Saturday, October 18, 2014

Whose Eikōn is this?

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
October 18, 2014; 19 Pentecost, Proper 23, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Matthew 22:15-22 – The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Jesus takes the coin, a Roman coin, and asks, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" The Greek word translated here as "head" is the word eikōn. It is often translated "image" or "likeness." Jesus holds the coin and asks, "Whose image or likeness is this?"

Caesar's eikōn is on the coin. Then, give it to Caesar. But give to God the things that are God's.

Let's go back into the recesses of time, before money or Caesar. In the first chapter of the Bible, as God finishes the days of creation, God declares, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in God's image; …male and female… [And] God blessed them." (Gen. 1:26f)

Now just hold that for a few moments. We’ll get back to it.

I want to tell you about an essay I read last week that really grabbed me. It was an essay about "devotion." Now that's not a word I use very often – "devotion." It's got a sweet and syrupy tone that I tend to shy away from. But listen to this description:  "Devotion is extremely dedicated, unwavering love that is selflessly oriented toward the good of another – who may be God, a cause, a profession, a work – really anything, which indicates the great fluidity of devotion that, when entered, opens and fills the interior soul life." [i]

Devotion is extremely dedicated, unwavering love that is selflessly oriented toward the good of another. Now that's something I can get excited about. I want to live a life like that. I want to live a life full of devotion, full of dedicated, unwavering love… selflessly oriented toward the good of another. I can see devotion in my life. I'll be you can see devotion in your life too.

I've got "dedicated, unwavering love" toward my family, and it is sometimes "selflessly oriented toward (their) good." I find it easy to be devoted to my work and to this church. To friends. And, when I think about it, I find I have a considerable degree of devotion to some things that might be considered of less significance – to sports, to the Razorbacks and the Rebels. You might not be exaggerating if you described my attention to some football games at times as being "extremely dedicated, unwavering love that is selflessly oriented toward the good of" my team. As I put it that way, I don't think I'm particularly proud of that.

It makes me wonder whether it's really love, or is my sports obsession more like an addiction? What is the difference between love and addiction? I think that's where the second half of that definition comes in. An addiction is all about me and getting my needs met. Devotion is "selflessly oriented toward the good of another."

What are you dedicated to? To what do you give unwavering love, selflessly oriented toward the good of another?

If we are fortunate, we can all count some devotions in our life. People, relationships; jobs if we are lucky; certain causes or special interests. To who or what do you give yourself for good?

The writer of the essay about devotion was writing particularly about contemplation and contemplative prayer. As I read, he stoked a fire and passion that is inside me – a desire to be passionately dedicated to God, and a desire to enter prayer with an "extremely dedicated, unwavering love that is selflessly oriented toward" God, the goodness and wholeness at the center of all.

Yet when I do orient myself toward God with deep devotion, I find it is I who becomes the subject of a "dedicated, unwavering love that is selflessly oriented toward my good." I discover it is God who is dedicated to me with unqualified love. Sometimes the experience of that love is so profound that I even feel myself to be created in the image of God. Which takes us back to the story of the coin.

One reason I can believe in a God of unqualified love is because I was so fortunate to have a grandfather who loved me in a way that approached unqualified love. I realize how fortunate I am, for not everyone receives such divine love from another human being.

Sometimes when I am especially fragile, I will use the image of my grandfather as an eikōn of God, and I can approach the infinite and holy with intimacy and warmth.

The radical truth is -- we all are eikōns of God. We are all created in the image of God. And that makes our interactions with each other not unlike the loving relationship of the Holy Trinity – one person of the Holy Trinity pouring unwavering love, selflessly oriented toward the goodness of the other, and the other receiving and returning that love in equal measure. All of creation is breathed into being by this living, loving dynamic. We are invited to live and move and have our being in that relationship of infinite loving devotion.

It seems to me that there are two transformations that we must allow our imaginations to embrace. One is humbly to accept that we are created in the image of God. You carries the imprint of God's spirit. You are capable of loving dedication. The other transformation of the imagination is for us to be willing to see every other human being as created in the image of God.

Wally Odum is a non-denominational pastor who was serving outside Baltimore a number of years ago. He read about an assignment a local college professor gave to his class. The professor asked the students to go into the economically impoverished communities to get case histories of 200 young boys. As part of the case history, the students were asked to write an evaluation of each boy's future. In every case the students wrote something like, "He hasn't got a chance."

