Friday, January 29, 2016

Loving Conflict

Loving Conflict

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
January 31, 2016; 4 Epiphany, Year C
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Jeremiah 1:4-10)  The word of the Lord came to me saying,
                "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
                and before you were born I consecrated you;
                I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." But the Lord said to me,
                "Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
                for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
                and you shall speak whatever I command you,
                Do not be afraid of them,
                for I am with you to deliver you,

says the LORD."
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
                "Now I have put my words in your mouth.
                See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
                to pluck up and to pull down,
                to destroy and to overthrow,
                to build and to plant."

(1 Corinthians 13:1-13)  If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(Luke 4:21-30)  In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

(It was a busy, challenging week for all of us. We ran out of time to write. I'm recycling this sermon from a previous year. I hope it was unmemorable enough that is sounds fresh.)

There is a lot of conflict and turbulence in these readings today. 

The first reading from Jeremiah is sometimes titled "The Calling of the Prophet Jeremiah." It has a personal connection for me. I used this reading at my ordination some 35 years ago. I could relate to Jeremiah's protest, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." When I was ordained, I was only a boy. God tells the boy, "Speak whatever I command you." At the time of my ordination, I knew that's what I wanted to do – to speak God's word. But I was a bit uncomfortable with the last verse in this reading. In the last verse of Jeremiah's call, God told Jeremiah that his work would be more conflictive than I hoped my work would be. God called Jeremiah "to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." We'll, I liked those last two. I'd really like to build and to plant. But it made me anxious to imagine myself involved in plucking up and pulling down, in destroying and in overthrowing. I hoped I wouldn't have as volatile a career as Jeremiah. But those other words are also part of the call – words of turbulence and conflict. As I've aged, I've become much more comfortable with turbulence and conflict. It's all part of the creative and re-creative process. Turbulence and conflict: it's necessary for growth.

Turbulence and conflict is part of today's second reading too: the "Love Chapter." Most of us have heard 1 Corinthians 13 at many of the weddings we've attended. But the original context of Paul's words is not a wedding. It's church politics. The church in Corinth has been troublesome for Paul. They've been acting elitist, proud, and self-satisfied. From Paul's perspective they've been "abusing their freedom, refusing to share, scorning their neighbors' spiritual gifts, boasting in their own gifts, seeking recognition for themselves, and jockeying for position in the church." [i] Paul is angry with them. It doesn't matter how big your outreach program is or how pretty your worship may be or how smart your preachers think they are or how fine your choir is. Without love, it's nothing. Paul points toward every single thing that their congregation is proud of and asks them, "Are these things done with love? How might they be done with greater love?" It's not a complement. It's a challenge.

And if you think Jeremiah or Paul might have ticked off some people, Jesus really infuriated folks in his own hometown. We heard the first part of this story last week. Jesus is visiting the synagogue at his home in Nazareth, and he reads from Isaiah. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And we pick up with today's Gospel: Jesus continues, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." 

Sounds like people reacted positively. "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." How about Joseph's little boy. Hasn't he grown up?

But Jesus won't let it lie there. Maybe he knows something about his hometown. Maybe he knows that the only way they will relate to him is for him to perform for them, to do some entertaining healings so the hometown folks can revel in his celebrity status. Hometown boy makes good. Just goes to show. Nazareth is Number 1. 

Whatever the underlying reasons, Jesus provokes them—intentionally. I'm not going to do any miracles here, like you've heard about from Capernaum. My work, God's work, is not about "homies." You remember in Elijah's days. There was a famine throughout Israel. But Elijah didn't help any of his own people. He went over the border to Sidon, to a pagan widow over there, and he fed her during the entire famine.  You remember Elisha. There were lots of lepers in Israel, but he didn't heal any of them. Instead, he healed Naaman, a general in the Syrian army, the same Syrian army that has fought against Israel over and over in our history. 

That's provocative language. It's a little like President Obama saying "No more increased federal funding for college scholarships, except for undocumented aliens." Or, "No more extension of Medicaid health insurance to uninsured Americans, we're underwriting the rebuilding of the health care system in Iran." 

People in Nazareth were enraged. They wanted to kill him. Then we hear that mysterious verse: "But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way." Jesus stood his ground. Willing to alienate them; willing to let them reject him; willing to give up those relationships. He took a position and held it, even in the face of resistance, conflict and anger. Thus, self-defined, he passed through them, and went on his way.

