Monday, December 26, 2016

The Scene at the Manger

The Scene at the Manger

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
December 24, 2016;  Christmas Eve
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

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

                "Glory to God in the highest,
                   and on earth peace, good will toward men."
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, "Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us." And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

For Christians, Jesus is the lens through which we understand the nature of God and the shape of reality. I think the Christmas story gives us a beautiful picture of God's desire for creation.

In the familiar image of the manger scene we can see what God is up to. God empties the divine self into a human life, a baby, vulnerable and helpless. Born not to a royal family, but to peasants, in a familial setting of nurturing, human affection. He arrives in a humble place among the animals, whom God loves. Heavenly angels first announce the birth to shepherds, hard people living hard lives, mistrusted like criminals for their trespassing and hard ways. The shepherds' arrival at the manger would have been scandalous, like a troupe of Hell's Angels motoring into a neo-natal unit. But the shepherds and their animals are welcomed.

The next visitors are exotic scientists, magi who studied the stars; probably priests of Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Iran. They too are welcome at the manger.

The scene at Christ's birth anticipates the work that the child will undertake later to initiate the Reign of God. The scene dramatizes a reconciliation of all divisions into a union that also preserves distinctions.

So, this is what God's reality looks like: The divine enters humbly into creation. Stars and animals rejoice in their own manner. God is reconciled with humanity. Humanity is reconciled within itself, as the scandalous and the wise all find their way and their welcome, and everything happens below the radar of rulers and authorities. This manger scene is an image of a community of love and compassion. Love and compassion is God's way. Love and compassion became the work of Jesus.

Jesus was renowned for three things – healing, feeding and teaching. He healed the sick and broken; he brought coherence to the emotionally incoherent, casting out demons was the ancient language for that. He fed multitudes, taking small resources and creating enough; they all were satisfied. And he taught, summarizing the entire ancient teaching of the law and the prophets with the simple call to love: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

Jesus crossed every human boundary of nation and belief to give the same three gifts of healing and feeding and teaching to foreigners and to people of other religions. He even befriended an officer of the occupying Roman army. Jesus especially extended his love and compassion toward those who were believed to be unclean, outside the circle of acceptability: tax collectors and sinners, lepers and heretic Samaritans, hemorrhaging women and prostitutes. In Jesus' presence, they were all clean. All were valued, loved, made worthy of friendship and respect.  

Though his followers called him "Master" and "Lord," he acted like a servant and even like a slave washing their feet. He showed them that true leadership is exercised in humble service.

But Jesus did get testy at times. There were three things that seemed to raise the hair on the back of his neck: greed, pride, and threatening by violence.

First, greed. Jesus warned the rich, people like me, that our fate is linked with the poverty of poor Lazarus who lives suffering outside our gates. Jesus overturned the exploitative tables of the businessmen in the Temple. He invited a very moral rich man to sell everything and follow him, and it was too much for that man. Jesus also had dear friendships with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both rich and powerful, who gave Jesus a dignified burial after his execution. Jesus had a lot to say about our relationship with our money and our responsibility to use our wealth and power to create justice on behalf of the poor and marginalized.

The second thing that drew Jesus' ire was pride. Jesus saved his strongest words for the ones he called hypocrites. We would probably call them the really good people. They were the religious ones. Good, moral folks who were so certain of their own rightness that they judged others. They regarded with condescension those who didn't live up to their moral and religious standards. "Judge not!" he told us, and he halted the moral stone-throwers. Finally, from the cross, surrounded by as much evil and self-righteousness as humanity can muster, Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing." I believe God answered that prayer. God forgave us all. God continues to forgive us all, and invites us to love our neighbor as ourselves by extending that forgiveness completely to ourselves and to others.

The three things that most irritated Jesus: greed, pride, and third, threatening by the use of violence. Once when Jesus and his disciples were treated with hostility as they traveled through Samaritan territory, James and John reacted: "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" How often we humans have reacted that way. Jesus rebuked them. No! he said. Sometime later, when soldiers came to arrest him in the garden of Gethsemane, all four gospels say that one of his disciples took a sword to defend Jesus and attacked one of the arresting party. John's gospel said it was Peter who drew the sword. "No more of this," Jesus cried, and healed the injured man. That's in Luke. Matthew says that Jesus told them that he rejected the option of violence: "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me twelve legions of angels?" Jesus chose the path of non-violence. He confronted evil and threat armed only with love and compassion. And we see in his death and resurrection God's greatest triumph. God brings life out of death. It is what God does best.

