly seeks to understand him, to know him, to be in relationship with him, to know his name, and to bring the power of the name of Jesus—loving-compassion and wise coherence—to let the power of the name of Jesus bring healing to Legion's complex troubles.

One week ago another mad man with deadly capacity acted with shocking and tragic violence. Since then we have been trying to understand who he is and why he did it. His name is Legion. He said he pledges allegiance to ISIL, but in the past identified with al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, who all fight each other demonically in Syria. He showed little religious practice but said co-workers teased and taunted him because he was Muslim. He was abusive and controlling toward his spouse. He struggled with his sexual orientation. The message he heard from his culture and his religion condemned in extreme terms what his soul and body told him was core to his true identity. Like so many others in his situation, he turned to suicide. He killed his own image in a murderous-suicidal rage and did so in a way that he might hope to be regarded as a hero and martyr with eternal rewards and earthly renown among those of his allegiance who otherwise would have thrown him off a building. His name is Legion.

In Luke's story, after the frightening appearance of the wild man and after all of the demonic violence of the swineherd, the man now free is found sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.

But change is hard. The people were seized with fear, and they begged Jesus to leave. The healed man wanted to go with him. But Jesus told him No. "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." Returning home, his active, creative intelligent presence in his community could now become a catalyst to overcome fear. "So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him." "Perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4:18b)

Our parishioner David Lewis' grandson Jesse was killed three-and-a-half years ago at his elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. David's daughter Scarlett started the "Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation" to let her son's death become a catalyst for healing. Last December President Obama signed federal legislation sponsored by Scarlett's friend Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal to support social and emotional learning for children from pre-K through grade 12. Scarlett's team tested a curriculum this year at an at-risk school in Waterbury, CT, and David calls the results "a miraculous thing." He says, "Kids have a basic need for love, and they accept love when we bring it to them." The Foundation is creating a free curriculum that will teach children the skills to choose love by building their capacity for courage, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion: social and emotional learning. Love, casting out fear.

Around the country many people are responding to the Orlando shootings with the kind of love that casts out fear. It will take great courage, gratitude, forgiveness and compassion to bring healing love to the legion of complex issues and human circumstances that this shooting raises into our corporate consciousness.

I pray for more understanding and more love for our LGBTQI neighbors. Last Monday night this room was the fullest I have ever seen as people packed every space here and overflowed into the Guild Hall and out on to East Avenue, expressing their grief and their solidarity. There was much love in this room.

I pray for more understanding and more love for our Latino neighbors and the whole immigrant community, as we respond in compassion for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting on Latino night. Can't we face the legion of issues and passions and complexities that underlie our broken immigration system with the wisdom and love that Jesus gives to us?

I pray for more understanding and more love for our Muslim neighbors who are again grieved and slandered by the evil actions of one who claims their name but acts contrary to the spirit of the Quran and the true religion of Islam. Muslims are suffering too.

I am encouraged by the work of a New York priest who is a colleague of mine in the Order of the Ascension. For the past three years a group he co-founded has been studying guns by interviewing soldiers, the police, and gun owners. They've reached out to gun manufacturers and visited a gun show in Europe to learn some continental techniques. Last April, working with police and gun owners, they organized the first smart-gun technology show in the country. Last week they met with congressional aids in Washington to share their free market proposals that are also friendly to gun owners and can make safer guns a real option. His group is bringing some wisdom and coherence to an issue whose complexities are Legion.

Our problems are legion, but we can face them courageously with loving compassion and wisdom.

At your baptism you were given a new identity, a new name. You were made children of God, grafted into the Body of Christ. Your name is Jesus. In our day, Jesus will bring loving compassion and wise coherence to Legion only through us. It is our calling and our identity to invoke the name and power and presence of Jesus. It is our job to ask of the madness, "What is your name?" and then to listen and understand. We are to be courageous in relationship to whatever confusion faces us. We are to bring to our day the loving compassion and wise coherence that is the power of the name of Jesus. I pray that the name of Jesus will again bring healing to Legion's complex troubles, though us. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
_______________________________
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, June 11, 2016

"Do You See This Woman?"

"Do You See This Woman?"

