Saturday, February 07, 2015

Trust Your Power

Trust Your Power
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
February 8, 2015; 5 Epiphany, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Mark 1:29-39 – Jesus left the synagogue at Capernaum, and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
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If you were here last week, you may have taken advantage of the scripture prophecy about the Super Bowl. As the psalmist foretold, yes, the Patriots won. I was not pleased; but the Lord's will be done. I do hope those of you who acted on that divine foreknowledge will share your blessings with the church.

I also know all of you took note as you listened to the scriptures today, that had the game been this week instead of last week, it would have had a different result. For the prophet Isaiah announces today, "Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles." And as we all know, in Isaiah's day, seahawks were called eagles. Alas. Bad timing.

But I don't want to talk about the game. I want to talk about the commercials. I heard the Bud puppy won. I was distracted during that one, reading a book to Laura. I liked some of the throw-back commercials. The Brady Bunch with the ax murderer playing the role of Marcia, until she has a Snicker. Great! But the best one was a flashback to 1994 with Bryant Gumbel and Katic Couric being totally clueless about the Internet and email. "Allison, can you explain what Internet is?" says Katie. Shift to the present, and they are equally baffled by the 2015 electric car they are driving. Great stuff.

But none of those were as good as the Derrick Coleman commercial from last year's Super Bowl. Do you remember it? We see his name "Coleman" on Derrick's jersey as his team is in the tunnel leading to the stadium. Then we hear his voice, "They told me …I was a lost cause. I was picked on." [image of another black child taunting little Derrick on the way to school]; "and picked last. Coaches didn't know how to talk to me; they gave up on me; told me I should just quit." [the screen cuts to a TV screen announcing the last pick of the NFL draft, and Derrick's voice speaks] "They didn't call my name; told me it was over. But I've been deaf since I was three. So I didn't listen." [camera shifts to Derrick Coleman putting on his Seattle Seahawks helmet entering the Super Bowl] "And now I’m here, with a lot of fans in the NFL cheering me on, and I can hear them all." [ad closes with the tagline for the battery in Derrick's hearing aids: Duracell: Trust Your Power." Or you might say, Derrick was freed from the limitations others imposed on him because of his deafness; he was freed from that in order to be freed for using his gifts at the highest level.[i]

In our gospel story today, Jesus enters the home of Simon Peter's mother-in-law, and she is sick, unable to function in her role of hospitality. In the Middle East, giving hospitality is critically important, a function of honor and crucial to establishing one's place in the community. Jesus goes to her. He takes her by the hand—he grasps her; lifts her up. Trust Your Power. And she is restored to her honorable calling to serve. She is freed from her fever in order to be free for honorable service.

That night, the whole city comes to her home, and Jesus heals. He carries out his calling—his work; his mission to heal. He casts out demons. I've seen that sort of thing happen. When people or groups are incoherent, unmoored and chaotic—the presence of someone who is grounded can often bring coherence and order. It frees them from their oppressive incoherence in order to free them for being who they really are.

When his evening's work was done, Jesus was tired. He needed rest; he needed prayer. So early in the morning he left to go to a deserted place to pray. When his friends finally found him, they pressured him to come back, saying, "Everyone is searching for you," Jesus set a boundary. I need to go to the neighboring towns to spread the Good News. That's what I came out to do. He knows himself and his calling. And he acts on that. Trust Your Power. Freed from their expectations in order to be free for his mission and calling.

I found a sermon this week published on my friend Mike Kinman's blog. Mike will be our McMichael speaker March 14-15. Don't miss him. Mike posted a sermon by one of our mutual good friends, Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows. Jennifer and I have served the church on a couple of national boards, and she's a leader at the General Convention. Jennifer is African American, and she was preaching in Advent in the dark days after the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island. She said, when she's asked, "What can we do?" in the wake of all of that, she first recognizes how complicated it is to address "the structural and systemic forces that make institutional and hence, individual racism and privilege so difficult to dismantle," but she said that what she is doing is a small thing called "going home."

