Saturday, April 19, 2014

"She Loved Much"

“She Loved Much”

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
April 20, 2014; Easter Sunday, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 28:1-10)  After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, `He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

Here’s a Bible Trivia question.  Who was the first witness to the resurrection? 

As we just heard in the account from St. Matthew’s gospel; it was Mary Magdalene.  St. Augustine called her the “Apostle to the Apostles,” a title that is popular in Eastern Orthodoxy.  She’s also called the “Witness to the Witnesses.”  It seems that Mary Magdalene was the first person to realize that Jesus had risen from the dead and she was the first person to give voice to that realization.

How interesting that in a patriarchal culture, our movement’s first public witness was a woman.  And not just any woman.  The Gospels say that Jesus freed Mary from seven demons.  Whatever that means, it is profound.  A profound condition of lostness, bondage, compulsion.  Maybe because of that image, ancient interpreters identified Mary Magdalene with the unnamed woman in Luke’s gospel who anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment and tears, and dries his feet with her hair at a dinner in the home of a Pharisee named Simon.  The proper people at the table are scandalized, because they know the woman to be a sinner.  She has a reputation.  Jesus should have known better than to allow her to touch him in that way.  Simon and his guests disapprove.

Jesus used that as a teaching moment.  He complemented her extravagant expression of affection.  The punch line:  “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.” (Lk. 7:47) 

“She loved much.”  The crucifixion accounts vary, but the most likely scenario has all of the male disciples fleeing in fear.  Only the women – Mary Magdalene and the others – remain steadfastly within the trauma of Jesus’ slow death. 

“She loved much.”  Legends abound through the centuries about the intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  A few scholars argue that she was Jesus’ wife.  Beyond the speculation, there is the church’s deep, consistent intuition – “She loved much.”  She loved Jesus deeply. 

A sensitive reader of the resurrection encounters on Easter day feels the yearning love inside her.  Mary needs to be near Jesus, even if it is his corpse.  Richard Rohr says “Mary Magdalene is the icon and archetype of love itself – needed, given, received, and passed on.”[i]  Maybe it is because she knew her own sense of failure so deeply that she could love so deeply.  The quality of her love seems to have been something that Simon and the other respectable people seemed incapable of. 

The core of the Christian message tells us two simultaneous things.  First, we are all a mess.  Every one of us is fouled up.  We don’t measure up.  We fail.  We embarrass ourselves.  And then, whenever we do something right, we mess it up by being proud or elitist about it.  The personal development project is doomed from the start.

But the second simultaneous truth is this.  God loves us infinitely.  God loves, forgives and accepts us without condition.  So we’re fine.  You can quit the personal perfection project.  You are given your perfection as a gift.  So stop trying to earn your place.  It’s yours already.  As we heard earlier from Colossians:  “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” 

Mary Magdalene, the women who Jesus freed from seven demons, was bulletproof.  Nothing could threaten or frighten or shame her because she knew how much she was loved, therefore “she loved much.”  When all the men ran away, she stayed.  She was held by love, and she saw the resurrection. 

William Stafford has a poem I like called “The Way It Is.”  I think it is a poem about the kind of love that Mary Magdalene knew.

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among
Things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.[ii]

The thread of love goes among things that change, but love doesn’t change.  Stuff happens – tragedy and death.  But “you don’t ever let go of the thread,” because you can’t.  Love holds you.  Love is you.  At your deepest and truest place, you are love.  God is love.  And God is one with you at your deepest, most authentic self.  We are all loved into being by God. 

Whenever our eyes or ears or heart are open, we become aware of the love that fills all things.  All things, including executions and corpses.  Love overcomes all.  Sometimes it is through our darkest times that we come to the deepest experience that we really are held by love.

I have another poem about that, and I want to share it with you as we finish.  It is a poem by a woman who, like Mary Magdalene, is a sinner.  Nicole is a prisoner at the Northwest Arkansas Community Corrections Center.  She’s part of our Prison Story Project.  Each week for a season we send people into the prison – artists, writers, storytellers, poets, friends.  They work with some of the women to help them give voice to their lives – to paint and sing and write their stories.  The women in the prison all wear the yellow uniform of convicts.  They are all given a number for identification.  They are treated like anonymous sinners in a place with few smiles.  They are doing time.

