Saturday, October 31, 2015

Welcoming Prayer

Welcoming Prayer

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
November 1, 2015; All Saints' Day, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(John 11:32-44)  When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky of Lithuania was studying to become a rabbi when he became captured by the story of Jesus. He eventually migrated to the U.S., became an Episcopalian and graduated from my school, the General Theological Seminary, in 1859.

Right after seminary he was moved by a call for helpers in China. He had a gift for languages, and on the boat to Shanghai he learned to write Chinese. During his ministry in China he translated the Bible and parts of the Prayer Book into Mandarin. In 1877 he was elected Bishop of Shanghai. He founded St. John's University in Shanghai and translated the Bible and other works into the Wenli language. But he was stricken with paralysis and had to resign from serving as bishop in 1883.

From then until his death 23 years later in 1906, Schereschewsky persevered in his translation work, typing some 2,000 pages with the middle finger of his partially crippled hand. Here's the sentence about him that I found unforgettable, spoken four years before his death. He said, "I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted." [i]

How did he get there? How did he come to such a place of acceptance and peace?

Today is All Saints' Day when we celebrate those holy people who have been the light of Christ in their day, and tomorrow on All Souls Day we remember everyone who has been created in the image and likeness of God. I've got a theory about saints. As I look at the stories of those whom we look to as examples of whole and holy life, there is a quality I see that I want to imitate and adopt. Bishop Shereschewsky is a fine example of what I want to talk about. It is a quality of living with a deep interior acceptance of the circumstances and reality of life, placing that reality within the expansive presence of God, and then simply being who you are with faith and courage.

Nelson Mandela accepted the injustice of his incarceration on Robben Island without bitterness, refusing to hate his captors or plan revenge; instead, he invited guards to eavesdrop on the classes he organized for his fellow prisoners, saying that the oppressors also needed to grow and learn in order to be liberated from their captivity in an oppressive system. He embraced his reality and placed it within the infinite, liberating power of God.

There is a practice that comes out of the Centering Prayer movement called "The Welcoming Prayer." It is a way of extending the practice of Centering Prayer when we gently let go of thoughts and afflictive emotions, returning ever so gently to the Sacred Word. The Welcoming Prayer is a form of taking that practice into active, everyday life. It's something you can do when your buttons get pushed.

Most of us have pretty predictable patterns when our buttons get pushed. Something happens, frustration builds, and emotional energy churns inside of us. Usually what we do with that emotion is to start some internal dialogue, we play some well worn tapes of outrage or hurt. "I can't believe what he just said. Outrageous. It's just wrong. He ought to be ashamed. I'm outraged." There seems to be an infinite supply of commentary in our emotional bucket. It's just like pouring gasoline on a fire.

It gets even worse if we add guilt or repression to all of that and try to push it down into our subconscious. "I'm going to ignore that. It doesn't really hurt. I'm a good person; I'm not going to retaliate." But your stomach is churning and your jaw is clinched. And that bodily reaction may be a key to our liberation.

Here's the Welcoming Prayer process. As soon as you can possibly become aware of the initial frustration, focus on whatever sensation in your body accompanies the emotional reaction. Sink into the bodily upset. Maybe your back aches or your jaw tightens. Is your breath short? Or you feel a little dizzy? Feel the adrenaline prompting the impulse to "fight, fly, or freeze."

Just stay with the bodily reaction. Sink into it. Don't try to change anything, just be with it.

Important: Don't analyze your feelings or your body's reaction. Getting back into your mind just gets your ego hooked again. The key is to become physically aware of the emotional energy as sensations in your body. Ground yourself into whatever physical sensation you are experiencing.

Here is the second step where the prayer gets its name.  As you are focused on the whole broiling physical sensation of your upset, very gently, ever so gently, welcome the emotion, whatever the emotion is. If you feel anger, "Welcome, anger." Or, "Welcome, outrage." "Welcome, pain." Create an inner atmosphere hospitality. Whenever you embrace the afflictive emotion you actually disarm it. Yes, it is a paradox, but it works.

Cynthia Bourgeault who teaches this method tells about a fantasy novel that illustrates the teaching.

A young wizard named Ged is in training to become a sorcerer. One day, horsing around with his friends, he inadvertently conjures up a minor demon. The demon proceeds to haunt him throughout the book. As he grows in power and influence, it grows right with him. Gradually (the demon) turns very dark and begins to stalk him; he flees in terror. He runs to a city by the sea, but it follows him there. He hires a boat and rows out into the sea, but it follows him there. Finally he jumps into the water, but the thing is still right on his back. Finally, with all escape routes blocked, he does the only thing left to him: He turns to the demon and embraces it. At which point it vanishes, integrated back inside him as the shadow he is finally willing to own. [ii]

Accepting the reality of the present moment is the quality we see in Joseph Schereschewsky, Nelson Mandela and all of the great saints. Staying present in the now, regardless of the physical or psychological content, embracing and accepting that reality allows our awareness to expand to release the conflicting energy into the infinite hands of the divine. God is always fully present in the now.