Jennifer says "by way of confession" that she's recently "been slowly coming out as a kid from the projects." It's hard for her. She's been getting in touch with her own "internalized racial oppression, identity, feelings of abandonment" as well as what she calls "my own acts of abandoning my community in the in the name of survival."

When Jennifer was ten, her family moved to a housing project in Staten Island, not too far from where Eric Garner died. There, her innocence was shattered. She learned to walk through the white adults spitting on her and calling her the N-word as she returned home from school, and to walk past the black school kids wanting to fight her because she spoke funny and used words they didn't understand. She heard gun shots ring out from the basketball court below her window as she did her homework. The library and classroom were her sanctuary for her dreams to get out. Success meant getting out and never looking back. But now, she thinks, "going back just may be my salvation."

Now as a "multiple degreed, Ivy educated black professional" Jennifer wants to use her privilege to make a difference. Trust Your Power. She wants to confront all of the pain, violence and hopelessness from that old place in order to be freed for her mission of racial reconciliation and social justice through the experience of true compassion, empathy, and solidarity. She believes that putting herself back together and finding wholeness will be a key for her to help effect that wholeness.[ii]

After his exhausting day in Capernaum, Jesus went back home. Early in the morning he went to a deserted place to pray. He needed healing for himself.

I know that when I ignore that call to rest and healing, when I let the demands in my little world crowd out my time in the deserted place—the time of sitting in silence, doing nothing—I become less coherent; I become ill or disabled. I have to seek freedom from the demands in order to have freedom for the small bit of service I want to offer, like Peter's mother-in-law. For me to have energy to be, I need to rest and wait.

Isaiah promises that "those who wait for the LORD will renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." In Hebrew poetry, triplets like that grow in importance. Flying, running, walking—it's the walking that is most important. Yes, occasionally we feel the wind beneath our wings and we do mount up like eagles, but that's no big deal. Sometimes we run and have to run, and sometimes we do not get weary. Wonderful. But the really important thing is the day-by-day work of putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes you don't even know if there will be solid ground as you extend your foot for the next step. But "those who wait for the LORD… shall walk and not faint." That's what is crucially important. Trust Your Power, the power of God's Spirit given to us in Jesus.

So, like Derrick Coleman, just don't hear the demoralizing words, the words from others or the words in your own head. Each day as you put one foot in front of the other, your fans, the universe of angels and archangels cheer you on. Hear them. Trust Your Power. Let yourself be freed from whatever oppresses in order to be freed for the humble, honorable work that is your particular calling of service. You are the only person in the universe who can be who you are. You are the only person in the universe who can do what you can do.



[i] Thanks to David Lose, davidlose.net, Dear Partner, Feb. 3, 2015
[ii] Mike Kinman's blog Come Together, http://cccdean.blogspot.com/, Sunday, December 14, 2015.


__________________________________________
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, January 31, 2015

Building Capacity

Building Capacity
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
February 1, 2015; 4 Epiphany, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary


Mark 1:21-28 – Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching -- with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
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I want you to imagine two different days.

The first day: You've had a nagging cold for a while. It's affecting your energy and your sleep. You've been feeling crummy. You've self-soothed with chips and junk food; haven't felt like exercising or walking; haven't prayed or meditated. You wake up in the morning feeling tired. Your stopped-up nose interfered with sleep. It's raining; cold; temperatures in the thirties. You go down to the kitchen and have one of those cranky conversations with whoever you live with; the kind of thing that just gets your goat and starts the day off bad. You look at your calendar as you head out the door. Too much squeezed into too little time. And the people you are scheduled to see are less than favorites. You drag yourself to the car and start driving, and you hear a little thump. It gets a little louder. Thump, thump, thump. You can feel it in your steering wheel, and now you know – you've got a tire going flat. Aggh. I can't believe it. Not today! I just can't take it.