Here is Nicole’s poem, “Thank You Time.”

Blue lights, radio signals and numbers
No words
There is nothing to be said
Just salt and tears
All of it, Everything.
Again and again and again.
Because just one more time,
Is one more time, is one more.
Could be the very last and yet
Death is far less a threat than
Stripes, bars, and a number
Just a number no words
It’s all been said
Sink or swim
Red or black
Fire or ice, not both
And now it’s Yellow
And now it’s safe, or maybe?
A castle guarded day and night.
The walls are the enemy!
Still nothing no words
Until yellow is mixed with colors!
And TIME freely given
To the numbers
The color
They smile, Smile!
There are tears and salt
The walls are crumbling!
The number is a NAME!
With a story
And a face
Not a nobody face.
Not a scarecrow
Because hope is in TIME
Freely given
It is in ears that are open and hearts.
Yellow doesn’t know why
Yellow doesn’t care color has no feeling
Ahh but TIME cares and the NAME cares
One more life no bars and a face!
Not a nobody face
Not a failure
A name with a smile
On a somebody face
Thanks to TIME![iii]

People wearing smiles and color come behind the bars to give their time to Nicole who is doing time, and the thread of love takes her from bondage into freedom, restoring her identity as a child of God. 

Love needed, received, given, and passed on.  That’s what we do.  We do that every Sunday here.  But all humanity does that every time we let love work in us. 

The message of Easter is this – You are loved much.  God enters all of our prisons with an eternal, loving smile.  God speaks your name, and loves you infinitely.  There’s nothing left to do.  It’s all done.  So in thanksgiving, why not, like Mary Magdalene, “Love much."

[i] Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, London: SPCK, 2013) p. 180-1.
[ii] William Stafford, The Way It Is (St. Paul, Minn.:  Graywolf Press, 1977), p. 42; quoted by Rohr, p. 176
[iii] Nicole, Thank You Time, written from the Prison Story Project, spring, 2014.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Passion

The Passion

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
April 13, 2014; Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 7:11-54)  Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You say so." But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?" But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him." Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" All of them said, "Let him be crucified!" Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!"

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews."

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, `I am God's Son.'" The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "This man is calling for Elijah." At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, "Truly this man was God's Son!

I’m not going to preach.  The story preaches itself.  I just want you to spend some time silently thinking about the Passion according to Matthew.  Use all of your senses.  Imagine yourself in the scene.  Let yourself be there.  What do you see?  What to you hear?  What do you smell and touch and taste?  Observe your emotional reactions.  Enter the story.

See Jesus silent before Pilate.

Hear the negotiation over Barabbas and Jesus, “Whom do you want me to free?”

Watch and listen to the chief priests and elders as they work the crowd.

Feel the crowd as they cry, “Let him be crucified!”

If you were in the crowd, what do you think you would have said when Pilate’s asked, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

Pilate’s hand washing. 

The mocking and torture.  The walk to Golgotha.  Simon, compelled to carry the cross.

The crucifixion.

Be there.  Watch.  Listen.  Feel.

The casting lots.  The criminals.  The mocking.

Finally the darkness, and Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

His last breath.

The earthquake.  The temple curtain torn.

An awed Centurion.

Let yourself be there and experience Christ’s Passion.

You might choose to be one of the characters.  A disciple.  One of the crowd.  Pilate.  A soldier.  One of the religious authorities.  Maybe Simon.  Even Jesus himself. 

Use your active imagination to dwell with the story for a while.

[A period of silent meditation.]

It is an awesome, dark and troubling scene.  But the reality underneath Jesus’ cross and resurrection is this:  Every person in that scene is forgiven, loved, and accepted by God.  Completely.  Every one of them is God’s beloved child.  Yes, they all failed love, some failed miserably.  But God loves and accepts us all.  Every one of us.  God’s love is stronger than any failure, any evil we humans can fall into. 

