Saturday, September 17, 2016

Turning Bad to Good

Turning Bad to Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Be Loved, Then Be Love

Be Loved, Then Be Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 19, 2016

Is Love Enough?

Is Love Enough?

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 21, 2016;  Proper 16, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 13:10-17)  Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?" When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.


[If you were here last week, you know I recycled a sermon from 15 years ago. Now, I promise I'll write a new sermon one of these days. But I had another hard week, and I had to go to Little Rock for a meeting Friday and Saturday. I just didn't have time. So, back to the barrel. This one's only 12 years old; from 2004.]

That bent-over woman. I wonder what it was -- the Aspirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.@ My intuition is that it didn't have it=s origin in something physical. But it was crippling, nonetheless.

Like the woman who grew up in the home of an angry father and a compliant mother. Everyone walked on eggshells trying to avoid setting him off. She learned that when she was a good girl, a very, very good girl, he wouldn't lash out at her with his bitter tongue and his biting sarcasm. But something in him was so angry that she never felt really safe. She tried to please him, to make him happy, to make him love her. But he was unhappy and angry. So she grew up feeling vulnerable and insecure. Now a mother and grandmother herself, she=s never really felt safe in a relationship. She kept the peace by taking care of others. But with the divorce and all the kids grown up, now there=s no one to take care of but herself. And she doesn't really know how. She wishes someone would rescue her; she=s willing to do anything to make someone happy, if they would only love her; accept her. But she needs people so desperately that she scares them off or wears them out. Though her father has been dead for years, she is still bent over, carrying the shadow of his ghost, a spirit that has crippled her for so many years.

Or the moody teenager who doesn't know what=s wrong with him, but there=s nobody to talk to. His father=s preoccupied with business and his mother just preaches at him. What they are trying to teach him at school is stupid and worthless. Who cares that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, my God! He=s not about to let somebody see him walking out of the counselor=s office or some shrink=s place. So he hangs out with some other kids who are as moody as he is, and that feels better. Alcohol or drugs help him not feel like he feels. When he=s picked up trying to use a fake ID his mother tells the officer he=s been nothing but trouble since the day he was born, and something inside of him hardens. So, she thinks I=m trouble. I'll show her trouble. And he walks out slumping over with a sullen cold rage that he carries like a sack across his back. AYou=d better straighten up,@ his mother shakes her finger at him. AYeah. Right.@ He can feel the spirit that is crippling him just before his eighteenth year.

Henry David Thoreau hit a communal chord with his words Athe mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.@ The external circumstances of so many lives are threatening and transitory. How many people are just one pay check from quiet financial desperation? How many are going as hard as they can and never catching up? But it is the internal baggage that is so quietly and desperately crippling. No one is immune from hurts, misunderstanding, and love with bitter hooks and strings attached. No one=s spirit reaches eighteen years without feeling attacked and crippled.

We are not told anything about the woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years; she just appears. But she appears in the synagogue on the Sabbath. We know she lives in a patriarchal world where the women who attend the synagogue are set apart in their own room, apart from the men whose daily prayers in that synagogue include the prayer of blessing and thanks to God for not making them women. We know that she lives in a world where the men of authority and power will react to her healing with criticism because it is done on the Sabbath, caring more for the rules and traditions than for her liberation. 

In his wonderful and challenging novel The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakais imagines a conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist. They are sitting in the hollow of a rock, high above the Jordan, arguing all night long about what to do with this world. It is sunrise. John=s face is hard and decisive; from time to time his arms go up and down as though he were chopping something apart. Jesus= face is tame and hesitant. His eyes are full of compassion.

AIsn't love enough?@ Jesus asks John.