Another day: It's been a good week. You are feeling good. You've done your exercise or walking. You've been praying or meditating, practicing your rule of life. You went to bed last night on time without over-indulging in food or drink, so you wake up refreshed after a long deep sleep. It's sunny and 68 degrees outside. In the kitchen you have a cheery conversation that makes you feel grateful to have such a loved one in your life. You look at your calendar as you head out the door, and it looks like a promising day. Not too much scheduled but enough to keep it interesting. Some of the people you are supposed to see are either favorites or people you think you might like to get to know better. You get in the car and enjoy the sky and trees as you drive down the street. You stop at a red light. Bam! You've been hit from behind and the backend is crunched. You check yourself. I'm okay. You look in the mirror. The other driver signals "Okay! Not hurt." You look at the damage and think, It's only metal and plastic. Nobody's hurt. Everything is fixable. I can handle this. [i]

There is a relationship between our capacity to bear a difficult experience and the intensity of an experience. Usually a flat tire is not as intense a problem as a take-it-to-the-shop rear-end collision, is it? But when our capacity for bearing up is low, even a small set-back can undo us.

You might think of trauma as a ratio—the difference between our capacity to handle pain as it happens and the intensity of the pain. One way of reducing our misery is to increase our capacity.

In the Capernaum synagogue, Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, "Be silent, and come out of him!" The people exclaimed, "What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him."

How do we command the unclean spirits in our lives? How do we endure the troubles and traumas that create pain and suffering for us?

When we are threatened our animal instincts tell us to fight, freeze or fly. Our culture tells us to ignore our pain, or suppress it, or numb ourselves. Just get over it. Put your past behind you. Move on already. Take a pill or fill a glass; that'll ease the pain. You've got a computer and a TV—go shopping. Entertain yourself; escape. Even good things when used to excess can numb us and help us avoid problems—compulsive exercising, losing yourself in work, otherwise constructive hobbies like reading or craft work can become hiding places when taken to excess. We have myriad ways to avoid our pain.

Research on the human mind tells us something else. Because of the way humans are wired, if we allow ourselves to move more directly through the experience of distress, we will experience less distress for a shorter time. It really does work to face the unclean spirits, up close and personal.

I remember a one-page handout in my seminary pastoral care class. It showed all of the possible coping mechanisms that people employ in the face of the death of a loved one. Each of the options was pictured as a different path along the way. Ignore it. Get mad. Get busy. Put a bright light on it. Withdraw. Find a new person to replace the old one. There are lots of options.

Regardless of how we choose to cope, the path toward acceptance and incorporation of a loss into the creation of a new and whole reality must inevitably move through the felt experience of helplessness. You have to face the demon—I am helpless to change the reality of this loss.

If we are able to move more directly into the helplessness, into the experience of distress, we seem to experience less distress for a shorter time. We overcome the demons.

Prayer—especially contemplative prayer and mindfulness—is a form of exercise in the facing of our demons. In a prayer practice, we can avoid our tendency toward avoidance. In prayer we can simply be with the everyday pain and turbulence of our lives. In prayerful awareness, we simply allow our afflictive emotions and thoughts to rise up out of our depths, we let go of judgment and let them be, without reaction or attachment. We don't add to them with commentary or old tapes. We simply let them be. We allow the energy of our emotions and thoughts to rise and fall, like waves exhausting themselves on the shore. Ever-so-gently we return to our sacred center, over and over.

Prayer builds capacity. If I can sit day-by-day with the energy of my afflictive thoughts—a fear, a disappointment, an anger, a frustration—letting them be without needing to do anything about them—I find space between the distress and my experience of distress. I become less reactive, less controlling. Capacity for frustration and loss grows. With practice, I find more space between my self and my experiences. My self is encased in a reality greater than my experience.

