Saturday, March 25, 2017

Who Sinned?

Who Sinned?

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
March 25, 2017; 4 Lent, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(John 9:1-41)  As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

"Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

The disciples asked Jesus for a bit of conventional, biblical interpretation. They knew from reading the scriptures that God rewards the righteous and punishes sinners. That is a central message from the book of Proverbs. "Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous." (Proverbs 13:21) The ancient history of Israel as recorded in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings used this principle of reward and punishment as its organizing structure for history: Whenever Israel was faithful, God blessed the nation with peace and prosperity; whenever Israel was unfaithful, God punished them with disaster. The writer of that great biblical epic structured his interpretation of the nation's early history on that single principle.

But the Bible is not of one mind about these things. The book of Job, for instance, is a small piece of wisdom-protest literature challenging the notion that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Job was an innocent man, yet he suffered horribly. His visitors who argue with him sound exactly like the voice of the Proverbs, and at the end, God declares them in the wrong. But Job was of more interest to the philosophers than to the people of the street. Everyone on the street knew that God rewards the righteous and God punishes sinners. Therefore, everyone knew, if someone were born blind, it is a punishment for sin. The only curiosity: Whose fault is it? Theologians, rabbis and everyday people could argue for hours about that question. Whose fault is it?

Notice how Jesus doesn't even entertain the question. Instead, Jesus shifts the paradigm. "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him."

Jesus does not accept their world. He doesn't even enter their debate. Jesus transcends the division and the stuckness. He declares, contrary to common sense, that this man's blindness from birth is for the glory of God.

How can that be? Isn't it a terrible thing when someone is born blind?

Why are some children born into poverty? Why is a child born with drugs in its body?  …born of an abandoned unemployed single mom trying to overcome addiction?  …born of undocumented parents in Springdale?  …born of a millionaire narcissist?  Who sinned?

Can you feel the stuckness in the questions about "Who sinned? Whose fault is it?" The entire context of those questions is a context of alienation, judgment, and condemnation. It is a context of dividing the world into right and wrong, righteous and unrighteous, lucky and unlucky, blessed and cursed, us and them. We live in a world so divided.

It seems to help our anxiety to believe there are reasons why these things happen. It helps our anxiety if we believe maybe that this is just the way things are inevitably, or that maybe there is some justice behind all of this. …that someone really did wrong and these are just the consequences. But mostly, like the disciples, we're just stuck with these questions. We live in a world that is tragic and is so terribly divided. Yet Jesus declares, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." Jesus declares: God's glory can be revealed in this. God's glory can be revealed in anything.

First Jesus speaks. Stepping out of the debate. Insisting against all appearances that God's glory can be revealed in this. And then Jesus acts. With saliva and dirt he makes some mud, puts it on the man's eyes and tells him to go wash in the spring of Siloam. Free access to healing. You would think that was a good thing. But it was the Sabbath. Jesus broke the Sabbath laws. There will be more divisions, more conflicts, more fear, more condemnations.

The authorities come to investigate. A man born blind now sees? How did it happen? They interrogate the man. He simply sticks with the facts. "The man put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see." He's cautious.

But the authorities have to interpret the facts. Fact: The mysterious man violated the Sabbath. He made mud. That's work. He does not observe the Sabbath, therefore the man is a sinner. But there is a division of opinion. Some say the man healed the blind; he must be from God. The authorities interrogate the blind man again. This time the man stands up to them. But the authorities know of course, this blind man is a sinner from birth. He was born blind. What does he know? The price of his challenging the authorities? He is thrown out of the synagogue. That is a terrible consequence in those days. He is now exiled, alienated, without community. Jesus just tried to do something good, and now look what's happened.

Jesus hears that the man has been exiled. Jesus seeks him out, comes to him and invites him into the new community. This new community will be founded on love, compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness. It is a completely different way to be in the world.