Twenty-five years later a sociology professor came across the earlier study, and he decided to have his class follow up to see what had happened to those boys. Twenty of the boys had moved away or died, but the students were able to interview 180 of them. 176 of those 180 remaining boys had achieved more than ordinary success as lawyers, doctors, and businessmen.

The professor was astounded at the results and decided to pursue the matter further. He had the class return to the 176 and ask each of them the question, "How do you account for your success?" In each case the reply came with feeling, "There was a teacher…"

Investigating, the professor learned that the teacher was still alive. He went to speak with her personally. He asked her what magic formula she had used to pull these boys out of the slums into successful achievement. The teacher looked at him, broke into a smile, and said, "It's really very simple. I loved those boys." [ii]

She seems like an image of devotion, doesn't she? While some people looked at those boys and said, "They haven't got a chance," she looked at them with extremely dedicated, unwavering love, selflessly oriented toward their goodness, and they were transformed. She saw the image of God in them and treated them as children of God. I believe, when those boys experienced her devotion toward them, they looked back at her and saw the image of God in her. In that exchange of vision, those boys were transformed. They began to live out of their true image, the image their teacher saw, not the false image the world tried to give them. They became the persons God created them to be.

God takes you into God's divine hand, and asks, "Whose image or likeness is upon this person?" The whole creation looks at you and answers, "God's image." God asks you to look upon your neighbor, whoever that might be, and God asks, "Whose image or likeness is upon this person?" And we must answer, "God's image."

Then give to God the things that are God's.

But don't merely give to God those things made in the image of God. Give also your devotion. Give your devotion to the image of God, in yourself and in others. Offer your extremely dedicated, unwavering love, selflessly oriented toward the goodness of others, and be fully alive, an eikōn of God.

[i] Robert Sardello, The Contemplative Action of Devotion, published in Oneing: The Perennial Tradition, Franciscan Media, 2014.


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 20, 2014

It's Not Fair

It's Not Fair

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
September 21, 2014; 15 Pentecost, Proper 20, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 20:1-16)  Jesus said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, `You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, `Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, `You also go into the vineyard.' When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, `Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

Some lessons from today's Scripture readings:  God is infinitely graceful and merciful. God loves all alike, giving to all humanity divine acceptance and abundant life. God doesn't keep score. All God does is love.

It's no secret that my favorite service of the year is the Great Vigil of Easter, our Saturday evening service before Easter Sunday. We start in tomblike darkness. We light the New Fire and sing over the Paschal Candle. We tell stories of God's mighty acts in history, and we participate in one of God's mighty acts through the sacrament of baptism. Then we celebrate the first Eucharist of Easter, and afterwards have a delightful festive champagne brunch in the Parish Hall. I just love it.

Every year at that service we read a sermon based on this gospel about the laborers in the vineyard. It is the famous Easter Eve sermon attributed to 4th century preacher St. John Chrysostom. It has been read on Easter Eve around the world for centuries. St. John's sermon welcomes those who have toiled and kept the Lenten fast from the first hour. It also welcomes those who arrived at their spiritual labor after the third hour and the sixth house and the ninth hour, "And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let them not be afraid by reason of their delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. …Conscientious and lazy, celebrate the day! You who have kept the fast, and you who have not, rejoice this day, for the table is bountifully spread! …Let no one go away hungry. …Let no one lament persistent failings, for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free."

The message of the gospel is very clear, and, to many, very scandalous. God's intention is that all humanity will be given new life through Jesus – "For as in Adam, all die; so also in Christ, shall all be made alive." You are just as welcome if you embrace your life in Christ at the earliest hour or if you wait until the eleventh hour. You can never be too late. All receive the same gift of life, and their bread for tomorrow, because that's the way God is. It's all about God's gracious generosity and mercy.

But it's easy to question God's generosity. It we've at least been trying while others have not, it seems logical to think that we've earned something. We might compare ourselves with those others -- of the third and sixth and ninth and eleventh and twelfth hour. We relatively good people probably think we deserve something more than those others.

Jonah's story humorously mocks us. God told Jonah to preach to Nineveh, that evil city of Israel's enemies. Jonah immediately took a ship in the opposite direction. So God sent a large fish to fetch him back to his call. Finally the reluctant Jonah spoke God's word to the evil enemy. They repented, and God accepted the Ninevites.

We pick up that story today in our first reading. We see Jonah, displeased and angry that all these evil people – the Isis and Al Qaeda of his day – could just repent, and God would forgive and accept them. It's not fair. It's not right.

