Friday, August 19, 2016

Is Love Enough?

Is Love Enough?

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 21, 2016;  Proper 16, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 13:10-17)  Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.


[If you were here last week, you know I recycled a sermon from 15 years ago. Now, I promise I'll write a new sermon one of these days. But I had another hard week, and I had to go to Little Rock for a meeting Friday and Saturday. I just didn't have time. So, back to the barrel. This one's only 12 years old; from 2004.]

That bent-over woman. I wonder what it was -- the Aspirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.@ My intuition is that it didn't have it=s origin in something physical. But it was crippling, nonetheless.

Like the woman who grew up in the home of an angry father and a compliant mother. Everyone walked on eggshells trying to avoid setting him off. She learned that when she was a good girl, a very, very good girl, he wouldn't lash out at her with his bitter tongue and his biting sarcasm. But something in him was so angry that she never felt really safe. She tried to please him, to make him happy, to make him love her. But he was unhappy and angry. So she grew up feeling vulnerable and insecure. Now a mother and grandmother herself, she=s never really felt safe in a relationship. She kept the peace by taking care of others. But with the divorce and all the kids grown up, now there=s no one to take care of but herself. And she doesn't really know how. She wishes someone would rescue her; she=s willing to do anything to make someone happy, if they would only love her; accept her. But she needs people so desperately that she scares them off or wears them out. Though her father has been dead for years, she is still bent over, carrying the shadow of his ghost, a spirit that has crippled her for so many years.

Or the moody teenager who doesn't know what=s wrong with him, but there=s nobody to talk to. His father=s preoccupied with business and his mother just preaches at him. What they are trying to teach him at school is stupid and worthless. Who cares that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, my God! He=s not about to let somebody see him walking out of the counselor=s office or some shrink=s place. So he hangs out with some other kids who are as moody as he is, and that feels better. Alcohol or drugs help him not feel like he feels. When he=s picked up trying to use a fake ID his mother tells the officer he=s been nothing but trouble since the day he was born, and something inside of him hardens. So, she thinks I=m trouble. I'll show her trouble. And he walks out slumping over with a sullen cold rage that he carries like a sack across his back. AYou=d better straighten up,@ his mother shakes her finger at him. AYeah. Right.@ He can feel the spirit that is crippling him just before his eighteenth year.

Henry David Thoreau hit a communal chord with his words Athe mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.@ The external circumstances of so many lives are threatening and transitory. How many people are just one pay check from quiet financial desperation? How many are going as hard as they can and never catching up? But it is the internal baggage that is so quietly and desperately crippling. No one is immune from hurts, misunderstanding, and love with bitter hooks and strings attached. No one=s spirit reaches eighteen years without feeling attacked and crippled.

We are not told anything about the woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years; she just appears. But she appears in the synagogue on the Sabbath. We know she lives in a patriarchal world where the women who attend the synagogue are set apart in their own room, apart from the men whose daily prayers in that synagogue include the prayer of blessing and thanks to God for not making them women. We know that she lives in a world where the men of authority and power will react to her healing with criticism because it is done on the Sabbath, caring more for the rules and traditions than for her liberation. 

In his wonderful and challenging novel The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakais imagines a conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist. They are sitting in the hollow of a rock, high above the Jordan, arguing all night long about what to do with this world. It is sunrise. John=s face is hard and decisive; from time to time his arms go up and down as though he were chopping something apart. Jesus= face is tame and hesitant. His eyes are full of compassion.

AIsn't love enough?@ Jesus asks John.

ANo,@ John answers angrily. AThe tree is rotten. God called me and gave me the ax, which I then placed at the roots of the tree. I did my duty. Now you do yours: Take the ax and strike!@

AIf I were fire, I would burn,@ Jesus says. AIf I were a woodcutter, I would strike; but I am a heart, and I love.@ [1]

For so many people the tree of life is rotten. The weight of the world is heavy and tiring. It feels like things will go on like this and just keep going on like this. It=s easy to understand the desire to strike out. It=s easy to feel disillusioned. We want a Messiah who will do something to set things right. We want a God who will bring some relief and justice, who will rescue the innocent and punish the abusive. We want a Messiah who will fix us, and make us so that we won=t keep walking into the same blind alleys over and over again. And we spin in the vortex of our own vicious circles, weighed down and crippled. 