Over and over in the gospel, Jesus steps into the middle of the either-or world of division, alienation, judgment and condemnation and Jesus transcends it with his both-and world of love, compassion, acceptance and forgiveness. Jesus brings union, reconciliation, oneness. In his new way of thinking, all of that suffering and sin and division is simply an opportunity for the glory of God which heals and reconciles.

Jesus invites us into that community. Whenever we see needs or suffering, Jesus asks us to bring Christ's generosity and compassion. Whenever we see divisions and alienation, Jesus invites us into a new paradigm of inclusion and possibility.

So I wonder. How can we reframe the alienating questions that divide our world and nation today? How can we step out of the either-or nearsightedness that sets us against one another? How can we find a third way which transcends the divisions?

Who sinned, this man or his parents? Neither, he was born blind so that God's glory might be revealed in him.

What glory is God waiting to reveal in our nearsighted divisions?

Who sinned? …Republican or Democrat, …native or immigrant, …Christian or Muslim, …rich or poor? …white or dark? The question gets asked every day: Who sinned?

How can we step beyond these darkened conflicts and declare the glory of God that transcends and heals our blind divisions? How can we get some spit and dirt and creativity into the issue in order to create some healing mud? How can we live in the welcoming community that reaches out to division, alienation, judgment, and condemnation and offers uniting love, compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness. "Surely we are not blind, are we?"

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, March 11, 2017

Born From Above

Born From Above

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
March 11, 2017;  2 Lent, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(John 3:1-17)  There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and he leaves perplexed. Unenlightened. For now. But a seed has been planted that will grow later into a new consciousness of courage and generosity. He has another part to play in the story.

In this first conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus speaks of being born from above, born of the spirit. He also speaks of God's intention to draw the whole world into eternal life through the Son.

So today, I would like to share some ideas that I have about what it means to be born from above, born of the spirit. What it means to be drawn together with the whole world into eternal life through the Son.

It all starts with being here, now, in reality. It starts with being present. Thomas Keating says this: "The basic disposition in the spiritual journey is the capacity to accept all reality; God, ourselves, other people, and all creation as they are."

The only way I find that I can accept all reality as it is, is to trust that underneath everything, including me, is an infinite love breathing all things into being, and drawing all creation into the fullness that God intends.

In the creation story in Genesis, God looks at everything God has created on each day of creation and says, "It is good." God looks at the stars, at the earth, at the trees and birds, at you and me, and says "It is good. It is all good."

At the core of creation and at the core of human nature is our basic goodness, our true self as God created us. That basic core of goodness is indestructible. It is God's presence in us at the center of our being.

Do you remember when Ed Bacon was with us? He talked about the contemplative practice of resting in that deep goodness at the core of our being. He talked about moving into the gift of our oneness with God at the center of our being. Then he spoke of how from the reality of God at the core of our deepest self, we can move into the spiritual field of unified being, the infinite presence of God, and we can recognize that same divine presence at the core of the deepest being of every other person. We are all one, in God.

Quantum science tells us that nothing exists in isolation. The entire universe is an interconnected whole. Our spiritual inheritance tells us the same thing. God's Spirit breathes all things into being, including every human being. Teilhard de Chardin, the scientist-theologian, spoke of love as the bonding energy that relates every atom within itself and within the whole. "Love is the physical structure of the universe," he said.

He also said God's love is drawing us toward a future, evolving life from simple atoms into ever more complex forms of relationship and consciousness. Now, in human beings, mineral and vegetable and animal have evolved to become conscious enough to reflect on creation itself and to be in conscious relationship to God and to one another. Now, in us, creation has become conscious enough to know that we are born from above.

God is breathing all creation into being through the Word, the Spirit incarnate, God becoming stuff, becoming us. All of creation is participating in the dance of the Trinity – Lover, Beloved, and the Breath-Spirit of Love. The Lover emptying the divine self into the incarnate Beloved and the Breath-Wind-Spirit of Love that makes Lover and Beloved One. God loving another in order to be love in another, and to be loved by the other. Forever.[i] This is the mysterious dance of love that stands before the curious Nicodemus, inviting him to dance and play.