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
June 12, 2016;  Proper 6, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 7:36-8:3) One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-- that she is a sinner." Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

______________________________

This woman makes me nervous. I grew up in a polite home. There were things you just didn't say at the table. There were so many things you just couldn't do at the table. Crying was one of those. If you needed to cry, you left the table. And in all the years of sitting at dinner tables, in my polite homes or in the homes of other similarly polite friends, never has a woman come to our dinner table, washed a diner's feet with fine ointment and tears, wiping and drying them with her hair, weeping and openly displaying powerful emotions and deep, vulnerable feelings. People like that just don’t show up at my dinner parties. I don't know what I would do if that happened. I probably would be just dumbstruck, as it appears the host Simon is in this story.

I think I can understand a bit of what Simon may have been going through. As Luke sets the story, we are early in Jesus' ministry. Jesus is stirring up some notoriety in some of the villages. He has received mixed reviews in his hometown Nazareth, where some were amazed at the authority of his speech. But there were others who were offended that he performed no miracles, and he even seemed to insult his own people, talking about the ancient prophets Elijah and Elisha performing miracles for the benefit of foreigners. There are stories circulating about Jesus' healings and exorcisms in Capernaum, and stories from other villages where he supposedly cured a leper and a paralytic. Back in Capernaum it was said that he healed the Roman Centurion's slave and raised a widow's only son from death.

His teaching was inspiring some. "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, …who weep now… But woe to you who are rich, …[and] full. …Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets." Bold words. Challenging teaching. Is Jesus the real thing? Or is he just another in a long string of religious charlatans? Simon wants to know.

Simon is a member of the party of the Pharisees. Most of us would be comfortable with the Pharisees. They were the nice, polite, proper people in town. They were the religiously observant, like us. After all, we're the ones in church today, aren't we? Not like those other sinners in Fayetteville, doing Lord-only-knows-what out there. Simon was like us; a good person. A curious person. He heard about the new, controversial rabbi, so he invited the young teacher to dinner. In a nice, comfortable setting around a richly laden table, Simon and his friends could get to know the new rabbi, ask him questions, decide where Jesus fits in the scheme of things. Is Jesus worthy of acceptance and respect, or is he false, flawed, unworthy. It is a night for discernment.

So everyone was in their proper place. Simon, the host. His excellent friends, respectable people worthy of the table of an important Pharisee. And the object of interest, the oddity – Jesus, the new, young rabbi who was making waves. I imagine they thought that this dinner might be Jesus' opportunity for his big break. If he made a good impression on this group, he could improve his reputation and maybe even gain some important patrons. It was probably not an oversight that Simon and his domestic staff didn't offer to wash Jesus' feet. Jesus was more like the night's entertainment than the guest of honor. So they settled in to the various courses of food for a promising evening.

And then the nice, respectable comfort of a well-ordered dinner party got upended. The woman with the alabaster jar. Unnamed, unwelcome. Luke describes her as "a woman in the city who was a sinner." It wasn't hard for her to walk in. Great meals in those days were held in an open courtyard, easily seen and easily accessed. A meal like this was a public event. And the guests reclined in a leisurely manner around the table, so their feet were extended behind them. She walks right in, keels beside Jesus, pours fragrant ointment over his feet and lets down her hair. Scandalous behavior! Especially in the Middle East with its careful customs protecting inappropriate touch and the covering of women's hair.

Imagine the scene as she kisses his feet and caresses them with her hair. I'll bet the conversation stopped cold. It began to feel uncomfortably hot in there. Some of the diners reached for water, or wine. Did they look? Or did they avert their eyes? You know, Jesus never made things easy on people. I can imagine him catching Simon's eyes and fixing his gaze on his host as this woman weeps and kisses and wipes his feet.

Simon's carefully prepared party has devolved. He's angry. Now he knows; Jesus is no prophet. If he were, he would have known what kind of woman this is. No prophet would allow such outrage.

Essayist Debi Thomas says, "Simon needs Jesus to remain 'a prophet,' and the woman to remain 'a sinner.' His own identity – 'a Pharisee' – depends on every other identity at his table remaining fixed. But this is exactly what the woman unhinges when her body enters the room. With her hair, her tears, her touch, she forces each guest back into his own skin. With her more perfect, more radical, and more offensive hospitality – a hospitality attentive to mind, soul, and body – she confronts everyone in the room with their common humanity."[i]

Jesus challenges Simon:  "Do you see this woman?" No, Simon has never seen this woman, except within his comfortable categories of identity. Simon? Pharisee. That woman? Sinner.