Jonah is mad enough to die, and he nearly does in the desert heat. But God appoints a bush to shade and save Jonah. Jonah was very happy about the bush. At dawn, God appoints a worm to wither the bush, and the heat is unbearable. It's a rotten, unjust world, isn't it? Jonah would rather be dead.

God says, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow… And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" Yes, God is also concerned for the animals.

God invites Jonah to accept his position among God's beloved, alongside the cattle and the Ninevites. That's pretty hard to swallow.

Human reason asks, Shouldn't justice demand a reward commensurate with one's virtue? Shouldn't evil be punished? Shouldn't people be paid only what they've earned?

Jesus gives us another story, the laborers in the vineyard. Jesus' home region of Galilee endured a period of great economic change during his lifetime. Galilee is a fertile and rich land producing abundant crops; it's sometimes called the "bread basket" of the region. But economic policies of the Roman Empire favored the wealthy elite and made it difficult for small, local landowners to maintain their farms. During Jesus' lifetime, many small landowners were forced to sell-at-auction property that had been in their families for generations. Few Galileans could afford to buy land being sold to the highest bidder, so much of Galilee was sold to foreign investors who created large estates. These estates were owned by absentee landlords and were managed by local stewards. Many of Jesus' neighbors who had lived on the land for generations were evicted and became day laborers, sometimes working on land that their families used to own. We see all of these as characters in Jesus' parables, including this one about the laborers in the vineyard.

The life of a day laborer was very hard. The working day was from sunrise to sunset. Laborers would walk from their homes to the village before dawn hoping to be hired for the day. The stewards, the land managers, would come to the village and hire the number of people needed for that day and take them to the land to begin their labor at sunrise. At sunset, traditionally twelve hours later, they would be paid one denarius, sometimes translated "the usual daily wage." A denarius was just enough money to buy food for a family for one day. A phrase in the Lord's Prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread," is also translated "Give us this day our bread for tomorrow." A prayer for a denarius. If a worker did not work, it would be likely that the family would have no food for tomorrow.

Some commentators wonder about the workers who are still "idle in the marketplace" at nine and noon and three. Under most circumstances they should have been hired earlier, during the first hour. It would be supposed that these may have overslept, or been lazy, or too drunk the night before to have been at the place of labor on time. There was no excuse for getting to the market so late.[i]

But at the end of the day, they all get the same wage – bread for tomorrow. And that doesn't sit well with the ones who worked all day.

So we're left to absorb the scandal. What if God gives the same infinite grace, acceptance and love to everyone? Can you accept that as justice?

Today's lessons:  God is infinitely graceful and merciful. God loves all alike, giving to all humanity divine acceptance and abundant life. God doesn't keep score. All God does is love.

What if God expects us to do the same? To give work to everyone, including the lazy. To assure bread for tomorrow to all, whether or not they've earned it? Even more scandalous, what if God expects us to take acceptance and forgiveness to Ninevites?

It's not fair.

[i] Again I thank my friend Paul McCraken of the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration. This time for his  insights into first century life, from his weekly email Sunday's Lectionary Texts, September 17, 2014.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

A Joyful Mind

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
September 7, 2014; 13 Pentecost, Proper 18, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Ezekiel 33:7-11)  You, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, "O wicked ones, you shall surely die," and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.
 Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: "Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?" Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? 

(Romans 13:8-14)  Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Following the news lately has been terribly demoralizing.

I hear the scriptures today:  "God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die…?"

I admit to a sad feeling of relief when I heard this week that drone strikes had killed Ahmed Abdi Gondane, the leader of Al-Shabaab. I hope that some future evil he might have planned may have been thwarted, even as I recognize God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Oh that he might have turned.

Sometimes I think, If we could only defeat the powers of darkness… If we could rid the world of all those bad people. But violence seems to beget more violence. Saddam Hussein is dead, but Iraq is not a peaceful democracy. My mind is restless over these things.

Cynthia Bourgeault tells of a student who watched the movie Cold Mountain and couldn't sleep that night, bothered by the human atrocities the movie portrays. Distressed, she approached Cynthia the next day, saying, "How could this darkness exist? How can we remove this darkness from the planet?"