Eighteen years! Eighteen years she was bent over and unable to stand up straight. When you've been bent over that long, people get used to it. They don=t really notice. It's like you've always been that way. It's like it's always been that way. 

But Jesus noticed her. Three wonderful words in this story, AJesus saw her.@ I think there is a lot underneath those words. He really saw her. He saw her suffering. He cared. His look was not one of curiosity, or judgment, or aversion. His look was one of compassion. He called her over and let her know she could be free. She could be liberated from this spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. He touched her. AIf I were fire, I would burn; If I were a woodcutter, I would strike; but I am a heart, and I love.@ And love was enough. Whatever trauma had crippled her and bent her low was melted by a knowing, compassionate love that gave her the freedom to stand up straight again, free of her bondage on this Sabbath day.

Is love enough? Is God=s divine, unqualified love enough to fill the emptiness left by an angry and neglectful father? Can a heavenly Father's abundant acceptance and delight heal the hurt and restore our dignity? Is love enough? Can the love of a Messiah who was despised and rejected reach out to touch the alienation and loneliness that leads us to self-destruction? Can the compassion of a Messiah who really sees break through the walls of hostility to touch our sensitivity and hunger for true love and understanding?

Yes. A thousand times yes. Love will break any rules and suffer any cross to manifest itself. Not only is love enough, it is the only thing powerful enough to free us.

When all human love has failed us, especially our love for ourselves... When our spirits are crippled... God sees and cares. God touches us with gentle compassion. God frees us from the stuff that weighs us down and convicts us. Any time; any place. Right here; right now. 

Be free of whatever burdens you. Be free of whatever weighs you down. Stand up straight and proud. AYou are set free,@ says Jesus on this Sabbath. Stand up straight immediately and begin praising God saying, AWe believe in One God, the father the almighty...@

[1]Quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor, AGod In Pain,@ p. 19
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.

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

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Interpreting the Present Time

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 14, 2016;  Proper 15, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 12:49-56)  Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
                father against son
                                and son against father,
                mother against daughter
                                and daughter against mother,
                mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
                                and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

[NOTE: I wrote and preached this sermon fifteen years ago, August 2001. This week has been a busy one, and I didn't come up with a good sermon idea, so I'm pulling this one out of the barrel. Lowell]

"You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"  (Luke 12:56)

Whenever the natural forces of destruction, storm or wind, are active anywhere in Asia, the skies of Utah light up.  The visiting dust shimmers red in the air, painting vast vibrant colors against the magenta mountains.  That evening sky is a metaphor of a fundamentally new way of understanding the world as an interconnected Web of Life.  Scientists tell us that there are unseen connections between what were previously thought to be separate entities.  Those who will thrive now and in the age to come are those who can interpret the appearance of earth and sky, and adapt to reality, the world the way it is.  The problem is this: for those of us who are about age 45 and above, reality is dramatically different from the way we learned about it.

The new science of quantum and chaos has changed our fundamental understanding of life.  We are going through a period of new learning that is comparable to the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  It is an apocalyptic time of change.  And change brings conflict.

Some people wring their hands and produce words of woe, trying to build walls of protection around their old certainties as they prophesy doom with a grim glee.  Their world is dying in the new fire.  Their words are words of straw.  The prophet Jeremiah says, "What has straw in common with wheat?"

But all around us are words of wheat, planting seeds of a new future, recognizing what God is doing in our time. 

Apocalyptic times are times of fire and hammer, when old ways are destroyed, and the energy of fire and hammer are constructing new ways out of the old.  It is an extraordinarily exciting time to be alive.  I once thought, how lucky those who were alive in Renaissance Italy.  No more.  Generations will look back at this age and say, "How thrilling it must have been to be alive when such secrets of the universe were being revealed!"

The fire and hammer is on our front pages and our cell phones.  Globalization.  Genetic modification.  Human sexuality.  Climate change.  Immigration and refugees.  Twitter.  Bike trails.  Hybrid self-driving cars.

The voices of control and protectionism are anxiously trying to build walls around themselves, while the ground under their feet is moving and shaking.

For nearly four hundred years we've lived in the shadow of Newton=s understanding of reality: Newton said that our universe is like a machine.  To understand it, just analyze the parts and put them back together.  We can control machines.