"Do you see this woman?" Jesus challenges Simon. Look at her! She is just like you! Except that she is capable of loving extravagantly. "Do you see this woman?" She is just like you! Except that she is full of the extravagant freedom that comes from rejoicing deeply that you are forgiven, loved and free. "Do you see this woman?" She is not just a category in your comfortable schemes of Pharisee, prophet and sinner. She is God's own beloved child, and she feels it deeply enough in her bones that she can express her loving gratitude extravagantly in her body. Simon, you can't do that, can you?

No, I can't do that either, Simon. I'm an Episcopalian. We do things decently and in order. God bless us.

But I hope I can see that woman whenever she appears to us as she does in so many guises in our 21st century. I hope I can see her, and not just leave her in those categories of judgment that blind me, those identity boxes that we put others into, those identity boxes that we put ourselves into. I hope that when I see her I can smile and be glad at her extravagant expressions of passionate gladness, and not just be embarrassed or judgmental.

And one more thing. As I pray and as I live, I hope I can express in my quiet, Episcopalian way some of the passion that I know is there in my body – the passion of gladness for the forgiveness and love that makes us all free.



_______________________________
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, May 21, 2016

Experiencing the Holy Spirit

Experiencing the Holy Trinity

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
May 22, 2016;  Trinity Sunday, Year C
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(John 16:12-15) Jesus said to the disciples, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you."
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Our Christian expression of God as Trinity is grounded in the experience of the early disciples, what they knew and experienced about the reality of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit in the communion of their fellowship in the Church after his death and resurrection.

So it is important to know: the doctrine of the Holy Trinity doesn't just come from some elitist theologians thinking abstractly about God in their ivory academic towers, it comes from the experience of fishermen and tanners and cloth makers and slaves who knew what they had experienced and would not back down when theologians told them "but that's impossible."

The first thing these peasants knew was that the Jesus they experienced in flesh and blood was a human being just like them. He ate and drank like them. He got tired and needed rest like them. When his body was nailed to a cross, he bled and died like them.

The second thing these peasants knew was that when they were with Jesus they were with God. Not the God who created heaven and earth from before time and forever. But God in a human life. And here's where they got tenacious. Every time some theologian tried to describe Jesus as something a little less than God – the best human ever; the first of all the created order; someone like God but in a human form—they said, "NO!" Jesus was no second level divinity. No intermediary. When we were with Jesus, we knew—we were with God. But that's impossible, said the theologians. Go figure it out, said the disciples.

In Jesus, God has come to us. Real God. (Eventually they would say "very God from very God.")

And as if to complicate matters, they insisted further that after Jesus' death and resurrection, the Spirit that they experienced in their life and fellowship in the Church was equal to their experience of God and of Jesus. They insisted, the Spirit is God, doing the same work as Jesus they knew as a man. When the Spirit is with us, they said, we know we are in communion with God in Christ. It's all one. But that's impossible, said the theologians. Go figure it out, said the disciples.

The disciples insisted: Because we know Jesus, we know God. Their experience of Jesus was the experience of God. So they adopted Jesus' total confidence in God as a merciful, healing, forgiving presence. They had seen God through Jesus welcome the outcast and stranger, challenge all relations that are abusive or oppressive. They knew that in Jesus God seeks the lost sheep, welcomes both the prodigal and elder son. In his presence the broken became whole, the incoherent became coherent, the lost were found.

They especially treasured the most characteristic thing about Jesus—his radically inclusive table fellowship. At his table the master became servant and slave. He fed multitudes of foreigners as generously as he fed his own people. There was something transforming about their communion around the table. And when Jesus died, they knew him as tangibly present with them in the bread and wine as they had known him in flesh and blood. He was with them in Spirit, and that Spirit created communion among them. Unity in diversity. The many became one. The disciples were certain, Jesus shows us the essential nature of God.