This is the way we Christians see God; it is the way we interpret Reality – through the lens of Jesus. Christians claim that Christ was the unique, but not exclusive revelation of God (H. Richard Niebuhr). We happily recognize that the truth of sages and scientists from any realm or discipline will ultimately guide any truth-seeker toward Truth Itself, Ultimate Reality, whom we call God.

This gentle scene at the manger symbolizes the peace and respect that can exist across cultures and classes and races. The humble image of the manger shows us the reconciliation of division. All is united in a union that also preserves distinctions. God is reconciled with humanity; the divine enters humbly into all creation; stars and animals rejoice in their own manner; the scandalous and the wise find their way; and it all happens below the public radar.

I trust that God is still working below the tumult and conflict that fills our world. God is working in humble ways, bringing peace and good will to all.

I hope that the yearly celebration of this season will remind a divided and suspicious world of the possibilities of reconciling love transcending the false boundaries of nation, religion, race, wealth and power.

The Christmas scene shows us. Every child is God's child. Every poor family is God's family. Every refugee and crook and magi, from every race and religion and land belongs to God. Earth and stars, animals and angels. We all belong together in a fellowship of humble hospitality. That is the picture we sing about in our carols at Christmas. May that be the reality we live in and strive for, today, tomorrow and forever.
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, December 03, 2016

Being the Beloved Community

Being the Beloved Community

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
December 4, 2016;  2 Advent, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 3:1-12)  In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
                “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
                                ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
                                make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Maybe you remember those opening lines from Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities. The words seem appropriate not only to the dramatic setting of Dickens' novel on the eve of the French Revolution, but also to the days of Jesus, when John the Baptist had just revived the ancient role of prophet, silent for more than 400 years. John pointed toward Jesus in a Messianic reference as the promised "Lamb of God." In that time, Herod Antipas had inherited the rule of Galilee from his father, Herod the Great, the builder whose expansion of the Jerusalem Temple was so extravagant that people thereafter called it Herod's Temple. Antipas' recent divorce and his marriage to his half-brother's wife threatened to provoke war and was a scandal to John the Baptist and others. Jewish Zealots constantly plotted violent overthrow of their Roman occupiers, and would in a few years incite a full scale civil war that would result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and deportation of most of its inhabitants. It was a tense time. And in the wilderness a powerful voice cried out for change: John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was the best of prophets, and he was the worst of prophets; he announced a season of Light and a season of Darkness. Clothed like the great prophet Elijah and eating the wilderness food of a people's prophet, he cried out for change. Repent! Turn around, and go the other way.

John confronted the people of privilege with prophetic judgment and warning. "You brood of vipers!" There is wrath coming, he said. John challenged the unearned privilege of the Sadducees who exercised their power from inheritance and family position. He also challenged the earned privilege of the Pharisees, the proper people, who knew themselves to be the righteous ones, obedient to God and therefore superior to the sinners and all those others.

John compared both groups to snakes. Cold blooded, poisonous, like a slithering mass coiled and threatening. Woe to you, he said, repeating the constant theme of the Hebrew prophets. Woe to you rich and privileged who ignore the needs of the poor. Woe to you who think only those who are like you are righteous. Woe to you. God cares first for the poor and the weak, the widow and orphan, the stranger and the alien. God will judge how you privileged ones use your power. Beware you wealthy and powerful ones; beware you righteous and self-righteous ones. Do not presume upon your privilege.

John looked around at the rocks covering the wilderness landscape. "God is able from the stones to raise up children of Abraham." The multitudes; the people you think of like rocks, as "throwaways," worthless – God raises them to equal status as children of Abraham. You are of no more value than the rocks. So straighten up. Or else. Ax and fire!

John was the best of prophets and also the worst of prophets. Threat and violence and force – that's all John can imagine. The threats of ax and fire are humanity's way, but never God's way. John only knows repentance. John doesn't know transformation. He knows he is not worthy to carry the sandals of the one who is coming, but he can only imagine that future one to be like him, but on steroids. "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

John got all of that wrong. We will see him next week; disillusioned and imprisoned, he will send to ask of Jesus, "Are you the one." None of the winnowing and chopping and burning happened. That's not the way of Jesus. That's not God's way.