Cynthia said that she heard herself saying in response, "Don't you see… that by judging it you only make it worse? By trying to stop the black to make it all white, all good; by saying that this we can accept and this we must reject, you keep empowering the cycle of polarization that creates the problem in the first place… (T)he orientation that cleaves to the light by trying to deny or reject the shadow… only winds up empowering the shadow and deepening it… Something has to go deeper, something that can hold them both." [i]

Jesus in his passion and cross goes deeper and holds both light and darkness together. Up until his arrest, Jesus has been remarkably active – preaching, teaching, healing, feeding. Upon his arrest, he does nothing. Shackled and imprisoned, he takes no action. Questioned and tried, he remains virtually silent. He doesn't instruct, he doesn't defeat, he doesn't fix. He just lets everything be, while he remains solidly grounded in trusting love. In his body, love remains present as his life descends into the deepest places of darkness and evil, not overriding or canceling them, but "gently reconnecting them to the whole." [ii]

An anonymous nun put it this way, gazing on the cross:
            In stillness nailed,
To hold all time, all change, all circumstance in and to Love's embrace. [iii]

The Gospel of John calls the Cross the glorification of Jesus, his triumph. Yet what Jesus does is simply to let it all be – Pilate, Judas, the Sanhedrin, the mob – he does not fight or defeat them, but simply he lets it all be, and he holds everything in love's suffering embrace. From that embrace, God creates an eternal, transforming sacrament of love which embraces everything. As Colossians says, "In him all things hold together." (1:17)

Jesus is our model for facing the dualistic world of evil and good, war and peace, life and death. Jesus goes to the root of the dualities, embraces them, sheathes them in a greater love that can hold it in place until resurrection happens like the sun touching a snowflake. [iv]

But my mind fights against this transcendent embrace. I want things fixed. I want right to conquer wrong. I want evil defeated. I want my way. Now. My mind seems trapped in dualities of judgment, desire and conflict.

In his book about seeing as the mystics see, The Naked Now, Richard Rohr challenges my mind's habit of judgment and conflict and duality. Rohr cites the work of twelfth century mystical theologian Richard of St. Victor, a monk whose life under a malignant abbot was so unbearable that he had to appeal to the Pope for relief. Richard St. Victor writes expansively of the joyful mind. Richard Rohr has published a profound reflection on that, asking himself, What might a joyful mind be?

Listen carefully to this series of one-line descriptions of a joyful mind. Let them wash over you like water over a sponge. See if you can imagine letting your mind be in this way. Letting your mind be a joyful mind:

What might a joyful mind be like?
When your mind does not need to be right.
When you no longer need to compare yourself with others.
When you no longer need to compete – not even in your own head.
When your mind can be creative, but without needing anyone to know.
When you do not need to analyze or judge things in or out, positive or negative.
When your mind does not need to be in charge, but can serve the moment with gracious and affirming information.
When your mind follows the intelligent lead of your heart.
When your mind is curious and interested, not suspicious and interrogating.
When your mind does not "brood over injuries."
When you do not need to humiliate, critique, or defeat those who have hurt you – not even in your mind.
When your mind does not need to create self-justifying storylines.
When your mind does not need the future to be better than today.
When your mind can let go of obsessive or negative thoughts.
When your mind can think well of itself, but without needing to.
When your mind can accept yourself as you are, warts and all.
When your mind can surrender to what is.
When your mind does not divide and always condemn one side or group.
When your mind can find truth on both sides.
When your mind fills in the gaps with "the benefit of the doubt" for both friend and enemy.
When your mind can critique and also detach from the critique.
When your mind can wait, listen, and learn.
When your mind can live satisfied without resolution or closure.
When your mind can forgive and actually "forget."
When your mind can admit it was wrong and change.
When your mind can stop judging and critiquing itself.
When you don't need to complain or worry to get motivated.
When you can observe your mind contracting into self-preservation or self-validation, and then laugh or weep over it.
When you can actually love with your mind.
When your mind can find God in all things. [v]

If we could live with joyful minds, we might contribute our part to God's work of reconciliation and peace. And we might do a little less damage in the process.

St. Paul puts a similar frame of mind in more familiar words: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. And Paul reminds us to extend that same loving courtesy of love toward ourselves, and toward our own minds, for only then can you Love your neighbor as yourself. (Rom. 13:8f)

When you can actually love with your mind.
When your mind can find God in all things.