We know through Jesus that God continually pours out infinite love and acceptance to you, to all humanity, to all creation, through Jesus the Son. In our humanity as one with us, Jesus receives infinite love and acceptance from the Other. Then Jesus returns the same infinite love and acceptance through the Spirit. God is love. (1 John 4:8) Lover, beloved, love itself.

It's like a dance. God to us in Jesus, we to God, we to each other in the Spirit.

Here's a way to experience some of what they experienced, a way of experiencing some of the essence of God the Holy Trinity. To join the divine dance of love, simply accept the fact that you are accepted. You are loved. Put your hand into the outstretched hand of Jesus, and let yourself be loved infinitely and accepted by God. Then put your other hand out to all humanity to accept everyone else as you have been accepted. Let all be raised into the divine presence and eternal dance of love. That is a description of Ultimate Reality. As surely as the earth revolves around the sun and every atom spins in relationship to its context, so we are in this eternal dance of infinite love.

The only way you can interrupt the divine flow is to refuse the gift of acceptance, through your own self-judgment or through your rejection of others. Sure, we all live with guilt. But guilt should be only a momentary false step in the dance. We fail, we step wrongly, we feel guilty. But instantly we look into the light of unfailing love, accept once again that we are accepted, and re-enter the dance.

The gift and grace of such missteps is our growth in empathy for every other human being in their own particular selfishness and sin. When we know how much love has forgiven us, then we can forgive and accept others, always leaving the circle of acceptance wide open by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Here is a truth. The question of union has already been resolved forever. God is one. And God in Christ has taken all of humanity, including our evil and death itself, into the heart of God through Jesus. Nothing and no one is outside the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross, fully embracing our human condition.

God's intention is the restoration of communion. Universal belonging, universal connection. That's what we call "Heaven." "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Theologian Catherine LaCugna says, "The heart of the Christian life is to be united with the God of Jesus Christ by means of communion with one another."[i]

So dance the dance of the Holy Trinity. It is the dance of equality, mutual love, interdependence, unity in diversity, inclusivity, acceptance and love. Every week we invite all into this wonderful communion. "Whoever you are, or wherever you are in your pilgrimage of faith, you are welcome in this place. You are welcome at God's table." Welcome! Welcome to the dance.


[i] Catherine LaCugna, God for Us, Harper San Francisco, 1993, p. 1

_______________________________

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, April 30, 2016

The Little Way

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
May 1, 2016;  6 Easter, Year C
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Revelation 21:10,22-22:5)  In the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day-- and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

(John 14:23-29)  Jesus said to Judas (not Iscariot), "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
"I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, `I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe."
________________________

Imagine you are an artist sewing a beautiful tapestry. The cloth you are sewing represents the themes in today's Epistle and Gospel. You meditate on these themes as an interior landscape; you are sewing an image of the human heart and soul resting in God.

You start with John's vision of the holy city. You first pick up gray thread as you listen to his words, "I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God… and the Lamb." Then you take up gold thread. "And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb." Now take up thread of sky blue. "Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it." Now the silver thread. "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the city." You take the spool of multi-colored thread. "On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month." The green thread. "The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." Now the white. "Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night, …for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever."

You pick up the red spool of thread and weave in the heart of the fabric as you move into the Gospel. "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them… [T]he Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you." And now the royal blue thread. "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. …Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."

Now look in your imagination at the piece of tapestry you have sewn. It represents what our life is like when we allow the interior light of God to shine in us, opening us in willingness to be present to everything before us, refreshed by the confident waters of life flowing through the center of our being. In each moment, each season, we are given the fruit we need to respond creatively, and healing is as present as the leaves in summer. We see Christ's face and God's name is upon our foreheads. It is simple love. We rest in God's accepting love and that love moves us into action. The Holy Spirit guiding and teaching us intuitively in each moment. Peace. An untroubled heart resting in God's peace. No fear. Just deep, courageous peace.

Now let me weave a similar tapestry through the story of a little girl and the moment of what she later called her "complete conversion." She was born in France in 1873, the youngest child of five surviving daughters. When little Thérèse was 4½ years old, she watched her mother die of breast cancer. Her gentle father had a deep paternal and maternal love for her; "My little Queen," he called her.

Thérèse was a sensitive child, bullied at school, and doted upon at home as the baby in the house. Traumatized by her early separations, she had a deep need to feel secure and connected. She tried hard to be good, to gain acceptance by pleasing others. The turning point in her life was a simple moment on Christmas morning when she was nearly 14.

