Saturday, July 11, 2015

Simple Pure Awareness

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
July 12, 2015; 7 Pentecost, Proper 10, Year B, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Ephesians 1:3-14 – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.


For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

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You know how it is when you read something that grabs you? I want to share something today that grabbed me recently. It struck me as just right. First I want to set it in some context. Then I want to re-contextualize it in terms of today's scripture readings.

First context: I've been practicing Centering Prayer for a long time. It is like many meditation or contemplative practices, a way to detach from the ongoing narrative of our mind's thoughts and the roller coaster waves of our emotions, in order to get to a deeper place – a place where every enduring religion testifies to the experience of a greater reality. Below thoughts and feelings there is a gate to the absolute.

So, here are some words from Thomas Keating, the wonderful Trappist monk who helped re-introduce the Church's ancient practice of Centering Prayer. Thomas Keating:

Without thinking or feeling some emotion, there is just awareness. There is then no desire for bliss, enlightenment, or to teach others. Things are just as they are. In that so-called emptiness, enjoyment arises of itself. As soon as we try to enjoy, the enjoyment ceases. Somehow at the bottom of emptiness (openness, pure awareness), there is enjoyment, fullness, presence and peace.

Bring the same emptiness and freedom to each moment and its content. Then you will be happy even in the midst of suffering. Accept everything and everyone just as they are, where they are, and try to act as lovingly as possible in every situation. Be ready to be led you know not where or when. Hush the discriminating mind dividing things into good or evil for me.

Fear draws us to the center we have created, the ego self. Love expands from our real center, the true self.

One feels the pain of others and must reach out. But one is content and at peace because one does not discriminate….

Take and accept yourself just as you are, where you are. If you are aggressive, lustful, fearful, or shy and passive, notice your feelings before, during, and after each incident, without emotional reactions of blame, shame, anger or discouragement. Let God work with your faults and limitations. Just recognize them and be with them, without trying to correct them directly. As you watch them, feel them, and accept them, their force and exaggeration will gradually diminish. Keep moving to the center of your being where divine love is and be present to and welcome whatever bodily feeling or emotion that is happening. The present moment contains all we need to be happy.[i]

I like what Keating has written. But, it seems hard to be happy. Things are not right. They never have been. Today's gospel tells of the execution by decapitation of the prophet John the Baptist. At the whim of a dance, Herod orders John's head as a present. It sounds like some of the grisly things we hear of today from ISIS and elsewhere in this troubled world.

John was Jesus' cousin. John had baptized Jesus. How John's death must have grieved Jesus.

In Mark and Matthew's gospels, after hearing about John's death, Jesus takes the disciples away for a retreat by themselves. Some time and space away to grieve. But a crowd finds them and presses for Jesus' attention. The scriptures tell us that Jesus had compassion on the crowd. He healed, he taught, and then he fed a multitude in that away place.

How did he do that? How did he keep from just blowing up? Go away, everyone. Give me some space. My cousin was just killed. Horribly. Can't I get just a little time away to grieve?

Jesus already knows that his own journey is on a parallel track with John's. He knows that you can't say the things John and Jesus said and expect to escape the tyranny of tyrants like Herod and Pilate. He's already preparing for his own confrontation with evil, with his own time of trial.

How do you keep going – in peace and compassion – in the presence of evil, threat and violence?

You have to be grounded in something greater, something deeper, something enduring. In times of trouble, you need to be centered somewhere deeper than your thoughts of hopelessness and your feelings of despair.

I've taught before the practice of the "Four R's." It is a practice that comes from Centering Prayer. When in that prayer, as you simply consent to God's presence and activity within, it is inevitable that you will be bombarded with thoughts and with conflictive emotions. The prayer teaches us to be gentle, very gentle with those maddening distractions. Don't fight them, just let them go. "Resist no thought." Don't wrestle with them, just let them go. "Retain no thought." Don't get caught up in them. "React emotionally to no thought." "Return," ever so gently to the sacred word that symbolizes your intent in the prayer.

The "Four R's" is also a way to be present in the world. Whenever bad news comes or life just seems hard. As Keating says, "Accept everything and everyone just as they are, where they are, and try to act as lovingly as possible in every situation… Hush the discriminating mind dividing things into good or evil for me."