God's way is transformation. "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." The beautiful fire of transformation. The only weapons Jesus uses are the weapons of love and compassion. It is love and compassion that transforms humanity. Jesus heals the broken. He empowers the unempowered. He declares as clean those thought to be impure. He brings good news to the poor. He does all of this in a spirit of peace and gentleness. Jesus' only act of violence was to overturn the tables of the exploitative businesses that were preying on the poor.

John threatened with negative reinforcement – repent, or else – the appeal to power and power-over. Jesus gently inspired with an unbounded love that kindles our deepest hopes. For Jesus, forgiveness precedes even our awareness of need. And the path of the powerful and the great is the path of the servant and slave of all. To become great is to become a servant. Humility is the path of greatness. Not power over, but power with – distributed most liberally to the most needy.

No force. You can't force love. You can only love and inspire love. Love transforms. It transforms a stone into a child of Abraham, a throwaway into a beloved one.

Jesus came to create a beloved community. A community that begins when each person knows themselves to be God's beloved child. In the beloved community each person is accepted and empowered. Every person is capable of great good and embodied by God's Holy Spirit. Breathe that air and be on fire, a member of the beloved community.

These stories of John and Jesus are good things to know in this time of history as well, for it is the best of times and the worst of times, an age of wisdom and of foolishness, a season of Light and of Darkness, the winter of despair and the spring of hope.

Yet know this, the kingdom of heaven has come near. Jesus tells us to inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. We are baptized with Holy Spirit and fire. We are grafted into the beloved community. And we are called to continue to do what the beloved community has always done. The call is simple. Feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; welcome the stranger; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit the imprisoned. Fear not; do not fear; be not afraid. Love your neighbor as yourself. Everyone is your neighbor.

This is what Jesus taught us in the days of John, and Herod Antipas, and Empire and Zealots. Fear not; do not fear; be not afraid. Love your neighbor as yourself. Everyone is your neighbor.

We are God's beloved children called to live in the beloved community. This is who we are. This is what we are called to do. This is the true vision that brings life out of death.
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, November 19, 2016

We don't know what we're doing

We don't know what we're doing

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
November 20, 2016;  Proper 29, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 23:33-43)  When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Everybody in the scene was doing what they thought was right. Or as parishioner Charlie Russell is fond of saying: "Behavior is always rational to the person performing the behavior." When you look around the place called "The Skull," everyone there was acting according what they thought was right and sensible.

The soldiers were just doing their duty. They serve the Roman army. Stationed in this pathetic corner of the Empire, their job is to occupy the region for Rome and to keep the Pax Romana, the "Peace of Rome." Every soldier was to follow orders in order to maintain order in this perpetually rebellious region afflicted with religious zealots and terrorists. The soldiers were professionals, volunteers with hopes for serving a 20-year term and retiring with a generous discharge and incentives to live in communities created especially for the retired military. And on this day, they enjoyed an opportunity to play a game of lots on the chance of acquiring a robe from one of the criminals they were ordered to execute.

The three criminals had been tried by Roman law, a sophisticated legal system so respected that it became a basis for legal practice throughout Western civilization. The criminal hanging in the middle had entered Jerusalem earlier that week in a procession matching the prophetic expectations for a future Jewish Messiah-King. Jews hoped that God would send an anointed leader who would expel the occupiers from their homeland and establish an eternal rule of justice and security for their people. Rome was sensitive to any purported messianic activity. Caesar had no patience with challengers, so Pontus Pilate publically executed this "King of the Jews" to show what happens to anyone with messianic hopes.

Jewish leaders had to be sensitive to Rome's sensitivities. Jesus had become a problem for them. Jesus had attacked the Jerusalem Temple, interfering with their lucrative business interests administering the sacrifices. The Temple had a profitable monopoly on divine forgiveness. But Jesus taught that God freely forgave anyone just for the asking. And he overturned the tables of the money changers. And he acted in some ways that drew attention to him as a possible Messiah.

After the rumor that Jesus had raised a dead man back to life they called a council meeting. "Let him go on like this," someone said, "everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." (John 11:47-48) The High Priest Caiaphas made the sensible political calculation. Indeed, it is better for "one man" to die than for the "whole nation to be destroyed." (11:50) Their job was to protect their faith, their culture and their people. They made a rational, reasonable choice.

