Saturday, August 29, 2015

Unlearning What We've Been Taught

Unlearning What We've Been Taught
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 30, 2015; 14 Pentecost, Proper 17, Year B, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 – Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" He said to them, "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
                'This people honors me with their lips,
                                but their hearts are far from me;
                in vain do they worship me,
                                teaching human precepts as doctrines.'
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition."
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, "Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."


__________________________________

"Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?"

For centuries, the elders have passed along their teachings. Making sure each generation knows certain things that are important to our people. Like how to wash our hands correctly. Traditions are part of our identity; part of our heritage. They make us who we are; connect us with our past; order our present, so we know what is right and what is wrong in our social context and in our religious context. Every human being inherits your own group's traditions. Jesus is unimpressed.

The process of traditional learning is necessary and important. It is crucial to our discovering our identity. From the days of primitive humanity, it has been crucial to our survival.

Before humans had language, the elders taught us the skills of survival. The beige shadow in the grass might be a rock, but it also might be a lion. We evolved to flee in fear from a thousand beige rocks in order not to be eaten by the one that was a lion. Now we are wired for fear. Our inheritance is anxiety and defensiveness.

Before humans had language, the elders taught us the elements of belonging. This is how we wash; this is how we eat; this is how we dance; this is how we dress. Beware of those who do differently. They are strangers from another tribe. We evolved to flee from a thousand strangers lest one of them kill us. Now we are wired for fear. Our inheritance is anxiety and defensiveness.

Once we had language, we perfected our divisions:  them and us, right and wrong. Words define beautifully. To define is to create a boundary. We can speak and teach our youth. This is our line. Our boundary. Keep the fire burning and hold on to your weapons. Do not let the lion cross this line.

Every word defines something. We use words to make distinctions and judgments. We say, "This is good; this is bad." We teach our values to our children. There is something powerful about putting your thoughts and opinions into words. But once you do so, you tend to identify with whatever you have said. It becomes part of you, and you will feel like you must defend it. I say to my granddaughter, "Here, Laura, this is how my mother taught me to wash my hands." If someone wants to challenge me about that technique, you are messing with my mother. Nobody says anything bad about my mother.

Our brains are wired to be dualistic. Lion or rock. Tribe or stranger. Right way or wrong way. Whenever two things pop into our thoughts, our dualistic mind tends to make up/down judgments. One is better than the other. We judge nearly everything.

I remember an insight that came to me when I was a college student, that wonderful tribal time of my life. I thought that I could put stickers on my car that would tell anyone pretty much all they needed to know about me. Ole Miss; the Episcopal Church shield; Beta Theta Pi. Note how much that communicated. NOT LSU. Not Southern Baptist. Not Sigma Chi or ATO. Now tanks to social media, we're much better at this; we can publish our essential identities universally.

As I labeled myself in those days, I also recognized that I have a built-in tendency – let's call it a prejudice – to prefer those who are like me. Whenever there are two things in front of us, our dualistic mind tends to make up/down judgments. I remember recognizing how I felt drawn immediately toward someone when they introduced themselves as an Episcopalian or a Beta. And there was something about LSU that could make me bristle. Such prejudices are the foundations of racism and nationalism and polarizations of so many kinds. I think Jesus is still unimpressed.

It is very easy to let this evolutionary wiring distort reality and leave us as a human race divided, tribal, and conflicted. How much of the world's misunderstanding and violence is rooted in our inherited tendency to divide and judge. Essentially rooted in fear. Primitive fear. Fear of the other. Evolution has planted these fears in our guts.

Jesus said, "There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come."

The "outside" reality is actually one. The internal divisions within us are artificial, creations of our minds and our hearts. Reality is one. All humanity shares a common ancestry. We all share the same earth. We breathe the same air, drink the same water, draw our life from the same ground. We are more alike than we are different.

And now that humanity can imagine reality from a quantum perspective, we realize even more dramatically how interrelated everything is. Physicists tell us that the universe is more like a single living organism than like separate elements of discrete matter. Reality is one. That's what Jesus told us. It's also what the mystics and the scientists tell us. The fundamental Christian symbol of the Trinity says the same thing. Unity in diversity. The pouring out of the persons of the Holy Trinity in love toward one another which is the one unity that energizes all creation. Reality itself is unity in diversity.

How can we deprogram our inherited mental software of fear-driven division and reprogram our minds and hearts to be more in sync with reality?