No more.  We now recognize that reality is a dance of chaos and order.  There is no simple, objective truth out there somewhere – a book of rules that you can follow and know that you are right and those others are wrong.  No, everything is in relationship to everything else, changing and learning and evolving.

Life is not like a machine.  It's more like jazz.  There is some structure.  The musicians agree about melody, tempo and key.  Then they play, listening carefully, communicating constantly.  What happens is a surprise.  Music beyond what we imagined.  It seems to come from somewhere else, from a spirit or energy that the musicians have accessed among themselves, a relationship that transcends our false sense of separateness.  When it happens; it appears.  And the musicians are amazed, joyful, grateful.

In natural systems, there is some structure, some boundaries that keep a weather system or chemical interaction related.  But then begins the dance between chaos and order.  What the scientists have discovered is that if a chaotic system stays open and has the capacity to change, it will reorganize itself at a higher level of organization. That's important. Let me say it again. If a chaotic system stays open and has the capacity to change, it will reorganize itself at a higher level of organization.

You've experienced that in your life.  Everything begins to unravel.  You can=t stay ahead of the curve.  Events happen and you can=t control things.  You feel anxious and pulled apart.  But if you let go of your anxiety, listen and look and learn, waiting patiently for what you do not know:  without your realizing it, something emerges that brings a new order and consciousness.

People my age and older have watched that happen to our world.  When I was a child, there were separate bathrooms and waiting rooms, for colored and white.  Women could be secretaries or nurses or teachers.  No one was homosexual; no one had heard of transsexual.  Schools were "separate but equal." 

People were so afraid when that world began to fall into chaos.  I remember the fears.  What will happen when black children swim with white children?  What if a man has to take orders from a woman?  Gay people will love each other if we don=t stop them.  There=s no telling what will come if we let negroes have an education with white folks.  For many people, those changes felt like their world was crumbling apart. 

But, if a system stays open and has the capacity to respond to change by reorganizing itself at a higher level of consciousness, there can be new and healthier relationships between black and white, woman and man, gay and straight.  We can evolve and become co-creators with God of a new and more whole universe.

Those who have vision and trust will help midwife the new world that God is creating.  But it will take a new way of being.  Listen to what science is telling us:  The new reality rewards curiosity, not certainty.  The new reality comes with truth in paradox, not absolutes.  Relationship is everything, and everything is in relationship.  It's all one.  You can=t just ignore the different.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  No single person or school of thought has the answer.  We're in this together. 

Einstein said, "No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it."   And, as Niels Bohr discovered the fundamentals of quantum theory he concluded, "If an idea does not appear bizarre, there is no hope for it."  In the new reality we will have less intellectual confidence, but life will be infinitely more interesting.  We'll have to be comfortable with uncertainty, and appreciative of the role of chaos.  We'll need to stay together to share each other's curiosity, wisdom and courage.

What an exciting time it is to be alive!  What a great time to be religious!  For religion is what holds us together when the conflicting desires within us threaten to pull us apart.  I want to be part of a church and a community that enters fearlessly into this new reality, trusting that God is bringing about the fulfilling of the divine vision.

Listen to what the organizational development specialist Margaret Wheatley says about her own yearnings in a quantum universe.  These are words I can embrace as well: "I want to trust in this universe so much that I give up playing God.  I want to stop struggling to hold things together.  I want to experience such security that the concept of 'allowing' – trusting that the appropriate forms will emerge – ceases to be scary.  I want to surrender my fear of the universe and join with everyone I know in an organization that opens willingly to its environment, participating gracefully in the unfolding dance of order."[i]

She's described a healthy church and a healthy person of faith.  I pray that we will be people who are able to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; people who will know how to interpret the present time: people who live with hope, openness, and trust; curiosity, wisdom and courage; connected to the whole.  If we can embrace that spirit, we can cooperate with the new creation that God is bringing about in our generation.

[i] Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science, 3rd Edition, Barrett-Koehler, 2006, p. 25

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Emotional Systems

Emotional Systems

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
July 31, 2016; Proper 13, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 12:13-21)  Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

Reading this story about a conflict over an inheritance reminds me of a story. When I was in Jackson, Mississippi, we were doing a class about attachment and detachment. In the class was one of the beloved matriarchs of our congregation, I'll call her Tillie because she has died and I can't ask her permission to tell the story and because my memory is so faulty I'm not sure I'll tell it exactly as it happened. In her 80's, Tillie had a beautiful, quick smile, a translucent white complexion, cherubic red cheeks, snow white hair, and twinkling blue eyes. She looked like a grandmother in a fairy tale story.