They didn't have too hard a time manipulating popular opinion to be cooperative. The crowds on the previous Sunday crowds had hailed Jesus as the coming Messiah. But then he didn't raise an army or do anything the things ordinary people expected a Messiah to do. So it was pretty easy to turn the public against this pitiful, weak, passive Messiah. Better to favor a real tough guy like Barabbas. So the crowd cried "Crucify him," and now they could watch the public spectacle, like our ancestors used to watch public hangings. And, who knows. What if he is the Messiah? Now he can prove it. Just come down from the cross and defeat the Romans. Otherwise, he's only another fake. So, let's watch to see what happens.

The officials believed that public execution is a deterrent to crime:  Look! This is what will happen to you if you follow this criminal's path. It is likely that the other two executed with Jesus were also involved in some form of rebellious activity. In those days there were underground bands of Jewish freedom fighters who looked for opportunities to attack unwary Romans or to assassinate their Jewish collaborators in the Name of God. They were called zealots or bandits or sicarii or terrorists. Or patriots or freedom fighters or holy warriors. Rome dealt with them decisively.

So we have this story in today's gospel, where one of the dying men, hoping against hope, joins the mood of the crowd. Go ahead, Messiah. "Save yourself and us!" But the other dying criminal seems to be a man of empathy. Leave him alone; we're all dying here. We knew the risk, and we chose our path. But this man doesn't deserve it, he says.

Then this unnamed criminal speaks simply to his dying companion. "Jesus," he says. The only person in the New Testament to address Jesus directly and intimately by his first name. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." What a gentle word of compassion. Jesus tells him gently, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Everybody in the scene is doing the best they can. They are all doing what they think is right. Behavior is always rational to the person performing the behavior.

But this is a scene of colossal wrong. Jesus is innocent. He's done nothing but love. His entire life has been a life of healing, compassion and love. Yet, the best legal system in the world and the best religious system in the world fail miserably. Our human structures fail us. And every person in this scene has rationalized and justified their participation in this violent miscarriage of justice.

So how does Jesus respond? With his dying prayer, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And I believe that God answers Jesus' prayer from the cross. God forgives them all. God forgives us all.

On the cross, we see God in Jesus absorbing all of the structural, systemic evil in the world, and returning only love. On the cross, we see God in Jesus absorbing all of the personal human wrong and failure and pain and evil in the world, returning only love. This is the creative energy of God breaking the vicious circles of wrongs, overcoming our broken human condition with love, forgiveness and new life through resurrection. It is the only way out of this mess.

The challenge for us is to live in this new reality. Looking with compassion upon today's Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas, today's soldiers and crowds, today's religious and criminals, today's broken systems and people, and to pray with Jesus, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." None of us really know what we are doing. And yet, we are forgiven for not knowing what we are doing.

We're all dying here. Nobody gets out of this mess alive. So can't we be a little like that other criminal? Can't we look at our dying fellow human beings with just a bit of compassion and empathy? A little bit of gentleness and empathy can open the door to Paradise.

Father, forgive us; we don't know what we're doing. Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.

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

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

Saturday, October 01, 2016

There is a Vision

There is a Vision

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
October 2, 2016;  20 Pentecost; Proper 22, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4)
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous--
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

(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.

The prophet Habakkuk looks at all of the strife and destruction, wrongdoing and injustice surrounding him, and he cries, How long, O Lord?! When will you do something? Then he takes his stand at his watchpost to wait. Answer me, God!

And something happens. Something that has a touch of comfort in it. Habakkuk senses that there is still a vision. God's vision. It is still true. It will still surely come. In God's time, it will not tarry. Wait in faith.

I wonder whether I have enough faith to be comforted like Habakkuk. I think I'm more like Jesus' disciples who cry out to him in frustration, "Increase our faith!"

Jesus gives them an answer that seems not much more comforting than Habakkuk's. What's the matter? he seems to say. It only takes a little faith, the size of a mustard seed. A little faith goes a long way.

Then Jesus shifts their expectations. Look! he says. When a slave comes in from the field, he doesn't sit down and expect to be served dinner. The slave just does his job. He serves the meal to his master. That's you. Do your duty. Your service is its own reward. That doesn't sound particularly comforting either, does it?

One of the privileges of being a priest is the opportunity of being with people as they wait to die. Dying is a duty, an inevitable duty. It is a holy time, though; often very hard. It is mysterious. I've waited like Habakkuk with dying friends and with families crying, "How long, O God?"

I've told you before that I am a natural doubter. There aren't many things that I approach with a simple faith. I tend to struggle; I often ask "Why?" and "How long?" and so many other questions.

