Saturday, May 21, 2016

Experiencing the Holy Spirit

Experiencing the Holy Trinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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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 30, 2016

The Little Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Remember

Remember

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, March 04, 2016

Can You Believe This Family?

Can You Believe This Family?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

____________________

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 27, 2016

No Pigeonholing

No Pigeonholing
                                                            
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
February 28, 2016; 3 Epiphany, Year C
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 13:1-9) At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?' He replied, 'Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
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At a time when it was illegal in Egypt to raise a male Hebrew child, there was a baby born to a Hebrew mother. In desperation she placed the child into a handmade basket and floated it into the reeds on the bank of the river. A princess found the child and raised him as a prince in the Pharaoh's palace, giving him the Egyptian name Moses.

One day, after he had grown up, Moses saw an Egyptian boss beating a Hebrew worker. Moses looked around and saw that they were alone. He killed the Egyptian and hid the body in the sand. The next day he learned that his act wasn't a secret, so he fled from Egypt into Midian, in the northwest desert of today's Saudi Arabia. There he married, had children, and worked for his father-in-law.

Time passed. One day, while keeping his father-in-law's flocks, Moses stopped to gaze upon a bush that appeared to be on fire, yet not consumed. That encounter with the mystery of God convinced him that God sees our misery; God sees all human misery; that God hears the cry of the oppressed; God hears the cry of all who suffer. And God acts.

So the murderer accepted God's call through an encounter with a burning bush. Moses returned to Egypt, on fire yet not consumed. His was a call from an ineffable God, with an untranslatable Name: I am who I am. I will be who I will be. I am becoming who I will become. I am. The God of Moses, who is utterly mysterious and free. No one can tame or pigeonhole this God.

But subsequent generations have tried to tame this God. One of the most enduring attempts to pigeonhole and tame God is the theological notion that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked.  There is the further implication —that those who suffer have somehow brought on their misery and deserve their fate. That doctrine is central to many of the biblical books: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, many of the Psalms, and especially Proverbs.

In contrast, the biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes speak in stark protest to the simplistic notion that if you do good, you will be rewarded, and if you do bad, you will be punished. Job and Ecclesiastes challenged the simplistic notion that the successful deserve their success and those who suffer somehow have brought on their fate.

In today's Gospel reading we see Jesus standing firmly in the camp with Job and Ecclesiastes. What about the Galileans whom Pilate executed so their blood mingled with their offerings of sacrifice in the Temple? What about the eighteen who were crushed when the tower fell on them? The Bible says they must have done something to deserve their fate, right? "No!" cries Jesus. "But unless you repent…" – change your mind, change your opinions, change the way you are thinking!

Jesus refused to victimize the victims.

It has been an enlightening experience to become engaged in our prison ministry and to hear the stories of many of the women there. We've learned about what happens to the human brain and body when we experience early childhood trauma. There are so many children born into communities where their parents have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables because the only stores are convenience markets that serve mostly junk food. Places with substandard housing and schools, void of beautiful parks and trails, haunted by violence, crime and drugs. Where children are likely to experience abuse—physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual and sexual abuse—during the vulnerable time when their brains and bodies are developing. And when these children of ours fail to thrive, when they see drug dealing or demeaning sexual transactions as their only path to security, when they act violently as the only way they know to solve problems, we tend to blame them. Like the Gospel conversation we say, "they are worse offenders than all the others living in the city," and we send them to prison.

Jesus answers the problem with a parable about a fig tree. Give the tree the same chance as the other trees in the garden. Dig a trench around it and put rich manure on it. Invest in the children's communities—the infrastructure and public schools; access to healthy food and affordable health care and good jobs. Listen to their cries and facilitate their exodus from bondage into freedom.

People want to do their best. It is innate in us. Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and the divine Spirit in us energizes us to try our best. I am convinced that nearly every person is doing the best they can, given the limitations of their history and experiences, their capacities and resources. If we could understand fully the heart and mind of others, I think it would change the way we think of them and open our hearts to compassion.