Our class was talking about how we get attached so easily to things and to emotions. How our attachments drive us so powerfully. Tillie spoke up in her deep Southern accent:  "Fah-tha. Mah muh-thuh had a beautiful emerald necklace. I loved and admired it so. Sometimes she would let me barrah that necklace for a special dress-up occasion. She promised she would give it to me when she died. But late in her life, when she wasn't quite able to take care of things like she used to, my sus-tuh started messin in mama's affairs. And when it came time to read Mama's will – I've nevah been so shocked in my life – the will gave that emerald necklace to my sus-tuh, and I got the back patio furniture. Now it was nice furniture… but I can tell you, to this day, every time I think of my sus-tuh wearing that emerald, it just "ticks" me off!" [I had to clean up that last bit of Tillie's language for church.]

Somewhere in Tillie's consciousness, Tillie knew: it's just stuff; everything passes. Her mother was long gone. Tillie and her sister's years were numbered. Let it go. But the energy inside her memory was still very real and powerful. And every time she thought of that emerald, the chemicals of her emotions poured through her body. "Every time I think of my sus-tuh wearing that emerald, it just "ticks me off!" She was still mad.

The word "emotion" comes from the Latin for movement, agitation, stirring up. Like what happens in your guts when they are stirred up, agitated and moving. The body holds emotions; the body preserves the history of our emotional woundings. Our most primitive emotions dwell in our body like chemical deposits ready to erupt with instant urgency. Emotions are so raw and deep, they feel like truth. Like truth demanding a response.

It's important to recognize: Emotions just are. They aren't necessarily good or bad. At their core, emotions are just energy. Chemical energy. We don't have to do anything with them unless we truly choose to.

As human beings, we've inherited three motivational systems – systems that have been necessary to our survival as a species. They motivate so much of what drives us.

The first motivational system is the fight-flight-freeze system. It is the way we react to threats. The amygdala pumps adrenaline to tell us urgently "Fight for your life!"  Or "Run!" Or "Freeze!" Our negative memories are stored in the amygdala, and it is wired negatively, to remember every possible or remotely possible threat. That shadow behind the tree? Is it a sheep or a lion? The amygdala will kill a thousand sheep in order to protect us from one shadow that might be a lion. Not good for the sheep though. The amygdala is primitive; we share it with the reptiles. And it is fast. Sending information almost instantly. "Fear!"

The second motivational system is the achievement/goal-seeking system. It gives us drive, excitement, and vitality, and it rewards us with feelings of pleasure. The chemical is dopamine, and it comes from the basal ganglia in the forebrain. Dopamine is the chemical secreted by a job well done, a Razorback touchdown or by crack cocaine. Pleasure is particularly addictive, whether it is the pleasure of constructive accomplishment or the pleasure of beating a video game. A high achieveing workaholic and a video game addict experience a similar sense of reward.

The third motivational system is the tend-and-befriend system, something particularly present in mammals. This emotional system gives us feelings of contentment, safety, and connection, like when you are holding a baby. It gives us feelings of soothing and well-being, connection with others. The chemical is oxytocin, and it is released by the pituitary, reaching into other parts of the neurological system. Oxytocin helps create the motivation of compassion.

But this third motivational system, the tend-and-befriend system is easily overridden. The threat system of fight-flight-freeze is quicker and more urgent than tend-and-befriend system. In our primitive body, fear trumps love. To a somewhat lesser degree the achievement/goal-seeking system also overrides our tend-and-befriend system. The drive for pleasure or accomplishment pushes us with deep urgency.

But this is interesting: if all is quiet – no immediate threat, no achievement drive – number 3 is where we naturally dwell – the place of tend-and-befriend, where we feel connected, content, and safe. The place of compassion.

So many spiritual practices are designed to help us detach from the force of the first two emotional systems in order to free us to live where we most naturally dwell, in the place of compassion and connection. The place of our fullest humanity. The place of love.

