preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
5, 2017; 5 Epiphany, Year A
Revised Common Lectionary
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
The people complain to God: "Why do we fast, but you do
not see?" In those days in Israel, the people fasted in times of anxiety
and fear, when they faced a threatening crisis too big to manage. When Israel's
first king, Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in the army's terrible defeat
at Gilboa, the people fasted for seven days. When King David's child fell
deathly ill, he fasted, hoping God would spare the child. When the Jews in the
Persian Empire faced extermination, they fasted and placed their hopes on Queen
Esther's appeal to the king. Fasting was the Jewish response to threat and
Isaiah speaks to this anxious people, and he tells them, Your fasting is ineffective because you are
worrying about the wrong things. Shift your attention. Instead of being fearful
and anxious about your own security and your selfish self-interest -- oppressing
your workers and inventing hostilities -- focus on compassion and love; nurture
the needs of the vulnerable. Quoting now: "Loose the bonds of injustice,
…let the oppressed go free… Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the
homeless poor into your house: when you see the naked, cover them, and do not
hide yourself from your [needy] kin. Then your light shall break forth like the
dawn… Then you shall call, and the LORD
Cell biologists tell us that the cells of our body have an
either-or mechanism. When they are in a healthy, nurturing condition, they move
toward growth. When they receive negative, threatening signals, they move toward
protection. Cells can only move in one direction. Toward growth or toward
protection. They can't do both simultaneously.
I think the same is true for the larger human systems. Whenever
we are moving toward growth, we are open, less defensive, less protective. Whenever
we are moving in a protectionist defensive posture, we can't grow.
When we experience threat or fear, our bodies react
chemically. The hypothalamus reacts to perceived threat and sends a warning
message to the pituitary. Tell the
adrenal glands to flood the system, and every cell gets the message: "Fight or Flight or Freeze." The
energy and attention of the entire body then goes out to the extremities.
Muscles tense and prepare the bones for action. The viscera, the internal
organs in the chest cavity and abdomen almost shut down. Digestion slows or
stops, activity in the immune system recedes. Those are the systems for growth,
not for protection.
Blood in the brain moves from the frontal cortex, the rational
executive brain, to the more primitive reflexive area of the brain. Under
stress we get stupider and reactive. Do you ever remember taking an exam when
you were very nervous, and you just couldn't think?
Whenever we live with constant threat or repeated fears,
adrenal levels rise in our bodies. Then we begin to experience chronic anxiety,
and our immune systems become compromised. One study estimates that 60 to 90
percent of doctors' office visits have something to do with stress-related
A society that gets a steady diet of fear and threat will
become chronically anxious and reactive. It will get stupider and more
defensive. It will compromise its immune system and become vulnerable to
internal viruses of self-centered dysfunction. That's what Isaiah saw happening
to his people.
But Isaiah and Jesus offer good news to an anxious people.
The answer is love, especially love of neighbor—compassion and generosity.
Let's go back to the human body. The pituitary is the master
gland that controls our direction, sending us signals either for growth or for protection.
The pituitary sends a message: You are safe. Grow. The lungs fill, the heart
finds rhythm, the digestive system nurtures. We relax and grow stronger and more
In human beings the most powerful growth-signal is love. You
may remember those studies of orphaned infants in Eastern Europe who were not
picked up and loved. They didn't grow. They got plenty of food, but they didn't
grow. Love is even more important than nutrition.
Medicine has discovered something that religion has known
for centuries. We call it prayer and contemplation. Medicine calls it the
"relaxation response." Doctors teach patients to focus gently on
their breath with a mantra to recall attention. We teach Centering Prayer.
Happiness researchers have discovered something that
religion has known for centuries. When you love your neighbor as yourself, in a
spirit of trust, nurturing hope and generosity -- you thrive.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson had developed a unified
theory of a happy brain. He works with affective disorders, depression and
anxiety. Davidson maps four independent brain circuits that influence our sense
of lasting well-being. One neurological circuit manages our ability to maintain
positive states. It is fed by compassion and love. A second, completely
different brain circuit manages our ability to recover from negative states. It
nurtures our resilience. A third brain circuit manages our ability to focus,
our capacity to pay attention and to avoid mind-wandering. Meditation exercises
our capacity to pay attention.
Before I get to the fourth brain circuit of a happy brain,
let me revisit something I ended with in last week's sermon. It touches on
those first three brain circuits. A passage from St. Paul invites us to pay
attention to eight things that will help us both to maintain a positive state
and to recover from negative states. Paul advises, "whatever is true,
whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is
pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is
anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Philippians 4:8) Pay
attention to these eight things, and you are more likely to influence the brain
circuits that strengthen the positive states and release the negative states.
But I told you about those other three independent brain
circuits for a happy brain, the neurological systems that influence our sense
of lasting well-being – I told you about those three to tell you about the
fourth. There is an entire brain circuit devoted to our innate ability to be
generous. When we are generous, this neurological system lights up and it
contributes to our happiness and sense of well being. The human brain is
hardwired for cooperation, compassion and generosity.
Our innate evolutionary drivers are to survive, to
reproduce, and to cooperate. That's how the human species survived. Yes, we are
hardwired to fight or flight, but we are also hardwired to cooperate and to be
I would contend that in a civilized world where we are
unlikely to be eaten by an animal, we only rarely need the fight-flight
mechanism. And when we feel that we are being attacked by other humans, we will
probably defend ourselves better by keeping our resources more focused in our
rational and thoughtful capacities than in our kill-or-be-killed capacities. We
have the capacity to listen and to understand the other, to empathize and to be
peacemakers. Jesus taught us to love our enemies. I believe using the fully
human part of our brain and emotional systems is a better strategy for confronting
nearly every perceived threat than using our mostly animal part of our brain
and emotional system.
An emotional diet of fear, conflict and anxiety is an
unhealthy diet and will make us sick. An emotional diet of love, compassion and
generosity is a healthy diet and will let us grow.
Isaiah's advice still holds. Are you anxious or feeling
threatened? Is your coping strategy not working? Stop thinking in a
protectionist, defensive direction. Let love, compassion and generosity move
you in a generative and growing direction. Let go of your negative thoughts and
maintain a hopeful capacity. Focus on your opportunities to be generous. Loose
the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free. Feed the hungry, shelter the
homeless, clothe the naked.
Listen to Paul and concentrate. He tells us to focus our
attention on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable,
excellent or praiseworthy. "Think about these things," Paul says.
If we will change our focus, Isaiah and Paul give us two promises:
When you call, God will say, "Here I
"And the God of peace will be with you."
The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.
For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and
mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
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