One caution about acceptance. It is the feelings you welcome and accept. It is not a general condoning of the situation. If the doctor says, "It may be malignant," it is the fear of cancer that is on your plate. Not "Welcome, cancer," but "Welcome, fear."

The passivity of acceptance is an inner attitude. Your inner acceptance of your feelings can release energy for you then to decide what you will do in the outer world, which might require a spirited fight.

When you stay present within your body, observing the conflictive emotions and your bodily reaction, simply accepting them in the present moment, the negative energy is released for to be used good. German mystic Jacob Boehme described it this way, "If you remain firm, if you do not bend, you shall see and perceive great wonders. You will discover how Christ will storm the hell in you and will break your beasts…" [iii]

The Welcoming Prayer practice is helpful not only times of afflictive emotions, it is also helpful in moments Cynthia calls "peacock feathers."  She was coming home after a particularly satisfying eucharist, when she heard an inner voice ask, "What do you really want in this moment? God or self-congratulation?" Ugh. So she focused on where this feeling of self-satisfaction was living in her body, then began, "Welcome, pride, welcome pride…" She says that's actually harder than "welcome, loneliness" or "welcome, anger." But she felt the inner territory shift, moving from self-satisfaction into a deeper equanimity. [iv]

So I hope I've been able to give you a small trick of the saints. The skill and practice of breaking the cycle of afflictive emotions by paying attention to the reaction in your body and welcoming the accompanying feelings. Try it the next time your button gets pushed. Practice now to live better in the present, but practice also to be ready for the day when it's something bigger than a button. "I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted."

[i] Holy Women, Holy Men, p. 636. His feast day is October 14
[ii] Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 145, Lanham, MD: Cowley, 2004; describing the book A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, New York: Bantam Book, 1989.
[iii] Quoted in Bourgeault, p. 149, from Boehme, The Way to Christ, tras. Peter Erb (Mahwh, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 240.
[iv] Bourgeault, p. 150

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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

LIving Richly

Living Richly

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
October 11, 2015; 20 Pentecost, Proper 23, Year B, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Mark 10:17-31)  As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."

(This sermon was first preached October 12, 2003. I ran out of time this week. The sermon says something about that, by the way.)

It takes a bit of leisure to be on a spiritual quest.  Sometimes it says something about you, for instance, if you are able take a week for a retreat.  It means you have enough freedom from your job and family responsibilities that neither are threatened if you leave them for a time.  It may be that most people don't have that kind of discretion.  It is something of a privilege to have the time and resources to buy and read books about spirituality or to go to a monastery or cabin to pray and reflect.  Not everybody can do that.  If you are holding down a couple of jobs, taking care of kids and maybe an aging parent, running as fast as you can just to keep life and limb together, it's hard to do more than just survive and drop into bed in semi-exhaustion before the alarm rings too early again and you start all over.  You don't have much time for questions like this one from the man who approaches Jesus in our Gospel today.

"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" he asks.  It appears he's had some leisure and security to be able to get to the place where that's his most important life-question.  His situation is different, for instance, from the woman who begs Jesus to throw a crumb from the children's table and heal her daughter.  Or the man who lives among the tombs and the swine and needs his demons overcome.  Or the Samaritan woman drawing water alone in the hottest part of the day carrying her past mistakes with her.  This questioner has a much different kind of desperation.  In a different way though, you sense that he too is needy.

He's apparently succeeded at life.  Since his youth he has followed the commandments -- you shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal or bear false witness or defraud.  He's been successful in these important virtues.  No doubt, he is an accomplished person.  He is probably treated with respect.  Many would say he is treated with respect because he has earned it.  He's a respectable person.  He has also used his character and skills to become wealthy. 

And like many people who have lived upright, productive lives, he's had the leisure and opportunity to ponder the deeper matters.  By now he's recognized that there's something more; and the other side of that realization for him -- there is something lacking.  It's just not enough to be a good person, following all the rules and always doing the right thing.  That's good, but it's not enough.  It's not enough being a respected person with a degree of power and autonomy over your life.  That can be a good thing, but he knows, it's really not enough.  And being wealthy and having many possessions is not enough either.  He's had time to think about it.  He wants something more, something deeper.  He's pretty much mastered "earthly life" he thinks.  The question on his heart is about mastering something deeper.  And I think he asks his question with confidence.  He's ready for a new challenge.  "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 

Jesus looks deeply into him, sensing intuitively with deep compassion, what is it that this fine man needs to become whole.  "You lack one thing."  The man brightens with expectation.  Whatever it is, he'll do it.  Whatever it takes to add the prize of eternal life to his treasure.  So Jesus tells him, "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then," (hear these wonderful words) "come, follow me."

Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way:

It is a rich prescription for a rich man. ...It is an invitation to become smaller and more agile...  It is a dare to become a new creature, defined in a new way, to trade in all the words that have described him up to now -- wealthy, committed, cultured, responsible, educated, powerful, obedient -- to trade them all in for one radically different word, which is free. [i]

He can't do it.  In shock, he leaves grieving.

In one sense it is a money issue.  Money is an incredibly tempting form of power.  Not many people handle it well.  Our culture worships money.  Unconsciously we tend to project respect and privilege upon those with money.  Money is an issue for this man.  Money is an issue for all of us.  Money is especially an issue for those of us who have it.  It is addictive.  Yes, it's a story about money.

But it's more than that.  It's a story about bondage and freedom.  His hands are too full to receive the gift Jesus offers.  He's possessed by his possessions.  And it is too fearful for him to let go of them, even if it means his freedom.  He's tied up by his possessions in the same way others of us are tied up with other things.  Some of us are tied up with responsibilities.  It takes an internet calendar to keep track of the kids' schedules and get them to soccer and music, the orthodontist and gymnastics.  Some of us are tied up with jobs that expect sixty hours plus from us.  Some of us are tied up with trying to please others—trying to meet the expectations of everyone else so there is nothing much left for themselves.  Some of us are tied up with diversions—football and TV and too much to drink.  Some feel like we have to have a perfect kitchen or a manicured lawn.  And all of these things are good things, or at the least neutral.  Like money.  Until they become overwhelming and rob us of our freedom. 

Unless we have some boundaries and margins and space in our lives, unless we can let go of some things, we are not free to respond in the grace of the moment.  Such as... when Jesus says, "You lack one thing.  Quit trying to please everyone else and sit with me for a bit."  Or, "Cut back on your promises and do only one thing at a time."  Or, "Turn off the TV and pay attention for a while."  Or, "Let go of some stuff and live less extravagantly."  Or "Give away some of your time, or power, or money."  But if we have no time to give away, or no trust to surrender our power, or no freedom to give money—we are cousins of this grieving man.  We have too much to be free.  Sometimes we have too much of the good things so that we lose the gift of the best.

He sure feels familiar to me.  I can't keep up with all the things I believe I need to do.  And then there's email.  Not to mention the mortgage and the bills.  And football.  It's easy to say, "You need to give up a few things and get some free space in your life," and I look around and shake my head in grief and ask, "But what?  What can I give up?  It all seems so necessary.  Or else it's something I want."  And there are days when I think it must be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for me to let go of what I cling to.  Yet, there is this small voice of sanity whispering inside my soul, the gentle voice of Jesus inviting me to let go of whatever binds me, and accept the gift of freedom.  To open my eyes and see:  it's all a gift anyway.  It's not my life; it's not my time; it is not my stuff.  It's all a gift anyway.  So why not let go of it and freely follow him?  But it seems so hard.  And every time I think I've made some progress, I fall right back into the same familiar patterns I've lived with and perfected for decades.  I see so many of my friends in their own versions of the same familiar traps.  So, like the bewildered disciples, I shake my head in disbelief and ask, "Then who can be saved?"  It's the same old question.  It hasn't changed much.  And neither has the answer.  "For us, it is impossible.  But not for God.  For God, all things are possible."

[i] Barbara Taylor, The Preaching Life, Cowley, Cambridge, 1993, p. 124

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

Saturday, October 03, 2015

"Alaha" and "Adam"

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
October 4, 2015; 19 Pentecost, Proper 22, Year B, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Genesis 2:18-24)  The LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

"This at last is bone of my bones
                and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
                for out of Man this one was taken."

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

(Mark 10:2-16)  Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

As English speakers, our name for Ultimate Reality is God, a word from the Germanic traditions. The native language that Jesus spoke was Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew. Jesus called God Alaha, which is similar to the Hebrew word Elohim and the Arabic Allah. The meaning of the name Alaha points toward the oneness of all that is as Sacred Unity. Unity without boundaries or qualifications. Oneness. Alaha.