[i] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus, Shambhala, Boston, 2008, p. 122-123
[ii] Ibid, p. 123
[iii] Ibid, p. 124
[iv] Ibid
[v] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, Crossroad, 2009, p. 178


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 23, 2014

Uncaged Dogs

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 24, 2014; 11 Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 16:13-20)  When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Recently I've been reading a couple of wonderful little books by Martin Laird, a contemplative theologian.  He says that when he feels "pummeled by too many thoughts" that leave him with the "punch-drunk feeling of lifelessness," he likes to go on a long walk. His normal path leads him along some open fields, and he often would see a man who walked four Kerry blue terriers in those fields. Laird says, "These were amazing dogs. Bounding energy, elastic grace, and electric speed, they coursed and leapt through open fields. It was invigorating just to watch these muscular stretches of freedom race along. Three of the four dogs did this, I should say. The fourth stayed behind and, off to the side of its owner, ran in tight circles. I could never understand why it did this; it had all the room in the world to leap and bound. One day I was bold enough to ask the owner, 'Why does your dog do that? Why does it run in little circles instead of running with the others?' He explained that before he acquired the dog, it had lived practically all its life in a cage and could only exercise by running in circles. For this dog, to run meant to run in tight circles. So instead of bounding through the open fields that surrounded it, it ran in circles."[i]

Last Tuesday night I waited in line outside the doors of the City Council meeting room as the line of speakers was too long to fit into the chambers. If you've kept up with the news, the Council was debating whether or not Fayetteville would become the first Arkansas city to adopt a civil rights ordinance protecting LGBT residents from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Very good people come to different opinions about the ordinance, and the whole range of opinions was presented to the Council. I love the passion with which Fayetteville residents care about our common life and how respectfully we can engage in civil dialogue.

Outside, in the hall, a gentleman, seeing me in my clerical collar came up to me and asked, "Do you in your church marry deviants?"

"Why, no!" I answered. "Absolutely not! Everyone who is married or blessed in my church is a loving person and is committed to faithful, steadfast love."

He seemed to like that answer and relaxed into friendly conversation with me. He gave me his testimony about being saved in Vietnam when a colleague shared with him the gospel of the saving grace of Jesus Christ – all have sinned and come short of the glory of God; the wages of sin is eternal death; Jesus died on the cross for our sins; if you accept him as your Lord and confess him with your lips you will be saved. He accepted Jesus Christ that day and was saved. I could tell from his glowing demeanor how important that was to him. I told him I thought that was wonderful, and I was glad for him.

We probably would have continued to get along just fine, but my friend started to speak in a one-to-one conspiratorial way about some of these others down at City Hall that night, these unrighteous who don't know Jesus. He began to go on about unrighteousness and the wrath and the judgment of God, intended, he was certain, for many of our neighbors around us.

But think about Jesus, I said. Jesus loved everyone. He reached out to the tax collectors and sinners, the prostitutes and lepers. Jesus loved them and accepted them and welcomed them to his table and to his fellowship. Jesus wants us to be like him and to love everyone. To love our neighbor as ourselves.

Well yes, he said, I can love them, but I can't endorse what they are doing. I know the scriptures; I've studied the scriptures. "Be not deceived: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as God is righteous." (1 John 3:7)

Can you let go of the righteousness a little bit and embrace love? I asked. You know the scriptures. Galatians 5, the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and temperance. Let go of the righteousness a little and let yourself open to love, to all the fruit of the spirit – love, joy peace…

He began to shake his head. No, no. That would not do. God is a perfect God, a God of righteousness. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees… And he continued like that on and on into the night, to my mind, running tightly round and round a little circle of sin, judgment and the salvation of the righteous few.

"Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked. Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." …"Blessed are you, Simon…! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven." And Jesus empowered Peter with power to bind and to loose. Yet just four verses later, Peter is unable to imagine a suffering Messiah, and Jesus rebukes Peter with the stinging words, "Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." (Mt. 16:23)

Now Peter knew his scripture. He knew the Biblical expectation of a messiah who would restore Israel, expelling the military occupiers and raising the nation to pre-eminence, creating Jerusalem as the political and religious center of the world where all nations will come to offer obeisance, as peace and prosperity reigns eternally. No room in that vision for a love that suffers unto death. Peter's dog just couldn't run that wide. And since that day, Peter's descendents in the church have often bound more than they've loosed. The church often runs in tight circles.

But Jesus' love knows no bounds. He took into himself the whole human experience, including our evil and our death, and Jesus opened his arms in suffering love, forgiving all. Then he raised our whole humanity into the heart of God and returned to be one with us in the Spirit. God has honored his prayer, "May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us." We are all one with God. The field we run in our human life is infinite and eternal.

