Saturday, December 20, 2014

Connecting With Mary

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
December 21, 2014; 4 Advent, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Luke 1:26-38 – In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
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I want to visit with you today about something I've never addressed from the pulpit, and I do so with some trepidation.

First, a little back story. Many years ago I was in a class or workshop – I forget the exact venue – where our leader asked us to try to articulate our calling. What is your mission? What is your purpose? Can you put words around why you do what you do? I can't remember what the process was, but I remember an insight that exploded, self-evident into my consciousness. "I want to connect people with God." Yes! My whole being responded to that realization. I do. I do want to connect people with the Divine. It is a desire that is so deep in me that it seems to have its own source and energy. From the moment of that insight, I've never lost a sense of that purpose. The knowledge of such a purpose has seemed to me like a great gift.

But it seems that all gifts also have their shadows. You see, I have a fear that goes along with that calling to connect people with the divine. I have a dread of ever being the cause of someone losing their sense of connection with God.

I'm not worried from God's end. I know God that God's connection with us is eternal and unbreakable. God loves every human being infinitely, and the God I have experienced is such boundless love that I have no anxiety about God's ultimate intention that every human being will be brought ultimately into loving union with the divine. I just have a dread that I could get in the way of someone's journey into that union.

And so, with that dread, I want to talk about something that is part of today's gospel reading. The angel Gabriel says to Mary, "You will conceive in your womb…", and Mary asks, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

If you are someone who finds it wonderful and satisfying to ponder the miracle of Jesus' birth to Mary the Virgin, please honor your faith and ignore whatever I have to say today. You are connected to the divine, and this story is a beloved part of your connection. Good. Hold on to that delight. It would break my heart to get in the way of your connection with God through this story.

But if you are someone like me – a natural doubter – who has found some of the supernatural stories of the scripture hard to accept in simple, literal terms, and who has sometimes found them to be barriers to a relationship and connection with God, then come with me on a brief journey.

The members of early church reflected on their experience of Jesus of Nazareth. As they remembered the effect of his presence with them, they knew that being with him was like being with God in a human life. He was God-with-us. The human face of God. Jesus was so filled with divine Spirit, that they experienced an intimate union with God through their human friend Jesus. Jesus connected them with the divine. They believed him to be the fulfillment of everything that God had promised God's people through the prophets. So, naturally, they looked to the prophets for words and images to give expression to what is ultimately ineffable.

There is a prophesy from the eighth century BCE prophet Isaiah. In chapter 7 Isaiah says that a child named Immanuel shall be born – the name means literally God is with us. Isaiah tells the faithless king Ahaz that before the child begins to take solid food, the military threat that the nation faces will have passed. The early Christians would have been drawn to this story about a child named Immanuel, God is with us, for in Jesus they experienced indeed that God is with us.

The Hebrew word that Isaiah used to describe the mother of Immanuel was almah – meaning a young woman of childbearing age who has not yet had a child. She may or may not be sexually active. But the authors of the Christian gospels probably weren't using the Hebrew texts. They wrote in Greek, and they knew their ancient scriptures through the Greek translation called the Septuagint. The Greek word that the Septuagint uses to translate almah is parthenos, a word that usually implies virginity. That implication is not in the original prophecy.

So, I think it is likely that Matthew and Luke let the Greek translation of Isaiah's prophecy about the virgin who bears a child named Immanuel inspire their narrative of Jesus' miraculous birth. Their hero would of course have a miraculous birth, not unlike the wonderful, miraculous births of Isaac, Moses, Samson, and others from Hebrew scripture and from other ancient sacred stories.

For me, the story of the virgin birth is a poetic way of speaking of the uniqueness of Jesus, God with us. But I take it as a metaphor and symbol, not as something literal and historical. In fact, I believe our most profound language for the mystery of the divine is best expressed in metaphor and symbol. Can there be anything richer in meaning and divine presence than the Eucharist – an experience of sacrament, an enacted symbol?

This whole process of inquiry leads me down several lines of thought.

If I consider the story of the virgin birth to be a composition of the gospel writers, then I have a sense of appreciation for what it is they are saying in the writing of their story. Mary's embracing "Yes!" has a compelling aspect of trust, abandoning herself to God in the presence of the impossible possibility. Her "Yes!" is an inspiring act of trust in God. She invites us to similar hope when we cannot see the way forward within our means.