But, I've been through the death journey with enough people that I now approach the time of death with a very simple faith. I really trust God about our dying. I believe God uses the dense time before death to do works of healing or of insight that might otherwise be impossible in normal time. Sometimes I know the grief is so thick that everything seems only dark or tragic in its midst. But so often, in retrospect, I've seen grace and healing emerge out of that thin space before death. I've seen relationships reconcile; I've seen fears evaporate; I've seen trust deepen. Amazing things happen during the journey into death. Occasionally we experience them in moments during the journey. Sometimes it is only later when we realize in retrospect something significant has happened. But I've been in death's presence enough to trust God deeply and simply. God uses our time of death to do good things. With that little faith, I find I am usually able to take my place at the watchpost and wait. There is some comfort in the waiting. There is a vision. God's vision. There is hope, and faith, and love.

I recently read a wonderful book titled, "And There Was Light," the memoir of Jacques Lusseyran, who lost his eyesight in an accident when he was eight years old. When Hitler invaded France in 1940, seventeen year old Jacques formed an underground resistance group. Jacques had developed such keen skills of non-visual observation that he could intuit through his senses when someone was truthful and trustworthy and when they were not. So Jacques was in charge of recruitment.

But the work was risky, and the Gestapo eventually found them. In prison as Jacques learned that his whole network of friends had been arrested, he knew it was likely they would all be killed. He prayed, he thought, he worried. "Then, by chance," he writes, "I hit my elbow hard on the wall. It hurt a little, and then did me a lot of good. I cried aloud, 'I am alive, I am alive.'

"One small piece of advice," he writes. "In a spot like this, don't go too far afield for help. Either it is right near you, in your heart, or it is nowhere… If you try to be strong, you will be weak. If you try to understand, you will go crazy… Reality is Here and Now. It is the life you are living in the moment. Don't be afraid to lose your soul there, for God is in it."[i]

Living in the moment, Jacques endured prison and brutal interrogation. Eventually he was crammed into a cattle car and transported to a German concentration camp.

He wrote about how the prisoners coped at Buchenwald. "All of us were naked, if not literally, to all effects. We had no rank, no dignity, no fortune left… and no face to save. Every man was cut down to himself, to what he really was."[ii] Jacques was perplexed by a criminal who years before had strangled his mother and his wife, but now freely shared his bread with others "at the risk of dying sooner." And an honest tradesman, the father of a fine family, who would "get up in the night to steal the bread of other men."[iii]

Jacques said that it was especially hard for the religious whose God no longer worked for them; hard for the respectable "who still ran after their lost respect;" and hard for the intellectuals who found their knowledge useless. Jacques writes, "The rich were the ones who did not think of themselves, or only rarely, for a minute or two in an emergency. They were the ones who had given up on the ridiculous notion that the concentration camp was the end of everything, a piece of hell, an unjust punishment, a wrong done them which they had not deserved. They were the ones who were hungry and cold and frightened like all the rest, who didn't hesitate to say so on occasion – why conceal the real state of things? – but who in the end didn't care. The rich were the ones who were not really there."[iv]

Like the old men over seventy, who seemed already "to belong to a better world." Jacques "found nothing but gladness" in them. "They absorbed Buchenwald as part of the great outpouring of the universe…"

"That is what you had to do to live in the camp: be engaged, not live for yourself alone. The self-centered life has no place in the world of the deported. You must go beyond it, lay hold on something outside yourself. Never mind how: by prayer, if you know how to pray; through another man's warmth which communicates with yours, or through yours which you pass on to him; or simply by no longer being greedy. Those happy old men… asked nothing more for themselves, and that put everything within their reach. Be engaged, no matter how, but be engaged."[v]

There is a vision. "If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay." Live in the here and now. It only takes a little faith, the size of a mustard seed. A little faith goes a long way. So do what you have to do. Be engaged. Be absorbed in the great outpouring of the universe. Do not live for yourself alone, but lay hold on something outside yourself. Enter the mystery of life until by your final duty, you enter the mystery of death. And if you can, be rich before that time; be nothing but gladness. Eventually it will all be light. Eternal light. Here and now, it doesn't even take eyes to see such light.