Love incarnate, teasing, dancing, urging Nicodemus toward the wholeness that is perfect freedom. "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." All Nicodemus can say is, "How can these things be?"

But Nicodemus stayed curious. He must have watched as love incarnate welcomed the stranger, fed the hungry, healed the sick, and created a community of reconciliation. He must have watched as Jesus challenged all of the barriers that separated people from the generous, forgiving, acceptance that is God's gift to all people. He must have watched when they arrested Jesus for interfering with the Temple's business monopoly over forgiveness, for Nicodemus spoke up bravely from his position in the Sanhedrin, defending Jesus on trial. When Jesus was convicted as a capital criminal and executed, Nicodemus bought the expensive spices and helped Joseph of Arimathea give criminal's body an honorable burial. The Spirit breathed courage and generosity into Nicodemus.

"So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Now it is our turn. We are invited to be born from above, born of water and Spirit. It is our turn to be alert and awake, here and now. It is our turn to be conscious of the goodness at the core of our being, God breathing us into being through love. Conscious of our interrelationship with all of creation and conscious of our union with every other human being as God's beloved.

We are given the gift of eternal life. We are invited to share in the work of the Son: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. "So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

[i] Thanks to Ilia Delio and her article Love at the Heart of the Universe, published in Oneing, Spring 2013, Vol. 1, No. 1. Center for Action and Contemplation

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, March 04, 2017

Game Over

Game Over

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
March 4, 2017; 1 Lent, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Romans 5:12-19) As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned-- sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
                But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
                Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.
(Matthew 4:1-11) Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
                ‘One does not live by bread alone,
                                but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
                ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
                                and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
                                so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
                ‘Worship the Lord your God,
                                and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Some years ago I had a device that would record television shows so I could watch them at a later time. There was a big football game that I was going to miss because I had to do something else that day. So I set up the recorder and timer, and planned to watch as soon as I returned.

It was a big game, and people knew I was interested. So just before I was leaving to return home to watch the recording, a friend came up to me excited, beaming, and said, "I guess you are on Cloud 9. What a game!"

I had mixed feelings. Part of me didn't want to know how the game ended because I had planned to watch it in real time like a live game. But the other part of me was so glad we had won. I knew I wasn't going to end up disappointed and frustrated this time like I have been so many times before. Football can be a cruel game. I always give it up for Lent.

I went home and watched the game. It was a great game. We got way ahead, and I was delighted. Then the other team started coming back. Our quarterback threw a stupid pass that set up a touchdown for the opponents. Usually that would have triggered an uncharitable response from me toward the quarterback. But knowing that we had pulled the game out, I found forgiveness easier to access. After all, he was doing the best he could, and it was going to be okay. Then a running back carelessly let the ball get away from his body and the other team stripped him. They scored and went ahead. Normally, I would have been apoplectic. Furious at the mistakes. Afraid we were going to blow a game when we had a big lead. Dreading the feeling that always comes when we lose one that I thought we should win. But my emotions were downright sanguine. I wondered with great curiosity, how did we win this game? And I continued to watch, fascinated, with anticipatory excitement and unruffled hope. Late in the game, our quarterback escaped a deadly rush to flip a desperate pass to the running back who had fumbled earlier, and he broke tackles all the way to the end zone for the winning score. I was thrilled. Jumping up and down rejoicing in a game that had ended hours ago. Indeed, I found myself on Cloud 9.

I tell you this football story, to talk about St. Paul's words to the Romans and to the Corinthians. Paul is convinced that the triumph of Jesus' is complete and total victory. Paul declares Jesus' "act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all." (5:18) "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ, shall all be made alive." (1 Cor. 15:22)

Here's how Paul thinks of it. That story we heard as our first reading, the story of human disobedience, Adam and Eve – Paul understands that human death is the consequence of Adam's sin. "For the wages of sin is death." Then Paul continues, "the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 6:23) The "free gift of God," God's grace, the gift of our acceptance, our acquittal, our justification – it's all a free gift, Paul says. Even for someone like him, for Paul was an enemy of Christ and an enemy of God when God came to him with the unearned gift of life.