Last week I tried to preach Paul's theology in one sermon. If you weren't here, pick up a copy or watch it on our website. Paul's life-changing experience was his realization that when he was most messed up, an enemy to God, God accepted him anyway and gave him a job. He didn't have to do anything to earn God's loving acceptance. God's loving acceptance was a gift. A free gift.

From that point on, Paul gave up on himself—his life as a self-improvement project—and he experienced himself as living "in Christ." From that sacred center—in Christ—he found great capacity, not only to put up with Corinthians arguing over meat sacrificed to idols, but also with beatings, imprisonments, and shipwrecks. Within the loving acceptance of Christ, he was bulletproof. He could face anything, including his own death.

Practice facing your hurts, fears and sadness, gently letting them be without the need to do anything about them or to add any commentary. Be centered in your body; be centered in your union with God in Christ. Let yourself be loved, infinitely. And look without judgment into whatever bedevils your life. Let it be.

We all experience loss. Eventually we will all lose everything – youth, strength, health, relationships, life itself. Practice now letting it all be, and maybe your capacity will grow like Paul's, who could say in truth, I don't care whether I live or die. If I die, I will die into Christ. But if I live, I might be more helpful to you. So, he says, I'm glad to go on living.

"What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him."

[i] The story and some major points are adapted from Dr. Ronald Siegel, The Science of Mindfulness, lecture 17, Overcoming Traumas Large and Small, from the Great Courses.

_______________________

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, January 24, 2015

Paul -- In One Sermon

Paul – In One Sermon
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
January 25, 2015; Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Galatians 1:11-24 – I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.


You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
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What a lovely convergence. Today is the Sunday of the Annual Meeting of St. Paul's Church, and it is also the date on the church calendar for the annual observance of the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. He is our patron. And I want to try to summarize his gospel in one sermon. Impossible, yes; but great fun to try.

Saul (his Hebrew name) was a good, observant Jew, righteous under the law. From the perspective of his tradition, he was not a sinner, he was righteous. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.

But Saul was miserable. His project of self-perfection made him angry and self-absorbed. It required his constant, total attention. He was full of anxious internal dialogue. How am I doing? Am I observing every commandment? He could never relax, and somehow he felt impotent, helpless before the expectations of perfection, even as he was succeeding at following the law. It made him angry. He was angry at God, the divine threat holding all of these commandments over his head. He also projected his anger toward other people, the ones he could see who were demonstrably in the wrong – those followers of Jesus. He would either fix them or kill them. Religious extremists with absolute certainties are sometimes that way.

In this stewing, self-righteous state, Saul traveled on the road to Damascus determined to arrest "those people." Then something happened. Saul was given a revelation. He realized that he was absolutely wrong. The futility of it all hit him. He experienced the risen Christ, and he was transformed. He became Paul. God commissioned him to go to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish world, and Paul spent the rest of his life living out what he experienced in that moment.

What did he experience? Acceptance. Acquittal. The sheer gift of God's loving acceptance when he was God's enemy. God's loving acceptance gave him freedom and peace and true purpose. Here's how he reflected on it later.

In Christ, God enters fully into our humanity. In Christ, God comes in weakness and humility. And humanity crucifies him. Our complete failure is exposed. The religious failure of the Jews; the political failure of the Romans; the death-dealing powers and principalities that are the structures of human society. It is all sin; all human life is under the power of sin. Sin crucifies the Lord and Author of life. And everyone is complicit.

But in the resurrection, God defeats the powers and principalities. God deals with sin in a final and decisive victory. God initiates the New Creation. God gives new life to all humanity.

God does it all. In the resurrection, God takes all our failure and turns it into love. God says to Paul – the angry, self-righteous perfectionist, "I love you. I accept you. You don't have to earn your place. You are already accepted. You are already acquitted. It's a gift. You don't have to do anything but receive the gift of life. Trust me."