In Genesis, Alaha says, "Let us make adam/humankind in our image,… male and female he created them." The Hebrew word for humankind or for the human person is adam. The sound of "A" (pro. Ah), pointing toward Alaha as the source and sacred unity of all, and the sound of dam, meaning blood, or sap, or essence. Adam/humanity/the person: the embodiment of the essence of the whole, the all: Alaha. Every human being is created in the image of Alaha, male and female, each whole human person containing both male and female, masculine and feminine along a continuum, as a human being. Genesis says that Alaha formed adam from the dust of the earth/adamah. Alaha breathes breath, spirit, air into the earthling/adam.

In the story of Genesis 1, at the end of each day of creation, God pauses and sees that everything God has created is good. Light, day, night, sky, water, earth, sun, moon, stars, birds, sea creatures and animals, and finally humankind/adam. "God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good."

It was all good, that is, until Genesis 2, the second creation story, when Alaha placed the human person into the garden and realized, "It is not good that adam/the human person should be alone." Humankind was made for relationship. So Alaha determined to make a helper as a partner. From the same earth/adamah, Alaha formed "every animal of the field and every bird of the air." And adam gave them all names, identity. They are all related to adam/humankind, formed of the same earth. But none of them was found to be a suitable helper and partner. So Alaha created from the rib of man (ish, in Hebrew) one called ishsha/woman. A new oneness in creation, "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; …one flesh." She will be named Eve, meaning "living one, life-source, experience."

Adam, the human person who is the blood and essence of Alaha, the whole, the all; and Eve, the living one, life-source, quickening, reviving, nourishing helper/partner. One flesh. Centuries later the church will speak of God the Holy Spirit as the Helper, the quickening, enlivening, life-source.

So we see from these ancient stories that humankind is created to be in essential unity with Alaha, Sacred Unity itself, and to be in a living relationship of oneness within humanity. But we're not particularly good at being whom we are created to be.

"Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" It was hot-button question in Jesus' day. Marriage was an agreement negotiated between two families for the purpose of creating family alliances to increase their honor or wealth, and to provide heirs if they have property, or workers to help support the family with or without property. The loving relationship of the couple was a much desired but secondary interest.

The Hebrew grounds for divorce were found in Deuteronomy 24, allowing a man to write a certificate of divorce if the wife "does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her." The words of scripture are pretty ambiguous. What does "something objectionable" mean? There were two schools of thought in Jesus' day. The liberal school of Hillel held that divorce is permitted if, say, the wife ruins the meal. The conservative school of Shammai required a serious offense such as adultery. The Pharisees ask Rabbi Jesus, what do you think? Jesus took the conservative view. Earlier he sided with the liberals over the Sabbath.

Jesus asks his challengers what Moses says. They start to answer with that passage from Deuteronomy 24, but Jesus interrupts them and says this law was spoken only because of their hardness of heart. Jesus completely changes the focus, from Deuteronomy to Genesis, from the law and legalisms to origins and purpose. Jesus shifts the conversation from legal to relational categories, and he speaks in solidarity with the vulnerable.

A woman in that patriarchal culture had no identity or protection except through her male relationships – father, brothers, husband, male in-laws. A divorced woman was radically vulnerable, in need of male protection. It was a hard-hearted system. Jesus decries it.

Moreover, he goes on to say something remarkable about the consequences of the customary male hegemony. "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her." Against her! In that world, if a man was unfaithful to his wife, he would have offended or shamed her father or her brothers; they are the ones who entrusted her to him. But Jesus says the husband has sinned against the woman, against her dignity and honor and rights.

Jesus deflects the law in Deuteronomy and goes back to the origin stories of Genesis where we read that God cares about relationship. God's intention is unity. We are to be one flesh. Unspoken but implied: humanity may be unfaithful to this fundamental unity, but God will not. The Sacred Unity of Alaha is utterly dependable and eternal love. God will not be separated from what God has joined, and God has joined humanity, for good.

But you, human beings: There is much hardness of heart.

Jesus then reaches for a child. Be like this. Receive the Sacred Unity of the kingdom of God as a gift. Receive it simply, with open hands, like a child.

It is important for us not to read this scripture legalistically, like the Pharisees tried to do. I know some churches that have created rules and canons based on passages like this one. I have seen the hardness of heart behind their enforcement. I have known marriages that were destructive to the human spirit. I have known marriages that have died. I have known broken hearts when well-meaning clergy have imposed strict rules upon vulnerable, hurt people in the complications of divorce or remarriage.

Until 1973, the Episcopal Church would not allow remarriage after divorce. We were trying to be faithful to the scripture and words like these we read today from Mark's gospel. Eventually we also returned to our beginnings and remembered. "It is not good that the human person should be alone." (Gen. 2:18) We saw the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the loving relationships of divorced Episcopalians who had been remarried outside the church. Their lives together did not look like sin; but rather, resurrection. We remembered Paul's words: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and temperance. Against these there is no law." (Gal. 5:22-23)

Jesus came that we might have life, abundant life. God created us to be in relationship, to be one. That oneness can be exquisitely experienced in the relationship of one flesh in a lifelong, commitment of faithful love. It is both hard work and a divine gift when that happens.