I think Jesus' issues with Nazareth and Paul's issues with Corinth were similar. They are issues about love. For Jesus and Paul, love is how they define themselves. For Paul, love is more important than performance or talent or gifts or success. If you can't do your work with love, it's garbage. For Jesus, love goes universal. Love extends outward to the foreigner, the outsider, ...even the enemy. And if you can't handle that, if you can't love the alien, the immigrant, the enemy, Jesus is willing to walk right through you and go on his way.

Jesus looks at the pride of his hometown, expressed as bias and prejudice, and he outs them. Paul looks at a self-satisfied, elitist church, and he shames them with love. In Jeremiah's words, there is some plucking up and pulling down going on, there's some destroying and overthrowing going on, in order to build and plant a kind of love that is primary and universal. 

I'll bet some things changed. Whenever one person stands boldly, on principle, willing to let others reject and alienate – whenever one person takes a position and holds it, even in the face of resistance, conflict and anger – the whole system will be affected. I hope Paul's insistence on love deflated some of the spiritual pride in the congregation at Corinth. Yet we know, especially from Second Corinthians, that he had to continue to reassert his message about love-centered leadership. We also know that eventually the church did indeed respond generously, helping Paul with his collection for the Jerusalem church. 

I'll bet some things were shaken up in Nazareth. Despite their violent reaction toward Jesus, they knew they could no longer treat outsiders with prejudice without knowing they were known. Jesus did to Nazareth what Martin Luther King did to the segregated South. Jesus' stance of love forced their prejudice into the cold light of day. 

We are invited to follow their example. Each of us is called. Often to build and to plant. Sometimes to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow. Whenever we see structures of pride and greed, elitism and prejudice – we are called to make a stand. We are to take a position of love, and to stand boldly on the principles of love, regardless of any resistance, conflict or anger it might provoke. That's the only way things change for good.

Love boldly. Beyond the boundaries of self-interest and bias. For, as Paul tells us, "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. ...And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love."

[i] Lewis F. Galloway, Pastoral Perspective, for 4 Epiphany in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, Bartlett and Taylor, eds., Westminster John Knox Press. p. 302

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Conversion of Saul

The Conversion of Saul

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
January 24, 2016; Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Acts 26:9-21)  Paul said to King Agrippa, "Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.
"With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, `Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.' I asked, `Who are you, Lord?' The Lord answered, `I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles-- to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'
"After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me."

+    +    +
(Galatians 1:11-24) I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me.

Do you care about what other people think about you? Are there certain people in your life whose approval is critical to you? People you want to impress or maybe please? You want them to think well of you, so it is important for you to earn their respect or maybe even their love.

Who are some of those people? You can think about the present, but think also about the past. My father, for instance, had high expectations of me, and I wanted so badly to earn his acceptance. There were times it seemed pretty impossible. That left me pretty anxious a lot of the time. At other times, it made me angry. Maybe you've had parents or teachers or bosses that you just couldn't satisfy, even when you gave it your best.

Or maybe you've had a some public challenges—something you had to do in front of others, and it was important for you to do it well; it was important not to mess up or to make a fool of yourself. Those kinds of situations can leave you pretty anxious.  

Or, how about this? Have you ever been part of a group where measuring up to the group norms was critical? Where you were expected to be a certain way, think a certain way, hold up the group standards, and if you didn't, you would bring shame on the group, shame on yourself, and maybe even risk get kicked out as unworthy. With that group, you'd better fit in, you'd better prove yourself. Or else.

The good young man Saul was living with all of these things. And he was managing it all. He was successful. He was the best. Practically perfect. He says of himself, "I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors," than the rest of them. Saul was a member of the strict party of the Pharisees. A political party, a social movement, and a religious school of thought. His was a high calling, an inspiring, moral calling, to be a good Pharisee. The Pharisees stood for what was good and right. Pharisees believed that all Jews in their ordinary lives could live holy lives, as the priesthood of all believers. They practiced and taught the mindful observation of the ancient laws of God, and promoted the careful observance the Mitzvot, the 613 commandments of the scripture.

Saul was accomplished in this great movement. He wrote of his heritage, that he was "circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrews born of Hebrews; as to the law, blameless." He was successful. Practically perfect.

And it made him miserable. He says he was continually anxious, trying to live up to that perfect standard. And it made him feel threatened and insecure, because he was constantly under the unwavering eye of God, who not only saw his actions but could know the thoughts of his heart. Saul found himself growing resentful and angry toward God, being always under the glare of that unyielding light of judgment. He found he was self absorbed. Am I doing all right? Am I being the perfect Pharisee? What if I fail? I dare not fail. I've got to earn my standing before God and before my associates.