That gift came to Paul while he was in a state of full rebellion – he knew he didn't earn it. Paul realized that if God gives him that gift, in his ungodly state, then it is a universal gift for all people in their ungodly states. We are all a mess. So God rescues everyone with the gift of universal acceptance. God justifies the ungodly.

Paul realized that sin for him was the total life-project of his trying earning his place in the sun. To earn his status before God and before humanity. Living like that is a condition of perpetual anxiety – wondering what other people think about me; pressured to achieve, to accomplish, to please others, and especially, to earn our own self-acceptance – we are tyrannical taskmasters toward ourselves. Paul realized, Give up the project. You've already crossed the finish line. God loves us, accepts us, forgives us, and gives us new life all as a gift.

We now live in a new world, a new creation. No more do we live in a world where people fail, are forgiven, and start over, just trying harder. That's death! Did you hear that? No more do we live in a world where people fail, are forgiven, and start over, just trying harder.

In the new creation, you simply accept your life as a gift from God, nothing more need be earned. Faith is the quality of standing in this acceptance with constant confidence: God has given me my life as sheer gift.

It takes some courage to stand in that place. The culture is broken. The culture will tell you that you have to earn your place. Most of that stuff that we've been proud of, everything we've grasped to ourselves, we have to be willing to throw away. It's all garbage, Paul says. Your accomplishments, your resume, your reputation, your status. It means nothing.

For Paul, it's an either/or world. We either live in the Culture of Sin, where everyone competes for their place; or the Culture of Grace, where everyone is unconditionally accepted and free.

In the New Creation, the Culture of Grace, all the old boundaries are wiped out. All the ways we divide humanity are eliminated. We are all one. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, Christian or non-Christian; there is no longer male or female, gay or straight; there is no longer slave or free, wealthy or poor, educated or non-educated, left or right, Democrat or Republican, American or foreigner, powerful or weak. Paul insists:  We are all one. In Paul's church, women served as leaders. Biblical writers of a later generation were threatened by that and tried to edit his teaching. Paul authorized women to lead prayer, to host the church in their homes, and to share his apostolic authority.

Yet Paul insists, we are perfected not in our strengths, but in our weakness, when we let ourselves be dependent upon Christ.

Standing simply in grace, accepting the perfect love of God in Christ, we are free. We are free for love. Since we need nothing, we can live generously. When you know you've got it all, it's easy to be generous, he says.

Standing simply in grace, we can unanxiously reach out in love to care for the needs of others. After all, we're all one. No one stands in a place of privilege. We are all in need of God's grace and God freely gives divine, loving acceptance to all.

Whenever we know ourselves to be fully accepted, we can be at peace. And we can be peaceful with others.

Perfect security. Paul knew himself to be bulletproof. What could anyone do to him, thanks to the surpassing grace of God in Christ. So, whenever he suffered, he rejoiced. And Paul suffered. When suffering happened, he simply connected his suffering to the suffering of Christ and felt himself privileged to share some of the cross that always leads to resurrection. That's confidence.

Paul is the picture of a transformed person. Transformed from an anxious controller, trying to make himself and everyone else right, to a joyful, confident person at peace with himself, open and available to the Spirit working through him reaching out in love to share the grace of being whole, accepted, and loved.

He says that what was given him is God's free gift to every human. God's free gift to you. Just be who you are. It's all gift. It's all grace.
_____________________

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, January 03, 2015

New Year's Resolutions for Magi

New Year's Resolutions for Magi

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
January 4, 2015; 2 Christmas, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Matthew 2:1-12 – In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
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I find this story about the visit of the wise men so compelling. The contrasts are so vivid. Exotic foreigners come to the humble manger where a Jewish peasant is born. These travelers represent different cultures, different races, different languages, different religions, all gathered in harmony at the stable where Jesus is born. What a beautiful symbol of interreligious harmony, pluralism, and the respect and acceptance that nurtures relationships between human beings who appear to be very different from one another.