It helps to disconnect from our addiction to words and from our thought-driven minds. That's what contemplative practices like Centering Prayer do. When we can bypass language we can receive everything as a whole. It is another way of seeing and experiencing reality. We can lose ourself as separate from the whole and be one with the all.

Musicians talk about becoming one with the music; dancers with the dance. There are times when I'm gardening when I am one with the earth and I lose track of time. Moments when driving a car when it's like looking at the whole of reality at once. Sometimes I can be so present in a crowd, that every person is beautiful, fascinating, alive with energy and wonder. It happens in nature. In the mountains. At the beach. Just sitting. Or working in a concentrated way with an undivided mind.  

We can also choose. Choose to divide and judge less. I am convinced that nearly every person at all times is doing the best they can, given their inheritance, history, and circumstances. I find when I regard people with that benevolence, I can feel empathy for people that I might otherwise judge harshly. It's a choice. Empathy and understanding rather than fear and resentment. I think I can usually be more helpful when I approach people from an empathetic position than from a judging position.

We have all inherited generations of fear that divides. Jesus is unimpressed. His antidote is love. Only love can overcome fear. "Perfect love casts out fear." (1 John 4:18) Jesus is not impressed with words: "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." The divine heart is a heart of love. Unifying love.

As it does so often, everything comes down to the single commandment that sums up them all. "You shall love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. 

Fear not! Choose love.
__________________________________________

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: www.stpaulsfay.org
Click the “Video Online” button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Spiritual Map

The Spiritual Map
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 23, 2015; Proper 16, Year B, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

John 6:56-69 – Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."


__________________________________

For nearly twenty years, I've shared in the preaching rotation for evening vespers at Butterfield Trail Village. St. Paul's is one of the five founding churches for BTV. There's a delightful man there who leads the music. I think he was a Minister of Music in former years. After the sermon, he always offers a bit of a response as part of the transition into the closing hymn. It's fun to see how he interprets whatever I may have said.

If I haven't mentioned anything about the need of being saved so we can go to heaven, he'll usually work that in. If I haven't made a point to confront sin and our need of forgiveness, he'll usually correct my omission. Last week I closed with some words about God's infinite love for all humanity and a reminder, "all is one, and ultimately it is good." I don't think my sermon really connected with my friend the music leader. So in his summary exhortation, he went somewhere comfortable for him, a prayer that we all live an upright life so that others will be inspired by our example and witness, as we wait for the true life which is found only in heaven. He's a good man.

Thirty-seven years ago I preached my first sermon as a seminarian. I tried to preach about the map of the spiritual journey – the three stages: the purgative, illuminative, and unitive way. I'm told I talked too fast and went twenty-four minutes. I'd like to try again, to say something about the natural levels that we travel through in the stages of our spiritual life. We need different things at different times of life. Underneath it all, it's really pretty simple. We always need love.

But at an early stage of life, when we are trying to establish our identity, we need the kind of love that is expressed in belonging, especially belonging to something bigger than ourselves. As a youth, I embraced my identity as an Episcopalian. I wanted to know what we believe. I am an American. I always cheered for Americans in the Olympics, because "America is #1." It is important to belong and to be part of something bigger, something that gives you identity and values.

But as we grew older and develop some rational skills, we reflect critically on what we have received. Education plays a profound role in that process. I had the good fortune to live in the segregated South. I knew my culture was very flawed, and it allowed me the freedom to think critically about other cultural inheritances. I decided I wasn't sure about the whole God thing, and became an agnostic. I stayed Episcopalian, however, because I knew we accepted doubt and seeking. I realized that in many ways America is not #1.

There is a shadow side to this rational, reflective activity. It is often excessively individualistic. We think that with enough education and study, we can find the answers. We are blind to the elitism and arrogance underneath that assumption. If we are lucky, we meet our limits; we fail. Knowledge is never enough. We may be very smart and gifted and yet experience failure and humiliation. We may betray ourselves. Certainly the world will betray us.

When we taste defeat and shock, God wants to lead us to a place of deeper knowing, to our intuition and to our felt knowledge. When the outer world refuses to be molded to our expectations, the inner self becomes a more interesting and fruitful landscape. If we persevere in our inner journey, we will encounter our own shadows. I remember the moment when I realized, I don't think I've ever had a thought or an action that wasn't tinged in some way with self-interest. That's a terrible discovery. A terrible truth. The tradition calls this time of life a Dark Night.