So he doubled down on the system. If he ever felt bad about himself, he found he could repress his doubts by focusing outside himself, putting his attention on the ones whom he knew were wrong, those others. They were threats to the truths he had committed himself to. Purge the heretics. Fight the evil ones.

So often it is people who are uncomfortable with their own shadow who experience relief when they project their shadow upon others.

So Saul participated in the persecution of the Christians. He was there when Stephen was martyred. Saul heard Stephen's ecstatic cry of glory, "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" And Saul covered his ears to protect himself from the blasphemy as he joined the crowed to rush to kill Stephen. Saul heard Stephen's last peaceful words, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," and "do not hold this sin against them." (Acts 7) I think Saul saw in Stephen a peace that had escaped Saul.

But Saul was too invested in the whole system to let any nagging doubts see the light of day. He headed toward Damascus determined, with warrants from the high priest. He traveled down that road full of the internal pressures of the expectations of righteousness, bursting with anger toward those others, fueling the projections that held the lid down on his own internal angers and anxieties. He was ready to kill in the name of God, when he was blinded by the light.

"Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" "Who are you?!" "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." In a flash he realized: he's been going the wrong way. He has been wrong the whole time. But the voice doesn't kill him for being wrong. Instead the voice anoints him; calls him; empowers him. Spread the good news to the whole world!, the voice says. It's too big to be just a Jewish movement. You will become Paul, and you will take the good news to the Gentiles, the rest of the world.

Paul went away to the desert to work through all of that for a while. And here's what he came up with:

First, he knew how wrong he had been. He did not earn God's love and acceptance. But that's what he got – absolute love, acceptance, forgiveness, calling and empowerment. A sheer gift. Unearned. The man who had been trying in vain all his life to earn his status before God was given absolute divine acceptance as a gift, even at the moment he was most egregiously in error, intent on killing God's people. It's grace. It's all grace. A gift from God. Unearned. No strings attached. He knew: I was God's enemy, and God loved and saved me anyway. Justification by grace.

All Paul did was to accept the gift. To trust God's generosity. To accept the fact that he was accepted. Justification by grace through faith. Trust the gift and the giver.

He also realized, the gift is for everybody. Not just Jews. Not just the Christians who may get it. God's grace and God's triumph is universal, for all humanity. "As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Cor. 15:22)

God's triumph is total. It is also a gift. So we can relax. We don't have to earn God's acceptance of us. We are already accepted even while we are unacceptable. We don't have to fix the rest of the world; God loves them as much as God loves us.

That realization made Paul bulletproof. He no longer worried about himself, how am I doing? There was no self to worry about, because now he lived in Christ and Christ lived in him. And if he forgot or messed up, he only needed to remember and to trust the grace again.

Paul had been loved so completely, that he was free to love others completely. He didn't have to earn their love or their respect. He had infinite love and status forever as a gift. There's nothing to risk because there's nothing to lose. So he could give away his life; he was absolutely secure.

That's a great way to live, isn't it? No pressure. No one to perform for; no one to satisfy. It doesn't matter what they think about you; God loves you perfectly. All those groups claiming to have the truth, claiming your allegiance? They don't matter. You don't have to straighten them out, or, God forbid, kill them for being wrong. God is perfect truth, and eventually God's light will prevail. Just love your neighbor as yourself. Love is the great corrective. Love is the most powerful force in the universe.

Freedom. Total freedom. That's what Paul experienced. When you've known yourself to be loved and accepted as Paul had, you are free to accept life as it comes and to respond only in love. That's the good news. That's really good news.

 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, January 16, 2016

Happiness and the Good Life

Happiness and the Good Life

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
January 17, 2016; 2 Epiphany, Year C
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(John 2:1-11)  On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

There's a group of friends I meet with regularly in something like a mutual self-help format. One of the guys is just about the hardest working person I know. Last week he told us about his December trip to Hawaii. He never takes a vacation, at least not an extended one that is just about being on vacation. He visits family; does recreational things. But this year he took a three-week family vacation to Hawaii. I think he said it was his first real vacation since his honeymoon, and he has grown children. He looked so delighted. He grinned at us and said, "I'm gonna buy a condo in Hawaii." He loves the place.

But then someone in the group started to tell him about how much trouble and expense it will be.  No problem. He's going to hire a management group to handle all of that. After all, he's successful; he's got plenty of money. He's not looking at this as an investment. Just pure fun.

Then someone started telling him about the human brain. How the human brain adapts and gets used to nearly anything that can make us happy until it becomes just ordinary. The newness wears off. We get accustomed to it. After the initial exhilaration, the brain wants something novel and different. It's called the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaption. Hawaii will get old, they told him. "No, I don't think so, he said."