The Christmas custom was to put the children's empty shoes by the fireplace where Father Christmas would come and fill them with goodies. Early that Christmas morning the family returned from midnight mass. As they arrived, Thérèse ran upstairs to put up her coat and hat. Her father was uncharacteristically tired and cranky. As she ran past his view, he looked at her shoes by the fireplace and said to older sister Céline, "Well fortunately this will be the last year," spoken as a father wearied by his daughter's childish ways. He didn't know, but Thérèse heard his words. The next moment, as she took the next step, was her transfiguring moment.

First she was shattered with intense pain; tears welled in her eyes. She had displeased her father. It was her internal belief that if she displeased her father, she would be a complete failure. Her identity was wrapped up with being a good girl, and thus acceptable. His displeasure would mean she was not a good girl, unacceptable, and she felt like she would dissolve. But in that moment, she did not dissolve. Instead, she let herself experience her intense feeling of hurt.

Suddenly she experienced complete acceptance, infinitely loved by Jesus in her weakness. As she took the next step on the stairs, she completely surrendered herself into the acceptance of who she really is with all of her weakness and inadequacy, and then let herself be carried in the arms of God. It happened in an instant. She experienced God loving her as she simultaneously endured the pain that she had failed her father; God embraced her even as she knew the grief of feeling that everything about her life was false.

She recognized she had done violence to herself by all of her self-judgment. And she chose not to blame her father for hurting her. She wasn't going to build her self-righteousness on the unfairness or weakness of her father. That's just more violence. Willing self-surrender left her with nothing necessary to defend. She just took the next step. Later she wrote, "The work was done by Jesus in one instant."

"I descended the stairs rapidly; controlling the poundings of my heart, I took my slippers and placed them in front of Papa, and withdrew all the objects joyfully. I had the happy appearance of a Queen. Having regained his own cheerfulness, Papa was laughing."[i]

It looked like the same old pattern—the little baby playing the role to please others. But with her new interior freedom, she was pleasing him out of strength, a compassionate, loving choice, not a compulsive act from weakness and neediness. She had moved from childhood to adulthood.

For the rest of her life, those conflictive feelings remained—needing to please, needing to be bonded—but she knew how to accept her own weakness and to be secure, carried in God's arms. In her autobiography, St. Thérèse of Lisieux said that Christmas was "the day of graces among all days."

Named a Doctor of the Church by the Roman Catholic Church for her teaching, her spirituality can be summed up this way:  "Self acceptance, self-appreciation, and self-surrender in a spirit of gratitude into God's will, into God's arms, into God's love." That is "the little way" of St. Thérèse.

What our life is like when we allow the interior light of God to shine in us, opening us in willingness to be present to everything before us, refreshed by the confident waters of life flowing through the center of our being. In each moment we are given the fruit we need to respond creatively, and healing is present. We see Christ's face and God's name is upon our foreheads. It is simple love. We rest in God's accepting love and that love moves us into action. The Holy Spirit guiding and teaching us intuitively in each moment. Peace. An untroubled heart resting in God's peace. No fear. Just deep, courageous peace. It can all happen in the next step. This little way.


[i] From Story of a Soul, translated by John Clarke, OCD. My material about St. Thérèse is compiled from the Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, Walking the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux, Kindle edition that I am reading, and from the Wikipedia article on her and the blog entry Word on Fire, http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/the-second-conversion-of-st-therese/1444/

________________________________
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, March 26, 2016

Remember

Remember

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
March 27, 2016; EASTER SUNDAY, Year C
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 24:1-12) On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.


______________________________

The women were just doing their duty. There was no time on Friday to embalm the body. But that nasty job was their responsibility. It was also sad work for them, for they loved the dead man. It was costly work as well, for it would leave them ritually unclean and separated from their community for the next seven days. But, before they can get to their duties, they are interrupted. "Two men in dazzling clothes" appear and frighten the women. The men then comfort them with these words: "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember…" they are told.

Remember. What are they to remember? Jesus had told them that he must be handed over; he must be crucified; he will rise again. It is a pattern that will be reinforced later that day and over and over again.