It's good to have some spiritual guidance in your Dark Night. When we face our own shadows, we have a tendency to double down on good moral behavior or on better techniques of devotion. We try to fix ourselves, making ourselves better through our own efforts. That's really a trap, a repeating feedback loop. It's better just to wait in the dark. To accept your own emptiness and powerlessness; when you don't know; when you don't feel; when you don't believe. In a certain numbness, you go on nevertheless, acting on your best knowledge even though you know nothing and feel no consolation. The cloud of unknowing eventually becomes the door of transformation.

From within the darkness, something percolates. You get the sense that I am much more than I thought I was. There grows a sense of acceptance. It happens in the emptiness of your old sense of being – that old world of trying to measure up. In your numbness you know you've done nothing to earn this "more-ness." You've been honest enough to know you are a mess, to know you are infected with self-interest. But below everything bubbles the gift of being. Acceptance. Presence. The church has a lot of names for this – grace, divine love, Spirit, forgiveness, reconciliation, salvation, eternal life. Scriptures like the Beatitudes tend to ring with new clarity.

The clouds can part, and you can experience the oneness that Jesus promises: "On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." (John 14:20) Jesus' prayer is answered, "that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one." (John 17:21-22)

That message can be hard to hear. We demean ourselves and others so thoroughly. It is hard to accept that we are one with God; that it is an ontological reality, a gift we can experience. People tend to walk away from such wonders. We heard in our gospel today, Jesus told his friends, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them… the one who eats this bread will live forever." It was too much. Some walked away. 

But for those who can stay with this gift, there is a new creation. There is no real need to protect yourself or to promote yourself anymore. There's nothing to prove to anyone. In this oneness, you can look at other people with acceptance, internalizing the reality that everybody is doing the best they can given their own history and circumstances.

We can just be, and let be. We can be who we are. Just as I am, as the old hymn goes. With all your flaws, you are a human being along with everyone else. Wonderful! You can be content simply to be. No need to appear to be anything else, anything more. With divine acceptance there is no self-image to protect. "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless," Jesus says in today's gospel.

God's spirit flows and carries us. God loves the good and the bad in me and in you and in everybody else. There is no more we/they; saved/lost; in/out. We release the right/wrong dualisms and the judgments they energize. There is a simple commitment to doing what is right, as best you can, guided by love. All is God. Float on that ocean.

That's the ancient spiritual map, in less than twenty-four minutes. I don't know about you, but I'm all over that map. However, sometimes I sense some positive change. I started with my story about preaching at Butterfield Trail Village. I remember many years ago, that music leader annoyed me. I was reactive. I felt some resentment about his reinterpretation of my sermon. You know, I've realized – that's gone. I find him completely endearing. It's fun to see what he'll come up with. Maybe I've grown just a little. That's good.

I know when I'm watching a ball game, I'm still pretty tribal. My team is #1. When I'm discussing social policy, I'm still pretty analytical, sometimes a know-it-all. But I have a desire to live in that place where I rest in the infinite unity and love of God. To abide. To be.

Really, it doesn't matter much where I am or where you are on the map. It's really all about God. And God is bringing us all home. The Good Shepherd will find us all. In the end, none of us can really go away. "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life."

So whenever you can, rest in those words of eternal life. Abide. Simply be. For all is one and God is all. [i]

[i] With thanks to Richard Rohr's levels of spiritual development, published in various places including this site: http://is.gd/Rohr9Levels

__________________________________________

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: www.stpaulsfay.org
Click the “Video Online” button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Remember

                         Remember
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 16, 2015; Proper 15, Year B, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

John 6:51-58 – Jesus said, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."


The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."
__________________________

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven." No, don't mishear me. I'm saying that I, Lowell, I am the living bread that came down from heaven. I am created in the image and likeness of God. God's Spirit dwells within me. And God acts through me in ways that God has no other way to act because I am a unique incarnation of God's living Spirit. Christ has told me, "Lowell, I am in you and you are in me, and I am in the Father and we are one." The Apostle Paul has told me that God has accepted me completely, just as I am, just like God accepted him completely when Paul was a persecutor. God looks at me with divine grace, the unqualified, infinite love that God's delights to give me as a sheer gift, unearned and free. So, if God loves me so completely, what can threaten me? I am completely secure in God's infinite love. And the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead also promises me eternal life. Not just some form of life after I die, but a quality of life that makes the eternal present here and now. The life of the forever, now.