I also know that it was customary among some at that time in history to make sure a potential wife would be fertile and able to bear a child before a marriage would be finalized. So it may be that the unmarried Mary and her espoused Joseph simply followed that custom, which might explain her single state, if that is the case or needs explaining.

More intriguing though, I wonder if there was some scandal around Jesus' birth that may have prompted the need for such a story of divine conception. In his version, Matthew omits any story about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary. Instead, he starts with the inconvenient pregnancy of Mary and turns the camera lens on Joseph. "Being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [Joseph] planned to dismiss her quietly." (1:19) That sentence say a lot. Joseph acts with great compassion toward Mary. Similar circumstances more typically resulted in the woman's exile or in some cases death by stoning. Matthew concludes his version of the story saying that Joseph married her, "but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son."

I like that scandalous interpretation of the story particularly on behalf of all the women in the world who have ever found themselves inconveniently pregnant. May they find an understanding friend in Mary. May they find men like Joseph who will regard them with compassion and gentleness and who will not enforce harsh conventional judgments.

For me, Mary is a model of what we are called to be as the church. Open, willing containers for the mysterious work of God in the world. "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

I talk about all of these things today in hopes that my own doubts and wrestling with these texts may encourage you not to cut off your relationship to God or to the Bible if you ever find yourself in a state of discomfort or unbelief. I happen not to believe in the historicity of the virgin birth, yet I find that offers no impediment to my connection with God or my delight in the Bible. In fact, it seems to me that my discomfort has opened me to other creative ways to interpret and deepen the story's meaning for me.

Historically the faithful have always sought myriad ways of interpreting the sacred scriptures. In the old days Christians treasured interpretations that were mystical, symbolic, metaphoric, allegorical, and analogical in addition to the historical and literal. Only in recent centuries have some Christians insisted on the primacy of the literal and historical. When they do so, I find that they sometimes can destroy our connections with some of our beloved sacred texts. For many of us it's just too impossible to believe literally.

For me, the story of the virgin birth is poetry, wonder and beauty, inviting my imagination into a state where I might even find within me the capacity for heroic trust like Mary. Can I be an open womb to bear Christ in my body as well? Can I too say with virginal trust, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word"?

I hope you also can connect with Mary, so that you may be like her, a Christ-bearer, bold enough to say "Yes!" to the impossible possibilities in your life. May you be brave enough to say, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
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The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.

For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
More sermon texts are posted on our web site: www.stpaulsfay.org
Click the “Video Online” button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Contemplative Vision or Conventional Vision?

Contemplative Vision or
Conventional Vision?
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
December 7, 2014; 2 Advent, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Isaiah 40:1-11


Comfort, O comfort my people,
   says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD's hand
   double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
A voice says, "Cry out!"
   And I said, "What shall I cry?"

All people are grass,
   their constancy is like the flower of the   field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
   when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
   surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
   but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
   O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
   O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
   lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
   "Here is your God!"
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
   and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
   and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
   he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,

   and gently lead the mother sheep.
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All people are grass.

The prophet Isaiah had begun with words of comfort, comfort, speaking tenderly of God's near approach. Look in that direction! he says. But his reverie is interrupted with a harsh voice: "Cry Out!" It seems to Isaiah that everyone is looking in the wrong direction; they are obsessed with the grass, which fades, not with the coming approach of divine comfort.

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower in the field. The grass withers, the flower fades; …surely the people are grass.

What is it that catches your attention moment by moment? Is it fading and inconstant or is it grounded and trusting. Surely whatever news source you access implies that the people are grass – there is no true constancy – it's mostly stories of withering and fading. Surely the people are grass.

What have you failed to do this week? What's pressuring you from the "to do list"? What nags you and awakens insecurity in the back of your mind. The withering stuff. Let's call that the Conventional Vision. Letting your attention be toward looking at the withering grass of our contemporary time.

Get you up to a high mountain, says the prophet. On the mountain you can gain some perspective and distance from the withering grass. Coming here to church this morning is an act of getting up to a high mountain. We leave the withering world for a while and ground ourselves trustingly in the holy and the eternal. We are fed with the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.

The act of prayer or meditation or contemplation is a way of going to the mountain – acts of intentionally moving your attention from the threat of the withering grass all around you, and instead looking toward a Contemplative Vision. A contemplative looks simply – allowing, observing – grounded in the presence of the divine.