So Paul argues in today's reading, if "one man's trespass (Adam's sin) led to condemnation for all," "so one man's act of righteousness (Christ's faithfulness) leads to justification and life for all." This is so important to Paul that he says it several times in different ways. "For if the many died through one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many." In Greek, the word here translated "the many" can also be translated "all." If death came to every human through Adam's failure, Paul says, how much more surely must life come to every human through Christ's victory.

So we know the end of the game. Christ wins. Resurrection is God's complete triumph. It is total victory. God will not lose even one of God's beloved children. For every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and so God intends, as Acts says, to make complete the "universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets." (Acts 3:21) "A plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on earth," Ephesians says (1:10). The whole cosmos is moving toward union in God.

That means a lot to me. It means that we are all one, all bound together in this journey toward "the universal restoration that God announced long ago."

But I have mixed feelings. I really want the bad guys, according to my accounts, to get beat. You may remember though, that Jesus commanded us, "Judge not." (Matt. 7:1) "Vengeance is mine," says God. (Dt. 32:35, Rom. 12:19) I do find that when I give up judging and let go of my fantasies of revenge and one-upmanship, there is more space for me to be curious, observant. I can be a little less anxious and threatened by the terrible things that happen, when the good gets intercepted and when humans fumble things so miserably, me included. I can remember, most everybody is doing the best they can, given their life history and their capacity.

Sometimes I can watch with great curiosity; with anticipatory excitement and unruffled hope. How will God bring grace to this mess? How will God create reconciliation in this conflict? And how can I cooperate with whatever God is doing to help bring about grace and reconciliation?  

For that is what God is doing. Always. God is loving the whole cosmos into being, making us one. God's strategy is the same now as it was in Jesus. God enters into human suffering, identifying completely with "the least of these." The only power God brings to bear on our human condition is divine forgiveness and love. The resurrection of Jesus reminds us that God will ultimately triumph.

God will not turn stones into bread. God expects us to feed one another. God will not perform a spectacular miracle to instantly set things right. God expects us to do the daily, faithful work of loving our neighbor as ourselves. God will not give us good guys all of the power and the splendor of the world. God expects us to be servants as Jesus was, for he came among us as one who serves.

We are to look for the signs of Christ's obedience that overcomes humanity's sin and death. We know those signs. They are the fruit of the Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and temperance." (Gal. 5:22-23) The Spirit is present everywhere. Watch with expectant hope.

And we know its opposite, the works of the flesh, including enmities, strife, impurity, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions, envy and such. (Gal. 5:19-21) We are to turn away from such things.

We aren't just a passive audience watching life like a television game. We are active participants. We have the privilege of participating in God's work and sharing in God's inevitable triumph. We are to let Jesus live through us, living "by every word that comes from the mouth of God," and by not putting God to the test, and by worshiping and serving only God.

The task is simple – love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The end is sure. Universal restoration of all things. Ultimately we are secure, beloved, empowered. Relax. Just be. Open. Curious. Hopeful. For in Christ, all things are being made alive.

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, February 04, 2017

The Two Directions

The Two Directions

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
February 5, 2017;  5 Epiphany, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Isaiah 58:1-9a

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

The people complain to God: "Why do we fast, but you do not see?" In those days in Israel, the people fasted in times of anxiety and fear, when they faced a threatening crisis too big to manage. When Israel's first king, Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in the army's terrible defeat at Gilboa, the people fasted for seven days. When King David's child fell deathly ill, he fasted, hoping God would spare the child. When the Jews in the Persian Empire faced extermination, they fasted and placed their hopes on Queen Esther's appeal to the king. Fasting was the Jewish response to threat and fearful distress.