But the stuff about the brain is true. Some of you were in our series of classes that I lead on Sunday mornings back in 2011 when we studied the happiness research coming out of the positive psychology movement. There has been a lot of study, especially at the University of Pennsylvania and at Yale, focusing on what's right with people who seem to flourish. Why are some people happy and satisfied?

One of their findings is that if you work harder and become more successful, you won't necessarily become happier. The brain doesn't work that way. Once you achieve and enjoy a success – you earn the title Dr. in front of your name; you buy that sports car you’ve wanted since you were a kid; you create a successful new business or buy that dream house – once you reach those cherished goals, the goal posts move. The shiny, new success just becomes the new normal, and you need something better to make you feel special. Hedonic adaptation is one of the terms the researchers use. And it works both ways, for good and for bad.

I didn't win the Powerball jackpot last week; neither did you. I didn't have much of a chance since I didn't buy a ticket. But I'll bet you've heard about the research. Winning the lottery won't make you happy. The initial study that I heard about was in 1978, when Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts asked the same questions from two very different groups: recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery and recent victims of catastrophic accidents, people who were now paraplegic or quadriplegic. They asked individuals from both groups to rate the amount of pleasure they got from everyday activities, small but enjoyable things like chatting with a friend, watching TV, eating breakfast. When the researchers analyzed the results, they found that the recent accident victims reported gaining slightly more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners. They found the baseline measure of happiness for survivors of catastrophic accidents was higher than the baseline happiness for lottery winners.[i]

So, if Hawaii or winning the lottery doesn't make us happy, what does? The positive psychology research has uncovered some encouraging things, and what they've discovered is consistent with our own Christian teaching and experience as well.

The basic discovery is that when we live in the present moment with a positive attitude, we perform better. The brain at positive performs better than when it is negative, neutral, or stressed. Every measure improves; intelligence and creativity; energy rises.

And there are practices that can help rewire the brain to move us toward the positive. Five practices in particular have shown remarkable results in various double-blind studies.

The first practice is called the Three Gratitudes. It's deceptively simple. Before you go to bed, spend two minutes listing three new things that you are grateful for. In the studies, subjects who practice the Three Gratitudes for twenty-one days find that their brain rewires in such a way that it automatically scans for the positive and notices more things to be grateful for. Pretty simple. List three gratitudes each evening, and your brain rewires.

The second practice is Journaling. Remember one positive experience in each 24 hour period and write it down. The journaling allows the brain to re-live it and grounds the happy memory in a deep way.

The third practice is Exercise. And the significance of exercise in happiness research is that exercise teaches your brain that your behavior matters. That's interesting.

Meditation is the fourth practice. The scientists say that meditation allows your brain to get over the cultural ADHD that we have been creating with our muti-tasking environment. Meditation allows us to unplug from that chaos; it strengthens our focus.

And the fifth practice is creating a discipline of making Random Acts of Kindness or Conscious Acts of Kindness. The researchers told people to write an email each day to thank someone in your social network. Write one positive email, and it changes your orientation.[ii]

Three Daily Gratitudes, Journaling each day about a positive experience, Exercise, Meditation, and Conscious Acts of Kindness. It's certainly all consistent with the Christian life. Fundamentally we declare that we are a Eucharistic people—Eucharist is the Greek word meaning Thanksgiving/Gratitude. In a minute you will hear the priest say, "Lift up your hearts." And you will answer, "We lift them to the Lord." "Let us give thanks to the Lord our God." "It is right to give our thanks and praise." "It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks…" Always and everywhere. We are a Eucharistic people—a people of thanksgiving. We are a compassionate and kind people, following the model of Jesus. Whenever we orient our attention toward God's abundant grace and God's love for us, we naturally become grateful and thankful, kinder and compassionate. And it's a little like turning water into wine.

I recently watched a romantic comedy called "About Time." It's about a young man, Tim. When he turns 21, Tim's father tells him that the men in his family have a gift: they can travel through time. Tim has that gift, his father tells him. He can't change history, but he can change what happens in his own life. It's a fun movie, and I won't spoil any of it by telling how Tim uses his powers going back in time over and over to try to fix things.

But late in the film, Tim says that his dad told him his secret formula for happiness. "Part one of the two part plan was that I should just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day, like anyone else. But then came part two of Dad's plan. He told me to live every day again almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time noticing."

So Tim did that. He relived each day, noticing the second time through how sweet the world can be. Then he found that with practice, he could notice the sweetness the first time through. And he pretty much quit time traveling.