Do not fear! says the prophet. I'm told the scriptures say "Fear not" or "Do not fear" or "Be not afraid" 365 times, a verse for every day of the year. The consistent message of the saints and mystics is "Fear not! Trust."

Ultimately, the contemplatives tell us, "All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." Dame Julian said that in the middle of the Great Plague. A Contemplative Vision.

Conventional Vision – becoming anxious or fearful because of the inconstancy and withering threats all around us. Contemplative Vision – watching with peace and fearlessness, trusting God that all shall be well.

A Conventional Vision is all about fear. If you leave your attention on the contemporary situation and its cacophony of commentators, they will try to fill you with fear. Their constancy is like the grass. They wither and fade.

The Contemplative Vision turns away from fear and lifts up the voice with strength, trusting not in the fading grass but in the might and presence of God. Listen to Isaiah one more time: Get you up to a high mountain, …herald of good tidings, …say to the cities…"Here is your God!" …He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. The contemplative rests in God's arms, in trust and peace. Do that, here and now in worship. We have centuries of witnesses telling us that resting in God's arms is where we belong and where we may dwell, if we choose. It is a choice, moment to moment. But we have to turn away from our self-centered, fearful tendencies. As John the Baptist says, "Repent." Which means simply, turn around; go the other way.

Science tells us we didn't evolve to be peaceful and trusting; we evolved as fearful, defensive creatures. The cortex of the brain evolved mostly to analyze the past and imagine the future in a fearful and defensive way, which can leave us radically unaware in the present.

Our ancestors could make two possible mistakes: "Thinking that there was a lion behind the bushes when it was actually a beige rock and thinking that there was a beige rock behind the bushes when it was actually a lion. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second was death. So, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake even once. Our ancestors remembered every bad thing that happened and spent much of their lives anticipating more trouble. And this is the mind they bequeathed to us." [i] We are wired to pay more attention and to give more weight to the negative than to the positive stimuli.

Someone told me last week of an online news service that ran an experiment. For one day they published only good news. No killings, no outrage, no scandal. Online traffic dropped 80%. They went back to publishing the bad news the next day.

Political operatives know this. People vote against much more easily than they vote for. Fear motivates. It is in our DNA. We are fearful and stressed animals. Some studies estimate that over 80 percent of visits to the doctor's office in the developed world are for stress-related disorders. We are hardwired to be stressed.

Much of what we teach and practice in the church seeks to help us be free from our evolutionary fears. There really aren't many lions anymore, and our constant stressful anxiety over the imagined lions in our lives is much more dangerous to us now than any exterior threats we may need to flee. There are a lot more beige rocks than lions these days.

So breathe. Relax. Practice relaxing. Let go of the hurts and threats of the past. Let go of the anxieties and fears for the future. Be in the present. Let it be. Here. Now. Simply accept reality as it is, and trust God for guidance in the present moment. Simply do whatever you need to do – right now. Now is all you have. The past is gone; the future is not here.

God is with us. Love heals and overcomes all. Ultimately, it's all grace. Even the crosses and crucifixions end up being the impetus for resurrection.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. …Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. Get you up to a high mountain…, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, …lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities..., "Here is your God!" …He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.



[i] Ronald D. Siegel, The Science of Mindfulness, Lecture 2: Our Troublesome Brains; The Great Courses, Course Guidebook, p. 12
___________________________

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, November 15, 2014

Enter Into the Joy of Your Master

Enter Into the Joy of Your Master
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
November 16, 2014; 23 Pentecost, Proper 28, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Matthew 25:14-30 – Jesus said, "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"
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This parable is not a story in praise of the Protestant work ethic – the notion that if you work hard and live frugally, you will make evident your virtue and your salvation, and God will bless you. Like the third little pig, who sternly built his house with brick and didn't waste his time with music or dance. You'll just have to go to another church to hear that sermon. More important: Jesus' listeners would have never heard that work ethic message from this parable.

This parable is a story about a harsh man who reaps where he doesn't sow and gathers where he didn't scatter seed – a man who can strike fear and intimidation into others so that they will do morally questionable things in order to further his wealth and power, in order to enter into the joy of their master. You might want to hear that last phrase spoken in the voice of the Dark Sith Lord of Star Wars, the Emperor Darth Sidious – "Anakin. Enter into the joy of your master."