[i] Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light, Kindle location 3337
[ii] Ibid, location 3789
[iii] Ibid, location 3844
[iv] Ibid, location 3789
[v] Ibid, location 3836

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Turning Bad to Good

Turning Bad to Good

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
September 18, 2016;  18 Pentecost, Proper 20, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 16:1-13) Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.' Then the manager said to himself, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?' He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?' He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.' And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

The whole economic system in Jesus' day was unjust and exploitative. During his lifetime, there was a profound transfer of land ownership in Israel. Parcels of land which generations of families had owned and farmed were lost. The Roman economic system was stacked against them. Local peasant farmers found themselves manipulated into debt and eventually forced to forfeit their property to wealthy, absentee international overlords who often retained these same peasant families to work as sharecroppers for foreign masters on what used to be their own land, and to do so for wages that were at or below subsistence level. In the Roman Empire, wealth and income became concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer elites. It was a corrupt and ruthless system.

A wealthy absentee owner would employ a local manager to oversee his business interests. A manager was under great pressure to produce big profits to enhance the owner's power and prestige in the deadly competitive world of Roman social and political politics. Here's how it worked:

A manager contracted with the local sharecroppers by creating a debt. The manager paid a certain amount of money for an agreed amount of oil or wheat due at harvest. But Jewish law forbade the charging of interest on debts. So the merchant hid the interest by including the price plus interest in a single figure. The hidden interest rate was 25% for money and 50% for goods that could spoil or be tampered with.

So imagine a sharecropper and a manager agreeing to a harvest price for 50 jugs of olive oil. The manager would then write on the books 75 jugs instead of the agreed 50, hiding the interest in the total. Everything written down would belong to the absentee landowner. The manager made his money under the table, with an unrecorded payment from the sharecropper for the privilege of making a loan at 50% interest to deliver 75 jugs of olive oil for the price of 50.

It was a rotten system, and everyone hated everyone else because it was so fundamentally exploitative. Owners squeezed their managers for high profits, managers squeezed the sharecroppers for low prices, then the managers embezzled what they could off the books, while money flowed uphill toward the elites. Suspicion abounded.

So Jesus tells a story of some debtor sharecroppers exposing a manager's fraud. The absentee owner calls for the books, a sign that he will fire the manager. Quickly the manager calls in the debtors before they know he is to be fired, and he cooks the books, reducing their debts by the amount of hidden interest which was the owner's profit. The manager is trying to make friends. It's a risky and bold move.

In the Middle East everybody shares their news with everybody else. Very soon throughout the village everyone would have been praising the manager and his master for their generosity and honor.[i]

Now the master has to decide what to do. To retract the agreement would cost him great honor and turn all of that the praise into insult. In the Roman world, honor was more valuable than money. So the master praises his shrewd manager, knowing even without the hidden interest, he's made a good profit. And everyone is happy. Here's how one scholar explains it:

The parable began with the usual social scripts: owners distrust managers; peasants hate managers; managers cheat both tenants and owners.  But by means of his outrageous actions, the manager manages to reverse all these scripts so that, at the close of the parable, peasants are praising the master, the master commends the manager, and the manager has relieved the burden on the peasants and kept his job.[ii]

Out of this miserable system of deceit and exploitation comes something that seems like a piece of the kingdom of heaven, a new community of generosity and joy.

So here's where I'd like to take this parable. I find myself strained and conflicted right now by so many people and so many systems that seem dysfunctional, unjust and exploitative, from the EpiPen scandal to the presidential race. There is so much deceit and dishonesty, greed and corruption, suspicion and manipulation, that it is very easy to become depressed or cynical. But Jesus invites us to imagine a new order that can break though scandal and outrage, even by means of a dishonest manager and dishonest wealth.

Here is one of the ways I try to maintain hope. I have come to believe that nearly everyone is trying to do the best they can. When you consider the insight, resources, and emotional nourishment available to them, people generally are doing the best they can. Even when people do things that I think are wrong, if I take into consideration that person's own experience, their level of understanding and conscious awareness; if I take into account their fears, suffering, or their state of emotional nourishment, I can usually understand something of how they came to act as they did, as bad as it seems. If I can get to that understanding, I can usually nurture some empathy for them. Even when people are doing pretty wrong-headed and destructive things, they probably are doing the best they can. I find some consolation and even some hope in that.

The other way I maintain hope is to believe that God is always bringing new life out of death. God loves, God forgives, and God creates resurrection. That's what God does. That's the story of the cross. Look for the signs of new life emerging out of our brokenness.