What happened thru this evil?  Eternal good.  Eternal light.  Eternal love.  Eternal life. 
That is the eternal condition at all times and in all places.  No matter what happens, God loves and accepts us, and God brings new life out of all our darkness.  All is well.  Always.
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 sermons are posted on our web site:
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Saturday, April 05, 2014

Bob the Dog

Bob the Dog

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
April 5, 2014;5 Lent, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Romans 8:6-11)  To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law-- indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.   


There is a dog who needs a new home.  His name is Bob.  Bob the Dog.  We kept Bob for a few days, but Bob was miserable.  Except when he was in a lap or curled up near a human being.  As long as Bob was with a person, Bob was okay.  As soon as Bob was not with a person, Bob panicked.  He barked a high, anxious bark; he howled; he scratched at doors and windows. 

Bob did not bond with the other dogs.  He didn’t play with them.  He paid them no mind, except when they got in his space – then he let them know he was the alpha dog.

Unfortunately, our family’s life is too complicated for one of us to always be with Bob.  So it just didn’t work out.  It seemed a shame.  I really liked Bob.  I did my best to explain to him:  “It’s okay, Bob the Dog.  Just trust me a little bit.  When I go away, I promise I’ll return before long.  If I go upstairs, I’ll come back downstairs again.  Don’t worry.  In the meantime, have some fun.  Play with the other dogs.  Relax.  Lie down.  Chase a squirrel.”  He didn’t.  He just howled.

I thought about Bob when I read today’s passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.  I’ve been spending some time with Paul lately as I prepare for a new Sunday School class on Paul and his letters.  Much of what Paul writes sounds a little bit like what I was trying to tell Bob.

Paul says there are two ways of being in the world.  One way is full of anxiety and even fury.  Life in the flesh.  The other way…?  Well, he calls it living according to the Spirit.  And it has something to do with letting go of our self-absorbed anxieties and trusting God.  Trusting that God is near.  Trusting that God actually loves us and forgives us and accepts us.  Just as we are.  So we can relax.  Have some fun.  Play with the other people.  Lie down in peace.  And chase squirrels.  I’ve got lots of squirrels in my life.  A lot of them are on my “to do” list.

In his former life, Paul was like a nervous dog who thought he had to make everything right in his life.  And not only make everything right in his life, Paul thought he had to make everything right in everyone else’s life.  That’s what he was doing on the road to Damascus.  He was busy trying to straighten out some mistakes.  He was going to fix those Jesus people. 

And Paul had a vision.  Suddenly he knew – he knew deep in his bones – he knew that he didn’t have to fix anything.  He didn’t have to fix himself.  God accepted him and loved him infinitely.  He didn’t have to fix other people or make them in his own image.  Instead, he could just forget himself and simply serve others. 

So, Paul gave up his project of trying to measure up, and he simply accepted the fact that he was okay, he was safe, he was loved, he was accepted.  We all are.  And it’s a sheer gift from God. 
That’s like the gift I wanted to give Bob the Dog too.  Just trust us, Bob.  You’re safe.  We’ll come back.  In the meantime, relax and have fun.  Enjoy the other dogs.

But Bob was trapped in a prison of his own making.  If he couldn’t control his humans and make them stay with him, he was going to be miserable.  And that’s a miserable way to live.

I live with a wonderful grandchild who is in what some call the “terrible 2’s.”  Every once in a while she decides she needs something, and if she doesn’t get it she will melt down into an apocalyptic despair.  “NO!  I want the orange t-shirt, not the blue one!”  There follows a torrent of tears and a wailing that sounds like imminent death.  Instead of getting the blue t-shirt she wants, she usually gets a “time-out.”  Prison, in other words.  A prison of her own making.

Paul described his old life like a prison.  His old life of trying to measure up, and trying to control himself and everyone else.  When he gave that up and instead simply trusted whatever the Spirit would do in him, he experienced a new freedom. 