We see that same pattern in the next story in Luke's gospel. It's later on that same Easter day. Two disciples were walking to the nearby village of Emmaus, and a stranger joined them on the road. They were talking about these things, the crucifixion and the rumors of resurrection. The stranger then reinterpreted insights from the scripture that they had missed.

As they got to their destination, in the manner that is customary in the Middle East, they invited the stranger to come in and stay with them. He did. And when they were at the evening meal, the stranger did something to help them remember. He took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. They remembered. That happened just last Thursday night, the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested and so brutally treated. That was the night they had their last supper with him. Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to them and said, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." Now on Sunday evening, remembering that last supper as they watched the stranger break the bread, their eyes were opened and they knew: the stranger was Jesus. Resurrection was among them. Life begins anew.

Apostles and disciples of Jesus have been remembering in just that same way ever since for nearly two thousand years. In a few moments we will take the bread, bless, break, and give it, and you will receive new life, the bread of life and the cup of salvation. You will remember, and you will be filled with resurrection life.

There is a pattern to Jesus' life that is repeated in the Eucharist. The dazzling men at the tomb told the women apostles of it. "Remember how he told you…, that [Jesus] must be handed over…, and be crucified, and …rise again." Handed over, crucified, rise again. It's the same pattern as take, bless, break, and give.

This pattern is present in every moment of life. In every moment we face a choice. Do I take it and bless it, or do I fight it and try to control it? Do I give myself over in confident, peaceful trust to whatever happens, or do I anxiously grab it and wrestle it. Like Jesus, we are all handed over. Stuff happens, and we have to deal with it. Your friend is crucified; you women have to tend to the body. The alarm clock goes off; you've got to start your day. Let yourself be handed over to it; take it and bless it. Right now is the only time we can be alive. Right now is the only time we can be one with God, living in resurrection life.

Every moment presents its duty or its opportunity, its joy or its sadness. Embrace it all, like Jesus. Jesus embraced life, its joy and its pain, all the way to the cross. From his birth he let himself be handed over into full human life, and he remained entirely himself, centered and grounded in God. He let himself be handed over to crucifixion. And he rose again. Bringing life out of death is what God does best.

In some sense, each moment is a small death, a little crucifixion. We let ourselves be taken by the duty or the joy of the moment. When we hand ourselves over to the circumstances of the present moment, fully present, giving ourselves to it, we put ourselves into this pattern of eternal life, the pattern of dying and rising.

It takes some trust. Trust to stay in the present rather than anticipate whatever may be on the horizon ahead of us. Trust to stay in the present rather than dragging along our resentments and hurts from the past.

David Steindl-Rast describes this kind of life as the life of leisure. "Leisure," he says," is the virtue of those who give time to whatever it is that takes time—give as much time as it takes."[i] He says that this quality of giving yourself, letting go, dying from moment to moment is our experience of eternal life in the eternal present and our participation in the resurrection life of Jesus who is always bringing life out of death.

My life is often the opposite of eternal life and resurrection life. It's often more like bondage. I look at my calendar. Before the day comes, I've nearly filled it up. Gotta get it done. Take care of business. Grab the bull by the horns. How many of you live that way? And then, depending on our temperament, at the end of the day, some of us go home and just collapse and others go to the gym and grab a workout to relax. That's not the life of leisure.

Eventually, we will all have to give this up. Eventually we will all die. As we die, we cannot do things, control things. We will all know this in the shadow of death. I remember visiting a beloved parishioner in my Mississippi church. What a good person; what a good life. I loved her so much. In her 90's now, she was dying, and she looked radiant even though confined to bed. She smiled at me and said, "I'm not afraid of dying. I'm really not." Then a cloud passed over her face. "I just wish I could get everything organized." And she glanced toward her spotless kitchen and workroom. I couldn't help but chuckle a little. This most organized person was having to let go one of the most driving purposes of her life—organizing everything in a proper order. I said to her, "Mamie, everything is just fine. From now on, you don't have to organize a single thing. It's all taken care of. In fact, there's nothing more for you to organize for the rest of your life." Her eyes got wide. There was a sparkle of happy wonder. Like that was too good to be true. Then a relaxing breath. "Well, I guess you're right. I don't have to do anything but just lie here, I guess." Then she giggled. "It's really about all I can do right now," she beamed. She had a holy death.