Isaiah speaks to this anxious people, and he tells them, Your fasting is ineffective because you are worrying about the wrong things. Shift your attention. Instead of being fearful and anxious about your own security and your selfish self-interest -- oppressing your workers and inventing hostilities -- focus on compassion and love; nurture the needs of the vulnerable. Quoting now: "Loose the bonds of injustice, …let the oppressed go free… Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house: when you see the naked, cover them, and do not hide yourself from your [needy] kin. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn… Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer."

Cell biologists tell us that the cells of our body have an either-or mechanism. When they are in a healthy, nurturing condition, they move toward growth. When they receive negative, threatening signals, they move toward protection. Cells can only move in one direction. Toward growth or toward protection. They can't do both simultaneously.

I think the same is true for the larger human systems. Whenever we are moving toward growth, we are open, less defensive, less protective. Whenever we are moving in a protectionist defensive posture, we can't grow.

When we experience threat or fear, our bodies react chemically. The hypothalamus reacts to perceived threat and sends a warning message to the pituitary. Tell the adrenal glands to flood the system, and every cell gets the message:  "Fight or Flight or Freeze." The energy and attention of the entire body then goes out to the extremities. Muscles tense and prepare the bones for action. The viscera, the internal organs in the chest cavity and abdomen almost shut down. Digestion slows or stops, activity in the immune system recedes. Those are the systems for growth, not for protection.

Blood in the brain moves from the frontal cortex, the rational executive brain, to the more primitive reflexive area of the brain. Under stress we get stupider and reactive. Do you ever remember taking an exam when you were very nervous, and you just couldn't think?

Whenever we live with constant threat or repeated fears, adrenal levels rise in our bodies. Then we begin to experience chronic anxiety, and our immune systems become compromised. One study estimates that 60 to 90 percent of doctors' office visits have something to do with stress-related issues.

A society that gets a steady diet of fear and threat will become chronically anxious and reactive. It will get stupider and more defensive. It will compromise its immune system and become vulnerable to internal viruses of self-centered dysfunction. That's what Isaiah saw happening to his people.

But Isaiah and Jesus offer good news to an anxious people. The answer is love, especially love of neighbor—compassion and generosity.

Let's go back to the human body. The pituitary is the master gland that controls our direction, sending us signals either for growth or for protection. The pituitary sends a message: You are safe. Grow. The lungs fill, the heart finds rhythm, the digestive system nurtures. We relax and grow stronger and more healthy.

In human beings the most powerful growth-signal is love. You may remember those studies of orphaned infants in Eastern Europe who were not picked up and loved. They didn't grow. They got plenty of food, but they didn't grow. Love is even more important than nutrition.

Medicine has discovered something that religion has known for centuries. We call it prayer and contemplation. Medicine calls it the "relaxation response." Doctors teach patients to focus gently on their breath with a mantra to recall attention. We teach Centering Prayer.

Happiness researchers have discovered something that religion has known for centuries. When you love your neighbor as yourself, in a spirit of trust, nurturing hope and generosity -- you thrive.

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson had developed a unified theory of a happy brain. He works with affective disorders, depression and anxiety. Davidson maps four independent brain circuits that influence our sense of lasting well-being. One neurological circuit manages our ability to maintain positive states. It is fed by compassion and love. A second, completely different brain circuit manages our ability to recover from negative states. It nurtures our resilience. A third brain circuit manages our ability to focus, our capacity to pay attention and to avoid mind-wandering. Meditation exercises our capacity to pay attention.

Before I get to the fourth brain circuit of a happy brain, let me revisit something I ended with in last week's sermon. It touches on those first three brain circuits. A passage from St. Paul invites us to pay attention to eight things that will help us both to maintain a positive state and to recover from negative states. Paul advises, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Philippians 4:8) Pay attention to these eight things, and you are more likely to influence the brain circuits that strengthen the positive states and release the negative states.