I hope you know, of course, that everything I just said about me is also true for you. You are the living bread that came down from heaven. God's Spirit is in you, and God acts through you in ways God has no other way to act, because you are a unique incarnation of God's living Spirit. You are one with Christ and one with God, and we are all one with one another. God's grace is your gift – free, unqualified, infinite love. You are safe. Secure. Forever. Relax and be.

But, I am also a mess. I get tossed off my game so easily. If my needs and expectations aren't met, especially if I'm the one not meeting them, I get so flustered and frustrated. Sometimes I think I'll never learn anything. And I'm dying. Can't be very long now. I'm way over half-way there. I can look in the mirror and see all the white hairs. I can feel the aches and limitations that didn't used to be there.

But you know, that's okay. It's the most natural thing in the world. It's absolutely certain. We all die. The bigger issue is the living business.

And so much of my life is a living death. Every time someone says something to me that I hear like a cut or a putdown, part of my dies for a moment. Every time I get anxious or fearful, I'm actively dying. I've got so many bad habits. Every time I reinforce one of those things I'm reinforcing a death spiral. When I judge others, or when I ignore them because I'm caught up in myself, I'm like the walking dead and I'm dealing death to others. I've got the same deadly disease that Paul had. He was full of performance anxiety. "How am I doing?" If I think I'm doing okay, I'm great. But if I'm failing in some way, sometimes even in something small and relatively insignificant, I'm all bent out of shape, dying. It's mostly about self-centeredness. When I forget myself and simply get into whatever is before me, I'm alive. When I'm stuck in my self and my self-centered concerns, I'm dying; I'm a mess.

Am I going to live as if I am the living bread that came down from heaven, or am I going to live like I am a mess? Well, both, I'm sure. I am heavenly and I am earthy. But I can make some choices to put more of my energy and attention into my deepest identity and reality as an eternal being. Whenever I do so, my earthy being seems to go so much better.

This dual nature, this double identity, is ever present. Theologians speak of Jesus as "fully human and fully divine." In a minute we will take bread and wine; it will become body and blood. Oh, it's still bread and wine, but it is also even more truly the divine presence of Christ's reality, a heavenly communion here in our lovely little church, a thin space that breaks the boundary between the finite and the infinite, the dying and the living, the broken and the whole. Bread that is so much more than bread. Shift your attention just a bit and you will realize you are feasting on the bread of life and living in the forever of eternity right now.

I'm going to repeat something I said a couple of weeks ago, because I liked it, but also because I believe we need to be reminded of the deeper truths over and over. We have to remind ourselves of the great spiritual realities because it is so easy to forget and get stuck in the mess we regularly make of ourselves.

Remember – you are God's beloved child, infinitely loved and cherished.
Remember – every person on the planet is God's beloved child, equally and infinitely loved and cherished.
Remember – the present moment is all we have; be awake; live in the present; here and now is the only place I can know God; here and now is the only place I can do God's will. The present moment is the eternal now.
Remember – love is the most powerful thing in the universe; under everything, Love is.
Remember – the story of the cross tells us that God turns our human evil and tragedy into new life.
Remember – all is one, and ultimately it is good.

Welcome to the feast, the heavenly banquet. Feed on the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Become what you eat. Be the living bread which came down from heaven, and go help God feed the world.
____________________________________

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: www.stpaulsfay.org
Click the “Video Online” button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived. 

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Transcendent Moments

Transcendent Moments
 Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
August 2, 2015; Transfiguration Sunday, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary


Luke 9:28-36 – About eight days after Jesus had foretold his death and resurrection, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
_________________________

I'll bet many of you remember the Scholastic Books that they sold to kids at school. Inexpensive paperbacks to encourage reading. I think they still offer them. I can't remember when it was, I'm guessing around seventh grade, but I bought Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. It seemed so impressive. I remember the book looked like a little brick. More than a thousand pages. I never made it past the first scene, completely intimidated by all of the Russian names at the society party in St. Petersburg. But last week on vacation I tried again. I'm about one-third of the way into it, and loving it.

One of Tolstoy's central characters is Prince Andrei – handsome, intellectual, yet disillusioned with the trivialities of social life, and dissatisfied with his wife who is so preoccupied with those trivialities. Andrei leaves his pregnant wife to join the army and go to war.