Some time ago I visited with an older man living in an extended family arrangement of three generations. He was frustrated with his son-in-law, who was unemployed and spent most of his time in front of video screens. The son-in-law often yelled at the kids, which angered my friend. But the younger adolescent son seemed particularly fond of his dad and the older son, now at adulthood, wouldn't think of leaving home because he felt nurtured there. My friend said of his son-in-law, "He's worthless. He contributes nothing and only mooches on the rest of us. I don't like him, and he doesn't like me. For the most part, we just don't speak." But whenever my friend would bring up her husband's deficiencies to his daughter, she always cut off the conversation immediately. "If he goes, I go."

On an intuition, I asked my friend what he knew about his son-in-law's childhood. Horrible, he said. The boy's mother was injured during her birth and was never normal. His father left when he was about five, and there was a string of unhealthy men in and out of the home thereafter. Drugs, sex, violence, noise. The boy was abused also. Neglect was relief. That's how he was raised.

So, I suggested, look what he has accomplished. He is a faithful and loved husband. No drugs. Other than the occasional raised voice, no violence—no raised fist. No abuse. When compared with what he learned—how he was taught to be a man, taught to be in a family—he has made an exponential jump. Yes, in many ways he's not a good father/husband/son-in-law, but what evolutionary progress he has achieved from what he inherited.

So I suggested to my friend, whenever he starts to bug you, think of that little boy. You can empathize with that little boy growing up in a chaotic, abusive home. If you can empathize with the child, maybe you can let the man off the hook. And if you can let him off the hook, you will free yourself from the choking resentments and angers that diminish your life.

Jesus, what about the worthless man who won't work and sits in front of a screen all day? Do you think he is a worse offender than the others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, change your opinions, change the way you are thinking… 

It's the kind of direction you get from a mysterious, free God who will not be pigeonholed.
__________________________________________

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 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Loving Conflict

Loving Conflict

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
January 31, 2016; 4 Epiphany, Year C
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Jeremiah 1:4-10)  The word of the Lord came to me saying,
                "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
                and before you were born I consecrated you;
                I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the Lord said to me,
                "Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
                for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
                and you shall speak whatever I command you,
                Do not be afraid of them,
                for I am with you to deliver you,

says the LORD."
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
                "Now I have put my words in your mouth.
                See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
                to pluck up and to pull down,
                to destroy and to overthrow,
                to build and to plant."


(1 Corinthians 13:1-13)  If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


(Luke 4:21-30)  In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
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(It was a busy, challenging week for all of us. We ran out of time to write. I'm recycling this sermon from a previous year. I hope it was unmemorable enough that is sounds fresh.)

There is a lot of conflict and turbulence in these readings today. 

The first reading from Jeremiah is sometimes titled "The Calling of the Prophet Jeremiah." It has a personal connection for me. I used this reading at my ordination some 35 years ago. I could relate to Jeremiah's protest, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." When I was ordained, I was only a boy. God tells the boy, "Speak whatever I command you." At the time of my ordination, I knew that's what I wanted to do – to speak God's word. But I was a bit uncomfortable with the last verse in this reading. In the last verse of Jeremiah's call, God told Jeremiah that his work would be more conflictive than I hoped my work would be. God called Jeremiah "to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." We'll, I liked those last two. I'd really like to build and to plant. But it made me anxious to imagine myself involved in plucking up and pulling down, in destroying and in overthrowing. I hoped I wouldn't have as volatile a career as Jeremiah. But those other words are also part of the call – words of turbulence and conflict. As I've aged, I've become much more comfortable with turbulence and conflict. It's all part of the creative and re-creative process. Turbulence and conflict: it's necessary for growth.

Turbulence and conflict is part of today's second reading too: the "Love Chapter." Most of us have heard 1 Corinthians 13 at many of the weddings we've attended. But the original context of Paul's words is not a wedding. It's church politics. The church in Corinth has been troublesome for Paul. They've been acting elitist, proud, and self-satisfied. From Paul's perspective they've been "abusing their freedom, refusing to share, scorning their neighbors' spiritual gifts, boasting in their own gifts, seeking recognition for themselves, and jockeying for position in the church." [i] Paul is angry with them. It doesn't matter how big your outreach program is or how pretty your worship may be or how smart your preachers think they are or how fine your choir is. Without love, it's nothing. Paul points toward every single thing that their congregation is proud of and asks them, "Are these things done with love? How might they be done with greater love?" It's not a complement. It's a challenge.