The scripture says that the visitors "knelt down and paid homage." They offered a liturgical act with meaning. An act of respect and honor. They gave gifts – made a sacrifice, if you will. Then they left and went home, back to their own familiar traditions and culture, to their own religion and practice. Yet both the magi and the holy family seem touched positively by their communion with each other.

Today we live in a wonderful age that is also a terrible age. Ours is an age when some religious extremists will condemn and even kill anyone who is not one of them. But it is also an age where great-hearted people from around the world can meet in interreligious dialogue to share their wisdom and practice and to learn from each other.

One of my mentors Fr. Thomas Keating has helped foster thirty years of Interreligious Dialogue from his monastery in Snowmass, CO, inviting deep practitioners from many traditions to share their wisdom. They have found important points of agreement among the world's religious and spiritual traditions:  They recognize that the various religions all bear witness to the experience of Ultimate Reality, the ground of infinite potentiality and actuality which cannot be limited by name or concept. They agree that faith is opening, accepting, and responding to Ultimate Reality; that faith precedes every belief system. They affirm that the potential for wholeness is present in every human being and may be experienced not only through religious practice, but also through nature, art, human relationships, and service to others. And they note that disciplined practice is essential to the spiritual life, but spiritual attainment is not the result of our efforts, but the result of the experience of oneness with Ultimate Reality. Magi – wise men and women – visiting together in our age.

In the spirit of the magi, as we begin this new year, I would like to invite you to take a journey on your pilgrimage of faith. Consider adopting a disciplined practice, a spiritual practice that will deepen your life and bring you closer to your union with the divine and with creation. Something that will help you become a person of wisdom.

My first suggestion for a new year's spiritual resolution would be for you to commit to participating in the Eucharist weekly. Early Christians were willingly martyred for the sake of joining together as the Body of Christ, hearing the scriptures, praying together, and being fed with the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. I'm moved by the story of a young Christian named Felix. In the year 304 he stood before a torture rack where he watched the deaths of his father and a friend, their bodies torn apart by barbed hooks. The authorities then turned to young Felix and asked if he were one of the assembly. His response: As if a Christian could exist without the Eucharist, or the Eucharist be celebrated without a Christian! Don't you know that a Christian is constituted by the Eucharist, and the Eucharist by a Christian? Neither avails without the other. We celebrated our assembly right gloriously. We always convene at the Eucharist for the reading of the Lord's Scriptures. Those were his final words.

"A Christian is constituted by the Eucharist and the Eucharist by a Christian." If you are not present, our Eucharist is not quite complete. We need you here. Let your weekly Eucharist become as habitual and life-giving as eating is for you. And if you are ill, join us online through our LiveStreaming from our web page.

If you make one spiritual resolution for this new year, resolve to attend weekly Eucharist and the great Holy Week services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil.

For a bit more spiritual nourishment this year, you might adopt a daily practice if you do not have one. Give yourself the gift of time for daily prayer, daily reading, or some form of regular mindfulness.

The Church's tradition of the Prayer Book office of Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer is a beautiful way to join with millions of others around the world, being formed and informed by a systematic reading of the scripture and by the regular prayers of the church. In your Epistle bulletin insert we always print the Prayer Book's list of the upcoming week's scripture readings for the Daily Office. Some people use the online service from missionstclare.com or the new Episcopal Prayer Book app on their phone or tablet to read Morning or Evening Prayer. Our associate priest Lora Walsh sends an email reflection on the daily readings every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It's fun to see how her thoughts might complement yours as you share the reading of the same scriptures. Sign up for our "Morning Reflection" emails.

I've written some thorough instructions about how to pray the Daily Office in my little pamphlet on prayer; it's available in the office. That booklet also offers an assortment of traditional ways to practice prayer, including traditions for meditating with scripture, simple forms of conversational prayer, praying in nature, and various contemplative traditions like breath prayer and Centering Prayer. Pick up a copy. Try some prayer practices and choose one that fits your needs. And feel free to visit with one of your priests about these things.