Here’s what Pauline scholar Robin Scroggs says about Paul’s freedom.  “What are we freed from?  All sorts of things:  freed from the old world and that part of it which is our own past history; freed from what people think about us; freed from what we think about ourselves, either positively or negatively.  Thus we are freed from the agony of failure and the tense striving for success, either in memory or in prospect.  We are freed from the tyranny of someone else’s claim about what is true and what is morally correct behavior.  We are freed from the claim that some set of rules and regulations is ontologically true and eternally binding.  We are even free from the fear of going to hell unless we can subscribe to a given set of theological dogmas.  As Paul says, it is more important to be known (by God) than to know God.” [i]

I decided to try it out.  You see, I carry some anxiety about preaching.  I want to preach good sermons.  I’d like all of my sermons to be good.  They aren’t.  But I’ve learned to live with that. 

This week was one of those weeks when I had something like writer’s block.  Good scriptures – Dry bones and the raising of Lazarus.  But I was dry bones.  Didn’t have a angle or a hook to get started.  Worse – I didn’t have a story.  A good story can always save a bad sermon.  And I was out of time. 

So I looked at this little passage from Paul and said to myself – Okay.  God loves me infinitely whether I write a good sermon or a stinker.  It really doesn’t matter whether people sleep or are saved.  God loves them too.  That’s what’s important.  So relax.  Trust the Spirit and just write what you can.  You never know what people will hear anyway.  The Spirit inside a listener’s ears can make my most mundane words a treasure.  And without the Spirit, eloquence falls flat.  

I decided that I could be miserable trying to research and study and force myself to write something wonderful when it’s not there.  Or I could feel guilty, or judged, or less-than, or even afraid – what if people quit coming to church because of me?!  That’s a miserable way to live.

So I just decided to start writing and hope the Spirit would take me somewhere.  And I decided to trust that if it wasn’t any good, most of you will probably come back again next week anyway.  It’s okay to preach a stinker every once in a while.  God loves me anyway.

So I knocked this out pretty quickly.  And then I went downstairs to have some fun with my wife, my dogs, my son, and my wonderful two-year old granddaughter.  I even laughed a bit as I typed this last line.

P.S.  If there is someone who takes care of a loved one at home who can't get out much, I do know a really good dog who would love to keep you company.  Let the Spirit guide you.

[i] Robin Scroggs, Paul for a New Day, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1977, p. 

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 sermons are posted on our web site:
Visit our web partners at
Videos of sermons are posted at

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"He Told Me Everything I Have Ever Done"

“He Told Me Everything I Have Ever Done”

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
March 23, 2014; Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(John 4:5-42)  Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."
Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back." The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, `I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!" The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?" Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something." But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, `Four months more, then comes the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, `One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done." So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world."

Nathaniel Hawthorn’s masterpiece The Scarlet Letter opens with the village gathered at the town scaffold for the punishment of Hester Prynne, a woman who has been found guilty of adultery.  Her sentence:  she must endure three hours of public shaming on the scaffold, and she must wear a scarlet “A” on her dress as an enduring sign of shame.  Her accusers, including the minister of her church Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, demand that she name the father.  Hester refuses.

Hester survives the sentencing and then goes on with her life, living with quiet dignity, raising her child, making a living with her needlework, and wearing her scarlet letter. 

Gradually we learn the identity of the father.  It is Reverend Dimmesdale, who has lived with such guilt and hidden shame that over time it ruins his health.  At the end of the story, knowing he is dying, Dimmesdale climbs upon the scaffold and confesses, dying in Hester’s arms.  Later, there are some who say they saw a stigma upon his chest in the form of a scarlet “A.” 

In the Middle East, women go to the well to draw water in the cool of the morning.  They go together in groups and enjoy each others’ company.  Our gospel story today opens with a solitary woman drawing water from Jacob’s well at noon, the hottest time of the day.  The inference?  She is ostracized.  Shunned in a culture where community, connection, and family are everything. 