So, a little background information: As far as we know, there was no banking system in first century Palestine. If a wealthy person needed to go on a journey and could not take all of his money with him, he would entrust his money to the safekeeping of a reliable friend or servant. It was called leaving the money on deposit, a very common practice. In early Christian worship, part of the liturgy included the congregation's making a pledge to deal honestly with money left with them on deposit.

Jewish rabbis taught that the best way to protect money left with you on deposit would be to bury the money in the ground. One who took such precaution would be free of any liability from its loss. The third slave in Jesus' parable followed the correct religious teaching.

Here are a few other related points: Roman law limited interest rates to a maximum of 12%. The book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scripture forbids charging any interest whatsoever to fellow Israelites. Interest may be charged to foreigners, however. During the Middle Ages, the Christian church considered lending or usury as a particularly heinous sin. In Luke's gospel, Jesus said simply, "Lend, expecting nothing in return."

So, what about these other slaves who return the master's money doubled – a 100% return on investment. The crowd of Jesus' listeners would have murmured knowingly. For anyone to double their money in first century Palestine, they must have done something exploitative, probably illegal and certainly immoral. [i]

What the first two slaves did violated the religious teachings and the moral sensitivities that Jesus would have expected from those who listened to his parables and those who followed him. But what the first two slaves did was not uncommon, and it did not violate the expectations or practice of certain powerful and wealthy elites who exploited the occupied provinces for their ambition and avarice in the competitive world of the Roman aristocracy. In this parable, two worlds collide – the Empire's elite and the faithful, humble common person. Jesus simply exposed a reality that has not quite disappeared from our world today. It is as true today as it was when Jesus taught -- "to all those who have, more will be given and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. Still the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

I sat next to an interesting person at an out-of-town dinner this week. Allan is bright, gregarious, and a delightful conversationalist. He told me he used to live in Northwest Arkansas. He started out up here in sales. Allan was a good salesman. His product was a respectable one, but he offered some clues that implied that sometimes he realized that purchasing his product might not be in the best interest of all of his customers. Allan did well, though; well enough to be promoted into management, where he found himself mostly dealing with numbers rather than people. But he was making a whole lot of money.

Allan sensed that he was missing something, and so, at mid-life, he made a dramatic career adjustment. Part of his discomfort occurred when Allan's father became ill, and Allan was too far away and had too many job responsibilities to be very present and available to his father. His father had died, and now his mother was getting older. Allan missed the woods and the landscape of home. Also, there was something in his soul that wasn't being fed by his high paying corporate management job.

Allan jumped at the opportunity to move back home to direct a network of small, non-profit rural medical clinics focused on serving the poor and uninsured. He was glad to be working with people again. He was proud to be doing something he really believed in, a vocation that fed his soul. He was happy to be near his family and back in the woods, in touch with the energies that nurture a deep place in his heart.

When he talked about his son, it struck me that Allan's example might have rubbed off on the young man's character also. His son is a good athlete, and, like Allan, a pretty big boy. But when the consuming time and sacrifices of playing football competed with his love of hunting and the outdoors, the young man told the all-demanding football coach "good bye" and returned to his first love. Allen grinned ear to ear talking about some of their shared adventures in the woods. Underneath his narrative, I could hear a soft, gentle breeze through the leaves whispering to them, "Enter into the joy of your Master."

I know there are many in this room who are grateful to have a job, any job. There are others who are unemployed and need work, any work. Many people are not in a position like Allen was, to consider a change of employment as an adjustment toward a more wholesome lifestyle.

But there are others who may be in work that might prompt them toward some soulful questions. Is what I am doing something of deep value to common good? Can I be proud of the service or product I offer? Am I able to do my work with a sense of integrity and honor? Am I part of a virtuous business system? Does working in this job fulfill my calling to be a whole and balanced person? Does this work demand too much of me, too much of my soul, too much of my life?

There are harsh businesses environments which can strike fear and intimidation into employees so that they will do questionable things in order to further the wealth and power of the business. Their masters will often exercise control by rewarding their good and trustworthy slaves with great return on investment. But at what cost?

Does this parable speak to you and to your circumstance? Whose slave are you? If you are to enter into the joy of your master, who is your master? For some of us, Jesus' parable might be a poignant invitation to ask ourselves some soulful questions.

What does it mean for you to enter into the joy of your master?