Whenever I think of the visit of the magi to the holy family, my mind also moves toward similar visitations among spiritual seekers in our day.

As the world's religions and spiritual traditions speak with each other, one of the spiritual practices that we find we all share is a discipline with various names. In Catholic spirituality it is sometimes called "recollection;" more commonly in English it called "mindfulness."

To practice mindfulness is to cultivate your awareness of present experience with acceptance. The nineteenth century French Jesuit spiritual director Jean Pierre de Caussade called it the "sacrament of the present moment" and "abandonment to divine providence." In our day there is a great deal of secular research about mindfulness as an antidote to the stresses and pathologies of our age.

So I would offer one more new year's suggestion. Practice mindfulness. Practice living in the present moment with full awareness and acceptance. In our Christian tradition mindfulness can be strengthened when we engage in meditative or contemplative disciplines like Centering Prayer or Breath Prayer.

In mindfulness practice, we take some time apart to use some discipline of focus to help us detach from the thoughts and feelings that tend to capture our moment-by-moment consciousness. In mindfulness practice, we let go of our attachment to the impulses and the mind chatter that tends to push us reactively from one compulsive thought to another. There is space between the compulsive thoughts that would drive you to mindless reaction. In mindfulness practice, you simply choose not to react. You just stay with the impulse to react and watch it come and go like an ocean wave.

The practice that I learned offers a teaching called the Four R's as ways of coping with afflictive emotions and thoughts. Resist no thought. Retain no thought. React emotionally to no thought. Return ever-so-gently to your mindful focus. When you practice living with your present experience with that kind of acceptance, you find that the practice flows into the rest of your life. You can become less reactive; there is space between impulse and reaction; you can live more in the present.

It's my hunch that these magi were people of mindfulness. People who could patiently watch the heavens for signs and were free enough to follow the heavenly guidance of the moment. They diligently traveled great distances guided by their simple focus on the star. They brought their gifts to pay homage to a child of a distant culture and different religion. And they returned blessed and enlightened, continuing along their pilgrimage of openness and awareness.

Our life in the present moment has an infinite, heavenly quality. Let your focus be here and now, in open awareness with relaxed acceptance. And then move securely, enveloped in the divine love that moves the heavens and the stars. God still needs people of wisdom. Why shouldn't that be our purpose and calling in our day.
_______________________

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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

What is God Like?

What is God Like?

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
December 24, 2014; Christmas Eve
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Luke 2:1-20 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.  And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.   And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
                  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.  And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
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St. Francis used to say that you cannot love anything that you cannot get your arms around. Francis praised the humility of God who poured out the infinite life of the divine into a humble child so that we could embrace God and God could embrace us.

The God that Christians know is a humble God who gladly becomes one with us so that we might be one with God. In Jesus, God embraces everything that is human – including our evil and our death – so that God may take all of humanity into the divine heart. That is the story of the Incarnation that we celebrate on Christmas.

We look at the child in the manger. So meek and lowly. We let our imaginations move in time. Imagine yourself as a visitor to the manger. Mary offers the babe to you, inviting you to hold the child yourself, to take the baby within your own arms. Everyone who has ever held a child knows the thrill and wonder of holding such a mystery in your embrace. Whenever we hold a child, our hearts open instinctively. We wonder, who is this mystery? Who will this child become? Christmas invites us to hold the child of Mary imaginatively in our arms, emotionally in our hearts, and to imagine that we are putting our arms around God; we can embrace God, humble and close.

Who will this child become? We know that the child of Mary will also hold out his arms to us in the wide embrace of the cross. He will accept in his own body all of the evil and violence that we humans are capable of, and he will return to us only love. He will accept in his body the brokenness of the human condition – the extreme pain of torture, the hopelessness of certain death, and the inner experience of abandonment. He will experience willingly not only the betrayal and failure of trusted friends, but also the sense of utter abandonment of God. He will cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Human life can go no lower. Jesus embraces it all. God embraces everything.