The setting is in Samaria.  The scripture says, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”  That’s putting it mildly.  A Jew was regarded as unclean if a Samaritan’s shadow crossed him.
Two other cultural notes.  In the Middle East, it is unacceptable for an adult man to speak to an adult woman who is not a member of his own family.  And further, to ask another person for a drink of water has a deeper meaning in the Middle East.  It is a coded message.  To ask for a drink of water is to extend an offer of friendship.  If the person addressed does not wish to accept the offer to share friendship, they will point to the jar or bottle and say, “Help yourself.”  If they wish to accept friendship, they will pour the water themselves.[i]

So, it is noon, and a weary Jewish traveler stops at Jacob’s well to rest.  He speaks (horrors!) to the lone Samaritan woman.  “Give me a drink.”  An offer of friendship.  The woman is stupefied.  “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  Such an offer crosses unimaginable barriers. 

Then Jesus offers her even more.  Not just water, or even friendship.  But “living water… gushing up to eternal life.”  His offer touches some deep aching need in her heart.  “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water,” a daily reminder of her outcast status.

“Go, call your husband, and come back.”  I think at this point the woman caught her breath and paused.  Jesus has touched her shame.  Her past, and maybe her past history with men, is probably the reason for her exile.  Jesus has hit a painful note.

The woman now has a choice.  She can retreat into her protective shell.  She can cut off this unorthodox conversation, get her water and go back to her familiar life.  Or she can risk.  She can risk emotional honesty.  She can be vulnerable and tell him the truth. 

TED Talk star Brené Brown says, “Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.”  She says “we are all made of strength and struggle,” so we can be compassionate to one another.  We are all “connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit.”  Brené Brown asserts that “nurturing the connection and sense of belonging… can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are.”[ii]

“I have no husband,” the Samaritan woman says to Jesus in courageous, vulnerable honesty.  “You are right,” replies Jesus.  “…for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!”

How will this woman react to this vulnerable knowing?

Listen again to Brené Brown.  “Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving – even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it.”

I believe the Samaritan woman felt a certain joy.  She knew herself as being known.  Yes, exposed as not good enough.  But there was something in the manner of the knowing that touched a possibility of joy she had never known.  This man could be different from the other men in her life.  Would her fear shut her down, or could she risk wholehearted living and loving even while wresting with her shame?

She risks joy.  “Sir,” she speaks.  “I see that you are a prophet.”  And she opens up the conversation.  What a conversation it is!  She speaks of her people and their deepest hopes.  Jesus speaks and gives her hope.  The joy expands in her.  She finally wonders, “Could this be?  Could this be Messiah?”  “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

I imagine she barely took notice of the disciples who then arrived at this astonishing scene.  She was so excited she didn’t even notice the left-behind water jar she so laboriously had carried every day at noon.  Instead she hurries back to the village, the place where she was shunned, and she dares to speak.  “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”  She knows she risks ridicule.  She risks stoning as an outcast.  Yet she claims her voice. And a miracle happens.  Many of the people of the city believe her words.  Then a second miracle.  Samaritans invite a Jewish teacher to stay with them.  And they come to know the Savior of the world.  A shamed woman becomes a missionary of truth.

I opened this sermon with the story of another shamed woman of grace, Hester Prynne and the father of her child, Reverend Dimmesdale.  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story reminds us that there is public shame and there is private shame.  So I want to close with a reminder of last week’s gospel – maybe a story of private shame – the story of Nicodemus’ visit with Jesus. 

You remember.  A leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus visited Jesus at night.  He must have been drawn to Jesus by something within him; something must have been eating at him.  But he didn’t have the courage to come in the daylight.  When Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born from above, born anew, born again, Nicodemus didn’t seem to get it.  He leaves, seemingly unenlightened.

But later in John’s gospel, when Jesus is being tried by the authorities, Nicodemus speaks up, reminding them of the rules of a fair trial.  He is shouted down.  Then, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus reappears.  He joins Joseph of Arimathea to claim the body of Jesus and give Jesus a dignified burial.
Rebecca Hass sent me a picture of a statue she saw during the choir’s recent trip to Europe.  It is a sculpture in the church of St. Gervais in Paris.  In the center of the image, Nicodemus is bearing Jesus’ body descending from the cross.  He stands shirtless, proud, serious, strong with an open, knowing intensity in his face.  He bears Christ’s body in the open, now in the light, willing to be seen by any, by all.  No shame; no perplexity; no fear.