"The steward called the bridegroom and said to him, 'Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become [hedonically adapted]. (My translation.) But you have kept the good wine until now.'"

The good wine. The good life. It's not about success or wealth or even luck. It seems it mostly comes down to being in the present moment with a positive, grateful attention. We can influence that: Practices like the Three Gratitudes, Journaling, Exercise, Meditation, and Kindness. It is the stuff that puts the sparkle and taste and depth back into life. It's pretty inexpensive wine too. But how delicious!

[ii] See the popular TED talk by Shawn Achor, The happy secret to better work. Similar findings are in Martin Seligman's books like Authentic Happiness, Atria Books, 2004. Website:


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, January 02, 2016

Three Stories for 2 Christmas

Three Stories for 2 Christmas

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
January 3, 2015; Second Sunday after Christmas, Year C
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 2:41-52) The parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem every year for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.


We don't always get to celebrate two Sundays after Christmas. We only have eleven days after Christmas to work in two Sundays. Whenever we do get to this second Sunday, we have a choice of three gospel lessons. We have this wonderful story we've just heard of Jesus in the Temple with the teachers, the only story in our Gospels about Jesus in the time between his infancy and his baptism.

Another choice for this Sunday is the story of Joseph's heeding a dream and fleeing by night to Egypt with Mary and the infant Jesus to escape King Herod's massacre of the children of Bethlehem. The family remained in a foreign land as refugees until the danger was over and they could return to Nazareth where Jesus was raised.

The third optional reading is the story of the visit of the Magi, which we will hear this Wednesday on Epiphany. Wise Men from the east, scientists of the stars, and probably priests of the ancient religion of Iran, Zoroastrianism, follow a rising star that they believe signals the birth of the new King of the Jews. They find their way to the manger, where they are welcomed in a beautiful scene of mutual regard across cultural, racial and religious boundaries. But their protocol visit to reigning King Herod produced the unintended consequences that led to the family's emigration to Egypt and the subsequent infanticide.

So let's go through these three stories in that same backward chronology, starting with the twelve year old Jesus. It is the Passover, and the family of Joseph and Mary have traveled from Nazareth in the northern province of Galilee to Jerusalem to observe the great Passover celebration. They probably traveled with a large contingent from their own village and neighboring villages to join the huge event.

Luke says that Jesus was twelve years old. That's an important detail. Jesus is at that point of life where he was expected to take responsibility for his own receiving and understanding of the law. Much of that formation takes place in a format of questions and answers with the teachers of the law. The young person would be questioned on his competency, and it was expected that the student would form questions for the teachers, both to demonstrate proficiency and to deepen understanding. In later years this process became formalized into today's bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah. It is a rite of full-fledged adult membership into the Jewish community.

In our story, it takes a day for the travelers to realize that Jesus is not with the crowd returning home. That's probably not too unusual. The adults visiting together while the young people free range among their relatives and friends. A group returns to Jerusalem to find him. Luke says it took them three days. My guess is that this is a bit of writer's license, connecting this disappearance in Jerusalem with Jesus' three days in the tomb.

And I hear Jesus' response as a respectful one. "Beloved parents, you know you have prepared and formed me for my responsibilities and role as an adult in the community. I must take my place in my Father's house." It was common for Jews to speak of the Temple as the house our Father. "And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor."

His parents have done their job well. Jesus can fulfill his potential. The story reminds us of our responsibilities toward all of our children. It is our job as adults to make sure every child grows into their full potential. It is work not just for parents alone, but for the community. As a society, we have a responsibility to insure that every mother is healthy as she nurtures her child, that every child has nutritious food and nurturing shelter and access to health care. That every child has educational and spiritual opportunities to get off to a good start in order to live into their full potential. It takes a village and a society to raise a child. We work hard to be part of that here at St. Paul's. We love our children. Our corporate prayer and resolution should be that every one of God's children upon earth has the opportunity to increase "in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor."

But that is not easy to accomplish. It is a dangerous and risky world. Jesus nearly did not get to this day in the Temple. Jesus was one of those "at-risk" children. Like so many others, he was vulnerable to the whims of the powerful and the threat of violence. Listening to his deepest intuition, his father Joseph acted decisively to lead his family to safety. They became refugees. Thank God for Egypt. How many countries today would have turned them back at the border?