Coming here to worship is an opportunity shed some of our sense of fear and threat and to place our fears into God's hands, letting go in trust. Surrendering to the greater power and infinite love that carries us more surely than we can carry ourselves. Coming here to worship is a way to re-order our pleasures and desires, resting for a while in the divine presence where all is well and all manner of things shall be well. Coming here to worship is a return to our home of deep acceptance in God's infinite arms, where we are loved and embraced unconditionally and knit together into the community of the mystical Body of Christ which gathers all humanity into one. As Colossians says today, "your life is hidden with Christ in God… clothed… with the new self. Christ is all in all."

Prayer and contemplative practice help us release our attachment to the disorienting stimulations of our fears and desires so we can rest, secure in our most natural condition: safe, connected, content and compassionate in the loving presence of God. In contemplative prayer, like Centering Prayer, we take a little time, maybe twenty minutes, to gently disengage from the battering of thoughts and feelings, and for a little while, just be, naturally, in that loving, infinite presence.

The practice of Centering Prayer helps us detach from our thoughts and feelings – detach from the chemicals that bubble up within us. One discipline of Centering Prayer is the practice of the Four R's. I've taught it before, but I want to do so again. When we sit down in Centering Prayer, we gently deal with the distractions of our thoughts and feelings with the Four R's:  Resist no thought. Retain no thought. React emotionally to no thought. Return ever-so-gently to your sacred word.

That same practice can help us when the adrenaline and dopamine of our conflictive emotions and thoughts fire off within us during our ordinary hours. We experience a threat or a compulsion: Resist not. Retain not. React not. Return ever-so-gently to your center.

Emotions tend to dissipate if we don't add to them. They come and go. We can merely observe emotions; we don't have to do anything about them. We don't have to react. We can wait. We can observe rather than obey our emotions. And they can be our teachers. Showing us our own patterns that tend to compromise our freedom.

Always we are God's beloved children. "Your life is hidden with Christ in God… clothed… with the new self. Christ is all in all." That's naturally where we dwell, whenever we let go of the fear and compulsions that seek to drive us.

Dwell contented and safe within the eternal arms as God's beloved child, and from that place of peace, just watch. When adrenaline or dopamine kick in: Resist not. Retain not. React not. Return ever-so-gently to your center.
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.

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

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The New Story

The New Story

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
July 24, 2016;  Proper 12, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Genesis 18:20-32)  The Lord said to Abraham, "How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know."
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" And the Lord said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." Abraham answered, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there." Again he spoke to him, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it." Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there." He said, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it." Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it."
(Luke 11:1-13)  Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say:
                Father, hallowed be your name.
                Your kingdom come.
                Give us each day our daily bread.
                And forgive us our sins,
                for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
                And do not bring us to the time of trial."
And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

The folktales of Paul Bunyan the mighty lumberjack capture a part of the American frontier spirit. He is a figure of immense physical strength and wonderful skill, personifying the power of the pioneers who tamed the forested wilderness of the American west.

The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah teach a lesson about a core value of the desert—the law of hospitality. Like the frontier west, life is hard in the desert. If a stranger comes into your camp or village, the law of the desert demands that you graciously offer extravagant hospitality: water to wash the stranger's feet and to quench his thirst, the best available food, the choicest place of rest and shelter for traveler and flocks. We saw Abraham offer that desert hospitality to three strangers last week.

The people of Sodom and Gomorrah violated that sacred duty of hospitality. So God determined to punish them, according to the story.

Today we read of Abraham's engaging in Middle Eastern bargaining, talking God down from the immoral proposition of destroying the good in the process of punishing the evil. That is a classic dilemma of power, the problem of unintended consequences and collateral damage. In this story, it is Abraham who limits the wrath of God.

But human corruption is so endemic. There are not ten righteous men in the wicked cities. So, Abraham's nephew Lot and his family must flee as God destroys the cities. Alas, subsequently in the name of Sodom and Gomorrah, centuries of faithful people have practiced cruel inhospitality toward their gay neighbors, misusing power in a tragic misinterpretation of scripture. Human corruption is so endemic.

We misuse power. And just like the western pioneers projected their power into the stories of Paul Bunyan, we human beings often project our desire for ultimate power upon God. We humans are tempted to invoke God's wrath upon our enemies, or upon those we perceive as bring wrong or different. We humans will do terrible acts of violence in God's name. Stories like Sodom and Gomorrah sometimes offer Biblical cover for our human abuse of power.

Jesus is the antidote to the abuse of power and to the misinterpretation of God's nature. Christians see God through the lens of Jesus. Colossians speaks to us today:  "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition." Empty deceit is so endemic. Do not fall for it. Instead, we are to look to Christ, "For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority."