[i] Again I am thankful to my friend Paul McCracken, archeologist and scholar of the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration, for his weekly blog, Nov. 11, 2014 – bookncatz@msn.com

_______________________________

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, November 01, 2014

Mind Boggling and Fantastic

Mind Boggling and Fantastic

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
November 2, 2014; All Saints' Sunday, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Matthew 5:1-12 – When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."


__________________________________

At least since 1997, scientists have been exploring evidence that describes nature as a kind of hologram. The idea is that the information about what happens in our three-dimensional world is encoded in quantum equations on the two-dimensional boundary of three-dimensional space/time. (I hope I get this right.)

Imagine the universe shaped like a can of soup with a boundary of light-energy-information. Inside the can-shaped boundary are all of the galaxies, stars, black holes, gravity, and us – everything in what we call the universe. The information describing all of these realities resides like a label on the outside of the boundary, on the outside of the can. From that two-dimensional boundary our three-dimensional world exists like a physical 3-D movie projected from the two-dimensional boundary of the universe. All of the information that is us – our universe – resides at the cosmological horizon and is universally accessible.

Now, I don't know if I got that right. I know I can get Art Hobson or Lothar Shafer to correct my science. I may be wrong in my details, but I know I'm correct in spirit. The nature of the universe, as scientists now explore it, is mind-boggling and wonderfully fantastic. We'll come back to this.


The Beatitudes that we just heard from Matthew's gospel are also mind-boggling and wonderfully fantastic. Matthew beautifully summarizes Jesus' spiritual teaching in these ten "Blessings." The word here translated "Blessed" can also be translated "Happy." How blessed and happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the reviled and persecuted, and so forth.

But at first glance, it doesn't make much sense, does it? I'm not about to go up to someone overwhelmed with grief because their loved one has just died tragically, and say, "How blessed and happy are you, for you will be comforted." I'm not about go up to someone whose life is so meek and marginal that they don't know where the next meal will come from, and say to them, "How happy and blessed are you; you are going to inherit the earth."

But Jesus says all of these things, and they turn our minds inside out. It is like he is saying that life is radically different than our experience of it.

When we experience spiritual poverty, he is saying that we are already embraced by the kingdom of heaven. When we mourn our losses, he says we are already living within a comforting reality transcending all we can lose. He tells us we need no merit or status to be given the whole. Our deepest frustrations and yearnings can and will be satisfied. We can relax. So can everyone else. Jesus tells us that when we let go of all the distractions, we experience God. And when we live in God's energy, we discover we are God's beloved children. Therefore, if others attack or hurt or punish us for acting out of loving compassion, they can't really hurt us. We are always and everywhere embraced within the eternally loving vitality of God.

Jesus poses these wild assertions as facts. Facts as real and true as the law of gravity. The Beatitudes are spiritual realities of a universe breathed into being by the wisdom of divine love. That's mind-boggling and utterly fantastic.

So, back to our universe shaped like a can with all of the information of the galaxies and every living thing residing on the edge of the boundary. Remember, scientists talk in metaphors like this.

James Finley is a writer and retreat leader who was a student of Thomas Merton. Finley uses a different metaphor – a magician. When a magician says, "Pick a card, any card," you already know, it doesn't matter which card you pick, the magician will inexplicably find it in your pocket or behind your ear.

Now, Finley says, imagine you are out walking on the beach and God says, "Go ahead, pick a grain of sand, any grain." No matter what grain of sand you choose, God is present in it. Since God is not subject to division or diminishment of any kind, God is completely present in that one little grain of sand. Furthermore, since the whole universe flows from God, is sustained by God and subsists in God, you are holding in your hand a grain of sand in which you, along with the whole universe and everyone and everything in it, is wholly present.

Mind-boggling and utterly fantastic.

Finley goes on to imagine God inviting you to pick a place, any place; pick a circumstance, any circumstance where you might find yourself. Wherever you are, God is there. God invites you to choose something like that grain of sand – anything at all – an autumn leaf, a chair, a shoe – "No matter what you might choose, you realize you are choosing something in which God is wholly present, loving you, and all people and all things, into being."

Then God invites you to reflect on any aspect of yourself. Your spiritual poverty, your grief, your smallness, your yearnings, your most generous self, your heart's desire, your goodness, your fears, your most threatening circumstances. That's just the list from the Beatitudes -- parts of us that are always with us.