At the Battle of Austerlitz, Andrei is wounded. Lying on the battlefield, he gazes upward. Tolstoy writes, Above him there was nothing but the sky, the lofty heavens, not clear, yet immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds slowly drifting across them. "How quiet, solemn, and serene, not at all as it was when I was running," thought Prince Andrei, "not like our running, shouting, fighting; not like the gunner and the Frenchman with their distraught, infuriated faces, struggling…; how differently do those clouds float over the lofty, infinite heavens. How is it I did not see this sky before? How happy I am to have discovered it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all is delusion, except those infinite heavens. There is nothing but that. And even that does not exist; there is nothing but stillness, peace. Thank God…" [i]

Andrei is taken by the French, but back in Russia, his name didn't appear in the lists of the dead or the prisoners. Andrei's family feared him to be dead. They didn't tell his wife, trying to spare her anxiety in the final stages of her pregnancy. While she is in labor, Andrei returns, recovered, but he sees her only briefly before she dies in childbirth. The child survives, but Andrei becomes deeply guilt-stricken, disillusioned and depressed. He leaves the army and retreats to his country home, where time passes sadly.

Worried about Andrei, his friend Pierre shows up out of the blue one day. Pierre is earnest, hopeful. While they tour the farm, Pierre speaks with Andrei, trying to coax and persuade him about things that have left Andrei. Pierre pleads, saying "there is a God and a future life, there is truth and there is goodness, and a man's highest happiness consists in striving to attain them." Andrei stood still, gazing on the evening sun reflecting red on the blue waters. There was silence. Stillness.

Touched by his friend's care and earnestness, "Andrei sighed, and with a radiant, childlike, tender look, glanced at Pierre's face… 'Yes, if only it were so,' said Prince Andrei."

As they stepped toward their carriage, Andrei looked up at the sky, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw those lofty, eternal heavens he had seen while lying on the battlefield; and something that had long been slumbering in him, something that was best in him, suddenly awoke, joyous and youthful, in his soul. As soon as he returned to the ordinary conditions of life it vanished, but he was aware that this feeling, which he did not know how to develop, existed within him. Pierre's visit marked an epoch in Prince Andrei's life; though outwardly he continued to live in the same way, inwardly a new life began for him. [ii]

We have these moments of transcendent awareness, moments of a knowing that is deep, compelling, yet beyond our measure. Moments when reality is transfigured and deep and wonderful. Artists, poets, musicians and writers help draw us into these geographies. But they are only moments. And the drip-drip-drip of life continues, full of struggle and violence and doubt.

Our soul yearns to remember and to treasure this transcendent awareness. Many of our religious and spiritual practices intend to nourish our awareness. Some read Morning Prayer and let the words of scripture and our ancient prayers recall us to transcendent awareness. Contemplative practices like Centering Prayer can open us to the silence and stillness of the eternal.

There are so many ways to remember. Small groups often serve that purpose. AA drinks from that wisdom. We have a few groups of friends who follow a Benedictine model of reflection that includes intentional conversation about moments when we sense Christ's presence.

I find that when I intentionally, consciously remember what I have known and intuited about these transcendent things, I am better able to function within their light. But I have to remind myself. Remember – you are God's beloved child, infinitely loved and cherished. Remember – every person on the planet is God's beloved child, equally and infinitely loved and cherished. Remember – the present moment is all we have; be awake; live in the present; here and now is the only place I can know God; here and now is the only place I can do God's will.  Remember – love is the most powerful thing in the universe; under everything, Love is. Remember – the story of the cross tells us that God turns our human evil into new life. Remember – all is one, and ultimately it is good.

But life is so difficult, and we human beings can be so stupid and blind and violent. It takes attention and energy to pay attention to the lofty, eternal heavens when our attention is continually assaulted by insults from without and by self-centeredness from within. Yet, at our deepest reality, something inside of us knows the truth, as Dame Julian saw, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."[iii]

Maybe you've seen the Academy Award winning movie American Beauty. Kevin Spacey narrates as Lester, a middle aged father. His marriage is strained, his teenage daughter is unhappy and insecure. Lester describes himself as a loser. He develops an unhealthy infatuation with his daughter's classmate. His wife starts an affair with Lester's business rival. Lester quits his job and starts flipping burgers at a fast food chain. His daughter develops a relationship with the odd boy next door who makes secret camcorder recordings and supplies Lester with marijuana. The boy's father is an abusive, violent ex-Marine. (Spoiler alert. If you haven't seen the movie and don't want to hear how it ends, cover your ears now, or hit the mute button if you are watching online.)