I'm struck by Joseph. It takes a lot to persuade any family to leave its home—to abandon the language, culture, history and sense of place that has been its grounding, maybe for generations. Joseph did so on the strength of a dream, following his intuition before he had any external, concrete evidence. It was a life-saving decision. But I wonder, are there many countries today that would honor such an immigrant's request for legal entry. Herod's violence against the children in Bethlehem was low-key enough that no evidence about it remains except this story from Luke. I think about the Holy Family whenever I hear about families fleeing their homes seeking welcome in a safer, more promising place.

And I'm also struck by the unintended consequences of the well-meaning actions of the wise men. Privileged and resourced, they follow their reasoning into a foreign place where they don't really know the lay of the land. They make use of their access to the seat of power to have their audience with Herod. They think they are helping; they think they are doing what is right and good. But they wreak a tragic violence upon the poor and vulnerable in Bethlehem.

It is a story of such ambiguity. The gentle scene at the manger, symbolizing the peace and respect that can exist across cultures and classes and races. The fascinating picture of obvious power and hidden power finding synergy in the humble place. The recognition that the truth of the sages and scientists from any realm or discipline will ultimately guide any truth-seeker toward the revelation of God, who is Truth itself. And, the good intentions which turn tragic.

We have rich fare on this Second Sunday of Christmas. The joyful wise men from the east offering their gifts to the child in the humble place. The threat to that child and the escape into Egypt, thanks to an intuitive, protective father. The child's nurture into adulthood, with all of his potential and possibility intact.

The story of Jesus is essentially the story of God's most intimate entry into our humanity. It makes us want to treasure each of our children, to honor them and to give them gifts. It makes us want to protect all of our children, to keep them safe and secure from all violence and threat. It makes us want to rejoice in their growth, and to give them opportunities to live into their fullest potential. It makes us glad for the young adults in our midst, increasing "in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor."

We are Mary and Joseph in our generation. It is our duty to see the Christ child in every child, and to do our part to love, protect, and form them to their fullest potential.

During communion (at 8:45 & 11:00) we'll sing a lovely Christmas carol. Its first and last verse seem a fitting ending:

Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, love divine;
love was born at Christmas:
star and angels gave the sign.

Love shall be our token;
love be yours and love be mine,
love to God and neighbor,
love for plea and gift and sign. [i]

[i] Hymn 84, Hymnal 1940. Words by Christina Rossetti

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.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Mother's Face

A Mother's Face

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
Christmas Eve, December 25, 2015
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 2:1-10)  And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.  And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.   And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 
        Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.  And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

I'll bet you are all familiar with some of illustrations of optical illusions. You look at a drawing one way, and you see a flower vase. But if you change your focus toward the background, it is two faces turned toward each other in profile. Or the one that looks like a young woman or an elderly lady, depending on where you focus.

Some people have a hard time seeing one of the images once their brain has imprinted on the other. Sometimes it helps to have a friend coach you through it. Scientists tell us you can't see both images simultaneously. Our eyes and minds shift back and forth and tend to follow our focus. Occasionally, the imprint of one version will be so strong that it is virtually impossible for a person to see the other image, even if they've glimpsed it or seen it before. It takes energy and concentration to see the other image. We tend to see what we focus on. We tend to see what we expect to see.

Luke's Christmas Gospel offers a dual focus that I find compelling. It begins on the world stage: And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

Caesar Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire, who ruled that Empire for 40 years as one of the most powerful men in human history. And Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the governor of Syria, who was charged with making an assessment of the regions of Samria, Judea, and Idumea (or Edom), starting with a census, in order to facilitate the Roman tax.

When Caesar sneezes, little places like Judea and Galilee get pneumonia. It's still that way. That tax decree set in motion a militant chain of reactions, starting with the creation of the Jewish party of the Zealots. The Zealots believed that God alone rules. They worked to oust the Romans by violence and to install a theocracy, with themselves in charge. One wing of their movement, the Sicarrii, focused on assassinations of fellow Jews who they believed either collaborated with the Romans or held to false tenants of Judaism. The Zealots were described by Romans in terms not unlike how we describe ISIS. They were terrorists deserving death, and the Romans crucified the worst of them. The Zealots' militancy led to their seizing Jerusalem briefly, provoking a war involving Jews against Romans, Jewish sects against other Jewish sects, breathtaking causalities, mass executions, and finally the destruction of Jerusalem and its enormous Temple. Thus began the great Diaspora of the Jews, exiled from their home, and Jerusalem became a Roman city called Aelia Capitolina

If you had lived in Bethlehem on the evening we celebrate tonight, the focus of whatever was that century's version of CNN would have been Augustus, the Census or Quirinius, or the latest Zionist atrocity. These are the things historians like Josephus report.