God invites you to reflect on any aspect of yourself. No matter what aspect of yourself you focus on, God is there, wholly present in each breath, each thought and feeling, each turn of your head. You realize, as you sit, that God is present as the ungraspable immediacy of your sitting. As you stand, God is there as the ungraspable immediacy of your standing. As you laugh, God is there as your laughter. As you cry, God is wholly present in each tear that falls from your eyes.

It does not matter what little thing you might choose, within or around you. It might just be the thing that awakens you from your fitful dream of being separate from God, who is the reality of yourself and all that is real. May each of us be so fortunate as to be overtaken by God in the midst of little things. May we each be so blessed as to be finished off by God, swooping down from above or welling up from beneath, to extinguish the illusion of separateness that perpetuates our fears. May we, in having our illusory, separate self slane by God, be born into a new and true awareness of who we really are: one with God forever. May we continue on in this true awareness, seeing in each and every little thing we see, the fullness of God's presence in our lives. May we also be someone in whose presence others are better able to recognize God's presence in their lives, so that they, too, might know the freedom of the children of God.[i]

The scientists say we are inseparable from the information at the edge of the universe. Jesus and the mystics say, Blessed are those who know that they are inseparable from the love and grace of God immediately present within us and all creation. Blessed are you, beloved children of God.


[i] James Finley, Epilogue, from Oneing: The Perennial Tradition, Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013

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

For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
More sermon texts are posted on our web site: www.stpaulsfay.org
Click the “Video Online” button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Learning from Philip

Learning from Philip
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
October 26, 2014; 20 Pentecost, Proper 24, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Matthew 22:34-46 – When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
                 `The Lord said to my Lord,
"Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet"'?
 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

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"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself."

It was a cold morning. I was driving toward my church in Fort Smith to open up for the early service. There was no traffic at that hour. Back then I drove a 1937 Chevy street rod. Kathy called that car my mid-life crisis. It was a pretty toy that ended up becoming a pretty expensive toy. But that morning, driving down an empty street, the light turned red on me. I stopped, and a small, cold looking fellow in Army fatigues wobbled a bit unsteadily across the street, his breath visible in the chill. Instead of staying in the crosswalk in front of my car, he headed right toward me. My first reaction was an anxious one, but then he grinned a big wide smile, exaggerated by his missing two-front-teeth. He signaled for me to roll down my window. I rolled down my window. "Hey Father, how much would you take for that car? I wanna buy your car?"

"I think my wife would give it to you, but I'm pretty attached to it," I said.

"I like that car, Father," he chuckled, his blood-shot eyes glistening. I caught a whiff of what he must have been drinking that night to keep himself warm. "I'm gonna buy that car from you," he laughed as he walked on, crossing in front of me.

It was weeks, maybe months later, when I got a call from one of our local recovery programs. They said a fellow named Philip had checked in to their 30-day detox and rehab center. When they asked him about his income, he told them he was on disability. When they asked who his payee was, he said, "The Father down at the Episcopal Church." "Are you the Father down at the Episcopal Church?" "Yes," I said. "But what's a payee?"

So they explained the system to me. When someone is placed on disability for addiction, the government requires a payee to serve as the party responsible for administering the funds for the disabled person. The rehab center needed a payee to cover the costs of Philip's stay with them.

"Well," I said, "the name Philip doesn't ring a bell with me, but if he says I'm his payee, I'll be glad to come down and see what the situation is." It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

It seems Philip's payee had been fleecing money from him, and Philip liked my car. So when they asked him who his payee was, he just made it up and said I was. We talked a while. I learned about the responsibilities of a payee. And we made a deal. I'd be his payee and take care of his living costs as long as he was sober. If he started drinking though, I'd put his money in the bank for him. I wasn't going to pay for his drinking. Until he was sober again, he was on his own. Philip grinned that big, toothless grin and we shook on it.

We got him set up in a pretty spare furnished apartment. I didn't know what I was doing and made some mistakes at first. I wrote up a budget and schedule for him for rent and food and essentials. A couple of days later he came back. "Father, don't be mad at me. I gave away the money to a poor family with two children." "Okay," I said, admiring his generosity but anxious about his own slim margins. "How much did you give them?" "Oh, all of it, Father," "What? Nearly $400? That was everything you had to live on for the whole month." (It was the first week of the month.) "Oh, Father. They need it more than I do. They have children to take care of. I got one of them a little Teddy Bear," he grinned. "Philip…!" I moaned. "No wait, Father. Don't be upset with me. They really need it, for those children. I can get by just fine. Why I could go down on Garrison Avenue right now and panhandle, and I could get ten dollars, twenty in half an hour. Maybe even more. One time a guy gave me a fifty dollar bill. Can you imagine that? Fifty bucks! Wow. I felt rich. He must have been rich."