How does God in Christ deal with evil? Jesus is the story that reverses the evil story of Sodom and Gomorrah. How does God in Christ deal with evil? Colossians continues: "[H]e forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities, making a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross]."

Instead of using threatening, coercive power, Jesus overcame evil with love: a divine love that was willing to be crucified rather than to use violence, threat or coercive power. Instead of merely defeating his enemies with power against power, Jesus absorbed their evil into his vast loving heart, then he rose from the dead, bringing new life to all, the act of ultimate power. The early church called this the New Creation. Literally, a new way of being.

Some of you may have been brought up in churches that still live in the old creation, run by a god threatening Sodom and Gomorrah violence, a god intending to throw everyone who is not like us into fire and brimstone. That god is not the God of Jesus.

The God of Jesus chose to be one with us, all of us, fully experiencing human life. All of human life, including its suffering and evil and death; raising it all up into the New Creation. We are invited to participate in that New Creation by letting Christ live in us.

Thomas Keating puts very personally. "God seems to want to find out what it is like to live human life in us, and each of us is the only person who can ever give [God] that joy. Hence our dignity is incomparable. We are invited to give God the chance to experience God in our humanity, in our difficulties, in our weaknesses, in our addictions, in our sins. Jesus chose to be part of everyone's life experience, whatever that is, and to raise everyone up to divine union."[i]

You are loved. You are safe. So you are free, a new creation empowered to love as Christ has loved you. But that's hard. Richard Rohr puts it this way: "The cross is not the price that Jesus had to pay to convince God to love us. It is simply where love will lead us… If we love, if we give ourselves to feel the pain of the world, it will crucify us."[ii]

We see a life-giving pattern in Jesus. He works hard; he heals and teaches; he practices his active love. But afterward, he withdraws into prayer. That's where our gospel story starts today. Jesus retired to a certain place to pray, to renew his passionate union with God and to rediscover what is most real.

After withdrawing, he returns grounded, and tells his disciples how to pray. First, he says, connect with God's goodness and being; align yourself with God's good purpose. Then Jesus gets very practical. He says God's agenda includes our daily bread. Food, security, shelter. He tells us, accept your forgiveness and extend forgiveness. Then a he makes remarkable economic imperative: forgive debts. Finally, he tells us to pray, "save us from the time of trial."

Then Jesus renews the ancient law of hospitality with a new story. Can you imagine going to a friend at midnight to help feed a traveler and the one inside refuses? Of course not! How much more generous is God. Ask, seek, knock; you will receive, find, and be welcomed. Ask for love, and you receive divine love, the Holy Spirit. Receive love, and give it away. Hospitality in the New Creation.

The way of life in this New Creation is no longer the way of Paul Bunyan or of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is not the way of power or threat or violence or intimidation or control. The way of life in the New Creation is the way of love: to know yourself to be loved and accepted, and then to be willing to risk life's crosses in active love, including the practical love of daily bread, forgiveness, release of debts, and courage in the face of trial. That's our joy and our challenge.

"God seems to want to find out what it is like to live human life in [you], and each of us is the only person who can ever give [God] that joy."

[i] Thomas Keating, Fruits and Gifts of the Spirit, New York: Lantern Books, 2007. p. 39
[ii] Richard Rohr, from his "Daily Meditation" email, The Third Way, June 28, 2016

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Healing Legion in the Name of Jesus

Healing Legion in the Name of Jesus

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
June 19, 2016;  Proper 7, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 8:26-39)  Jesus and his disciples arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me" -- for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" He said, "Legion"; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

As Jesus crosses a boundary, leaving his homeland of Israel and entering the Gentile territory of the Gerasenes, he is confronted with a wild man—naked and homeless, unclean, living among the dead, violent and uncontrollable. The man reacts, afraid and defensive at Jesus' approach. Yet Jesus is the approach of loving compassion.

Jesus seeks to understand him. "What is your name?" That is a profound question in antiquity. In ancient days a "Name" is a deep word. It carries both a sense of one's identity and of one's vulnerability. To share your name with another is to reveal something of your inner essence, and to allow the other some degree of power over you. A name is not to be revealed lightly. To know the other's name is to have power over them. The name of the Hebrew God was never spoken aloud except by one person on one day in the year. The High Priest, alone on the Day of Atonement, would enter the inner sanctuary of the Temple and speak the holy name of God, trembling. Name carries power and identity.