Jesus brings living water to the Samaritan woman living in public shame.  Jesus gives new life to Nicodemus carrying his brokenness privately.   Each of them lets go of something old and receives life anew.  As Brené Brown says, “Nurturing the connection and sense of belonging… can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are.”

"He told me everything I have ever done!"


[i] Thanks again to my friend Paul McCracken and his weekly Lectionary Notes, email for the Third Sunday of Lent, March 23, 2014.  Notes archive at

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
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Saturday, March 01, 2014

"Child of God!"

“Child of God!”

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
March 2, 2014; Last Epiphany, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 17:1-9)  Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." 

My dear friend Craig Gates died last month.  We were priests together in Jackson, Mississippi.  For almost a decade Craig and I were in a small group of friends who met together weekly to share our lives in a forum for mutual accountability.  I teach the method we used regularly to our Journey to Authenticity class.  It’s a powerful tool for growth.  It’s a powerful context for friendship.

Craig was exuberant, extravagant, irrepressible, loud and outgoing.  A larger-than-life Cajun-Italian.  He always greeted friends with a huge hug, and usually a kiss.  It took me a while to get used to that.  And he called everyone, “Child of God.” 

He would be in the middle of a story, enjoying it even more than his listeners, and one of his boys might interrupt.  “Just a moment, Child of God, Poppa’s telling a story,” and he would resume.  At the end of the story, before the laughs could quiet down, he would turn with full attention to his son, “Yes, Child of God, what is it you wanted?”  Not, “Child of Mine,” but “Child of God.” 

That’s what he called all of us. 

Upon departure, Craig’s typical extravagant “Good-bye” was a loving look and the heartfelt words, “Child of God, I love you.” And maybe another uncomfortable kiss.

In the funeral homily, Bishop Duncan Gray mentioned how profuse Craig was with his praise of others, once embarrassing the Bishop with so much extravagant praise that Duncan just stammered for an appropriate response before Craig saved him, “Child of God, just say, ‘thank you’.”  With that word, “Child of God,” Craig was pointing us to our truest identity.

Today we read the story of the disciples on the mountain with their friend Jesus, when their eyes are opened, and they see their friend as he really is – the glorified Child of God.  And they hear his truest identity confirmed by the heavenly voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” 

Some time later they will hear Jesus pray to the Father about all of this, saying, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  (John 17:22-23) 

How might you live if you always regarded yourself as Beloved Child of God?  What if you consistently remembered, “I am God’s Child; the Beloved,” and embraced that as your deepest identity?

I used to direct summer camps for adults with physical and mental disabilities.  It was great fun.  The highlight of each camp was the Talent Show.  Every camper offered something.  And every offering was greeted with a standing ovation.  A piano solo of random notes – standing ovation.  A group of girls twisting to the Beatles – standing ovation.  Another piano solo of random notes – standing ovation.  A 3-second interpretive dance – standing ovation.  A woman who speaks not a word and seems without the gift of personality sits at the piano.  We wait for the random notes.  She plays “Twinkle, twinkle little star” – standing ovation, with tears.  And the Elvis impersonators – standing ovation, with screaming, fainting female camp counselors.

One of the regular Elvis impersonators was Ross.  Ross was big and round, with a voice that resonated across the camp.  You heard him when he first got off the bus.  “Hey, hey, hey everybody!  Ross is here!” he announced.  “I wanna see all the girls.  I wanna invite all the girls to come up to Greenville to visit me.”  Oh, Ross loved the girls.  And he feared them so.  The girls were wonderful, and awe-ful.  Full of awe.

Ross taught me the meaning of what theologian Rudolph Otto called mysterium tremendum et fascinans – the ineffable numinous mystery that attracts us with dreadful awe and fascination.  Oh, the Girls were mysterium tremendum et fascinans to Ross.  The way he said the word:  “The Girls.”  Full of reverence, wonder and fear.  He gave voice to what so many male adolescent counselors were also feeling but could never express. 