ANo,@ John answers angrily. AThe tree is rotten. God called me and gave me the ax, which I then placed at the roots of the tree. I did my duty. Now you do yours: Take the ax and strike!@

AIf I were fire, I would burn,@ Jesus says. AIf I were a woodcutter, I would strike; but I am a heart, and I love.@ [1]

For so many people the tree of life is rotten. The weight of the world is heavy and tiring. It feels like things will go on like this and just keep going on like this. It=s easy to understand the desire to strike out. It=s easy to feel disillusioned. We want a Messiah who will do something to set things right. We want a God who will bring some relief and justice, who will rescue the innocent and punish the abusive. We want a Messiah who will fix us, and make us so that we won=t keep walking into the same blind alleys over and over again. And we spin in the vortex of our own vicious circles, weighed down and crippled. 

Eighteen years! Eighteen years she was bent over and unable to stand up straight. When you've been bent over that long, people get used to it. They don=t really notice. It's like you've always been that way. It's like it's always been that way. 

But Jesus noticed her. Three wonderful words in this story, AJesus saw her.@ I think there is a lot underneath those words. He really saw her. He saw her suffering. He cared. His look was not one of curiosity, or judgment, or aversion. His look was one of compassion. He called her over and let her know she could be free. She could be liberated from this spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. He touched her. AIf I were fire, I would burn; If I were a woodcutter, I would strike; but I am a heart, and I love.@ And love was enough. Whatever trauma had crippled her and bent her low was melted by a knowing, compassionate love that gave her the freedom to stand up straight again, free of her bondage on this Sabbath day.

Is love enough? Is God=s divine, unqualified love enough to fill the emptiness left by an angry and neglectful father? Can a heavenly Father's abundant acceptance and delight heal the hurt and restore our dignity? Is love enough? Can the love of a Messiah who was despised and rejected reach out to touch the alienation and loneliness that leads us to self-destruction? Can the compassion of a Messiah who really sees break through the walls of hostility to touch our sensitivity and hunger for true love and understanding?

Yes. A thousand times yes. Love will break any rules and suffer any cross to manifest itself. Not only is love enough, it is the only thing powerful enough to free us.

When all human love has failed us, especially our love for ourselves... When our spirits are crippled... God sees and cares. God touches us with gentle compassion. God frees us from the stuff that weighs us down and convicts us. Any time; any place. Right here; right now. 

Be free of whatever burdens you. Be free of whatever weighs you down. Stand up straight and proud. AYou are set free,@ says Jesus on this Sabbath. Stand up straight immediately and begin praising God saying, AWe believe in One God, the father the almighty...@

[1]Quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor, AGod In Pain,@ p. 19
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.

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

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Interpreting the Present Time

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 14, 2016;  Proper 15, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 12:49-56)  Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
                father against son
                                and son against father,
                mother against daughter
                                and daughter against mother,
                mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
                                and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

[NOTE: I wrote and preached this sermon fifteen years ago, August 2001. This week has been a busy one, and I didn't come up with a good sermon idea, so I'm pulling this one out of the barrel. Lowell]

"You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"  (Luke 12:56)

Whenever the natural forces of destruction, storm or wind, are active anywhere in Asia, the skies of Utah light up.  The visiting dust shimmers red in the air, painting vast vibrant colors against the magenta mountains.  That evening sky is a metaphor of a fundamentally new way of understanding the world as an interconnected Web of Life.  Scientists tell us that there are unseen connections between what were previously thought to be separate entities.  Those who will thrive now and in the age to come are those who can interpret the appearance of earth and sky, and adapt to reality, the world the way it is.  The problem is this: for those of us who are about age 45 and above, reality is dramatically different from the way we learned about it.

The new science of quantum and chaos has changed our fundamental understanding of life.  We are going through a period of new learning that is comparable to the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  It is an apocalyptic time of change.  And change brings conflict.

Some people wring their hands and produce words of woe, trying to build walls of protection around their old certainties as they prophesy doom with a grim glee.  Their world is dying in the new fire.  Their words are words of straw.  The prophet Jeremiah says, "What has straw in common with wheat?"