I  learned something fascinating. Philip felt absolutely secure. Philip knew he could take care of himself. He didn't have to have income in order to get by. He didn't have to have a home to be just fine. More than once he said to me, "The good Lord will take care of me. He's never failed me. I believe that. You believe that too, don't you, Father?" And he looked at me in a way that made me wonder about my own level of trust.

Philip's sense of security and unattachment to money made him free in a way that I am not free. Free enough to give all of his money to a family poorer then he was simply because they had children. Often Philip acted with spontaneous, radical generosity that just amazed me. Philip needed to plan in order to keep enough money for his rent and utilities. I had to adjust my plan for him as his payee to account for his radical generosity.

Now, I'm not built like Philip. I'm not spontaneous and radically generous as he. I'm also not that secure or that free. I need to plan in order to be generous, in order to give money to good things before I rationalize my wants into exaggerated needs.

You see I find it is easy for me to exaggerate my needs and to get very attached to my wants. I can rationalize buying a 1937 Chevy street rod. I needed that car. Actually, it is my appetites need some discipline.

Unlike Philip, I need to plan in order to be generous. I like making a plan to give away a known percentage of my income as an act of gratitude to God for all that I enjoy, and as an act of generosity toward some things I believe in and want to support. I think tithing is a satisfying and fulfilling act that generates in us some of the joy that Philip experienced whenever he gave to children.

I encourage you to make a plan in order to be generous. Give away a known percentage of your income. Give it to St. Paul's, and to KUAF and 7hills or to whatever you believe in. Give spontaneously whenever we have our Community Kids Closet drive to get winter coats for kids or when we help John Agana ship a container to his home in Ghana.

Give because you need to. Give because you are so happy to be able to give. Give because you've got a home and electricity and water. Give because it feels good. Give because you can do better things with your money than buy whatever your version of a 1937 Chevy street rod might be.

And be glad. Giving is a way of loving. Give to God because you love God. Give as a way of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Give to St. Paul's because you love God, and because everything we do is about Jesus' liberating commandment of love – Love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself. That's what we're trying to do – as spontaneously and generously as we can.
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The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.

For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
More sermon texts are posted on our web site: www.stpaulsfay.org
Click the “Video Online” button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Whose Eikōn is this?

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
October 18, 2014; 19 Pentecost, Proper 23, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Matthew 22:15-22 – The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
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Jesus takes the coin, a Roman coin, and asks, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" The Greek word translated here as "head" is the word eikōn. It is often translated "image" or "likeness." Jesus holds the coin and asks, "Whose image or likeness is this?"

Caesar's eikōn is on the coin. Then, give it to Caesar. But give to God the things that are God's.

Let's go back into the recesses of time, before money or Caesar. In the first chapter of the Bible, as God finishes the days of creation, God declares, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in God's image; …male and female… [And] God blessed them." (Gen. 1:26f)

Now just hold that for a few moments. We’ll get back to it.

I want to tell you about an essay I read last week that really grabbed me. It was an essay about "devotion." Now that's not a word I use very often – "devotion." It's got a sweet and syrupy tone that I tend to shy away from. But listen to this description:  "Devotion is extremely dedicated, unwavering love that is selflessly oriented toward the good of another – who may be God, a cause, a profession, a work – really anything, which indicates the great fluidity of devotion that, when entered, opens and fills the interior soul life." [i]

Devotion is extremely dedicated, unwavering love that is selflessly oriented toward the good of another. Now that's something I can get excited about. I want to live a life like that. I want to live a life full of devotion, full of dedicated, unwavering love… selflessly oriented toward the good of another. I can see devotion in my life. I'll be you can see devotion in your life too.

I've got "dedicated, unwavering love" toward my family, and it is sometimes "selflessly oriented toward (their) good." I find it easy to be devoted to my work and to this church. To friends. And, when I think about it, I find I have a considerable degree of devotion to some things that might be considered of less significance – to sports, to the Razorbacks and the Rebels. You might not be exaggerating if you described my attention to some football games at times as being "extremely dedicated, unwavering love that is selflessly oriented toward the good of" my team. As I put it that way, I don't think I'm particularly proud of that.