Ross understood mystery and wonder in the presence of numinous power.  He knew The Girls had that power.  So did Elvis.  “The King,” he spoke with respectful wonder.  “Elvis is the King,” he announced in words of praise.  Ross loved Elvis.  And on Talent Night, Ross became Elvis.  He grabbed the microphone, he shook his hips, he waved his scarves, he sang with passion.  And when the girls rushed the stage in screaming adulation, he nearly fainted.  Oh, it was transcendent.  Transfiguring.  Wonderful.  Then followed:  a standing ovation.

There was another mysterium tremendum et fascinans that Ross knew.  Jesus.  Jesus was even more wonderful, powerful and numinous than Elvis and The Girls.  Ross spoke the name with reverence, with whispered awe:  “Jesus.” 

I’ll never forget giving communion to Ross.  I would place the bread into his hands with the familiar words, “the Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”  He would look at it with reverent awe and speak the Holy Name, “Jesus.”  Then glance to heaven, where it seemed that the veil over eternity must have parted for him to give him a glimpse.  Then he consumed the bread, and his countenance changed into something powerful, energized, renewed.  And he walked away purposefully, empowered with joy.  Chills went up my spine.  Every time.

Ross and the others at that camp lived with challenges I can only imagine.  One of my favorites surprised us one night with a grand mal seizure.  She wasn’t prone to seizures according to her medical form.  Sometime later after she had recovered, I went to see how she was doing.  “I’m retarded, crippled, partially paralyzed in one arm, and legally blind.  Now seizures!  Good Lord!  What next?”  And the way she said it, you knew she knew, she would get through whatever was next, and the Good Lord would be with her to help her through it.  She was radiant, transcendent.  A Child of God.

What if we all lived our lives knowing that we are a Child of God, Beloved?  What if we knew that whatever we offered, it would be received with a standing ovation?  A standing ovation from heaven, where we are loved without qualification.  What if we met our next disappointment and challenge with the honest lament, “Good Lord!  What next?” knowing that we will get through whatever is next, and the Good Lord will be with us to help us through.

In a few moments you will open your hand, and bread will be placed there with the words, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”  When that moment comes, will you hear within you the sound of the Holy Name – “Jesus”?  Will you sense the opening of the thin veil between heaven and earth, and will you feel the life, the energy, the empowerment coming upon you?  Can you hear the sound of the heavens?  They speak your name: “Child of God.”  “Child of God, I love 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 sermons are posted on our web site:
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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Do What You Want

Do What You Want

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
February 16, 2014; 6 Epiphany, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 5:21-37)  Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder'; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

"You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

"It was also said, `Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be `Yes, Yes' or `No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…  I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.  And if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.

I remember reading this kind of stuff in my adolescence and feeling pretty hopeless.  I once imagined a plot line for a short story I might write.  The main character would be someone, not unlike me, who was earnest, respectful toward the authority of scripture, wanting to measure up.  But upon encountering this kind of moralizing instruction, throws in the towel, saying, It’s impossible.  I’ve already looked at enough women and called enough people “You fool!” that I’ve got my reservation in the hell fires.  What’s the point?

So the character decides just to do whatever he wants to do.  For a while, he lives a somewhat raunchy life, trying out all the things he had formerly abstained from.  But he finds those pleasures passing, ultimately unfulfilling.  They carry their own set of stresses and regrets. 

Actually, he finds what gives him the most satisfaction is doing things for other people.  Being helpful.  And having friendships that have some substance and depth.  Also, having fun with others.  And working with his hands.  Pondering wondrous things.  Letting himself off the hook when he fails, and starting over fresh again.  And so, eventually in the story, this character, by doing what he most truly wants, finds he’s living a life of virtue.  And it’s a good life.

Thomas Keating has some helpful things to say about living the good life.  He says it involves “a strong ego… and a defined self-identity.  …Psychological strength is based on self-acceptance of our weaknesses as well as a healthy self-esteem, which is the firm conviction of our basic goodness. 