But the most earth shaking event was actually happening in a cave serving as an animal shelter: the birth of a child to a young Jewish peasant family. We now number the years of history from before and after that night. But the only contemporary notice came from some shepherds who were sensitive enough to pay attention to something that seemed like an angelic message in the middle of the night. And some ivory-towered scientists who theorized about a connection between something in outer space and something on earth.

Life in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Rome went on unaffected by this birth. Rocked to sleep instead by the latest violence, the newest economic forecast, and today's political crisis.

So Luke gives us both reference points, both objects of focus. Caesar and Mary. Quirinius and Joseph. The incendiary census and Jesus. We know what is actually more significant. We know what God is up to then. But will we wire our brains so that we will continue to keep that focus? Will we continue to focus on what God is up to in this world of optical illusions?

Recently I was talking with one of our high school seniors, Tel Johnson. I was interviewing Tel for a Fuller Youth Institute research project about youth ministry. This is one of the questions, I asked Tel: "When God looks at you, what expression do you imagine is on God's face?" Now take a second. How would you answer that question if I asked you that tonight? "When God looks at you, what expression do you imagine is on God's face?" Tel said she recalled being with her mom's best friend right after her baby was born. "That look of a mother, gazing at her newborn baby. That face: peaceful. A smile, not big and teethy, but deep and enduring," she said. "That's how I imagine God's face looking at me."

Oh, yes! Yes indeed! God looks at us like Mary looks at Jesus, or like any loving mother looks at a beloved child. A look filled with loving care. Tel's answer filled me with gladness, and maybe a little pride too. That a child who has grown up in this congregation as she has, experiences God that way…? Well, we're doing something right. And so are her parents, and so is Tel.

God is love. Humble, simple, present love, deep in the heart of reality. The deepest and most powerful reality at the core of the universe, the source of life and light. Love so deep and so humble; almost invisible. To recognize that ever-present love, you have to shift your focus intentionally. You have to adjust your view, often away from the garish and loud, and toward the quiet and subtle.

We say that on Christmas, God comes to us as a baby: a child born to a displaced middle-eastern peasant family with no shelter but a manger for animals. That's not easy to see. Until Jesus revealed himself to the Romans by entering Jerusalem in the manner anticipated for the coming Messiah, his ministry stayed well below the radar. He was hidden, like a pinch of yeast in a huge measure of flour, or a tiny coin lost in the stone cracks of a poor woman's dark hut.

Think of the stories of Jesus. When he took the disciples to the great Temple of Herod, one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world, Jesus' focus was on a widow placing a penny in the treasury. He declared that her gift was greatest gift in all that Temple. When he looked at wildflowers covering a field, he said that the field was grander, more beautiful than all of the jeweled raiment of King Solomon, the richest of rulers.

When others saw a stranger or an alien or someone repulsive or an enemy, Jesus saw a beloved child of God. He healed the Canaanite woman's child and gave living water to a Samaritan, both traditional enemies of his people. He healed a Roman soldier's slave and naked madman living in the tombs. In violation of Biblical laws of cleanliness, he touched a corpse and a leper, bringing them life. He invited himself to eat at the home of Zacchaeus, the hated, rich chief tax collector of Jericho, and a few miles down the road, he healed a blind beggar. He included among his closest companions a tax collector, several peasant fishermen, one of those aforementioned Zealots, and many women, like Martha's sister Mary, whom he let sit at his feet as a student, a place normally reserved only for men.

Jesus invites us to live in his world. One way to describe what it is like to live in Jesus' world, is to imagine how Jesus looked upon each person he encountered. Judging from his actions toward them, you might say that Jesus looked at each person he encountered much like a mother looks upon her beloved child. Jesus chose to look with compassion and love toward all. He made that choice in the middle of a turbulent, threatening, violent world. And he spread peace.

He invites us to live in that alternative world. But it takes some discipline and some focus. We're conditioned to see what CNN sees, or what that worst tyrant, our own small, self-interest sees. We've got to shift our focus. Is it a vase or is it two human faces? We tend to see what we focus on. We tend to see what we expect to see.

Tonight will you see the heavens opened in joy at our celebration of the birth of the Christ Child? Will you know his presence in the communion of bread and wine, his body and blood? Will you be one with all of us, his Body in the world?

Will you walk out of here with your eyes healed? Seeing God's face turned toward you in infinite love, God's eyes looking at you lovingly, like a mother gazing upon her child. Will you walk out of here and choose to see the world through eyes of Jesus, eyes of compassion and love?  Shift your focus just a bit, and you can. You can see like one who is able love your neighbor as yourself? That would be a wonderful Christmas gift to the world.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward all.