Accept reality. Resist not. Let it pass through you. Retain not. React not emotionally. Then, Return ever so gently to your center, your true self. As Keating says, "Fear draws us to the center we have created, the ego self. Love expands from our real center, the true self."

I've known a few people who are so grounded, that they approach each moment with simple open awareness. They are not pre-occupied with their own opinions and thoughts. They are simply present, not already occupied. They don't seem burdened with the attachments that create emotional reactivity. They just are. Simply present. Aware. And they let everyone else just be. Moreover, they seem happy. From Keating: Somehow at the bottom of emptiness (openness, pure awareness), there is enjoyment, fullness, presence and peace.

I think it starts with our own self-acceptance. Take and accept yourself just as you are, where you are, Keating says. Then notice your conflictive feelings before, during, and after each incident, without emotional reactions of blame, shame, anger or discouragement. Let God work with your faults and limitations. Just recognize them and be with them, without trying to correct them directly. As you watch them, feel them, and accept them, their force and exaggeration will gradually diminish. Keep moving to the center of your being where divine love is and be present to and welcome whatever bodily feeling or emotion that is happening.

Resist not. Retain not. React not emotionally. Return.

In the Epistle reading today the apostle reminds us that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. He reminds us that we already have redemption, forgiveness, and God's glorious grace freely bestowed on us. He reminds us that Christ is always gathering up all things, things in heaven and things on earth, things that are good and things that are horribly wrong, even beheadings and crucifixions. Christ gathers everything and returns it to the eternal love of the Father.

At the center of your being, eternal love is. Keep moving to the center of your being where divine love is…, says Thomas Keating. The present moment contains all we need to be happy. So, accept the present moment with simple, pure awareness. Resist not. Retain not. React not emotionally. Return, ever so gently to the emptiness of pure awareness, the love of God dwelling always at the center of your being.


[i] Thomas Keating, Notes from a Deep Conversation, from Contemplative Outreach News, vol. 31, no. 2, June 2015. http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/sites/default/files/newsletter-pdf/2015-june-newsletter.pdf

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Flying Through Life

Flying Through Life
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
June 14, 2015; 3 Pentecost, Proper 6, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 – We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord-- for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Mark 4:36-34 – Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
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From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view… If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

It's been pretty exciting around here lately. First, we closed on the purchase of the law office next door. It's a building we've wanted for a long time. It is adjacent to our kitchen, office and Welcome Center. It immediately offers a great improvement to our space for our Youth program. And let me pause just a moment to brag on that program. Some months ago a California research project asked the youth office at the Episcopal Church Center in New York to identify five model youth programs in the Episcopal Church for them to consider studying. We were one of the five. Then the researchers did in-depth interviews with several hundred youth programs in all denominations to pick forty to study because they work well. We were one of the forty. We've got a wonderful youth program, and I'm grateful to Amanda Robinson, to Dan, and to Alon Terrell, as well as the parents, interns and young people who give themselves to make it such a great program. Now we will have a new home for their community. And looking further into the future, one day we may want to build a multi-storied facility on that site if we find our ministries continue to grow. Acquiring that property opens up so many things for us. I'm thrilled.

Another exciting opportunity: We found a perfect location for our new Magdalene-Fayetteville outreach ministry. We now have a contract to buy a house that is zoned to fit our use; it is near trails, bus routes, a grocery, a dollar store, and a park for recreation; and it is large enough—with four bedrooms, ample living space and program space, a separate studio for an office, land for future expansion, and a beautiful park-like front yard. With a gift this week from Greg and Hannah Lee added to our seed gift from Nick and Carolyn Cole, we have just the money we need to close.

So I was facing several deadlines late Friday afternoon when George Faucette sent me a document I needed to sign for the Magdalene house process. Just sign it and scan it back to me, he said. I printed and signed it. I put it in my scanner. The scanner wouldn't cooperate. Something about the driver. The usual functions weren't showing up on the screen. I tried a workaround. Didn't work. I began to get frustrated. I really don't like it when my machines don't do what I want them to do. I tried manually keying the machine. No dice. I got more flustered. I was getting angry. I started to 'grrrr.' I would have been more expressive, but I was watching Laura at the time and I didn't want her to see her grandfather blowing up at a scanner, computer and printer. But it wouldn't scan. I was going to have to drive, to take George the paper, manually. I got into the car, drove to George's, gave him the papers. It was such an annoying inconvenience.