From beginning to end, arms enfold everything. We hold in our arms the wondrous child in the joy and gladness of the Christmas birth. Jesus holds our human brokenness in suffering love unto death on the cross. The arms of God enfold us, and God comes to us so humbly we may also enfold God. God's life poured out into humanity, that we might experience divine, infinite love which overcomes all.

So whenever people wonder, "What is God like?" we point to Jesus.

God is like a child, born to humble folk in trying circumstances. Forced from home by the whim of an oppressive empire, a family with no place but an animal stable for a child's birth. In short order they will have to flee the threat of genocide. They will become refugees, immigrants, foreign strangers in need of welcome. This is what God embraces. This is what God looks like in human life.

Eventually the family will return to their modest home like the millions of humble peasants that have always filled the earth. The father will work with his hands and teach his son the family craft. God in ordinary life and work.

Eventually, Jesus will sense the call to do the work of his heavenly Father, our Father. He will proclaim the Kingdom of God, what life would be like if God ruled instead of our temporal governments. Jesus will show us what God's reign looks like. Jesus will spend his time healing. He will feed the hungry. He will tell his followers to do the same.

Jesus will break all of the boundaries that we human beings erect to separate us from one another. He will offer the same gifts of feeding and healing to foreigners as he does to his own people. He will offer the same gift of life and living water to those who follow different gods than his. He will cut off every attempt to narrow the definition of neighbor, and he will demand that those who follow him love their neighbor as themselves.

He will stop the stoning of sinners. He will throw out the moneychangers who cheat the humble with their sophisticated economics. He will make public friendships with the tax collectors and prostitutes, the most reviled people of his society. He will touch the unclean lepers.

He will bless the poor, the hungry, and those who mourn. He will encourage those who are hated and reviled. The only people he will scold are those who think themselves to be right while putting others whom they believe to be wrong in the shadow of their judgment. He will warn the rich and well fed.

In some of his hardest words, he will tell us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us and to give to those who beg of us. At the end, he will tell the capital criminal executed with him that they will share paradise together that day.

To the nations and all of their glory – to governments and authorities – he will say that the only measure of their authenticity will be how they treat "the least of these." For the nations, he says, there is one standard of judgment – did you feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and give kindness to the imprisoned?

The whole story of God in a human life is really simple. It comes down to one thing – love. What's most important? What does God expect? Only love. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Love one another. For God is love.

Note, however, what God is not like whenever we look at God through the revelation of Jesus. God is not angry. God is not going to send people to hell for not believing something or for believing the wrong thing. God is like Jesus. God loves.

So do not fear, be not afraid. Perfect love casts out fear, and God is perfect love. The life of Jesus shows us: the only thing God does is love. God's love is for everyone. There are no boundaries. God's love embraces all creation, all humanity. God's love embraces the ox and the donkey, the shepherds and foreigners who follow stars, the struggling family and the helpless baby. It's all love.

If you can get your arms around an infant, you can get your arms around God. For God is love. Love reaching into all of our human life, blessing, accepting, healing and feeding. Inviting all of us to receive blessing and acceptance, wholeness and satisfaction.

God loves you and accepts you with the simplicity of a child's happy response to your embrace. There is nothing you can do to stop the love. Jesus embraces all humanity; including all of our brokenness and evil. Jesus returns it all to the Father with forgiving love, and we are forgiven. Jesus takes our death, and raises it into life.

So, "Fear not! For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day… a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." Hurry. Go there. Take the child. Hold it in your arms. Take it into your heart in love. God's life and love is poured into our humanity. Jesus shows us what God's heart is like. Humble and loving. Nurturing and healing. Forgiving and accepting. Love stronger than death.

God embraces us all with infinite love. We need do nothing more than embrace that gentle, humble love.

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.
_______________

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."
_______________

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.
_________________________

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.