“In the Christian perspective, strength is another word for virtue.  …It is the capacity to act from the center of our being, rather than acting from our emotional reactions to events. 

“Spiritual strength is the capacity to respond to events from the center of compassion and genuine concern, to relate to people where they are, and to accept ourselves and our weaknesses in the confidence that God will help us to sift through our weaknesses and let go of behaviors that are obstacles to relating to truth, to other people, ourselves, and ultimate reality….

“[T]he virtues… moderate the excesses of our human nature, balance our individual good with social good, balance our esteem for ourselves with our esteem for the rights and needs of others, and heighten our accountability to God.” [i]

Here’s a story that might put some flesh on those bones.  It’s by a guy named Joseph Slevcove:

When my wife, Beth, and I moved from the suburbs to a warehouse loft in the center of a large city, Beth embraced every aspect of urban life -- even the sirens, the parking problems, and the car alarms at night. The homeless people made me nervous, but Beth learned their names. The only neighbors who bothered her were the guys who ran the tattoo parlor across the street. They got into traffic-stopping fights, harassed women on the sidewalk, and intimidated men. They were the reason Beth didn’t walk on that side of the street. For two years she glared out our window at the row of men sitting in front of the shop and fantasized about shooting out their tires.

Then one day she called me at work to tell me she was getting a tattoo. She’d never wanted a tattoo before and had even taken pride in being one of the few people in our group of friends with no body art. Though surprised, I said "okay". Later she called me back and announced, “I did it.”

When I got home, Beth excitedly showed me the delicately inscribed words “Love thy neighbor” on her wrist. She explained how she’d marched across the street and gone into the tattoo parlor. The walls were covered with drawings of skulls, bloody knives, naked women, and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Manuel, the proprietor, was working on somebody’s backside. Beth introduced herself as his neighbor and asked if she could watch. He said sure.

After a while, she went outside and sat in front to study the world from their perspective. The guy next to her asked what she was getting done.

“‘Love thy neighbor,’ ” she muttered.

“Why?” he asked.

“Well, you guys are my neighbors, and I’m having trouble loving you. You kind of scare me — you know, with the fights that break out over here and all.”

He ushered her back into the shop and announced, with complete sincerity, “Manuel, dude, we’re scaring our neighbors! We got to stop fighting.”

Manuel was defensive — until Beth explained that she didn’t want to change him; she just wanted to get this tattoo.

Manuel showed her a picture in a magazine of “Love thy neighbor” tattooed on a man’s inner forearm — with bloody knives in the background.

“Not exactly,” said Beth.

After they’d settled on a design, Manuel began to do his art on her wrist. Then he stopped. “How do you spell thy?” he asked shyly. “I didn’t go to school.”

The other tattoo artist piped in, “Dude, it’s not because you didn’t go to school. It’s because you don’t read the Bible!”

From then on Beth would wave to the tattoo artists as if they were old pals.

The music from across the street was not so grating to her nerves. No more fights broke out. The sidewalk felt safe.

Four months later, Beth took our car in for an oil change and saw Manuel talking to the repairman behind the counter.

As she began to remind him who she was, he stepped forward and gave her a warm hug. “Hey,” he said to his friend behind the counter, “this is my neighbor, the one I was telling you about.”

Returning to Thomas Keating:  “Spiritual strength is the capacity to respond to events from the center of compassion and genuine concern, to relate to people where they are, and to accept ourselves and our weaknesses in the confidence that God will help us to sift through our weaknesses.”

That seems like another way of repeating Jesus’ summary of all of the commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

Our deepest desire is to love and be loved.  Our deepest delight is loving and being loved.   Right action is usually doing what you most deeply desire.

Maybe St. Augustine said it most succinctly:  "Love God, and do what you will."

[i] Mary NurrieStearns, Exploring Pride, Strength, and Humility:  An Interview with Thomas Keating.
[ii] Joe Slevcove, Love Thy Neighvor, posted on the website KindSpring,  Borrowed from my friend the Rev. Ed Wills. 

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 sermons are posted on our web site:
Visit our web partners at