There's a comedy routine by comedian Louis CK about people who complain about flying.

"Worst day of my life! I had to sit on the runway for forty minutes!"
"Oh my God, really! For forty minutes?! That's awful. You should sue them."
"What happened then? Did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly?! Did you soar through the clouds impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight? And then land softly on giant tires that you couldn't even conceive how they expletive deleted put air in them?"
"I had to pay for my sandwich."
"You're flying! You're sitting in a chair in the sky! You're like a Greek myth right now!"
"But it doesn't go back very far, and it's kind of squishing my knee."
"There's always delays when I fly. Too slow."
"Really?! New York to California in six hours. That used to take thirty years to do that, and a bunch of you would die on the way there. You get shot in the neck with an arrow and you go aaaggghccck!, and fall down. And the other passengers would just bury you and put a stick in the ground with your hat on it and keep walking…
"Now you watch an Adam Sandler movie…, and you're there!"[i]
(I cleaned the more colorful language up considerably.)

I couldn't get the scanner to work.
O my God, really! What happened then? Did you get into your own automobile, comfortably air conditioned, and drive a couple of miles at forty miles an hour on smooth blacktop streets to give George the papers that it otherwise would have taken you a couple of hours to walk in the summer heat?

So much grace. So much mystery.

"There is a new creation!" Paul cries. Christ died for all, therefore all are raised to new life. Everyone! Every human being! The whole creation!

Jesus tells us, I am in you and you are in me and we are all one in the Divine life of God! Oh my God! Really! We are loved infinitely. We are accepted, just the way we are. We are loved and accepted even in our whiney, pitiful states. And God overcomes everything, including death itself, to bring us to life. I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.

Here we are flying through space on a rock that is covered with waters full of fish and land supporting vegetation and animals; enveloped in an atmosphere that gives us breath. We are spinning around a star at just the right distance and angle that we have energy for such abundant life that you and I have evolved enough to be conscious of the divine love who made all things and who urges and calls us forward into union with all humanity and God. Amazing!

And I can imagine these things and write them in words on a computer, then send them to a printer. Wonderful! And speak them into a microphone in church in a language that you actually understand so that we communicate profound ideas together. Remarkable! And it all goes instantly on the internet where it can be seen and heard around the world.

It is "as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how." It is all grace. It is all mystery. God loves us and grows us, despite ourselves.

But we get so stuck in our blind selfishness that we fail to see the wonder around us.

What if we could just let go of the self-centered chatter that plays its whiny music inside us incessantly? Let go of it just a bit, shift our focus away from our incessant expectations, and instead, look out the window of the spaceship in wonder. We are flying through life in a completely secure, amazing vehicle. We are enveloped by infinite love. We are accepted completely. We are being energized by the divine breath. We are God's beloved. Breathe that in. Let your heart be open and soft.

Then recognize that every other person is a mystery, also full of grace and love. What if we stopped looking at other people as if they were malfunctioning scanners that should be doing what we expect? What if we loved ourselves as God loves us? What if we loved our neighbor as ourself? What if, from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view. There is a new creation! The old has passed away. See! Everything has become new!



[i] Louis CK, Flying (cleaned up a bit for pulpit use) - 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3dYS7PcAG4

_______________________________________________

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

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

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Barmherzigkeit

Barmherzigkeit
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
May 31, 2015; Trinity Sunday, Year B
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."
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From Thomas Merton: At the center of our being is a point of pure nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark that belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.[i]

I love this story of Nicodemus. An important man. A serious man. A successful man. A member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the great national court that legislated all aspects of Jewish religious and political life. He was a scholar and a judge. But he must have had an itch, a dissatisfaction, or maybe a curious wondering. For he finds himself drawn to Jesus, an unconforming Rabbi from the outskirt province of Galilee, who is attracting some uncomfortable attention, mostly from the peasants and rabble. Nicodemus comes to speak to Jesus at night, under the radar. He keeps his distance; he doesn't want to be seen. Like a good politician, he's careful. Testing. But you sense in him a yearning. He is a judge who is not so sure he's got all the answers.

So this important man condescends to come to Jesus, and he pays the young rabbi a generous opening complement. 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. You would think Jesus would feel honored. An important man has just recognized him.