Whatever happens, God is faithful. God breathes divine life and Spirit into our being moment by moment, loving us and re-creating us constantly, over-and-over. Renewing God's promises of acceptance and forgiveness, the essential qualities for an enduring, loving relationship. Alaha, Sacred Unity, is one with adam, you and me. We are the blood and essence of that divine love and unity. Every week we renew that oneness and identity as we take the sacred body and blood of the divine into our bodies and we are recreated – whole and one.

We are one – with each other and with God. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

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

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Children Being Children

Children Being Children
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
September 20, 2015; 17 Pentecost, Proper 20, Year B, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a – Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

Mark 7:30-37 – Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."


Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. James 3:13

Our story from Mark's gospel opens with Jesus doing the wise and hard work of accepting his inevitable death and preparing for it. That's a piece of work we all have to do.

Talk of death always gets some pushback. My grandfather's death convinced me to start thinking about death, preparing, and accepting it long before it nears, because it was the only flaw that I saw in his wonderful life. I've mentioned here before that one reason I can believe in a God who loves me with unqualified love is because I received that kind of love from my grandfather. He may have been the most influential person in my life.

Granddad was one of ten children, all of whom lived to full adulthood, a rare thing in his day. In fact, all of his siblings were alive until Granddad was well into his seventies. Then Uncle Joe fell into a well and died of complications from pneumonia. It was the first time Granddad let the notion that he might die truly enter his awareness. By then, it was a little too late. He didn't handle the end of life with the grace and humor that characterized the rest of it.

As Jesus pondered the inevitable, fatal trajectory of his life and expanded his lens of trust toward infinite hope, the disciples remained stuck in their narrow focus—the big competition—who is the greatest? It seems silly to us reading in the context of the great gospel story. But it is so human. So like us.

Watch this week and see if you can catch yourself. See if you find yourself measuring. Lining people up in a room. Who's more important than whom? Where do you stack up in the line-up? Maybe no one in this room does that… But just pay attention this week and see if you notice anything.

Jesus breaks up the "greatest game." He tells them the greatest is the servant. The lowest. Then he takes a child into his arms. Here's the image of real greatness: Jesus, the servant of all, willingly preparing to give his life; welcoming the child, embracing the child.

I think there are two ways for us to welcome the child; to embrace the child. Welcome the child in you. Welcome the child in all people. For we are all children; children of God.

You know how children are. Their hands are always open, ready to receive. Give a child a new toy and you will not hear any false modesty, "No, I don't deserve this." The child joyously cries, "Yes!" And maybe without a prompt, an added "Thank you."

A child is dependent and knows it. Children expect grownups to meet their needs.

When we grownups do our job—when trust is established—a child can be so open. "Daddy, what are we going to do today?" Nearly any answer will prompt a hearty, "Yay!" "We're going to the Farmer's Market today." "Yay!" "We're washing windows today!" "Yay!"

And children love to help, to be of service. Whenever I weed the flower garden, granddaughter Laura wants to help. And then she'll tell the next grownup see sees, "I helped Granddad weed the garden. I love to pull weeds." Last week she washed the windows with ecstatic joy. How different would our jobs be if we approached them with childish joy.

One more thing about children. They are unafraid to ask for love. "Could you hold me, Granddad?" The answer is always a loving, "Yes."

We are God's children. And God yearns to answer our plea, "Hold me, please." God longs to hold and nurture us with infinite, unqualified love. God wants to give us life, abundant life. If only we can have expectant, dependent eyes to see and accept God's gifts.

Whenever we can be in the present moment with childlike trust, we can receive the circumstances of the present moment as a gift to share with the divine, and then God washes windows with us, whatever window-washing presents itself as necessary in the present moment.

In a few moments, you will open your hands and you will be given God in the humble form of bread and wine. The gifts of God for the people of God. Like milk from the breast of a loving mother. Intimacy. Nurture. Communion. Love embodied in this holy place.

But out there, a lot of people and nations are still arguing about power. Who is the greatest? It is so easy to get hooked by the noise. Yet, these too are God's children, arguing like his own disciples did.

Sometimes, when I get frustrated, angry, or even outraged at someone in the news, I think about them as children—in their mother's arms, or on their father's shoulders; walking hand-in-hand with a proud grandparent. I try to remember that many disorders so often begin from early wounding, when we were young and vulnerable. When people are wounded and then become wounders, what they most need is security and love. If we are going to share in God's work of healing the world, we need to help extend God's security and love to all people, the wounded and the wounders.