The whole sordid mess comes to its conclusion as everyone begins to tell the truth to one another, painful, dark truths that they are. Lester realizes suddenly, to his own surprise, that he feels great. A man at peace, Lester sits at the table looking at a happy family picture from old times. He is unaware that there is a gun held to the back of his head.

In his final narration, Lester looks back on the events of his life as the screen flashes images of each character's reaction to the sound of the gunshot. I guess I could be really [ticked off][iv]…, he says, but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst… and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain. And I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry… you will someday.[v]



[i] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Signet Classics. Ann Dunnigan translation, passage found online at http://michaelprescott.typepad.com/michael_prescotts_blog/2009/02/andreis-vision.html
[ii] Ibid, Kindle, Loc 8151-12
[iii] Dame Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 13th Revelation, Chapter 27
[iv] Actual text is "pissed off" – I didn't want to offend church sensibilities.
[v] American Beauty, 1999, from the synopsis at imdb.com

__________________________________________

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: www.stpaulsfay.org
Click the “Video Online” button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Simple Pure Awareness

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
July 12, 2015; 7 Pentecost, Proper 10, Year B, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Ephesians 1:3-14 – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.


For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

__________________________________

You know how it is when you read something that grabs you? I want to share something today that grabbed me recently. It struck me as just right. First I want to set it in some context. Then I want to re-contextualize it in terms of today's scripture readings.

First context: I've been practicing Centering Prayer for a long time. It is like many meditation or contemplative practices, a way to detach from the ongoing narrative of our mind's thoughts and the roller coaster waves of our emotions, in order to get to a deeper place – a place where every enduring religion testifies to the experience of a greater reality. Below thoughts and feelings there is a gate to the absolute.

So, here are some words from Thomas Keating, the wonderful Trappist monk who helped re-introduce the Church's ancient practice of Centering Prayer. Thomas Keating:

Without thinking or feeling some emotion, there is just awareness. There is then no desire for bliss, enlightenment, or to teach others. Things are just as they are. In that so-called emptiness, enjoyment arises of itself. As soon as we try to enjoy, the enjoyment ceases. Somehow at the bottom of emptiness (openness, pure awareness), there is enjoyment, fullness, presence and peace.

Bring the same emptiness and freedom to each moment and its content. Then you will be happy even in the midst of suffering. Accept everything and everyone just as they are, where they are, and try to act as lovingly as possible in every situation. Be ready to be led you know not where or when. Hush the discriminating mind dividing things into good or evil for me.

Fear draws us to the center we have created, the ego self. Love expands from our real center, the true self.

One feels the pain of others and must reach out. But one is content and at peace because one does not discriminate….

Take and accept yourself just as you are, where you are. If you are aggressive, lustful, fearful, or shy and passive, notice your feelings before, during, and after each incident, without emotional reactions of blame, shame, anger or discouragement. Let God work with your faults and limitations. Just recognize them and be with them, without trying to correct them directly. As you watch them, feel them, and accept them, their force and exaggeration will gradually diminish. Keep moving to the center of your being where divine love is and be present to and welcome whatever bodily feeling or emotion that is happening. The present moment contains all we need to be happy.[i]

I like what Keating has written. But, it seems hard to be happy. Things are not right. They never have been. Today's gospel tells of the execution by decapitation of the prophet John the Baptist. At the whim of a dance, Herod orders John's head as a present. It sounds like some of the grisly things we hear of today from ISIS and elsewhere in this troubled world.

John was Jesus' cousin. John had baptized Jesus. How John's death must have grieved Jesus.

In Mark and Matthew's gospels, after hearing about John's death, Jesus takes the disciples away for a retreat by themselves. Some time and space away to grieve. But a crowd finds them and presses for Jesus' attention. The scriptures tell us that Jesus had compassion on the crowd. He healed, he taught, and then he fed a multitude in that away place.

How did he do that? How did he keep from just blowing up? Go away, everyone. Give me some space. My cousin was just killed. Horribly. Can't I get just a little time away to grieve?

Jesus already knows that his own journey is on a parallel track with John's. He knows that you can't say the things John and Jesus said and expect to escape the tyranny of tyrants like Herod and Pilate. He's already preparing for his own confrontation with evil, with his own time of trial.