But all around us are words of wheat, planting seeds of a new future, recognizing what God is doing in our time. 

Apocalyptic times are times of fire and hammer, when old ways are destroyed, and the energy of fire and hammer are constructing new ways out of the old.  It is an extraordinarily exciting time to be alive.  I once thought, how lucky those who were alive in Renaissance Italy.  No more.  Generations will look back at this age and say, "How thrilling it must have been to be alive when such secrets of the universe were being revealed!"

The fire and hammer is on our front pages and our cell phones.  Globalization.  Genetic modification.  Human sexuality.  Climate change.  Immigration and refugees.  Twitter.  Bike trails.  Hybrid self-driving cars.

The voices of control and protectionism are anxiously trying to build walls around themselves, while the ground under their feet is moving and shaking.

For nearly four hundred years we've lived in the shadow of Newton=s understanding of reality: Newton said that our universe is like a machine.  To understand it, just analyze the parts and put them back together.  We can control machines.

No more.  We now recognize that reality is a dance of chaos and order.  There is no simple, objective truth out there somewhere – a book of rules that you can follow and know that you are right and those others are wrong.  No, everything is in relationship to everything else, changing and learning and evolving.

Life is not like a machine.  It's more like jazz.  There is some structure.  The musicians agree about melody, tempo and key.  Then they play, listening carefully, communicating constantly.  What happens is a surprise.  Music beyond what we imagined.  It seems to come from somewhere else, from a spirit or energy that the musicians have accessed among themselves, a relationship that transcends our false sense of separateness.  When it happens; it appears.  And the musicians are amazed, joyful, grateful.

In natural systems, there is some structure, some boundaries that keep a weather system or chemical interaction related.  But then begins the dance between chaos and order.  What the scientists have discovered is that if a chaotic system stays open and has the capacity to change, it will reorganize itself at a higher level of organization. That's important. Let me say it again. If a chaotic system stays open and has the capacity to change, it will reorganize itself at a higher level of organization.

You've experienced that in your life.  Everything begins to unravel.  You can=t stay ahead of the curve.  Events happen and you can=t control things.  You feel anxious and pulled apart.  But if you let go of your anxiety, listen and look and learn, waiting patiently for what you do not know:  without your realizing it, something emerges that brings a new order and consciousness.

People my age and older have watched that happen to our world.  When I was a child, there were separate bathrooms and waiting rooms, for colored and white.  Women could be secretaries or nurses or teachers.  No one was homosexual; no one had heard of transsexual.  Schools were "separate but equal." 

People were so afraid when that world began to fall into chaos.  I remember the fears.  What will happen when black children swim with white children?  What if a man has to take orders from a woman?  Gay people will love each other if we don=t stop them.  There=s no telling what will come if we let negroes have an education with white folks.  For many people, those changes felt like their world was crumbling apart. 

But, if a system stays open and has the capacity to respond to change by reorganizing itself at a higher level of consciousness, there can be new and healthier relationships between black and white, woman and man, gay and straight.  We can evolve and become co-creators with God of a new and more whole universe.

Those who have vision and trust will help midwife the new world that God is creating.  But it will take a new way of being.  Listen to what science is telling us:  The new reality rewards curiosity, not certainty.  The new reality comes with truth in paradox, not absolutes.  Relationship is everything, and everything is in relationship.  It's all one.  You can=t just ignore the different.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  No single person or school of thought has the answer.  We're in this together. 

Einstein said, "No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it."   And, as Niels Bohr discovered the fundamentals of quantum theory he concluded, "If an idea does not appear bizarre, there is no hope for it."  In the new reality we will have less intellectual confidence, but life will be infinitely more interesting.  We'll have to be comfortable with uncertainty, and appreciative of the role of chaos.  We'll need to stay together to share each other's curiosity, wisdom and courage.

What an exciting time it is to be alive!  What a great time to be religious!  For religion is what holds us together when the conflicting desires within us threaten to pull us apart.  I want to be part of a church and a community that enters fearlessly into this new reality, trusting that God is bringing about the fulfilling of the divine vision.