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. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Blue Christmas Sermon

A Blue Christmas Sermon

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
December 22, 2015; Feast of St. Thomas
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(John 20:24-29) Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with the other disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."
Each year we gather here in the penumbra of Christmas, and we read an Easter story, the story of Thomas, one of Jesus' closest friends, one of the twelve. Thomas' feast day is December 21, always on or adjacent to the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year.

Thomas was the one who didn't share the Easter cheer. He was not with the others when the resurrected Jesus appeared to them. When the others ran to Thomas with their glad cry, "We have seen the Lord!" Thomas just couldn't go there emotionally. All he could see in his sleepless mind were the raw images of two days before -- the marks of the nails and the spear in the side of his beloved. The corpse. He needed something that real to heal the real grief that overwhelmed him so.

It says something powerful about Thomas that he was with the others the following Sunday. He: broken and grief stricken. The others: buzzing about resurrection. Thomas stayed in community, even when he felt isolated, different – a non-believer. And it says something about the early church that he was welcome and embraced there, with all his doubts and darkness. That's the quality of community that is at the heart of the church at its best.

It seems such an appropriate story to tell on this night when we gather in the darkness, honoring our losses, our hurts and fears, our pains and doubts – placing these tender feelings and memories into a holy container prior to entering the celebration of the coming of the Light from Light. We read that Jesus honored the grief and doubt of his friend Thomas, visiting Thomas within his community with a presence that allowed Thomas also to be a witness of the light of resurrection, life out of death.

Each year I bring tender memories to this place. I bring my own grief and frustration and doubt. I also bring my sense of being part of the whole. I have the privilege of sharing losses with some of you. I cannot know your pain from within you, but sometimes I know some of what you carry. We bring our burdens to this service, like holy packages, offerings to the God who knows and shares our human heartache. We face our reality with the brave authenticity of Thomas, who knew what he had seen and was not assuaged by happy platitudes, no matter how true they might seem. We touch one another in solidarity and prayer. And we light a candle in the darkness, a sacrament of the Word that "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:5)

There was someone at last year's Blue Christmas service whose loss I recognized. It was a recent, profound loss that changed the deepest relationships in her life. I ached for her. I prayed for her as we all prayed together.

That night she went home after this service and wrote an email to some friends. She copied it to me the next morning. She's given me permission to share it with you:

Went to the "Blue Christmas" service at our church tonight. Today is St. Thomas Day (of Doubting fame), which made for very appropriate readings, full of uncertainty and broken pieces.

There were less than thirty people there -- a very small number for this congregation -- and the feeling of sorrow, of illness, of pain, of grief, of devastation was thick in the air. Remember, we are Episcopalians; we no more cry in public than we dance in the streets.

So all these awful feelings were wrapped in so tight, but couldn't help seeping through our cracked places.  But it was dark, and quiet, and most of us were so tired we just didn't give a damn any more.

I saw one woman with a head scarf that hinted at chemotherapy. Many worshippers had difficulty kneeling, or standing, mostly older folks, although some horribly young.  Too many sat alone; the two women in front of me, maybe sisters, maybe friends, maybe partners, clutched each other's hands tightly through the service.

It was very low-key.  We normally don't sing or pray very loudly anyhow, but tonight we mumbled and whispered.  One woman broke down into heartbroken, gasping sobs, and lurched for one of the priests as she went up to the altar rail.  We all turned politely aside, but she was past caring, past any shame, as they hugged and wept.

There was no need for a collection plate. Everyone brought sorrow, and weariness, and grief, and loneliness, and anger, and hopelessness, all bundled up to the altar, made holy just by the freedom to admit it. In the face of all that raw pain, I was ashamed at first that my offering was so small and shabby.  But I thought of my children and yes, the dog, and brought their sadness and bewilderment. I thought of my friend whose son was murdered, and whose daughter has been diagnosed with epilepsy; and of another friend who has not spoken to her grown son for five years; and another who struggles with crippling arthritis while caring for her mother with dementia; and I brought the age and helplessness and fear and exhaustion they have honored me by sharing.

I thought of my friends on this email list, who endure ailments and terrors and disappointments and failures -- sometimes bravely in silence, sometime even more bravely making themselves vulnerable through telling -- and offered my sadness and anger on their behalf, and my astonishment at the privilege of knowing them.

I thought that the Host of such a feast -- even if entirely a projection of our own wishes and hopes -- could not possibly behold these offerings without tears, nor resist reaching out hands to accept and embrace and bless.

And on the way out I lit a candle for you, each of you, all of you.

And the flame did not go out.

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.