What if we died before we are forced to? What if we let ourselves be handed over to the circumstances of the present moment? When you think about it, it's really about all we can do right now, be fully present to the duty or joy of the moment. Take and bless what you are handed over to in each moment. Die to all your habits of worry and control. Surrender. Be. Then give leisurely to the moment whatever time it takes, living in the eternal now, trusting the rest of the universe to God.

It's a matter of remembering. Remember how Jesus was handed over, crucified, and risen. Take, bless, break, and give. Remember. It is the pattern of eternal life, the pattern of resurrection life. And if we are willing to remember, it begins here and now.


[i] Brother David Steindl-Rast, Learning to Die, published in Parabola, Volume 2, Number 1: "Death," Winter 1977; posted online February 29, 2016: http://parabola.org/2016/02/29/learning-die-brother-david-steindl-rast/

Friday, March 04, 2016

Can You Believe This Family?

Can You Believe This Family?

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
March 6, 2016; 4 Lent, Year C
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32) All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So Jesus told them this parable:
"There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.
"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"

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The opening words set the context: "All the tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling…" Yippie! We can expect a story that will put that grumbling holier-than-thou bunch in their place.

The story then begins: "There was a man who had two sons." The original listeners knew stories like this. There are a string of tales in the Hebrew Bible about younger sons who leave their father's house to find their wealth—Isaac, Jacob, Benjamin, Joseph, David, Solomon. Usually the stories include some younger-son scandal and often something off-color. Jesus' listeners would be primed to expect a story like that—about a younger son who is something of a rogue and also the favorite. The roving son would eventually triumph and make good on his chancy behavior. And the snooty elder son would be left out while the inheritance passes through the younger.

An old Jewish Midrash on Psalm 91 catches some of the flavor:  "…there was a king who had two sons, one grown up, the other a little one. The grown-up one was scrubbed clean, and the little one was covered with dirt, but the king loved the little one more than he loved the grown up one."[i] The original listeners knew this oft-repeated story formula.

But Jesus' version would have sounded shocking and unbelievable. Never would a Middle-Eastern son ask for his share of the property. It is the equivalent of saying, "Father, I wish you were dead." A friend of mine tells the story of a vigorous argument he heard of when the story was told to a group in the Middle East. "Never could this happen. Impossible!" they said. It was unthinkable that any son could be so disrespectful of his father.[ii]

And it was equally unthinkable that a father would comply with such a request. By surrendering his property the father would lose honor in the community. He would break up the family property, an economic catastrophe as well as a stunning loss of face and status in an honor culture. The division of the property virtually kills the father and his standing in the community. He would be seen as a weak and pathetic parent; a disgrace.[iii]

The younger son with his shameful new wealth then squanders everything. Lost and hungry, instead of seeking his family's support, the young man joins with a foreigner by feeding pigs, a forbidden occupation for Jews. He has made a complete break with his family, his nation and his religion. He can't even eat the pigs' food. He lives worse than an animal. Completely degraded, "without money and food, in a foreign land, without family, tribe, or even humanity."[iv] He is starving, and he thinks of a place to get food. He recalls that his father's hired hands are better off than he is now. So he practices his speech like a legal argument and turns toward home to negotiate.

"But while he was still far off," the father runs to him. The Greek word indicates a desperate sprint. Now "Middle Eastern men of status do not run. They walk slowly in a dignified manner. To run is to act shamefully." But this father runs.

"Throwing his arms around the son is an act of protection."[v] You see, the Jewish Talmud has a ceremony to deal with a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles.  It’s called a qetsatsah (kweat-sat-sash) ceremony.  If ever that person shows up in the village again, the villagers can fill a large jug with burned corn and nuts, and shout the man’s name loudly as they break the jug before him.  He is cut off from his people forever.  He is dead to them. The community might even be justified then to stone him to death as the Law of Moses commands in Deuteronomy (21:18-21) for punishment of a rebellious child. The father's desperate embrace protects the son, and his kisses express his paternal forgiveness in a maternal gesture. The father's actions again put his honor and his place in the community in jeopardy.