But I told you about those other three independent brain circuits for a happy brain, the neurological systems that influence our sense of lasting well-being – I told you about those three to tell you about the fourth. There is an entire brain circuit devoted to our innate ability to be generous. When we are generous, this neurological system lights up and it contributes to our happiness and sense of well being. The human brain is hardwired for cooperation, compassion and generosity.

Our innate evolutionary drivers are to survive, to reproduce, and to cooperate. That's how the human species survived. Yes, we are hardwired to fight or flight, but we are also hardwired to cooperate and to be generous.

I would contend that in a civilized world where we are unlikely to be eaten by an animal, we only rarely need the fight-flight mechanism. And when we feel that we are being attacked by other humans, we will probably defend ourselves better by keeping our resources more focused in our rational and thoughtful capacities than in our kill-or-be-killed capacities. We have the capacity to listen and to understand the other, to empathize and to be peacemakers. Jesus taught us to love our enemies. I believe using the fully human part of our brain and emotional systems is a better strategy for confronting nearly every perceived threat than using our mostly animal part of our brain and emotional system.

An emotional diet of fear, conflict and anxiety is an unhealthy diet and will make us sick. An emotional diet of love, compassion and generosity is a healthy diet and will let us grow.

Isaiah's advice still holds. Are you anxious or feeling threatened? Is your coping strategy not working? Stop thinking in a protectionist, defensive direction. Let love, compassion and generosity move you in a generative and growing direction. Let go of your negative thoughts and maintain a hopeful capacity. Focus on your opportunities to be generous. Loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked.

Listen to Paul and concentrate. He tells us to focus our attention on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent or praiseworthy. "Think about these things," Paul says.

If we will change our focus, Isaiah and Paul give us two promises:  
     When you call, God will say, "Here I am." 
     "And the God of peace will be with you."

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.

Paul's Experience

Paul's Experience

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
January 28, 2017;  The Conversion of St. Paul
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Acts 26:9-21)  Paul said to King Agrippa, "Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.
"With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, `Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.' I asked, `Who are you, Lord?' The Lord answered, `I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles-- to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'

"After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me."

've mentioned before how important it is to me that I was brought up in the racially segregated South. When I realized how wrong my hometown was about something very important, it opened me to the possibility that there might be other things wrong about what I inherited – values, world-view, morals and perspective. I think that's why when my inherited understanding about gay people was challenged, I quickly began to ask questions and explore, and I found that what I had been taught from childhood was wrong. I changed my mind. To this day, I walk around expecting to be corrected. That's a good thing.

o understand the apostle Paul, you've got to start with his experience of being wrong. He was the most religious person in his age group. He did everything right. He followed the law. And when a heretic group of Christian Jews started a movement challenging his orthodoxy, he went after them. But he discovered he was wrong. He had been wrong all along. He thought God was in the rule-making business, and he discovered God was in the love and mercy business. So Paul changed his whole orientation.

Before, when he was trying to earn his own status before God, he was competitive and self-absorbed. "How am I doing? I'm doing everything right, aren't I? Look at those others. They are wrong. I know it!"

Paul divided the whole world that way. Right / Wrong. Righteous / Sinner. Orthodox / Heretic. Jew / Gentile. Saved / Lost. But all of a sudden, he found himself on the other side of those dualities. What he experienced on the Damascus Road was a love that eliminated all dualities, transcending them in a unifying love.

He experienced God as infinite love, complete acceptance, pure gift. He had persecuted the Messiah. He had been wrong. Yet God loved him, accepted him, and called him. He didn't earn that. He didn't deserve it. It was all a gift. And now he was free. Free from the compulsion of judging himself or judging others. Free to simply be. Free to love.  That is the Good News, which is what the word "Gospel" means—"Good News."

Now this is important. Paul realized that if God loved and accepted him—an enemy of Christ, an enemy of God—then God loves every human being in the same way. "God shows no partiality." (Rom. 2:11) There are no human divisions. Everyone is the same before God.

Everybody has failed. No one can appear before God with the claim that God owes them. Everyone is loved infinitely, even enemies like Paul used to be. "God shows no partiality," but loves every human being infinitely.