Listen to what the organizational development specialist Margaret Wheatley says about her own yearnings in a quantum universe.  These are words I can embrace as well: "I want to trust in this universe so much that I give up playing God.  I want to stop struggling to hold things together.  I want to experience such security that the concept of 'allowing' – trusting that the appropriate forms will emerge – ceases to be scary.  I want to surrender my fear of the universe and join with everyone I know in an organization that opens willingly to its environment, participating gracefully in the unfolding dance of order."[i]

She's described a healthy church and a healthy person of faith.  I pray that we will be people who are able to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; people who will know how to interpret the present time: people who live with hope, openness, and trust; curiosity, wisdom and courage; connected to the whole.  If we can embrace that spirit, we can cooperate with the new creation that God is bringing about in our generation.

[i] Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science, 3rd Edition, Barrett-Koehler, 2006, p. 25

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Emotional Systems

Emotional Systems

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
July 31, 2016; Proper 13, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 12:13-21)  Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

Reading this story about a conflict over an inheritance reminds me of a story. When I was in Jackson, Mississippi, we were doing a class about attachment and detachment. In the class was one of the beloved matriarchs of our congregation, I'll call her Tillie because she has died and I can't ask her permission to tell the story and because my memory is so faulty I'm not sure I'll tell it exactly as it happened. In her 80's, Tillie had a beautiful, quick smile, a translucent white complexion, cherubic red cheeks, snow white hair, and twinkling blue eyes. She looked like a grandmother in a fairy tale story.

Our class was talking about how we get attached so easily to things and to emotions. How our attachments drive us so powerfully. Tillie spoke up in her deep Southern accent:  "Fah-tha. Mah muh-thuh had a beautiful emerald necklace. I loved and admired it so. Sometimes she would let me barrah that necklace for a special dress-up occasion. She promised she would give it to me when she died. But late in her life, when she wasn't quite able to take care of things like she used to, my sus-tuh started messin in mama's affairs. And when it came time to read Mama's will – I've nevah been so shocked in my life – the will gave that emerald necklace to my sus-tuh, and I got the back patio furniture. Now it was nice furniture… but I can tell you, to this day, every time I think of my sus-tuh wearing that emerald, it just "ticks" me off!" [I had to clean up that last bit of Tillie's language for church.]

Somewhere in Tillie's consciousness, Tillie knew: it's just stuff; everything passes. Her mother was long gone. Tillie and her sister's years were numbered. Let it go. But the energy inside her memory was still very real and powerful. And every time she thought of that emerald, the chemicals of her emotions poured through her body. "Every time I think of my sus-tuh wearing that emerald, it just "ticks me off!" She was still mad.

The word "emotion" comes from the Latin for movement, agitation, stirring up. Like what happens in your guts when they are stirred up, agitated and moving. The body holds emotions; the body preserves the history of our emotional woundings. Our most primitive emotions dwell in our body like chemical deposits ready to erupt with instant urgency. Emotions are so raw and deep, they feel like truth. Like truth demanding a response.

It's important to recognize: Emotions just are. They aren't necessarily good or bad. At their core, emotions are just energy. Chemical energy. We don't have to do anything with them unless we truly choose to.

As human beings, we've inherited three motivational systems – systems that have been necessary to our survival as a species. They motivate so much of what drives us.

The first motivational system is the fight-flight-freeze system. It is the way we react to threats. The amygdala pumps adrenaline to tell us urgently "Fight for your life!"  Or "Run!" Or "Freeze!" Our negative memories are stored in the amygdala, and it is wired negatively, to remember every possible or remotely possible threat. That shadow behind the tree? Is it a sheep or a lion? The amygdala will kill a thousand sheep in order to protect us from one shadow that might be a lion. Not good for the sheep though. The amygdala is primitive; we share it with the reptiles. And it is fast. Sending information almost instantly. "Fear!"