But Jesus responds playfully to Nicodemus. Signs of God, you say? Oh! No one can see the signs of God, the kingdom of God, without being born from above, born anew. (The Greek word means both, born from above and born anew.) Ever the serious theologian, Nicodemus answers, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" (A good, serious, literalist answer. He just doesn't get Jesus.)

Now I can just see the twinkle in Jesus' eye. Oh, I think he loves Nicodemus. Serious, ponderous Nicodemus. But Jesus will not be ponderous. In him is a lightheartedness, a warmheartedness, and he responds to Nicodemus with dancing energy. Twinkling, twirling around these serious theological notions of origins and destinies.

Nicodemus, do not be astonished when I say, 'You must be born anew, from above.' The wind, the Spirit blows where it chooses—you hear it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. That's the way it is. That's the way to be truly alive! Maybe then the evening breeze picked up just a bit, rustling, dancing through their hair.

There is a rich theological tradition that speaks of the Holy Trinity as the Dance of God. We Trinitarians assert that reality is relational to its core. We see it in the dance of an atom, the exchange of energy across a field, creating something from nothing. We see it in the relationship of two persons—Jesus loving, inviting, challenging, opening; Nicodemus cautiously wondering, pondering, protecting. The Spirit dancing between them, lightly breathing over them the warmheartedness of God, creating a new relationship out of nothing, something born anew from above.

I spent much of this week on retreat. And what often happens on retreat is that my heart gets warmed and softened. After considerable time spent in Centering Prayer, and after joining the liturgical prayer and friendship of my companions in the Order of the Ascension and the monastic house of nuns who hosted us, I was open and at peace.

On the way home, I sat down for a bite to eat in Chicago's O'Hare airport. I looked around, and everyone looked radiant. Yes, when everyone in an airport looks radiant, you are in a warmer frame of mind. A woman sat down with her back toward me. Doesn't she look interesting?, I thought. A large man corralled his family. Oh, he loves them so, I thought. I took delight in some family resemblance I thought I picked up from what might have been daughter, mother, grand-mother. A child screamed bloody murder. Poor thing. Bless his heart. He kept screaming, amplifying it a bit. I felt such compassion for the parents. How miserable and helpless it can feel when a little-one is unwilling to be consoled. Next to me, a toddler from India or Pakistan said something I couldn't understand, pointing toward the planes outside. Her mother answered. The child's beauty was just thrilling to me. And as I delighted in her, there was another part of my mind—what can I call it? My dusty mind, my smaller mind, my conditioned mind?—a part of my mind thought, this child is not really very attractive at all. But, oh. She was beautiful to me.

I learned a new word this week. It is a German synonym for "mercy"—barmherzigkeit. (pronounced barhm-heur-seeg-kite). "Mercy." Or better translated warmheartedness. Barmherzigkeit. It is said to be the quality of the Divine Heart of God. Warmheartedness.

Can you feel the warmheartedness of Jesus as he seeks to draw this serious, important man Nicodemus into the dance of God's Spirit, the warmheartedness which blows where it chooses, coming and going, endlessly giving and receiving of itself, the very dynamism of love. The Spirit blowing, breathing, eternally inviting us into the barmherzigkeit dance, the dance of warmheartedness.

Though it seems that Nicodemus left that evening conversation still in the dark, something had happened. Not long afterwards, in Jerusalem during the Festival of the Booths, when the Sanhedrin admonished the temple police for failing to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus courageously asserted Jesus' legal rights to a fair hearing. For his efforts Nicodemus was sternly ridiculed by his colleagues.

After the crucifixion, Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea with the preparation of the body for burial. There, in the brutal presence of death, it is the light of Nicodemus' warmheartedness that shines in the darkness, a gentle act of love and mercy is the prologue to resurrection.

At the center of our being is a point of pure nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark that belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.

Merton goes on to say: I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is every-where.
[i] Thomas Merton, "A Member of the Human Race," in A Thomas Merton Reader, pp. 346-347, quoted in Cynthia Bourgeault, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three (Boston & London: Shambala, 2013), p. 150-151

_______________________________

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

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

Saturday, May 16, 2015

What a World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________________________________

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

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

Saturday, April 25, 2015

"I Am the Good Shepherd"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, April 04, 2015

"I want my Supper!"

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


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

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

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

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

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

"Love is the eye!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I want my supper!"


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

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

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