Saturday, May 16, 2015

What a World

What a World
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
May 16, 2015; 7 Easter Sunday, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

John 17:6-19 – Looking up to heaven, Jesus prayed, "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth."

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Sometimes when I read John's gospel, my mind just shuts off. It begins to sound a bit like the grownups in a Peanuts cartoon. Wa-wha-wah-waaa. Words, words—nice words. Going around in circles until I've lost track of any linear meaning. I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world… (T)hey do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world… I am not asking you to take them out of the world… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. It takes some concentration to listen to John's words. Sometime they sing like a symphony for me; sometimes… well, I can be a poor listener or reader.

So I got stuck this week on a What-is-the-world?-merry-go round. In John, Jesus talks repeatedly about the "world." But I'm not sure what he means by that.

Everybody knows John 3:16. That's the verse reference that gets held up on a sign in the endzone during extra points. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." And it goes on. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

So God loves the world. The Greek word is cosmos. When you read the word cosmos/world in John's gospel, it often seems to mean "the creation." God loves the cosmos that God created.

In other contexts in John, world seems to mean humankind. As in one of today's verses, when Jesus prays that the disciples may be one with Jesus and the Father, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me." So that humankind may believe that you have sent me.

And in some contexts, it is clear that "the world" is a negative word. "I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world." In his translation, The Message, Eugene Peterson renders these passages with adjectives like God-rejecting world, or godless world. "I gave them your word; The godless world hated them because of it."

Finally, there are places where John's gospel contrasts this world and another world, a godless cosmos and a God-filled cosmos. You get the sense that in Jesus and in the unity of Jesus and the Father and the rest of us, both worlds intersect—the cosmos is one. 

The Greek word cosmos seems to be a pretty flexible word.

God loves the cosmos/the world—the whole creation and all humanity, including godless humanity—and God gives the Son to the world that all might be saved, whole, one. Yet, in this ambiguous world, the results are pretty mixed.

Let's look at some of the characters in John's gospel who enact the drama of Jesus in the world. Some of them get it. Some of them don't. But many of the characters in John's gospel change and grow along the way.

There's Nicodemus. He's a scholar who is well placed politically. He's curious about Jesus, but comes to Jesus by night when no one can see them talking. "Nicky!" says Jesus, "you must be born from above, born again!" "Huh?" asks Nicodemus. "I'm a grown man. How can I re-enter my mother's womb?" Jesus lights up with loving fun, dancing almost teasingly around his friend. "Nicky, you unimaginative literalist. The Spirit blows where it will, you can't see it come or go. You must be born free like that." Nicodemus doesn't get it.

But later, when Jesus is attacked at the Festival of Booths, Nicodemus speaks out to stand up to Jesus' right as a Jew to a fair hearing. The authorities (the world) snap back at him. But when Jesus is dead, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of this capital criminal. Nicodemus has caught on to something.

There's the woman at the well. She's a heretic Samaritan, and an outcast even among the outcasts. She's alone drawing water at noon, the hottest part of the day, when she won't risk an encounter with one of the other women doing their chores. In violation of every social and religious convention, Jesus speaks to her and asks her to draw water for him. They talk, and he offers her living water. She doesn't get it. But she listens long enough to decide he is a prophet. She listens longer, and thinks, maybe he is the Messiah. She went home and talked about it openly, no longer embarrassed or shamed that she was unlawfully living with her fifth husband. She's caught on to something.

There was a sick man who had been living on corporate welfare by the pool of Bethzatha for 38 years. "Do you want to be made well?" Jesus asks him. He doesn't answer the question. Instead he just makes excuses for why he's stuck there. He doesn't get it. Jesus says, "Stand up, take up your mat and walk." He does so at once. But it's a sabbath. Carrying your mat on the sabbath is strictly prohibited. He ignites a firestorm of religious debate. But the next thing you know, Jesus sees him worshipping in the temple. And John closes the passage with Jesus' answer to the sabbath-protectors, "My Father is still working, and I also am working.  The implication, the man who was sick for 38 years also goes out and finds some constructive work to do. Now he begins to get it.