Paul puts it this way: "I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me." (Gal. 2:19)

Paul looks within himself, and what does he see? He sees not himself, but Christ. "I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me." He has a sense of immediate union with the divine. He has an awareness of that union. Paul has burst out of the cage of legalism and righteousness he once lived in.

Paul also knows Christ is the universal ground of total reconciliation of all humanity. "As in Adam, all die; so also in Christ, all are made alive." He knows that in Christ all of the cages of separation are broken down: "there is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Paul is aware of that full unitive reality at the core of his own being.

That is the unbounded truth of the infinite love of God, given to every human being and to all humanity. God is one with you. You are one with God, and thus united to all humanity. Unbounded. Uncaged. Released to run freely across the infinite field of divine love.

All we have to do us open our eyes and realize there are no cages anymore. No cages of division, condemnation, and separation, but an open field of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and temperance energized by the Spirit of God. Stretch. Look. Love. And run!

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. 

[i] Martin Laird, O.S.A. Into the Silent Land, Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 19-20.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The Calm Below the Storm

The Calm Below the Storm

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 10, 2014; 9 Pentecost, Proper 14, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 14:22-33)  Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

St. Paul tells us today, You don't have to ascend into heaven or descend into the abyss to be in God's presence, "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart."

Elijah, fearing for his life and hiding in a cave, experiences "a sound of sheer silence," and Elijah knows himself to be in the presence of the LORD.

After a full day of work that including the feeding of 5,000, Jesus "went up the mountain by himself to pray." When he finishes praying, he can walk across the storm.

"It hurt even to wake up in the morning."[i] That's how theologian Martin Laird begins the true story of Josh, who "looked fine, but emotionally was black and blue." Josh's depression robbed him of sleep. In the morning, "it took him twenty or thirty minutes to peel his blank stare off the wall and get off the edge of the bed. Shaving could take another half hour. [Yet] it took several years for depression's clamp to tighten its grip enough to make Josh want to see his doctor. The doctor recommended medication and then asked him, 'Have you ever thought of meditation?'"

Years before Josh had a solid practice –sitting still for a half hour, silently repeating the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." But as happens sometimes, after a few months "his initial enthusiasm went flat. Josh replaced his regular praying of the Jesus Prayer with the TV remote; he would flip obsessively through countless satellite channels, blinking bleary-eyed at all the television programs he didn't really want to watch, yet halfhoping that the very next program would give him some sense of being alive. So he flipped around and around TV channels. Meanwhile his contemplative practice fell down somewhere behind the sofa and remained there a few years."

But he took his doctor's advice and returned to his Jesus prayer practice. A few months later, something happened. "'The Jesus Prayer quickly led me back to the monotony that had defeated me some years ago. But I stayed with it this time. One night I fell asleep praying the Jesus Prayer, then, when I awoke in the middle of the night as I usually do, I felt a cleansing warmth welling up within me. The name, 'Jesus' was a living presence streaming within me. Something inside started being freed up and I started to weep in this cleansing warmth and compassion. I wept much of the night and awoke in the morning still praying the Jesus Prayer. For the first time in many months I awoke with no anxiety but instead a reverent joy. When I went downstairs for breakfast, my sister had come over. She said, 'What's wrong with you? You look happy.' That was the first and last time anything 'spiritual' happened like that, but I'm more or less faithful to the periods of praying the Jesus Prayer. Even if there are no more experiences like this one, there is still something deeply attractive that keeps drawing me back, a sense of being just on the verge of finding life again."

It still took Josh "quite some time for medication and meditation to mop up the kicked-over bucket of a decade's despair," but Josh had found the word near to him, on his lips and in his heart, in the sound of sheer silence that is God's presence beneath his contemplative prayer.

Josh started to see dimly the trail of negative thinking that created and fed his depression. Here's some of the thinking that he began to notice.

Josh had a number of devoted friends, but inside his mind he thought he was disliked by everyone. He had these "running commentaries" in his head. If people were nice to him, a reflex commentary would whisper, They're just being nice. They don't really like me. If ever there was a conflict or a misunderstanding and Josh thought someone was angry or frustrated with him, the commentary would tell him, They're never going to speak to me again.