Furthermore, Paul is convinced that Christ's triumph is complete and universal. "For as in Adam all died, so also in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Cor. 15:22) Even enemies.

o Paul started undoing all the false human divisions that we humans have created. There is no longer Jew or Gentile; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female. (Gal. 3:28)

No longer Jew or Gentile. Paul broke the Gentile boundary in the early Church. He welcomed Gentiles without expecting them to become Jews or to follow the law. He opened the Church to the outsiders.

No longer male or female. Paul authorized women to lead in his congregations: women like Lydia in Philippi, Phoebe in Cenchreae, Prisca and her husband Aquila in both Corinth and Rome (Paul usually names her first), Chloe, Euodia and Synthche, and his fellow apostle Junia, a woman he speaks of as of equal apostolic rank to Paul. Some men apparently got nervous about Paul's egalitarian attitude. A later writer inserted a phrase into a copy of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians about women being silent in church. (1 Cor. 15:34f) Other later disciples wrote, in 1 Timothy, Ephesians and Colossians, adopting patriarchal models that neither Paul nor Jesus practiced. Women led and taught in Paul's churches.

No longer slave or free. When Paul returned the runaway slave Onesimus to his owner Philemon, Paul instructed his disciple Philemon to welcome the slave Onesimus "as you would me" your teacher, "no longer as a slave" but as a welcomed "beloved brother."

Paul challenged all of the divisions of his contemporary culture. Male-Female; Slave-Free; Jew-Gentile; Roman Citizen-Non-citizen. Paul's practice gives witness to his belief that any structure that divides human beings is wrong, including structures like slavery imposed by government. Every human being is equal in God's sight. Thou shall not divide us, in the church or in the state.

Paul dared to make that claim using the same language and symbols for Christ that the Roman civic religion used for the Emperor. "Caesar is Lord," said Rome. "Caesar is the Son of God, bringing peace to the whole earth, the Pax Romana," said Rome. The Roman peace enforced by the sword of domination. 

Paul challenged Rome's authority directly using the same political language: "Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Son of God" who guards "the peace of God which surpasses all understanding." (Phil 4:7) What Rome would oppress, Christ liberates. What Caesar divides by force, Christ unites by love. Faithful Christians must continue to assert the same claims against arrogant government oppression today as Paul did in his day. "For I am convinced," he said, "that nothing in all creation" – not rulers, or powers, things present or things to come – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:38-39)

o Paul began to expect God's surprising presence to be everywhere, because God is continually loving everyone without exception. Paul's eyes were opened to see the fruit of the Holy Spirit present throughout all humanity. "Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and temperance. There is no law against such things," he said (Gal. 5:22-23). These qualities are evidence of the Spirit's presence. Even when they come from the unexpected person or outsider group.

Paul sought to create communities like this one where these gifts could be nurtured. His essential symbol and strategy was the Eucharistic feast, a table among equals where all are fed on the life of the risen Christ. When some elitist Corinthians used their wealth and power to create an exclusive feast that the poor could not share, Paul condemned them fiercely. He reminded them of the moral obligation for the wealthy to share generously with the poor. Paul spent so much time and energy on his collection for the poor, even shaming the relatively rich Corinthians by boasting about the generous gifts from the poor churches of Macedonia. (1 Cor. 8)

We are all one, he insisted. And the needs of one are the responsibility of us all. We are all one, he insisted, and any dividing of humanity between the in and the out, the us and the them, the acceptable and the unacceptable, is unacceptable. Paul knew, because when he was unacceptable, God had accepted him. Therefore, there is no condemnation.

hat is the broad world view that our patron St. Paul invites us to embody here at this church which lives under his name. Be free, for you are loved. Be one, with all humanity. Break down the divisions among humans, and manifest the unqualified love and acceptance that God gives so freely to all.

"Finally, beloved," to close with Paul's words, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you." (Phil. 4:8-9)
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. 

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.