It makes me wonder whether it's really love, or is my sports obsession more like an addiction? What is the difference between love and addiction? I think that's where the second half of that definition comes in. An addiction is all about me and getting my needs met. Devotion is "selflessly oriented toward the good of another."

What are you dedicated to? To what do you give unwavering love, selflessly oriented toward the good of another?

If we are fortunate, we can all count some devotions in our life. People, relationships; jobs if we are lucky; certain causes or special interests. To who or what do you give yourself for good?

The writer of the essay about devotion was writing particularly about contemplation and contemplative prayer. As I read, he stoked a fire and passion that is inside me – a desire to be passionately dedicated to God, and a desire to enter prayer with an "extremely dedicated, unwavering love that is selflessly oriented toward" God, the goodness and wholeness at the center of all.

Yet when I do orient myself toward God with deep devotion, I find it is I who becomes the subject of a "dedicated, unwavering love that is selflessly oriented toward my good." I discover it is God who is dedicated to me with unqualified love. Sometimes the experience of that love is so profound that I even feel myself to be created in the image of God. Which takes us back to the story of the coin.

One reason I can believe in a God of unqualified love is because I was so fortunate to have a grandfather who loved me in a way that approached unqualified love. I realize how fortunate I am, for not everyone receives such divine love from another human being.

Sometimes when I am especially fragile, I will use the image of my grandfather as an eikōn of God, and I can approach the infinite and holy with intimacy and warmth.

The radical truth is -- we all are eikōns of God. We are all created in the image of God. And that makes our interactions with each other not unlike the loving relationship of the Holy Trinity – one person of the Holy Trinity pouring unwavering love, selflessly oriented toward the goodness of the other, and the other receiving and returning that love in equal measure. All of creation is breathed into being by this living, loving dynamic. We are invited to live and move and have our being in that relationship of infinite loving devotion.

It seems to me that there are two transformations that we must allow our imaginations to embrace. One is humbly to accept that we are created in the image of God. You carries the imprint of God's spirit. You are capable of loving dedication. The other transformation of the imagination is for us to be willing to see every other human being as created in the image of God.

Wally Odum is a non-denominational pastor who was serving outside Baltimore a number of years ago. He read about an assignment a local college professor gave to his class. The professor asked the students to go into the economically impoverished communities to get case histories of 200 young boys. As part of the case history, the students were asked to write an evaluation of each boy's future. In every case the students wrote something like, "He hasn't got a chance."

Twenty-five years later a sociology professor came across the earlier study, and he decided to have his class follow up to see what had happened to those boys. Twenty of the boys had moved away or died, but the students were able to interview 180 of them. 176 of those 180 remaining boys had achieved more than ordinary success as lawyers, doctors, and businessmen.

The professor was astounded at the results and decided to pursue the matter further. He had the class return to the 176 and ask each of them the question, "How do you account for your success?" In each case the reply came with feeling, "There was a teacher…"

Investigating, the professor learned that the teacher was still alive. He went to speak with her personally. He asked her what magic formula she had used to pull these boys out of the slums into successful achievement. The teacher looked at him, broke into a smile, and said, "It's really very simple. I loved those boys." [ii]

She seems like an image of devotion, doesn't she? While some people looked at those boys and said, "They haven't got a chance," she looked at them with extremely dedicated, unwavering love, selflessly oriented toward their goodness, and they were transformed. She saw the image of God in them and treated them as children of God. I believe, when those boys experienced her devotion toward them, they looked back at her and saw the image of God in her. In that exchange of vision, those boys were transformed. They began to live out of their true image, the image their teacher saw, not the false image the world tried to give them. They became the persons God created them to be.

God takes you into God's divine hand, and asks, "Whose image or likeness is upon this person?" The whole creation looks at you and answers, "God's image." God asks you to look upon your neighbor, whoever that might be, and God asks, "Whose image or likeness is upon this person?" And we must answer, "God's image."

Then give to God the things that are God's.

But don't merely give to God those things made in the image of God. Give also your devotion. Give your devotion to the image of God, in yourself and in others. Offer your extremely dedicated, unwavering love, selflessly oriented toward the goodness of others, and be fully alive, an eikōn of God.



[i] Robert Sardello, The Contemplative Action of Devotion, published in Oneing: The Perennial Tradition, Franciscan Media, 2014.
[ii] http://wallyodum.blogspot.com/2008_02_23_archive.html

____________________________

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

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