preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
2015; Proper 16, Year B, Track 2
Revised Common Lectionary
6:56-69 – Jesus
said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever
eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven,
not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats
this bread will live forever." He said these things while he was teaching
in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they
said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus,
being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them,
"Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man
ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is
useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you
there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were
the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And
he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me
unless it is granted by the Father."
Because of this many of his disciples turned back
and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also
wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go?
You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you
are the Holy One of God."
For nearly twenty years, I've shared in the preaching rotation
for evening vespers at Butterfield Trail Village. St. Paul's is one of the five
founding churches for BTV. There's a delightful man there who leads the music.
I think he was a Minister of Music in former years. After the sermon, he always
offers a bit of a response as part of the transition into the closing hymn.
It's fun to see how he interprets whatever I may have said.
If I haven't mentioned anything about the need of being
saved so we can go to heaven, he'll usually work that in. If I haven't made a
point to confront sin and our need of forgiveness, he'll usually correct my
omission. Last week I closed with some words about God's infinite love for all
humanity and a reminder, "all is one, and ultimately it is good." I don't
think my sermon really connected with my friend the music leader. So in his
summary exhortation, he went somewhere comfortable for him, a prayer that we all
live an upright life so that others will be inspired by our example and witness,
as we wait for the true life which is found only in heaven. He's a good man.
Thirty-seven years ago I preached my first sermon as a
seminarian. I tried to preach about the map of the spiritual journey – the
three stages: the purgative, illuminative, and unitive way. I'm told I talked
too fast and went twenty-four minutes. I'd like to try again, to say something
about the natural levels that we travel through in the stages of our spiritual
life. We need different things at different times of life. Underneath it all, it's
really pretty simple. We always need love.
But at an early stage of life, when we are trying to
establish our identity, we need the kind of love that is expressed in
belonging, especially belonging to something bigger than ourselves. As a youth,
I embraced my identity as an Episcopalian. I wanted to know what we believe. I
am an American. I always cheered for Americans in the Olympics, because
"America is #1." It is important to belong and to be part of
something bigger, something that gives you identity and values.
But as we grew older and develop some rational skills, we
reflect critically on what we have received. Education plays a profound role in
that process. I had the good fortune to live in the segregated South. I knew my
culture was very flawed, and it allowed me the freedom to think critically about
other cultural inheritances. I decided I wasn't sure about the whole God thing,
and became an agnostic. I stayed Episcopalian, however, because I knew we
accepted doubt and seeking. I realized that in many ways America is not #1.
There is a shadow side to this rational, reflective
activity. It is often excessively individualistic. We think that with enough
education and study, we can find the answers. We are blind to the elitism and
arrogance underneath that assumption. If we are lucky, we meet our limits; we
fail. Knowledge is never enough. We may be very smart and gifted and yet
experience failure and humiliation. We may betray ourselves. Certainly the
world will betray us.
When we taste defeat and shock, God wants to lead us to a
place of deeper knowing, to our intuition and to our felt knowledge. When the
outer world refuses to be molded to our expectations, the inner self becomes a
more interesting and fruitful landscape. If we persevere in our inner journey,
we will encounter our own shadows. I remember the moment when I realized, I
don't think I've ever had a thought or an action that wasn't tinged in some way
with self-interest. That's a terrible discovery. A terrible truth. The
tradition calls this time of life a Dark Night.
It's good to have some spiritual guidance in your Dark
Night. When we face our own shadows, we have a tendency to double down on good
moral behavior or on better techniques of devotion. We try to fix ourselves, making
ourselves better through our own efforts. That's really a trap, a repeating
feedback loop. It's better just to wait in the dark. To accept your own
emptiness and powerlessness; when you don't know; when you don't feel; when you
don't believe. In a certain numbness, you go on nevertheless, acting on your
best knowledge even though you know nothing and feel no consolation. The cloud
of unknowing eventually becomes the door of transformation.
From within the darkness, something percolates. You get the sense
that I am much more than I thought I was. There grows a sense of acceptance. It
happens in the emptiness of your old sense of being – that old world of trying
to measure up. In your numbness you know you've done nothing to earn this
"more-ness." You've been honest enough to know you are a mess, to know
you are infected with self-interest. But below everything bubbles the gift of
being. Acceptance. Presence. The church has a lot of names for this – grace,
divine love, Spirit, forgiveness, reconciliation, salvation, eternal life.
Scriptures like the Beatitudes tend to ring with new clarity.
The clouds can part, and you can experience the oneness that
Jesus promises: "On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you
in me, and I in you." (John 14:20) Jesus' prayer is answered, "that they
may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in
us… The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be
one, as we are one." (John 17:21-22)
That message can be hard to hear. We demean ourselves and
others so thoroughly. It is hard to accept that we are one with God; that it is
an ontological reality, a gift we can experience. People tend to walk away from
such wonders. We heard in our gospel today, Jesus told his friends, "Those
who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them… the one who
eats this bread will live forever." It was too much. Some walked
But for those who can stay with this gift, there is a new
creation. There is no real need to protect yourself or to promote yourself
anymore. There's nothing to prove to anyone. In this oneness, you can look at
other people with acceptance, internalizing the reality that everybody is doing
the best they can given their own history and circumstances.
We can just be, and let be. We can be who we are. Just as I
am, as the old hymn goes. With all your flaws, you are a human being along with
everyone else. Wonderful! You can be content simply to be. No need to appear to
be anything else, anything more. With divine acceptance there is no self-image
to protect. "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless,"
Jesus says in today's gospel.
God's spirit flows and carries us. God loves the good and
the bad in me and in you and in everybody else. There is no more we/they;
saved/lost; in/out. We release the right/wrong dualisms and the judgments they
energize. There is a simple commitment to doing what is right, as best you can,
guided by love. All is God. Float on that ocean.
That's the ancient spiritual map, in less than twenty-four
minutes. I don't know about you, but I'm all over that map. However, sometimes
I sense some positive change. I started with my story about preaching at
Butterfield Trail Village. I remember many years ago, that music leader annoyed
me. I was reactive. I felt some resentment about his reinterpretation of my
sermon. You know, I've realized – that's gone. I find him completely endearing.
It's fun to see what he'll come up with. Maybe I've grown just a little. That's
I know when I'm watching a ball game, I'm still pretty
tribal. My team is #1. When I'm discussing social policy, I'm still pretty
analytical, sometimes a know-it-all. But I have a desire to live in that place
where I rest in the infinite unity and love of God. To abide. To be.
Really, it doesn't matter much where I am or where you are
on the map. It's really all about God. And God is bringing us all home. The
Good Shepherd will find us all. In the end, none of us can really go away.
"Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."
So whenever you can, rest in those words of eternal life.
Abide. Simply be. For all is one and God is all. [i]
With thanks to Richard Rohr's levels of spiritual development, published in
various places including this site: http://is.gd/Rohr9Levels
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and
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
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