One more character. Peter. Throughout John's gospel, Peter never gets it. And when the chips are down, when Jesus is arrested, he denies Jesus three times—a failure and betrayal not unlike that of Judas. After the resurrection, Jesus appears to Peter and asks him three times, "Peter, do you love me?" And three times Peter answers, "Yes, Lord. You know I love you." Three times Jesus empowers him, "Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep." Peter is healed and empowered. Even at that, Peter asks a dumb question about another, "What about him?" referring to the disciple that Jesus loved. "None of your business," Jesus answers. But Peter is beginning to get it.

We see Peter in the first reading today leading the church to pick a successor to Judas. One denier leading the church to replace another denier. Judas could have been there with them, continuing as one of the twelve. He just needed the humility to let Jesus heal and empower him too.

This world, this cosmos, is a messy, ambiguous place. Humanity is a messy, ambiguous mess. But God so loves this cosmos/this world/this humanity so much, that God gives the Son. The Son opens his arms to everything and everyone in this God-rejecting world, and gives us only love and healing. His purpose—that we may be one with the Father and share in their joy.

John's gospel comes down to this from Jesus:  "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love… I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." (15:9, 11-12) Wow! Those are WORDS! For me, they sound with power like a symphony.

And sometimes, I get it; or I get part of it, I, who am in the world.

We're all beginning to get it, aren't we?

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

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

Saturday, April 25, 2015

"I Am the Good Shepherd"

"I Am the Good Shepherd"
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
April 26, 2015; 4 Easter, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

1 John 3:16-24 – We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us-- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18 – Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away -- and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."
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Did you hear the intake of breath when Jesus said that? It must have been a scandal originally when Jesus said, "I am." You see, that is God's name. A Word too holy to be spoken, according to Jewish practice. Maybe you will notice in blogs or in newspaper columns, a sensitive writer will type G_d, refusing the type all three letters as an act of reverence and respect to God's holy name given to Moses at the burning bush. "I am." Words you just don't say in polite, Jewish company.

"I am the good shepherd," says Jesus. This is God-talk. And all sorts of images fly through the consciousness of a thoughtful Jewish listener. From the Psalms, "God is my shepherd." "[God] will tend the flock like a shepherd," sings Isaiah. "[God] will gather the lambs in [God's] arms; carry them in [the divine] bosom, and gently lead those that are with young."[i] Over and over the Hebrew people declared with confident faith that God cares for us like a good shepherd, who leads us to green pastures and still waters where we can safely rest, where our souls may be revived, where we will fear no evil.

Just to make sure you don't miss the point—that this is God-talk—Jesus ends this chapter in John's gospel with a profound statement: "The Father and I are one." "I am the good shepherd… The Father and I are one." Language like this is why the religious authorities believed Jesus deserved to die. They heard blasphemy in Jesus' words. Jesus spoke of himself with "I am" God language. He asserted further, "The Father and I are one." Finally he brought it all full circle and spoke to any other human beings within earshot, telling them all that "you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you… Abide in me as I abide in you."[ii] Wonderful! Or, blasphemy. Jesus sees himself in complete union with God and with us, all humanity dwelling in an intimate union with the divine life and love.

So the God-talk becomes human-talk. Since we are in Jesus and Jesus is in us, we are also the good shepherd. And maybe this language was a little less uncomfortable to his listeners. Because in many places, the Hebrew scriptures use the metaphor of shepherd as a characteristic of leadership—government is supposed to be like a good shepherd. The shepherd-king David is the great example. The prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah spoke words of condemnation to governments that failed to care for their people like a good shepherd.

Jesus picked up this tradition dramatically in his parable about the nations. It is his consummate statement about government: What is good government? What is bad government? How does God judge the nations? Again the metaphor of sheep appears: the parable of the sheep and goats. The good nations, the sheep, are those who have behaved like good shepherds: they have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner.

Jesus explains that we are to imitate God's priorities. God wants our focus to be on the vulnerable, the lost sheep. The good shepherd leaves the comfortable 99 and goes to rescue the 1 in 100 who is in danger. The good shepherd risks for the sake of the vulnerable. Not like the calculating hired hand, who looks to his own safety and self-interest first, who runs to save himself when the wolf comes.