And if you think Jeremiah or Paul might have ticked off some people, Jesus really infuriated folks in his own hometown. We heard the first part of this story last week. Jesus is visiting the synagogue at his home in Nazareth, and he reads from Isaiah. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And we pick up with today's Gospel: Jesus continues, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." 

Sounds like people reacted positively. "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." How about Joseph's little boy. Hasn't he grown up?

But Jesus won't let it lie there. Maybe he knows something about his hometown. Maybe he knows that the only way they will relate to him is for him to perform for them, to do some entertaining healings so the hometown folks can revel in his celebrity status. Hometown boy makes good. Just goes to show. Nazareth is Number 1. 

Whatever the underlying reasons, Jesus provokes them—intentionally. I'm not going to do any miracles here, like you've heard about from Capernaum. My work, God's work, is not about "homies." You remember in Elijah's days. There was a famine throughout Israel. But Elijah didn't help any of his own people. He went over the border to Sidon, to a pagan widow over there, and he fed her during the entire famine.  You remember Elisha. There were lots of lepers in Israel, but he didn't heal any of them. Instead, he healed Naaman, a general in the Syrian army, the same Syrian army that has fought against Israel over and over in our history. 

That's provocative language. It's a little like President Obama saying "No more increased federal funding for college scholarships, except for undocumented aliens." Or, "No more extension of Medicaid health insurance to uninsured Americans, we're underwriting the rebuilding of the health care system in Iran." 

People in Nazareth were enraged. They wanted to kill him. Then we hear that mysterious verse: "But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way." Jesus stood his ground. Willing to alienate them; willing to let them reject him; willing to give up those relationships. He took a position and held it, even in the face of resistance, conflict and anger. Thus, self-defined, he passed through them, and went on his way.

I think Jesus' issues with Nazareth and Paul's issues with Corinth were similar. They are issues about love. For Jesus and Paul, love is how they define themselves. For Paul, love is more important than performance or talent or gifts or success. If you can't do your work with love, it's garbage. For Jesus, love goes universal. Love extends outward to the foreigner, the outsider, ...even the enemy. And if you can't handle that, if you can't love the alien, the immigrant, the enemy, Jesus is willing to walk right through you and go on his way.

Jesus looks at the pride of his hometown, expressed as bias and prejudice, and he outs them. Paul looks at a self-satisfied, elitist church, and he shames them with love. In Jeremiah's words, there is some plucking up and pulling down going on, there's some destroying and overthrowing going on, in order to build and plant a kind of love that is primary and universal. 

I'll bet some things changed. Whenever one person stands boldly, on principle, willing to let others reject and alienate – whenever one person takes a position and holds it, even in the face of resistance, conflict and anger – the whole system will be affected. I hope Paul's insistence on love deflated some of the spiritual pride in the congregation at Corinth. Yet we know, especially from Second Corinthians, that he had to continue to reassert his message about love-centered leadership. We also know that eventually the church did indeed respond generously, helping Paul with his collection for the Jerusalem church. 

I'll bet some things were shaken up in Nazareth. Despite their violent reaction toward Jesus, they knew they could no longer treat outsiders with prejudice without knowing they were known. Jesus did to Nazareth what Martin Luther King did to the segregated South. Jesus' stance of love forced their prejudice into the cold light of day. 

We are invited to follow their example. Each of us is called. Often to build and to plant. Sometimes to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow. Whenever we see structures of pride and greed, elitism and prejudice – we are called to make a stand. We are to take a position of love, and to stand boldly on the principles of love, regardless of any resistance, conflict or anger it might provoke. That's the only way things change for good.

Love boldly. Beyond the boundaries of self-interest and bias. For, as Paul tells us, "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. ...And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."



[i] Lewis F. Galloway, Pastoral Perspective, for 4 Epiphany in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Bartlett and Taylor, eds., Westminster John Knox Press. p. 302