Look at the disciples. What a mess! Jesus' little group included James and John, the "sons of thunder" who wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy a Samaritan village that wouldn't welcome them; Peter, the impulsive and wrong-headed one; Matthew, a tax collector collaborating with the hated Romans to exploit an occupied people; Simon the Zealot, one of the fanatic nationalists employing guerrilla and terrorist tactics against the Romans; and the unfaithful, betraying treasurer, Judas.

Jesus' children were as messed up as any of us—any family, business, group or nation. Yet he gathered them to himself with kindness centered around the table. He fed them, healed them, forgave them, accepted them. He loved them and invited them to share his calling to serve through love. He tried to teach them to bear a willingness to die rather than to kill. Then, he gave his life for them.

One of our parishioners told me a story the other day. He teaches sixth and seventh graders. He's been particularly concerned about Jose, a student he's known for two years. It was obvious to the teacher that Jose was very feminine and very vulnerable. Jose's responses to writing tasks were always stories about wearing high heels and other girlie subjects.

Last week the student was called to the library to take a make-up test. The note from the office was for "Emily." "Is that your name now?" the teacher asked. "Yes," she nodded.[i]

After the child had left the room the teacher gathered the rest of the class, and in a serious tone, said he had to talk with them about something important. He reminded them of something they had discussed earlier when they read a story about a person who was brave, risking life for another. "Do you remember when I said that if the occasion ever presented itself, I hoped I would be brave enough to sacrifice to save another person? How I hoped I would be able run in front of a train to push a child to out of the way? Or brave enough to take a bullet in order to protect another person? Well I've got that chance today, and so do you." He told them about Jose-Emily. He said how he intends to stand up for Emily, to defend and protect her, even if it could be costly.

The kids challenged the teacher. "What do you mean about a bullet? There's no bullet here."

"Oh, yes, there could be. Transgender kids are often bullied, and the rate of suicide among trans youth is very high. What we can do to prevent that bullet is to step up and be a hero. Show your support for Emily and let the entire school know of your support. It is risky. You may have people tease or even threaten you. We need to stand together for her. Emily is going through something more difficult than any of us will ever face, and she needs us." He could see; there was buy-in from the class.

"Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."

It seems simple. All of us:  Children, taking care of other children.

[i] The names have been changed to protect privacy.


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

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Opening Collision

Opening Collision
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
September 10, 2015; 15 Pentecost, Proper 18, Year B, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."

It is hard for us to internalize the degree of separation and distance between Jesus, a Jewish peasant from Galilee, and this Syrophoenician woman whose privileged child sleeps in a bed. In all probability, Jesus never slept in a bed in his entire life.

She comes from the sophisticated and wealthy coastal region of Tyre. Jesus is from Nazareth, an isolated village of extended family, probably part of a strict sect of Jewish orthodoxy that withdrew itself from the mainstream of Judaism.[i] The Nazarenes were a strange bunch, peculiar to other Jews like Nathanael.

And the Jews were arguably the strangest people in the Roman Empire. Alone among the Roman subjects they were excused from the patriotic observances of the civil religion that united many nations and tribes under the single Emperor.

But the Syrophoenician woman and Jesus shared some things in common as people of the Mediterranean culture. They shared a language for dismissing the other, for marginalizing an enemy.

On December 14, 2008, Iraqi broadcast journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi committed an act of insult in the strongest terms imaginable. He shouted, "This is a farewell kiss from the Iraaqi people, you dog," and threw his shoes at President George W. Bush during a press conference.

Al-Zaidi used a traditional epithet found in the Bible and the Qur'an. When the Israelites sent an un-armored boy to fight the great Philistine warrior, Goliath screamed his insult, "Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?" (1 Sam. 17:43) When Saul's cousin Shimei taunted and insulted King David, the King's general asked, "Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head." (2 Sam. 16:9) Proverbs advises, "Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly." (26:11)

Like every other child in his village, Jesus was taught that those Gentiles, the unclean people from outside their tribe, were all dogs. Everyone knows that. Matthew records Jesus' teaching, "Do not give what is holy to dogs." (7:6)

Jesus has just escaped from being dogged by Pharisees and others, fleeing eastward to Tyre where he hopes for a little breathing room. His cousin John the Baptizer had been executed recently by Herod. When Jesus tried to take his disciples to a deserted place to rest and grieve, a great crowd followed them and intercepted their retreat. The scripture says Jesus "had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd." (Mark 6:34) So he taught them all day. As evening fell, Jesus took five loaves and two fish and fed that multitude of Jewish Galileans who had followed him so tenaciously. Day after day he continued to work and teach around the shores of Lake Galilee, hounded by critics who  fought him as we heard last week with explicitly Jewish challenges, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" (Mk. 7:5) How exhausting it all must have been.