Here's an example. Because I have experienced God as infinite love, and because I believe every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, I have a visceral aversion to a popular but wrong-headed way of presenting the Gospel. Some Christians divide humanity into saved and unsaved, us and them, and imply that God will eternally torment anyone who doesn't believe just right. It's a world view that is almost the opposite of what we see in Jesus. But that's the way some people have understood the Gospel, and they believe that conscientiously. But they bug the fire out of me.

Some of you remember Pat Robertson, a TV evangelist. Bugged the fire out of me. And yet, in his desire that every person be literate enough to read the Bible, his ministry developed and funded an excellent literacy program that they gave away free to anyone. We used that resource in my church in Jackson, Mississippi, for a tutoring program at a nearby elementary school. And I am grateful to Pat Robertson for that.

When my friend Sam Totten has risked his life to bring food to starving people in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, one of the most dangerous and tragic places on the globe, Sam has received transportation and support from Franklin Graham's ministry in the ground there. I rarely appreciate Franklin Graham's interpretation of the Gospel, but I applaud his relief work in Sudan.

One more preacher-evangelist who is on my "thank you" list. Our former governor Mike Huckabee, whose theology I usually can't endorse, was a champion on behalf of Arkansas children, helping start our acclaimed "ARKids First" Medicaid program, as well as our ABC pre-school education that helps thousands of at-risk children get up to speed at the most crucial time of their intellectual development.

I am a fan of Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham and Mick Huckabee despite some significant religious disagreements.

So I invite you, when your buttons get pushed, when you feel depressed or cynical because the system seems corrupt or unjust, hope and pray for God to raise up people like the dishonest manager who beat the system for good. Look for signs of new life coming out of death. Pray for understanding for all of us who do harm even while we are doing our best. Try to bring grace and light to darkness, not just more hostility and darkness. Live in the light of God's unqualified love which is bringing all things into fullness in God's kingdom. And when you are afraid, remember "perfect love casts out fear." Let your anger, frustration, depression and fear be grounded in the perfect, infinite love of God. Then look for signs of hope. 

You never know when a desperate dishonest manager will turn everything around for good.

[i] Paul McCracken, from his weekly email "Sunday Lectionary Texts" from the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration, September 13, 2016.
[ii] William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech, Westminster John Knox, 1994, p. 257.  I edited the terms to be consistent with the rest of the sermon: "owners" for "masters" and "managers" for "stewards"

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

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

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Be Loved, Then Be Love

Be Loved, Then Be Love

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
September 4, 2016;  16 Pentecost, Proper 18, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 14:25-33)  Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

People from the Middle East, like some Southerners, are prone to using exaggerations in conversation. I remember being frightened for just a moment when my grandmother gave me a swallowing bear-hug saying, "Ooo, I love you so much I could squeeze you to death." Would she? I wondered. She also loved me enough to "eat me up." Spooky…, until you know who grandma is.

Jesus uses an exaggerated colloquialism to illustrate the potential costliness of following his new way of living: You must hate your family and give up all your possessions. Spooky…, until you know God is.

In today's 10:00 class we are looking at Guidelines #15 & #16 of Thomas Keating's 42 Guidelines for Christian Life, Growth, and Transformation. Listen for a moment.

"15. God is not some remote, inaccessible, and implacable being who demands instant perfection from His creatures and of whose love we must make ourselves worthy. [God] is not a tyrant to be obeyed out of terror, nor a policeman who is ever on the watch, nor a harsh judge ever ready to apply the verdict of guilty. We should relate to [God] less and less in terms of reward and punishment and more and more on the basis of the gratuity – or the play of divine love."

And here's the key passage: "16. Divine love is compassionate, tender, luminous, totally self-giving, seeking no reward, unifying everything." [i]

With tender, boundless compassionate love, God seeks to relate to us in deep friendship. Like the friendship between the Father and the Son. God wants to draw us into that infinite bond of love. Loving friendship.

But we block that friendship. Today I want to suggest two ways we block friendship with God. Two ways we also sabotage our true identity and purpose. One is in the direction of false pride; the other is in the direction of false humility. Hubris and self-abnegation.

Hubris. Many years ago I knew a man who was one of those people who had to be smarter than everyone else. He knew what was right and let everyone else know. He could only deal with others in a condescending way. He had to be in control. So when his oldest child went through the predictable stages of adolescent rebellion, it was a deadly sin. The child was banished, and they remained alienated for life. In his office, he couldn't work with peers. Only subordinates. Oh he could be witty and jolly and fun. As long as he was in the center. His wife, God bless her, stayed with him, constantly forgiving, cleaning up his messes with her gentleness.