"By far the most crippling and subtle thought that shaped much of his lifestyle and demeanor was the thought that he didn't count. Part of that came from being a middle child" between a gifted older sibling and a younger sibling born with spina bifida. "All the family dynamics focused either on his older sibling's brilliant successes or on his younger sibling's unquestionable needs." Josh felt invisible. "He said, 'I feel cut off from people, from God, from everything, like I'm living inside a sealed envelope.' He said he knew something was wrong when he was reading the words of the Carmelite author Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, on accepting God's love: 'Let yourself be loved.' He said, 'I knew her words were meant for me, but I felt absolutely nothing.'"

As Josh practiced his contemplative prayer, an inner calm slowly came to him, letting him see into his mind. The ancient spiritual guides say that the mind is like the ocean. St. Diadochos writes, "When the sea is calm, fishermen can scan its depths and therefore hardly any creature moving in the water escapes their notice. But when the sea is disturbed by the winds it hides beneath its turbid and agitated waves what it was happy to reveal when it was smiling and calm; and then the fisherman's skill and cunning prove vain."

For Josh, contemplative prayer calmed his mind enough for him to "see the thoughts and thought-clusters that maintained [his] low mood and low energy. Being able to see the thoughts and thought-clusters in tern helped loosen the grip of depression…

"He could now see how certain thoughts would cluster together: the feeling that he did not matter to anyone caused him to withdraw, which caused him in turn to feel isolated. Feeling isolated, he lost interest in life. A depressed mood moved in on the heels of this train of thought and became a permanent resident."

In the dim light of awareness opened by his prayer, "Josh eventually became able to observe thoughts as they rise and fall. Instead of getting caught up in reactive commentary on the fact that depression is present, he can look right into the depression and say, 'Oh, look, I'm blaming again; or 'There's the thought, "Nobody likes me"'; or 'Look at how I run myself down before anyone else gets the opportunity.' Like a spider on its web, Josh is aware of anything that lands in the silk-spun web of awareness. This gets Josh out of a reactive mode and into a receptive mode of meeting inner conflict. Once Josh allows depression to be present, instead of resenting or panicking in the presence of depression, he can live in peace with the fact that depression is present, without feeling a need to comment that it should be gone if it does not happen to be gone. Josh became aware that there was something within that is untouched by depression.

"Josh had no further spiritual breakthroughs, but he still has many decades before him. While his depression has never cleared up entirely, his life definitely has more vitality and joy."

At the center of your being, you are always one with God. Below the storm of your thoughts and circumstances, God's divine presence dwells with you. Practice moving your attention from your outward circumstances and from your inward commentaries into the vast, compassionate presence which brings life and light from within. In the sound of sheer silence, the word is very near you, on your lips and in your heart. With your hand in Christ's, you too can stand still in the storm.

[i] Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, Oxford U. Press, 2011. The quotes in this sermon come from chapter six, Creative Disintegration: Depression, Panic, and Awareness. Highly recommended book, along with his volume one, Into the Silent Land, A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Living with the Weeds

Living with the Weeds

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
July 20, 2014; 6 Pentecost, Proper 11, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 13:24-30)  Jesus put before the crowd another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, `Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, `An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, `No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"

Last week’s sermon focused on Paul’s paradoxical message:  we are all a mess, and we are also all united within God. It’s a both-and situation. We’re a mess: I can will what is right, but I can’t do it!, Paul cries. And simultaneously, There is no condemnation. The Spirit of God dwells in you.

Today’s gospel about the wheat and weeds continues in the same spirit. There are a couple of ways to look at it. You can look at the field of wheat and weeds as your own internal condition – each of us is both wheat and weeds; the Spirit of God dwells in each of us, and each of us is a mess. Or we can look at the field as the human condition. We’re all wheat and weeds together; the good and bad coexist on this earth.

I’d like to borrow from the spirituality of contemplative prayer and talk a little more about this experience of the weeds.

If you try something like Centering Prayer, staying still and silent for a period of time, you will experience the weeds. If you set your intention on something of the Spirit – like spending twenty minutes consenting to God’s presence and activity within – you will find yourself assaulted by a multitude of thoughts and feelings. Some people call it “monkey mind,” like the chatter of a thousand monkeys in the branches of your mind. Some call it “mind-tripping.” It’s like someone hit a button and an inner video starts up. It runs like tape loops that chatter and repeat over and over, snagging our emotions. We are simply being still and silent for a time, then something pops into our consciousness, and we start playing our reactive tape loops.

These thoughts – these emotionally charged tape loops – are nearly always playing somewhere in our consciousness, and part of us is always listening. Most of us think we are our thoughts and feelings.