It is a high and challenging calling. Today's reading from 1st John puts it this way: Since Jesus laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for one another. John asks, "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?"

I can tell you, these kinds of scriptures trouble me, because so much of the time I'm not like the good shepherd. I don't lay down my life for another, and I set pretty wide margins around the degree of help I'm willing to give, or the time I will invest in the needs of the 1 in 100. Maybe you also find these words convicting.

That's where John's other words are consoling. "Whenever our hearts condemn us, …God is greater than our hearts." God knows everything, John reminds us. God knows our selfishness and smallness. And yet God loves us infinitely—accepts and forgives us with divine generosity. God hopes to assure us of our security so deeply, that we can relax and participate in the work of the good shepherd, knowing that we can't fail beyond the arms of God's restoration.

Remember Peter. The leader of the disciples. At the crucial moment, when he most needed to take a stand, to be a leader, he cravenly denied Jesus three times. How that must have depressed him. How his heart must have accused him. I'll bet he asked himself a million times, "What if…?" But the past doesn't change. He failed, and there was nothing he could do to change the facts.

The past doesn't change, but its meaning can change.

Some time later, after Peter had returned to Galilee, to his old work of fishing, Jesus came and asked Peter three times, "Peter, do you love me?" And three times Peter affirmed what Jesus knew was in his heart, "Yes, Lord, you know I love you." And three times Jesus empowered Peter with a commission: "Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep." And Peter was restored.[iii]

Jesus is the good shepherd whose intention is not to lose even one sheep. He looks out beyond the horizon of those who may hear his voice today. "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."[iv] In John's gospel Jesus speaks yet another word of universal salvation and victory, like so many other similar words in scripture.

God's love is greater than our sheepy failures. God is greater than our hearts, especially when our hearts condemn us. God's intention is reunion and union. All humanity living together in love. One-hundred percent of the sheep safe and secure; not a single sheep lost. Nurture for all—the shelter of the sheepfold, green pastures, still waters, goodness and mercy. This is God's will for all. This is God's mission for humanity.

So, little lambs. Relax. You are utterly safe. You are loved and cared for by the divine good shepherd who loves you whether you are lost or found. From the security your rest in the strong arms of the shepherd, you are empowered by Jesus to his same mission, for he abides in you and you in him.

Feed the lambs; tend the sheep. It's all really pretty simple – love one another.


[i] Isaiah 40:11
[ii] John 14:20, 15:4a
[iii] John 21
[iv] John 10:16

Saturday, April 04, 2015

"I want my Supper!"

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
April 5, 2015; Easter Sunday, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary


Mark 16:1-8 – When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already \been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
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There's a story that caught my attention the other day. It's from a man who grew up in some privilege in Hungary many years ago. As a little boy, he loved dinner. He loved to go into the dining room and sit in front of the big plates. The maid would come in and begin with serving him soup. One evening he went downstairs to the dining room, and it was in an uproar. Jews had been fleeing across the border from Russia, and his grandfather had gone to the railway station and brought home the ones he had found there. The boy didn't know what was going on. There were old men with skull caps in the living room; mothers with nursing babies in the corners of the dining room. The boy was upset, and threw a fit. "I want my supper!" he cried. "I want my supper!" One of the maids brought him a piece of bread. He threw it on the ground and screamed, "I want my supper!" The grandfather happened to enter the room then and heard him. The old man bent down, picked up the piece of bread, kissed it, and gave it to the little boy. He ate the bread.[i]

That little boy is me. I'm so privileged. And so wrapped up in my own stuff. I like things to go the way I like them to go. Maybe you're a little bit that way too. When they don't go the way I want them to, I scream and pout. It's mostly invisible screaming and pouting, but my head gets full of fussiness, expecting the universe to bow to my demands, and just demands they are, I believe. Whenever I'm fixed on myself and my expectations, I'm pretty blind. I don't even see the suffering old men with skull caps and the mothers in the corners with their nursing babies. They are all around us.