The father never lets the son finish his little speech. The son comes to negotiate; the father simply restores him. Bring the best robe, which would be the father's own. The ring placed on the son's finger was probably a signet ring for authenticating family business. When the servants place sandals on the son, it signifies his placement as their master. The father makes the son an "object of honor. The son's place, which had been abrogated by his loss of the property, is now restored."[vi]

"In the Middle East, if one wishes to reconcile with your neighbors, you prepare a feast. If the neighbors desire reconciliation, they attend the feast. If they do not wish to reconcile, they do not come."[vii] "'Get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate." The father reaches out to the community to seek reconciliation.

But there is another son. The original listeners know what to expect. The unfavorite elder son will get the short stick. When the elder son will not enter, the listeners know that he is challenging the father's actions to accept the younger. The elder's refusal to eat with father and brother is an act of shaming them. It is also a violation of the Fourth Commandment. It is obvious; he will be cut off.

But he father leaves the party to come out to the field to plead with his son. Again, unthinkable. The host would never leave his guests. A Middle Eastern father never pleads with a son; he simply commands, and a son obeys.

When the father pleads, the elder son states his case in legalese. I've slaved obediently for you while this other son of yours brought shame to the family, squandering our wealth and violating the family bloodline with his prostitutes. He's a depraved profiteer, and I am a faithful slave. You honor him, and I get nothing. But the listeners see the elder not as a slave but as selfish, not as faithful but self-righteous.[viii] It's time for his comeuppance.

The father will not go there. "Son," the father says. It might be translated "Child." The word is Teknon, and it is a term of affection: "Dear Child." The son sees himself as a slave, but the father regards him as Dear Child; Companion, "you are always with me;" Co-Owner, "all that is mine is yours". The son is blind to the reality that the father is "always on his side and he need not earn his father's approval. He made himself a slave for something that was already his." He is the heir, the inheritor.[ix]

Unlike so many of the family stories in the earlier scriptures, the elder son is not disrespected or disowned in any way. He is the heir and the father is always with him. No cost; no banishment. The father rejects no one; both are chosen.

This father abandons paternal customs of honor and the legal titles, and instead he deals with his sons gently as children, kissing and embracing the younger, addressing the elder as 'dear child.' "The father combines in himself the maternal and paternal roles. As a father he is a failure, but as a mother he is a success. …forgiving, nourishing."[x]

"The younger son violates the moral code and gets a feast; the elder rejects the father but gets all." Is this justice?  This father doesn't care about justice and morality, or legality and inheritance. What he is concerned about is the unity of his sons. He wants his sons to live together, as Psalm 133 puts it, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity."

The father comes to them both, bridging the distance, running down the road to protect the younger, leaving the party to go to the field to seek the elder. Creating unity. Apart from the father, there is division and failure.

In this parable, Jesus will bode no outcasts. This parable of the kingdom announces that the Kingdom of God is universal. None will be rejected, neither the rogue nor the elitist. All are welcomed as children of the father and siblings of one another.

That's the family Jesus invites us into in the name of the Father. And it's pretty shameless. God chooses us all. Prodigals and snobs.

We don't know how the story ends. Did the elder son go in and join the party? What status will the younger son have? When the father dies, will the younger become the elder's slave?[xi]  It seems to me that we are writing the ending of this parable. In 2000 years, not much has changed. Today's righteous Pharisees and scribes keep grumbling about "those others;" today's tax collectors and sinners keep sinning. Where are the limits of our human family unity? Are we willing to come to the table with both the prodigal and the prig? If we have any honor or self-regard, we won't. But sitting at the same table with both these sons is the price of coming to God's party. So forget honor and dignity. Look! We've got bread and wine. Let's party! Everybody's invited!


[i] Midrash on Psalms 9 (Braude 1:131) quoted by Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1989, p. 112
[ii] Paul McCracken, Sunday Lectionary Texts, 3/1/2016, the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration, available by subscription from Paul: bookncatz@msn.com
[iii] This paragraph borrows from both Scott and McCracken
[iv] Scott, p. 115
[v] McCracken
[vi] Scott, p. 118
[vii] McCracken
[viii] Scott, p. 121
[ix] Scott, p. 121-122
[x] Scott, p. 122
[xi] Scott, p. 122-123

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