The second motivational system is the achievement/goal-seeking system. It gives us drive, excitement, and vitality, and it rewards us with feelings of pleasure. The chemical is dopamine, and it comes from the basal ganglia in the forebrain. Dopamine is the chemical secreted by a job well done, a Razorback touchdown or by crack cocaine. Pleasure is particularly addictive, whether it is the pleasure of constructive accomplishment or the pleasure of beating a video game. A high achieveing workaholic and a video game addict experience a similar sense of reward.

The third motivational system is the tend-and-befriend system, something particularly present in mammals. This emotional system gives us feelings of contentment, safety, and connection, like when you are holding a baby. It gives us feelings of soothing and well-being, connection with others. The chemical is oxytocin, and it is released by the pituitary, reaching into other parts of the neurological system. Oxytocin helps create the motivation of compassion.

But this third motivational system, the tend-and-befriend system is easily overridden. The threat system of fight-flight-freeze is quicker and more urgent than tend-and-befriend system. In our primitive body, fear trumps love. To a somewhat lesser degree the achievement/goal-seeking system also overrides our tend-and-befriend system. The drive for pleasure or accomplishment pushes us with deep urgency.

But this is interesting: if all is quiet – no immediate threat, no achievement drive – number 3 is where we naturally dwell – the place of tend-and-befriend, where we feel connected, content, and safe. The place of compassion.

So many spiritual practices are designed to help us detach from the force of the first two emotional systems in order to free us to live where we most naturally dwell, in the place of compassion and connection. The place of our fullest humanity. The place of love.

Coming here to worship is an opportunity shed some of our sense of fear and threat and to place our fears into God's hands, letting go in trust. Surrendering to the greater power and infinite love that carries us more surely than we can carry ourselves. Coming here to worship is a way to re-order our pleasures and desires, resting for a while in the divine presence where all is well and all manner of things shall be well. Coming here to worship is a return to our home of deep acceptance in God's infinite arms, where we are loved and embraced unconditionally and knit together into the community of the mystical Body of Christ which gathers all humanity into one. As Colossians says today, "your life is hidden with Christ in God… clothed… with the new self. Christ is all in all."

Prayer and contemplative practice help us release our attachment to the disorienting stimulations of our fears and desires so we can rest, secure in our most natural condition: safe, connected, content and compassionate in the loving presence of God. In contemplative prayer, like Centering Prayer, we take a little time, maybe twenty minutes, to gently disengage from the battering of thoughts and feelings, and for a little while, just be, naturally, in that loving, infinite presence.

The practice of Centering Prayer helps us detach from our thoughts and feelings – detach from the chemicals that bubble up within us. One discipline of Centering Prayer is the practice of the Four R's. I've taught it before, but I want to do so again. When we sit down in Centering Prayer, we gently deal with the distractions of our thoughts and feelings with the Four R's:  Resist no thought. Retain no thought. React emotionally to no thought. Return ever-so-gently to your sacred word.

That same practice can help us when the adrenaline and dopamine of our conflictive emotions and thoughts fire off within us during our ordinary hours. We experience a threat or a compulsion: Resist not. Retain not. React not. Return ever-so-gently to your center.

Emotions tend to dissipate if we don't add to them. They come and go. We can merely observe emotions; we don't have to do anything about them. We don't have to react. We can wait. We can observe rather than obey our emotions. And they can be our teachers. Showing us our own patterns that tend to compromise our freedom.

Always we are God's beloved children. "Your life is hidden with Christ in God… clothed… with the new self. Christ is all in all." That's naturally where we dwell, whenever we let go of the fear and compulsions that seek to drive us.

Dwell contented and safe within the eternal arms as God's beloved child, and from that place of peace, just watch. When adrenaline or dopamine kick in: Resist not. Retain not. React not. Return ever-so-gently to your center.
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.

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