So Jesus escaped, crossing the border into Tyre, on the Gentile coastlands. We read, "He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice." (Mk. 7:24) The Syrophoenician woman. Rich, privileged, sophisticated. She barges uninvited into their retreat. You know how presumptuous the privileged can be. They think closed doors don't mean them. What can she know of the mission and calling of this young Jewish prophet? This clash of cultures could be ugly.

She begged the exhausted teacher to cast out the unclean spirit from her little daughter. Healthy people set healthy boundaries, don't they? This is beyond Jesus' sense of calling. This request is outside his understanding of his job description. So he speaks in the Biblical language of his people. "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

You know, you have to draw the line somewhere. We have a discretionary fund here at St. Paul's. Many of our guests at Community Meals know about that. They can wear us out with requests. Suzi our Administrator will say to me, "Lowell, don't come to your office on Monday or Wednesday, and if you do, keep your door closed and your light off." Even at that, some people ignore the dark office, the closed door, and just barge in.

Like the Syrophoenician woman. You assume she is behaving arrogantly, walking in where she has not been invited. But listen to her response to Jesus' challenge. "Sir," she begins. "Sir," or "Lord." It is the only time that Jesus is addressed that way in Mark's gospel. Later that would become the Christian title for the Risen Lord. "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." That's a statement that will catch your attention. Respectfully the wealthy woman of privilege, completely humble, asks the Jewish peasant for crumbs. Jesus looks again, and no longer sees a rich, pushy, foreigner, but a desperate mother who loves her daughter. Somewhere across town in that plush bed a child is healed. And something in Jesus radically changes.

His human inheritance as a child of the Jewish people and his sense of calling as a prophet sent to reform his own people suddenly expands. It is as if he hears personally the ancient calling of the suffering servant of Isaiah, "It is too light a think that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." (49:6) It is as though his vision has expanded. Now his word will expand as well.

Immediately he goes back west, but he doesn't stop in his home territory of Galilee. He keeps going to what they commonly called "the other side," to the Decapolis, a region of ten Gentile cities west of the Sea of Galilee, centers of Greek and Roman culture in a region that was otherwise Semitic, like Jesus. There he meets a man who is deaf and who cannot speak. Jesus acts and speaks, "Ephphatha" – "Be opened." Immediately the man can hear and can speak. Jesus gives to this other foreigner a form of the gift he was given by a Syrophoenician woman who spoke and opened his ears and his speech to those others.

The next story in Mark's Gospel is another story of the feeding of a multitude. This time it is a gathering of Gentiles. Jesus now gives to the Gentiles the same gifts of feeding and healing and the same loving teaching that he has been giving to his own people. "Ephphatha!" His ministry is opened.

I am like that Syrophoenician woman. Privilged, presumptuous. Can I, like her, refuse to be deflected by the walls and insults that infect our human cultures? I am like that anonymous Gentile. I am so deaf. I fail to hear things unfamiliar to my narrow ears. My speech is limited by my small context and lack of experience.

"Give us the crumbs," the humble voices cry. And the Apostle James' voice accuses us. "If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace: keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?"

Jesus is our model. Whenever we hear a word of grace or love; whenever we hear a cry of need or suffering – especially when it comes from an unexpected source – we are to jettison immediately the shackles of our deafness, and be opened to the presence of God's grace that is abundant throughout creation. Then we can be privileged to share in the healing and feeding and reconciling work of Christ.

[i] Charles Page, Jesus and the Land, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1995, p. 33-38.


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

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Unlearning What We've Been Taught

Unlearning What We've Been Taught
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 30, 2015; 14 Pentecost, Proper 17, Year B, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 – Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
                'This people honors me with their lips,
                                but their hearts are far from me;
                in vain do they worship me,
                                teaching human precepts as doctrines.'
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."


"Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?"

For centuries, the elders have passed along their teachings. Making sure each generation knows certain things that are important to our people. Like how to wash our hands correctly. Traditions are part of our identity; part of our heritage. They make us who we are; connect us with our past; order our present, so we know what is right and what is wrong in our social context and in our religious context. Every human being inherits your own group's traditions. Jesus is unimpressed.

The process of traditional learning is necessary and important. It is crucial to our discovering our identity. From the days of primitive humanity, it has been crucial to our survival.

Before humans had language, the elders taught us the skills of survival. The beige shadow in the grass might be a rock, but it also might be a lion. We evolved to flee in fear from a thousand beige rocks in order not to be eaten by the one that was a lion. Now we are wired for fear. Our inheritance is anxiety and defensiveness.