We live so much of our lives reactively – stimulated by a thought or feeling, we start our tapes, “talking, talking, talking, talking to ourselves about life and love and how everybody ought behave and vote.”[i]

You are standing in the grocery line. A kid starts whining for candy, trying to get a distracted parent’s attention. Tell me your tapes won’t start. Are you irritated? Isn’t there a bit of judgment. The tapes start with all the advice you’d give to straighten them out. You might even expand into a full mental commentary on the horrible way people are raising children today. You are in the weeds.

Contemplative prayer teachers have a way of dealing with these conflictive thoughts and emotions that bombard us. It’s a practice that works in contemplative prayer, but it’s also available when you are in the grocery line or whenever you are hooked by those nearly constant thoughts and emotions that distract us from being simply present.

Benedictine monk Thomas Keating offers this technique for gently releasing ourselves from our attachment to our afflictive emotions and thoughts: the Four-R’s. Resist no thought. Retain no thought. React emotionally to no thought. Return ever-so-gently. In Centering Prayer, you return to your sacred word. In ordinary life, you return to your center, the givenness of your union with God as God’s beloved child. Resist not. Retain not. React not. Return.

What contemplative spirituality says is that we are not our thoughts and feelings. We are much more than our thoughts and feelings. Behind and beyond our thoughts and feelings we are one with God. Our deepest, truest, authentic self is continually one with God at the center of our being. That’s the wheat. The Spirit of God manifest uniquely in you. The wheat is always growing.

But the weeds are also always present. They are present in our inner consciousness. They are present in the wider external world. The weeds are not unlike what Paul calls “the flesh.” I preached about that last week.[ii] The weeds are related to what some call our “shadow.”

Parker Palmer says that there are four common expressions of our shadow – four species of weeds, if you will.  The first is a deep insecurity about our own identity, our own worth. Sometimes we attach our identity with something external — a title, a relationship. If that role or relationship is threatened, our very being feels threatened. The internal tapes bombard us.

A second shadow inside many of us is "the perception that the universe is essentially hostile to human interests and that life is fundamentally a battleground." Listen to the battle language that pops up in casual conversation — "we’re going to fight for that; let’s bring out the big guns; if I don’t finish this I’m afraid it’ll kill me."

A third shadow is the belief that "ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me." You may say you believe in God, but you work like it’s all up to you. Parker Palmer calls that "functional atheism" – "if anything decent is going to happen here, I am the one who needs to make it happen."

And a fourth shadow is fear, especially fear of the natural chaos of life. If I can just get things organized... If we can get some functional rules around here... We forget that God created out of chaos, "chaos is the precondition to creativity, and any organization (or any individual) that doesn’t have an arena of creative chaos is already half dead." Of course, the biggest fear is fear of death, and its cousin failure. Yet, chaos and death are natural; failure and death is never the final word.[iii]

The weeds:  Insecurity, defensiveness, control needs, and fear. If you are like most people, the weeds of insecurity, defensiveness, control, and fear are deeply rooted in your consciousness, particularly in your unconsciousness, below the ground of your awareness.

The Gospel speaks to us with disarming acceptance. Jesus tells us that we are each held in a wholly loving gaze. We are known, and we are infinitely loved. Therefore we don’t have to be anxious about our insecurity, defensiveness, control needs and fears. The gaze of God loves the whole tangled bundle that is you, loves with an utterly free, utterly selfless love. So, you need not be anxious about your weeds. Leave them alone. Relax. You don’t have to pull them out. You don’t have to fix yourself. You don’t have to feel defensive. Resist not. React not. Retain not. Return to God’s love at the center of your being.

In fact, it is that gaze of love that disarms us. We are held by a gracious love "which undermines and overthrows the selves we have built from defensiveness and calculation."

The end of this Gospel today says that ultimately the weeds will be collected and bound and burned. We already know what the foretaste of this heavenly fire is. It is the fire of Pentecost. It is the wonderful, purging fire of love which alone can refine and burn away all that is not Christ, and do so without harming.[iv]

In the meantime, we live in the both-and world of wheat and weeds. We are all a mess of insecurity, defensiveness, control needs, and fear. Whenever the noise of their tapes begins to roar in our consciousness, we can leave the weeds alone. Resist not. React not. Retain not. Return.

[i]  Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, Oxford, 2011, p. 18.
[iii] Parker Palmer, Leading from Within,
[iv] Beginning with the Parker Palmer material, much of this comes from an old sermon of mine that I’ve lost, but it is archived with

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.