Hugo of St. Victor used to say, Love is the eye! When we look at anything through the eyes of love, we see correctly, understand, and properly appropriate its mystery. The reverse is also true. When we look at anything through eyes that are jaded, cynical, jealous, or bitter, we will not see correctly, will not understand, and will not properly appropriate its mystery.[ii] Maybe that is why some saw the risen Jesus and others didn't. I know that when am wrapped up in my own self-concern, I can be pretty blind.

There's a priest named Ron Rolheiser who remembers an Easter Sunday many years ago when he was a young graduate student in San Francisco. Easter was late that year and it was a spectacularly beautiful spring day. But he really didn't see it. He was young, homesick, alone on Easter Sunday, and nursing a huge heartache. It colored everything. It was a beautiful Easter Sunday in spring, but for what he was seeing and feeling, it might as well have been midnight in the dead of winter.

Lonely and feeling pitiful he took a walk to calm his restlessness. As he entered a park, he saw a blind beggar holding a sign that read: It's spring and I'm blind! The irony woke him up. It brought him back to reality, present right before his eyes.[iii]

"Love is the eye!"

It seems to be a matter of attention, doesn't it? I notice that I am happiest, I am my best self, when I do two things: (1) when I forget myself, and (2) when I focus on the present moment. Or to put it in the negative. I notice I am most frustrated when I'm preoccupied with my own stuff, and when I am not in the present moment, either brooding over something in the past or anxious about something in the future.

Then I'm like the little boy yelling for his supper, forgetting to be grateful for the gift of life here and now, the bread of life placed in my hand as a gift.

On the night before he died, Jesus took bread and identified it with his own life, with his presence. "Do this in remembrance of me," he said. On Easter evening, Luke's gospel tells how some disciples were gathered at a table near the road to Emmaus, and a stranger whom they didn't recognize took the bread, broke it, gave it to them, and their eyes were opened. They knew him in the breaking of the bread.

Christians have known Christ present in the breaking of the bread for over two thousand years now. Love is the eye that sees him in the gathered community on this beautiful Easter. If we can but see, love incarnate comes to us, accepts us completely just the way we are, blesses us with the divine kiss of peace, and places in our hand the bread of life.

In that moment past and future become one in eternal time. We are with the disciples at the Last Supper and at that table near Emmaus. We are at the eternal banquet table where we will be one with all forever. We are here and now with this wonderful gathering of humanity. Present to God; present to each other; receiving the gifts of God for the people of God.

Back in the days when death squads operated in countries like Argentina and El Salvador, "the Christians there developed a way of a very dramatic way of celebrating their faith, their hope and their resistance. At the liturgy, someone would read out the names of those killed or 'disappeared', and for each name someone would call out from the congregation, Presente, 'Here'."[iv]

When we are present, here at this Eucharist, all of creation is gathered with us: our ancestors and loved ones who have gone before us; the child who starved last night in the Nuba Mountains; Lincoln and Gandhi and MLK, Jr.; young Chris Lewis whose heart stopped last week; the passengers of Germanwings Flight 9525; the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well; Peter and Paul and Jesus himself – Presente! Here!

Take! Eat! Bring your whole self here—be present. Present yourself. Just as you are. You are welcome to the banquet feast. Jesus made it so simple, so concrete. The incarnation of God continues in space and time in ordinary food.

Richard Rohr says, Eucharist is presence encountering presence… There is nothing to prove, to protect, or to sell. It feels so empty, naked, and harmless, that all you can do is be present. The Eucharist is telling us that God is the food and all we have to do is provide the hunger. Somehow we have to make sure that each day we are hungry, that there's room inside of us for another presence. If you are filled with your own opinions, ideas, righteousness, superiority, or sufficiency, you are a world unto yourself and there is no room for "another." ...Our only ticket or prerequisite for coming to Eucharist is hunger.

"I want my supper!"


[i] Told by Mark Hollingsworth, Bishop of Ohio, in his Easter sermon of 2007
[ii] From Fr. Ron Rolheiser: http://liturgy.slu.edu/Triduum_Easter2012/reflections_rolheiser.html
[iii] Ibid

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, 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.