Before humans had language, the elders taught us the elements of belonging. This is how we wash; this is how we eat; this is how we dance; this is how we dress. Beware of those who do differently. They are strangers from another tribe. We evolved to flee from a thousand strangers lest one of them kill us. Now we are wired for fear. Our inheritance is anxiety and defensiveness.

Once we had language, we perfected our divisions:  them and us, right and wrong. Words define beautifully. To define is to create a boundary. We can speak and teach our youth. This is our line. Our boundary. Keep the fire burning and hold on to your weapons. Do not let the lion cross this line.

Every word defines something. We use words to make distinctions and judgments. We say, "This is good; this is bad." We teach our values to our children. There is something powerful about putting your thoughts and opinions into words. But once you do so, you tend to identify with whatever you have said. It becomes part of you, and you will feel like you must defend it. I say to my granddaughter, "Here, Laura, this is how my mother taught me to wash my hands." If someone wants to challenge me about that technique, you are messing with my mother. Nobody says anything bad about my mother.

Our brains are wired to be dualistic. Lion or rock. Tribe or stranger. Right way or wrong way. Whenever two things pop into our thoughts, our dualistic mind tends to make up/down judgments. One is better than the other. We judge nearly everything.

I remember an insight that came to me when I was a college student, that wonderful tribal time of my life. I thought that I could put stickers on my car that would tell anyone pretty much all they needed to know about me. Ole Miss; the Episcopal Church shield; Beta Theta Pi. Note how much that communicated. NOT LSU. Not Southern Baptist. Not Sigma Chi or ATO. Now tanks to social media, we're much better at this; we can publish our essential identities universally.

As I labeled myself in those days, I also recognized that I have a built-in tendency – let's call it a prejudice – to prefer those who are like me. Whenever there are two things in front of us, our dualistic mind tends to make up/down judgments. I remember recognizing how I felt drawn immediately toward someone when they introduced themselves as an Episcopalian or a Beta. And there was something about LSU that could make me bristle. Such prejudices are the foundations of racism and nationalism and polarizations of so many kinds. I think Jesus is still unimpressed.

It is very easy to let this evolutionary wiring distort reality and leave us as a human race divided, tribal, and conflicted. How much of the world's misunderstanding and violence is rooted in our inherited tendency to divide and judge. Essentially rooted in fear. Primitive fear. Fear of the other. Evolution has planted these fears in our guts.

Jesus said, "There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come."

The "outside" reality is actually one. The internal divisions within us are artificial, creations of our minds and our hearts. Reality is one. All humanity shares a common ancestry. We all share the same earth. We breathe the same air, drink the same water, draw our life from the same ground. We are more alike than we are different.

And now that humanity can imagine reality from a quantum perspective, we realize even more dramatically how interrelated everything is. Physicists tell us that the universe is more like a single living organism than like separate elements of discrete matter. Reality is one. That's what Jesus told us. It's also what the mystics and the scientists tell us. The fundamental Christian symbol of the Trinity says the same thing. Unity in diversity. The pouring out of the persons of the Holy Trinity in love toward one another which is the one unity that energizes all creation. Reality itself is unity in diversity.

How can we deprogram our inherited mental software of fear-driven division and reprogram our minds and hearts to be more in sync with reality?

It helps to disconnect from our addiction to words and from our thought-driven minds. That's what contemplative practices like Centering Prayer do. When we can bypass language we can receive everything as a whole. It is another way of seeing and experiencing reality. We can lose ourself as separate from the whole and be one with the all.

Musicians talk about becoming one with the music; dancers with the dance. There are times when I'm gardening when I am one with the earth and I lose track of time. Moments when driving a car when it's like looking at the whole of reality at once. Sometimes I can be so present in a crowd, that every person is beautiful, fascinating, alive with energy and wonder. It happens in nature. In the mountains. At the beach. Just sitting. Or working in a concentrated way with an undivided mind.  

We can also choose. Choose to divide and judge less. I am convinced that nearly every person at all times is doing the best they can, given their inheritance, history, and circumstances. I find when I regard people with that benevolence, I can feel empathy for people that I might otherwise judge harshly. It's a choice. Empathy and understanding rather than fear and resentment. I think I can usually be more helpful when I approach people from an empathetic position than from a judging position.

We have all inherited generations of fear that divides. Jesus is unimpressed. His antidote is love. Only love can overcome fear. "Perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4:18) Jesus is not impressed with words: "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." The divine heart is a heart of love. Unifying love.

As it does so often, everything comes down to the single commandment that sums up them all. "You shall love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. 

Fear not! Choose love.

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