In terms of Jesus' teaching in today's Gospel, that man had too many possessions. His need for possession of knowledge, status, and control blocked him from his full humanity. If he would only give up all his possessions—his insistence on being in charge, being right, being on top—he could enter the full friendship of God, which is simultaneously full friendship with all humanity. But that is costly. It requires a kind of self-emptying that seemed too much for him. I think he was trying to live up to the unreasonable expectations of his earthly father instead of the tender grace of his heavenly Father. Over time, he grew lonelier and lonelier as more and more human beings failed to live up to his standards. Hubris.

Self-abnegation. My mind goes to a woman whose wheels fell off and our church tried to help her. But she was certain that it was impossible to overcome her obstacles. She knew herself as a failure. She was a sinner; she guessed she deserved her suffering, she said. It's always been this way, she said. She knew if she took two steps forward, she would fall three steps back. She felt cursed. "You are God's child," I said with as much conviction as I could utter. "Oh, no," her sad eyes said back to me in silence. "God wouldn't have anything to do with someone like me." She couldn't yearn for something more, something better, something beyond. Self-abnegation.

In terms of Jesus' teaching, she needed a change of identity, a new family. She needed to hate the voice of father and mother and sister and brother inside her head, the voice that told her she was no good. But that change was too costly. The failed her was the only "her" she knew.

I think all of us drift toward one end or another of this continuum from time to time. Between hubris and self-abnegation; between oppressive behavior and fatalistic temerity; between being inflated, full of ourselves, and empty, flat, nothing; between excessive pride and excessive humility.

As is so often true of opposite extremes, the two states are really very similar. The conditions of hubris and self-abnegation are both conditions of self-centeredness. Either thinking too much of oneself or too little of oneself.  

Let me suggest a way out of the dilemma, a way out of one's self-centeredness. And I want to borrow from one of my favorite writers, conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times. In Tuesday's paper, Brooks wrote of the complaints from veteran college teachers about how emotionally fragile today's students seem to be. Students are more accomplished than past generations, but more emotionally fragile, teachers are saying. So Brooks wrote about what toughness is in today's world. [ii]

"The people we admire for being resilient… are ardent. They have a fervent commitment to some cause, some ideal or some relationship. That higher yearning enables them to withstand setbacks, pain and betrayal… There are moments when they feel swallowed up by fear. They feel and live in the pain. But they work through it and their ardent yearning is still there, and they return to an altered wholeness."

So Brooks says, "If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some world view that puts today's temporary pain in the context of a larger hope."

"People are really tough only after they have taken a leap of faith for some truth or mission or love. Once they've done that they can withstand a lot." David Brooks.

Jesus invites us into his cause, his ideals, his friendship. He invites us into an ardent commitment to a relationship of love. Divine love, which is compassionate, tender, luminous, totally self-giving, seeking no reward, unifying everything. Divine love tells your self-abnegation that your weakness, brokenness and sinfulness is known and loved and accepted infinitely, so be strong and whole, a beloved child of God. Divine love tells your hubris to pour out your self-centeredness into radical acceptance of other human beings, actively loving your neighbor as yourself.

But count the cost. This is a completely different way of being in the world. It carries no pride of place or pedigree; it offers you no possession except the free gift of grace, God's unqualified acceptance and love, offered as freely to everyone else as to you. It makes us all equal; all one. There's nothing to accomplish; nothing to fix. All is well and all manner of things shall be well, because God loves you to death.

Live within the love that knows you completely – knows your highs and your lows, your pride and your shame – and loves you infinitely, accepting you fully, just as you are, here and now.

Be filled with that love and light. Be filled with God. Be loved, beloved.

And then in the security of complete acceptance, simply love your neighbor as yourself. Be love, beloved.

That is friendship with the divine Presence. In Thomas Keating's words, "It is like coming home to a place I should never have left, to an awareness that was somehow always there, but which I did not recognize."[iii] Be loved, then be love. You can give up everything else, because you are already given everything.

[i] Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, Element, Rockport, MA, 1986, p. 129
[ii] David Brooks, Making Modern Toughness, New York Times Opinion, August 30, 2016
[iii] Keating, p. 137

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.