How do you keep going – in peace and compassion – in the presence of evil, threat and violence?

You have to be grounded in something greater, something deeper, something enduring. In times of trouble, you need to be centered somewhere deeper than your thoughts of hopelessness and your feelings of despair.

I've taught before the practice of the "Four R's." It is a practice that comes from Centering Prayer. When in that prayer, as you simply consent to God's presence and activity within, it is inevitable that you will be bombarded with thoughts and with conflictive emotions. The prayer teaches us to be gentle, very gentle with those maddening distractions. Don't fight them, just let them go. "Resist no thought." Don't wrestle with them, just let them go. "Retain no thought." Don't get caught up in them. "React emotionally to no thought." "Return," ever so gently to the sacred word that symbolizes your intent in the prayer.

The "Four R's" is also a way to be present in the world. Whenever bad news comes or life just seems hard. As Keating says, "Accept everything and everyone just as they are, where they are, and try to act as lovingly as possible in every situation… Hush the discriminating mind dividing things into good or evil for me."

Accept reality. Resist not. Let it pass through you. Retain not. React not emotionally. Then, Return ever so gently to your center, your true self. As Keating says, "Fear draws us to the center we have created, the ego self. Love expands from our real center, the true self."

I've known a few people who are so grounded, that they approach each moment with simple open awareness. They are not pre-occupied with their own opinions and thoughts. They are simply present, not already occupied. They don't seem burdened with the attachments that create emotional reactivity. They just are. Simply present. Aware. And they let everyone else just be. Moreover, they seem happy. From Keating: Somehow at the bottom of emptiness (openness, pure awareness), there is enjoyment, fullness, presence and peace.

I think it starts with our own self-acceptance. Take and accept yourself just as you are, where you are, Keating says. Then notice your conflictive feelings before, during, and after each incident, without emotional reactions of blame, shame, anger or discouragement. Let God work with your faults and limitations. Just recognize them and be with them, without trying to correct them directly. As you watch them, feel them, and accept them, their force and exaggeration will gradually diminish. Keep moving to the center of your being where divine love is and be present to and welcome whatever bodily feeling or emotion that is happening.

Resist not. Retain not. React not emotionally. Return.

In the Epistle reading today the apostle reminds us that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. He reminds us that we already have redemption, forgiveness, and God's glorious grace freely bestowed on us. He reminds us that Christ is always gathering up all things, things in heaven and things on earth, things that are good and things that are horribly wrong, even beheadings and crucifixions. Christ gathers everything and returns it to the eternal love of the Father.

At the center of your being, eternal love is. Keep moving to the center of your being where divine love is…, says Thomas Keating. The present moment contains all we need to be happy. So, accept the present moment with simple, pure awareness. Resist not. Retain not. React not emotionally. Return, ever so gently to the emptiness of pure awareness, the love of God dwelling always at the center of your being.


[i] Thomas Keating, Notes from a Deep Conversation, from Contemplative Outreach News, vol. 31, no. 2, June 2015. http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/sites/default/files/newsletter-pdf/2015-june-newsletter.pdf

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Flying Through Life

Flying Through Life
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
June 14, 2015; 3 Pentecost, Proper 6, Year B
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 – We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord-- for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Mark 4:36-34 – Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
__________________________________

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view… If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

It's been pretty exciting around here lately. First, we closed on the purchase of the law office next door. It's a building we've wanted for a long time. It is adjacent to our kitchen, office and Welcome Center. It immediately offers a great improvement to our space for our Youth program. And let me pause just a moment to brag on that program. Some months ago a California research project asked the youth office at the Episcopal Church Center in New York to identify five model youth programs in the Episcopal Church for them to consider studying. We were one of the five. Then the researchers did in-depth interviews with several hundred youth programs in all denominations to pick forty to study because they work well. We were one of the forty. We've got a wonderful youth program, and I'm grateful to Amanda Robinson, to Dan, and to Alon Terrell, as well as the parents, interns and young people who give themselves to make it such a great program. Now we will have a new home for their community. And looking further into the future, one day we may want to build a multi-storied facility on that site if we find our ministries continue to grow. Acquiring that property opens up so many things for us. I'm thrilled.