"What is your name?" Jesus asks. The answer: "Legion." The wild man is complicated, his troubles complex, his afflictions myriad, entangled, multiple, knotty and tortuous. But Jesus willingly seeks to understand him, to know him, to be in relationship with him, to know his name, and to bring the power of the name of Jesus—loving-compassion and wise coherence—to let the power of the name of Jesus bring healing to Legion's complex troubles.

One week ago another mad man with deadly capacity acted with shocking and tragic violence. Since then we have been trying to understand who he is and why he did it. His name is Legion. He said he pledges allegiance to ISIL, but in the past identified with al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, who all fight each other demonically in Syria. He showed little religious practice but said co-workers teased and taunted him because he was Muslim. He was abusive and controlling toward his spouse. He struggled with his sexual orientation. The message he heard from his culture and his religion condemned in extreme terms what his soul and body told him was core to his true identity. Like so many others in his situation, he turned to suicide. He killed his own image in a murderous-suicidal rage and did so in a way that he might hope to be regarded as a hero and martyr with eternal rewards and earthly renown among those of his allegiance who otherwise would have thrown him off a building. His name is Legion.

In Luke's story, after the frightening appearance of the wild man and after all of the demonic violence of the swineherd, the man now free is found sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.

But change is hard. The people were seized with fear, and they begged Jesus to leave. The healed man wanted to go with him. But Jesus told him No. "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." Returning home, his active, creative intelligent presence in his community could now become a catalyst to overcome fear. "So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him." "Perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4:18b)

Our parishioner David Lewis' grandson Jesse was killed three-and-a-half years ago at his elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. David's daughter Scarlett started the "Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation" to let her son's death become a catalyst for healing. Last December President Obama signed federal legislation sponsored by Scarlett's friend Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal to support social and emotional learning for children from pre-K through grade 12. Scarlett's team tested a curriculum this year at an at-risk school in Waterbury, CT, and David calls the results "a miraculous thing." He says, "Kids have a basic need for love, and they accept love when we bring it to them." The Foundation is creating a free curriculum that will teach children the skills to choose love by building their capacity for courage, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion: social and emotional learning. Love, casting out fear.

Around the country many people are responding to the Orlando shootings with the kind of love that casts out fear. It will take great courage, gratitude, forgiveness and compassion to bring healing love to the legion of complex issues and human circumstances that this shooting raises into our corporate consciousness.

I pray for more understanding and more love for our LGBTQI neighbors. Last Monday night this room was the fullest I have ever seen as people packed every space here and overflowed into the Guild Hall and out on to East Avenue, expressing their grief and their solidarity. There was much love in this room.

I pray for more understanding and more love for our Latino neighbors and the whole immigrant community, as we respond in compassion for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting on Latino night. Can't we face the legion of issues and passions and complexities that underlie our broken immigration system with the wisdom and love that Jesus gives to us?

I pray for more understanding and more love for our Muslim neighbors who are again grieved and slandered by the evil actions of one who claims their name but acts contrary to the spirit of the Quran and the true religion of Islam. Muslims are suffering too.

I am encouraged by the work of a New York priest who is a colleague of mine in the Order of the Ascension. For the past three years a group he co-founded has been studying guns by interviewing soldiers, the police, and gun owners. They've reached out to gun manufacturers and visited a gun show in Europe to learn some continental techniques. Last April, working with police and gun owners, they organized the first smart-gun technology show in the country. Last week they met with congressional aids in Washington to share their free market proposals that are also friendly to gun owners and can make safer guns a real option. His group is bringing some wisdom and coherence to an issue whose complexities are Legion.

Our problems are legion, but we can face them courageously with loving compassion and wisdom.

At your baptism you were given a new identity, a new name. You were made children of God, grafted into the Body of Christ. Your name is Jesus. In our day, Jesus will bring loving compassion and wise coherence to Legion only through us. It is our calling and our identity to invoke the name and power and presence of Jesus. It is our job to ask of the madness, "What is your name?" and then to listen and understand. We are to be courageous in relationship to whatever confusion faces us. We are to bring to our day the loving compassion and wise coherence that is the power of the name of Jesus. I pray that the name of Jesus will again bring healing to Legion's complex troubles, though us. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
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