Another exciting opportunity: We found a perfect location for our new Magdalene-Fayetteville outreach ministry. We now have a contract to buy a house that is zoned to fit our use; it is near trails, bus routes, a grocery, a dollar store, and a park for recreation; and it is large enough—with four bedrooms, ample living space and program space, a separate studio for an office, land for future expansion, and a beautiful park-like front yard. With a gift this week from Greg and Hannah Lee added to our seed gift from Nick and Carolyn Cole, we have just the money we need to close.

So I was facing several deadlines late Friday afternoon when George Faucette sent me a document I needed to sign for the Magdalene house process. Just sign it and scan it back to me, he said. I printed and signed it. I put it in my scanner. The scanner wouldn't cooperate. Something about the driver. The usual functions weren't showing up on the screen. I tried a workaround. Didn't work. I began to get frustrated. I really don't like it when my machines don't do what I want them to do. I tried manually keying the machine. No dice. I got more flustered. I was getting angry. I started to 'grrrr.' I would have been more expressive, but I was watching Laura at the time and I didn't want her to see her grandfather blowing up at a scanner, computer and printer. But it wouldn't scan. I was going to have to drive, to take George the paper, manually. I got into the car, drove to George's, gave him the papers. It was such an annoying inconvenience.

There's a comedy routine by comedian Louis CK about people who complain about flying.

"Worst day of my life! I had to sit on the runway for forty minutes!"
"Oh my God, really! For forty minutes?! That's awful. You should sue them."
"What happened then? Did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly?! Did you soar through the clouds impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight? And then land softly on giant tires that you couldn't even conceive how they expletive deleted put air in them?"
"I had to pay for my sandwich."
"You're flying! You're sitting in a chair in the sky! You're like a Greek myth right now!"
"But it doesn't go back very far, and it's kind of squishing my knee."
"There's always delays when I fly. Too slow."
"Really?! New York to California in six hours. That used to take thirty years to do that, and a bunch of you would die on the way there. You get shot in the neck with an arrow and you go aaaggghccck!, and fall down. And the other passengers would just bury you and put a stick in the ground with your hat on it and keep walking…
"Now you watch an Adam Sandler movie…, and you're there!"[i]
(I cleaned the more colorful language up considerably.)

I couldn't get the scanner to work.
O my God, really! What happened then? Did you get into your own automobile, comfortably air conditioned, and drive a couple of miles at forty miles an hour on smooth blacktop streets to give George the papers that it otherwise would have taken you a couple of hours to walk in the summer heat?

So much grace. So much mystery.

"There is a new creation!" Paul cries. Christ died for all, therefore all are raised to new life. Everyone! Every human being! The whole creation!

Jesus tells us, I am in you and you are in me and we are all one in the Divine life of God! Oh my God! Really! We are loved infinitely. We are accepted, just the way we are. We are loved and accepted even in our whiney, pitiful states. And God overcomes everything, including death itself, to bring us to life. I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.

Here we are flying through space on a rock that is covered with waters full of fish and land supporting vegetation and animals; enveloped in an atmosphere that gives us breath. We are spinning around a star at just the right distance and angle that we have energy for such abundant life that you and I have evolved enough to be conscious of the divine love who made all things and who urges and calls us forward into union with all humanity and God. Amazing!

And I can imagine these things and write them in words on a computer, then send them to a printer. Wonderful! And speak them into a microphone in church in a language that you actually understand so that we communicate profound ideas together. Remarkable! And it all goes instantly on the internet where it can be seen and heard around the world.

It is "as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how." It is all grace. It is all mystery. God loves us and grows us, despite ourselves.

But we get so stuck in our blind selfishness that we fail to see the wonder around us.

What if we could just let go of the self-centered chatter that plays its whiny music inside us incessantly? Let go of it just a bit, shift our focus away from our incessant expectations, and instead, look out the window of the spaceship in wonder. We are flying through life in a completely secure, amazing vehicle. We are enveloped by infinite love. We are accepted completely. We are being energized by the divine breath. We are God's beloved. Breathe that in. Let your heart be open and soft.

Then recognize that every other person is a mystery, also full of grace and love. What if we stopped looking at other people as if they were malfunctioning scanners that should be doing what we expect? What if we loved ourselves as God loves us? What if we loved our neighbor as ourself? What if, from now on, we regard no one from a human point of view. There is a new creation! The old has passed away. See! Everything has become new!



[i] Louis CK, Flying (cleaned up a bit for pulpit use) - 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3dYS7PcAG4

_______________________________________________

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: www.stpaulsfay.org
Click the “Video Online” button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived.