Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Two Directions

The Two Directions

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
February 5, 2017;  5 Epiphany, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Isaiah 58:1-9a

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 fearful distress.

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 will answer."

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 issues.

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 healthy.

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 generous.

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 am." 
     "And the God of peace will be with you."

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.

Paul's Experience

Paul's Experience

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
January 28, 2017;  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."

've mentioned before how important it is to me that I was brought up in the racially segregated South. When I realized how wrong my hometown was about something very important, it opened me to the possibility that there might be other things wrong about what I inherited – values, world-view, morals and perspective. I think that's why when my inherited understanding about gay people was challenged, I quickly began to ask questions and explore, and I found that what I had been taught from childhood was wrong. I changed my mind. To this day, I walk around expecting to be corrected. That's a good thing.

o understand the apostle Paul, you've got to start with his experience of being wrong. He was the most religious person in his age group. He did everything right. He followed the law. And when a heretic group of Christian Jews started a movement challenging his orthodoxy, he went after them. But he discovered he was wrong. He had been wrong all along. He thought God was in the rule-making business, and he discovered God was in the love and mercy business. So Paul changed his whole orientation.

Before, when he was trying to earn his own status before God, he was competitive and self-absorbed. "How am I doing? I'm doing everything right, aren't I? Look at those others. They are wrong. I know it!"

Paul divided the whole world that way. Right / Wrong. Righteous / Sinner. Orthodox / Heretic. Jew / Gentile. Saved / Lost. But all of a sudden, he found himself on the other side of those dualities. What he experienced on the Damascus Road was a love that eliminated all dualities, transcending them in a unifying love.

He experienced God as infinite love, complete acceptance, pure gift. He had persecuted the Messiah. He had been wrong. Yet God loved him, accepted him, and called him. He didn't earn that. He didn't deserve it. It was all a gift. And now he was free. Free from the compulsion of judging himself or judging others. Free to simply be. Free to love.  That is the Good News, which is what the word "Gospel" means—"Good News."

Now this is important. Paul realized that if God loved and accepted him—an enemy of Christ, an enemy of God—then God loves every human being in the same way. "God shows no partiality." (Rom. 2:11) There are no human divisions. Everyone is the same before God.

Everybody has failed. No one can appear before God with the claim that God owes them. Everyone is loved infinitely, even enemies like Paul used to be. "God shows no partiality," but loves every human being infinitely.

Furthermore, Paul is convinced that Christ's triumph is complete and universal. "For as in Adam all died, so also in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Cor. 15:22) Even enemies.

o Paul started undoing all the false human divisions that we humans have created. There is no longer Jew or Gentile; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female. (Gal. 3:28)

No longer Jew or Gentile. Paul broke the Gentile boundary in the early Church. He welcomed Gentiles without expecting them to become Jews or to follow the law. He opened the Church to the outsiders.

No longer male or female. Paul authorized women to lead in his congregations: women like Lydia in Philippi, Phoebe in Cenchreae, Prisca and her husband Aquila in both Corinth and Rome (Paul usually names her first), Chloe, Euodia and Synthche, and his fellow apostle Junia, a woman he speaks of as of equal apostolic rank to Paul. Some men apparently got nervous about Paul's egalitarian attitude. A later writer inserted a phrase into a copy of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians about women being silent in church. (1 Cor. 15:34f) Other later disciples wrote, in 1 Timothy, Ephesians and Colossians, adopting patriarchal models that neither Paul nor Jesus practiced. Women led and taught in Paul's churches.

No longer slave or free. When Paul returned the runaway slave Onesimus to his owner Philemon, Paul instructed his disciple Philemon to welcome the slave Onesimus "as you would me" your teacher, "no longer as a slave" but as a welcomed "beloved brother."

Paul challenged all of the divisions of his contemporary culture. Male-Female; Slave-Free; Jew-Gentile; Roman Citizen-Non-citizen. Paul's practice gives witness to his belief that any structure that divides human beings is wrong, including structures like slavery imposed by government. Every human being is equal in God's sight. Thou shall not divide us, in the church or in the state.

Paul dared to make that claim using the same language and symbols for Christ that the Roman civic religion used for the Emperor. "Caesar is Lord," said Rome. "Caesar is the Son of God, bringing peace to the whole earth, the Pax Romana," said Rome. The Roman peace enforced by the sword of domination. 

Paul challenged Rome's authority directly using the same political language: "Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Son of God" who guards "the peace of God which surpasses all understanding." (Phil 4:7) What Rome would oppress, Christ liberates. What Caesar divides by force, Christ unites by love. Faithful Christians must continue to assert the same claims against arrogant government oppression today as Paul did in his day. "For I am convinced," he said, "that nothing in all creation" – not rulers, or powers, things present or things to come – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:38-39)

o Paul began to expect God's surprising presence to be everywhere, because God is continually loving everyone without exception. Paul's eyes were opened to see the fruit of the Holy Spirit present throughout all humanity. "Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and temperance. There is no law against such things," he said (Gal. 5:22-23). These qualities are evidence of the Spirit's presence. Even when they come from the unexpected person or outsider group.

Paul sought to create communities like this one where these gifts could be nurtured. His essential symbol and strategy was the Eucharistic feast, a table among equals where all are fed on the life of the risen Christ. When some elitist Corinthians used their wealth and power to create an exclusive feast that the poor could not share, Paul condemned them fiercely. He reminded them of the moral obligation for the wealthy to share generously with the poor. Paul spent so much time and energy on his collection for the poor, even shaming the relatively rich Corinthians by boasting about the generous gifts from the poor churches of Macedonia. (1 Cor. 8)

We are all one, he insisted. And the needs of one are the responsibility of us all. We are all one, he insisted, and any dividing of humanity between the in and the out, the us and the them, the acceptable and the unacceptable, is unacceptable. Paul knew, because when he was unacceptable, God had accepted him. Therefore, there is no condemnation.

hat is the broad world view that our patron St. Paul invites us to embody here at this church which lives under his name. Be free, for you are loved. Be one, with all humanity. Break down the divisions among humans, and manifest the unqualified love and acceptance that God gives so freely to all.

"Finally, beloved," to close with Paul's words, "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. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you." (Phil. 4:8-9)
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. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Scene at the Manger

The Scene at the Manger

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
December 24, 2016;  Christmas Eve
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 2:1-20)  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 Savior, 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.

For Christians, Jesus is the lens through which we understand the nature of God and the shape of reality. I think the Christmas story gives us a beautiful picture of God's desire for creation.

In the familiar image of the manger scene we can see what God is up to. God empties the divine self into a human life, a baby, vulnerable and helpless. Born not to a royal family, but to peasants, in a familial setting of nurturing, human affection. He arrives in a humble place among the animals, whom God loves. Heavenly angels first announce the birth to shepherds, hard people living hard lives, mistrusted like criminals for their trespassing and hard ways. The shepherds' arrival at the manger would have been scandalous, like a troupe of Hell's Angels motoring into a neo-natal unit. But the shepherds and their animals are welcomed.

The next visitors are exotic scientists, magi who studied the stars; probably priests of Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Iran. They too are welcome at the manger.

The scene at Christ's birth anticipates the work that the child will undertake later to initiate the Reign of God. The scene dramatizes a reconciliation of all divisions into a union that also preserves distinctions.

So, this is what God's reality looks like: The divine enters humbly into creation. Stars and animals rejoice in their own manner. God is reconciled with humanity. Humanity is reconciled within itself, as the scandalous and the wise all find their way and their welcome, and everything happens below the radar of rulers and authorities. This manger scene is an image of a community of love and compassion. Love and compassion is God's way. Love and compassion became the work of Jesus.

Jesus was renowned for three things – healing, feeding and teaching. He healed the sick and broken; he brought coherence to the emotionally incoherent, casting out demons was the ancient language for that. He fed multitudes, taking small resources and creating enough; they all were satisfied. And he taught, summarizing the entire ancient teaching of the law and the prophets with the simple call to love: love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.

Jesus crossed every human boundary of nation and belief to give the same three gifts of healing and feeding and teaching to foreigners and to people of other religions. He even befriended an officer of the occupying Roman army. Jesus especially extended his love and compassion toward those who were believed to be unclean, outside the circle of acceptability: tax collectors and sinners, lepers and heretic Samaritans, hemorrhaging women and prostitutes. In Jesus' presence, they were all clean. All were valued, loved, made worthy of friendship and respect.  

Though his followers called him "Master" and "Lord," he acted like a servant and even like a slave washing their feet. He showed them that true leadership is exercised in humble service.

But Jesus did get testy at times. There were three things that seemed to raise the hair on the back of his neck: greed, pride, and threatening by violence.

First, greed. Jesus warned the rich, people like me, that our fate is linked with the poverty of poor Lazarus who lives suffering outside our gates. Jesus overturned the exploitative tables of the businessmen in the Temple. He invited a very moral rich man to sell everything and follow him, and it was too much for that man. Jesus also had dear friendships with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both rich and powerful, who gave Jesus a dignified burial after his execution. Jesus had a lot to say about our relationship with our money and our responsibility to use our wealth and power to create justice on behalf of the poor and marginalized.

The second thing that drew Jesus' ire was pride. Jesus saved his strongest words for the ones he called hypocrites. We would probably call them the really good people. They were the religious ones. Good, moral folks who were so certain of their own rightness that they judged others. They regarded with condescension those who didn't live up to their moral and religious standards. "Judge not!" he told us, and he halted the moral stone-throwers. Finally, from the cross, surrounded by as much evil and self-righteousness as humanity can muster, Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing." I believe God answered that prayer. God forgave us all. God continues to forgive us all, and invites us to love our neighbor as ourselves by extending that forgiveness completely to ourselves and to others.

The three things that most irritated Jesus: greed, pride, and third, threatening by the use of violence. Once when Jesus and his disciples were treated with hostility as they traveled through Samaritan territory, James and John reacted: "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" How often we humans have reacted that way. Jesus rebuked them. No! he said. Sometime later, when soldiers came to arrest him in the garden of Gethsemane, all four gospels say that one of his disciples took a sword to defend Jesus and attacked one of the arresting party. John's gospel said it was Peter who drew the sword. "No more of this," Jesus cried, and healed the injured man. That's in Luke. Matthew says that Jesus told them that he rejected the option of violence: "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me twelve legions of angels?" Jesus chose the path of non-violence. He confronted evil and threat armed only with love and compassion. And we see in his death and resurrection God's greatest triumph. God brings life out of death. It is what God does best.

This is the way we Christians see God; it is the way we interpret Reality – through the lens of Jesus. Christians claim that Christ was the unique, but not exclusive revelation of God (H. Richard Niebuhr). We happily recognize that the truth of sages and scientists from any realm or discipline will ultimately guide any truth-seeker toward Truth Itself, Ultimate Reality, whom we call God.

This gentle scene at the manger symbolizes the peace and respect that can exist across cultures and classes and races. The humble image of the manger shows us the reconciliation of division. All is united in a union that also preserves distinctions. God is reconciled with humanity; the divine enters humbly into all creation; stars and animals rejoice in their own manner; the scandalous and the wise find their way; and it all happens below the public radar.

I trust that God is still working below the tumult and conflict that fills our world. God is working in humble ways, bringing peace and good will to all.

I hope that the yearly celebration of this season will remind a divided and suspicious world of the possibilities of reconciling love transcending the false boundaries of nation, religion, race, wealth and power.

The Christmas scene shows us. Every child is God's child. Every poor family is God's family. Every refugee and crook and magi, from every race and religion and land belongs to God. Earth and stars, animals and angels. We all belong together in a fellowship of humble hospitality. That is the picture we sing about in our carols at Christmas. May that be the reality we live in and strive for, today, tomorrow and forever.
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, December 03, 2016

Being the Beloved Community

Being the Beloved Community

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
December 4, 2016;  2 Advent, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Matthew 3:1-12)  In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
                “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
                                ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
                                make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Maybe you remember those opening lines from Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities. The words seem appropriate not only to the dramatic setting of Dickens' novel on the eve of the French Revolution, but also to the days of Jesus, when John the Baptist had just revived the ancient role of prophet, silent for more than 400 years. John pointed toward Jesus in a Messianic reference as the promised "Lamb of God." In that time, Herod Antipas had inherited the rule of Galilee from his father, Herod the Great, the builder whose expansion of the Jerusalem Temple was so extravagant that people thereafter called it Herod's Temple. Antipas' recent divorce and his marriage to his half-brother's wife threatened to provoke war and was a scandal to John the Baptist and others. Jewish Zealots constantly plotted violent overthrow of their Roman occupiers, and would in a few years incite a full scale civil war that would result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and deportation of most of its inhabitants. It was a tense time. And in the wilderness a powerful voice cried out for change: John the Baptist.

John the Baptist was the best of prophets, and he was the worst of prophets; he announced a season of Light and a season of Darkness. Clothed like the great prophet Elijah and eating the wilderness food of a people's prophet, he cried out for change. Repent! Turn around, and go the other way.

John confronted the people of privilege with prophetic judgment and warning. "You brood of vipers!" There is wrath coming, he said. John challenged the unearned privilege of the Sadducees who exercised their power from inheritance and family position. He also challenged the earned privilege of the Pharisees, the proper people, who knew themselves to be the righteous ones, obedient to God and therefore superior to the sinners and all those others.

John compared both groups to snakes. Cold blooded, poisonous, like a slithering mass coiled and threatening. Woe to you, he said, repeating the constant theme of the Hebrew prophets. Woe to you rich and privileged who ignore the needs of the poor. Woe to you who think only those who are like you are righteous. Woe to you. God cares first for the poor and the weak, the widow and orphan, the stranger and the alien. God will judge how you privileged ones use your power. Beware you wealthy and powerful ones; beware you righteous and self-righteous ones. Do not presume upon your privilege.

John looked around at the rocks covering the wilderness landscape. "God is able from the stones to raise up children of Abraham." The multitudes; the people you think of like rocks, as "throwaways," worthless – God raises them to equal status as children of Abraham. You are of no more value than the rocks. So straighten up. Or else. Ax and fire!

John was the best of prophets and also the worst of prophets. Threat and violence and force – that's all John can imagine. The threats of ax and fire are humanity's way, but never God's way. John only knows repentance. John doesn't know transformation. He knows he is not worthy to carry the sandals of the one who is coming, but he can only imagine that future one to be like him, but on steroids. "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

John got all of that wrong. We will see him next week; disillusioned and imprisoned, he will send to ask of Jesus, "Are you the one." None of the winnowing and chopping and burning happened. That's not the way of Jesus. That's not God's way.

God's way is transformation. "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." The beautiful fire of transformation. The only weapons Jesus uses are the weapons of love and compassion. It is love and compassion that transforms humanity. Jesus heals the broken. He empowers the unempowered. He declares as clean those thought to be impure. He brings good news to the poor. He does all of this in a spirit of peace and gentleness. Jesus' only act of violence was to overturn the tables of the exploitative businesses that were preying on the poor.

John threatened with negative reinforcement – repent, or else – the appeal to power and power-over. Jesus gently inspired with an unbounded love that kindles our deepest hopes. For Jesus, forgiveness precedes even our awareness of need. And the path of the powerful and the great is the path of the servant and slave of all. To become great is to become a servant. Humility is the path of greatness. Not power over, but power with – distributed most liberally to the most needy.

No force. You can't force love. You can only love and inspire love. Love transforms. It transforms a stone into a child of Abraham, a throwaway into a beloved one.

Jesus came to create a beloved community. A community that begins when each person knows themselves to be God's beloved child. In the beloved community each person is accepted and empowered. Every person is capable of great good and embodied by God's Holy Spirit. Breathe that air and be on fire, a member of the beloved community.

These stories of John and Jesus are good things to know in this time of history as well, for it is the best of times and the worst of times, an age of wisdom and of foolishness, a season of Light and of Darkness, the winter of despair and the spring of hope.

Yet know this, the kingdom of heaven has come near. Jesus tells us to inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. We are baptized with Holy Spirit and fire. We are grafted into the beloved community. And we are called to continue to do what the beloved community has always done. The call is simple. Feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; welcome the stranger; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit the imprisoned. Fear not; do not fear; be not afraid. Love your neighbor as yourself. Everyone is your neighbor.

This is what Jesus taught us in the days of John, and Herod Antipas, and Empire and Zealots. Fear not; do not fear; be not afraid. Love your neighbor as yourself. Everyone is your neighbor.

We are God's beloved children called to live in the beloved community. This is who we are. This is what we are called to do. This is the true vision that brings life out of death.
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, November 19, 2016

We don't know what we're doing

We don't know what we're doing

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
November 20, 2016;  Proper 29, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Luke 23:33-43)  When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. The people stood by, watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Everybody in the scene was doing what they thought was right. Or as parishioner Charlie Russell is fond of saying: "Behavior is always rational to the person performing the behavior." When you look around the place called "The Skull," everyone there was acting according what they thought was right and sensible.

The soldiers were just doing their duty. They serve the Roman army. Stationed in this pathetic corner of the Empire, their job is to occupy the region for Rome and to keep the Pax Romana, the "Peace of Rome." Every soldier was to follow orders in order to maintain order in this perpetually rebellious region afflicted with religious zealots and terrorists. The soldiers were professionals, volunteers with hopes for serving a 20-year term and retiring with a generous discharge and incentives to live in communities created especially for the retired military. And on this day, they enjoyed an opportunity to play a game of lots on the chance of acquiring a robe from one of the criminals they were ordered to execute.

The three criminals had been tried by Roman law, a sophisticated legal system so respected that it became a basis for legal practice throughout Western civilization. The criminal hanging in the middle had entered Jerusalem earlier that week in a procession matching the prophetic expectations for a future Jewish Messiah-King. Jews hoped that God would send an anointed leader who would expel the occupiers from their homeland and establish an eternal rule of justice and security for their people. Rome was sensitive to any purported messianic activity. Caesar had no patience with challengers, so Pontus Pilate publically executed this "King of the Jews" to show what happens to anyone with messianic hopes.

Jewish leaders had to be sensitive to Rome's sensitivities. Jesus had become a problem for them. Jesus had attacked the Jerusalem Temple, interfering with their lucrative business interests administering the sacrifices. The Temple had a profitable monopoly on divine forgiveness. But Jesus taught that God freely forgave anyone just for the asking. And he overturned the tables of the money changers. And he acted in some ways that drew attention to him as a possible Messiah.

After the rumor that Jesus had raised a dead man back to life they called a council meeting. "Let him go on like this," someone said, "everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." (John 11:47-48) The High Priest Caiaphas made the sensible political calculation. Indeed, it is better for "one man" to die than for the "whole nation to be destroyed." (11:50) Their job was to protect their faith, their culture and their people. They made a rational, reasonable choice.

They didn't have too hard a time manipulating popular opinion to be cooperative. The crowds on the previous Sunday crowds had hailed Jesus as the coming Messiah. But then he didn't raise an army or do anything the things ordinary people expected a Messiah to do. So it was pretty easy to turn the public against this pitiful, weak, passive Messiah. Better to favor a real tough guy like Barabbas. So the crowd cried "Crucify him," and now they could watch the public spectacle, like our ancestors used to watch public hangings. And, who knows. What if he is the Messiah? Now he can prove it. Just come down from the cross and defeat the Romans. Otherwise, he's only another fake. So, let's watch to see what happens.

The officials believed that public execution is a deterrent to crime:  Look! This is what will happen to you if you follow this criminal's path. It is likely that the other two executed with Jesus were also involved in some form of rebellious activity. In those days there were underground bands of Jewish freedom fighters who looked for opportunities to attack unwary Romans or to assassinate their Jewish collaborators in the Name of God. They were called zealots or bandits or sicarii or terrorists. Or patriots or freedom fighters or holy warriors. Rome dealt with them decisively.

So we have this story in today's gospel, where one of the dying men, hoping against hope, joins the mood of the crowd. Go ahead, Messiah. "Save yourself and us!" But the other dying criminal seems to be a man of empathy. Leave him alone; we're all dying here. We knew the risk, and we chose our path. But this man doesn't deserve it, he says.

Then this unnamed criminal speaks simply to his dying companion. "Jesus," he says. The only person in the New Testament to address Jesus directly and intimately by his first name. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." What a gentle word of compassion. Jesus tells him gently, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Everybody in the scene is doing the best they can. They are all doing what they think is right. Behavior is always rational to the person performing the behavior.

But this is a scene of colossal wrong. Jesus is innocent. He's done nothing but love. His entire life has been a life of healing, compassion and love. Yet, the best legal system in the world and the best religious system in the world fail miserably. Our human structures fail us. And every person in this scene has rationalized and justified their participation in this violent miscarriage of justice.

So how does Jesus respond? With his dying prayer, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And I believe that God answers Jesus' prayer from the cross. God forgives them all. God forgives us all.

On the cross, we see God in Jesus absorbing all of the structural, systemic evil in the world, and returning only love. On the cross, we see God in Jesus absorbing all of the personal human wrong and failure and pain and evil in the world, returning only love. This is the creative energy of God breaking the vicious circles of wrongs, overcoming our broken human condition with love, forgiveness and new life through resurrection. It is the only way out of this mess.

The challenge for us is to live in this new reality. Looking with compassion upon today's Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas, today's soldiers and crowds, today's religious and criminals, today's broken systems and people, and to pray with Jesus, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." None of us really know what we are doing. And yet, we are forgiven for not knowing what we are doing.

We're all dying here. Nobody gets out of this mess alive. So can't we be a little like that other criminal? Can't we look at our dying fellow human beings with just a bit of compassion and empathy? A little bit of gentleness and empathy can open the door to Paradise.

Father, forgive us; we don't know what we're doing. Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom.

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, October 01, 2016

There is a Vision

There is a Vision

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, O.A., Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
October 2, 2016;  20 Pentecost; Proper 22, Year C, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

(Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4)
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrong-doing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous--
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

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

The prophet Habakkuk looks at all of the strife and destruction, wrongdoing and injustice surrounding him, and he cries, How long, O Lord?! When will you do something? Then he takes his stand at his watchpost to wait. Answer me, God!

And something happens. Something that has a touch of comfort in it. Habakkuk senses that there is still a vision. God's vision. It is still true. It will still surely come. In God's time, it will not tarry. Wait in faith.

I wonder whether I have enough faith to be comforted like Habakkuk. I think I'm more like Jesus' disciples who cry out to him in frustration, "Increase our faith!"

Jesus gives them an answer that seems not much more comforting than Habakkuk's. What's the matter? he seems to say. It only takes a little faith, the size of a mustard seed. A little faith goes a long way.

Then Jesus shifts their expectations. Look! he says. When a slave comes in from the field, he doesn't sit down and expect to be served dinner. The slave just does his job. He serves the meal to his master. That's you. Do your duty. Your service is its own reward. That doesn't sound particularly comforting either, does it?

One of the privileges of being a priest is the opportunity of being with people as they wait to die. Dying is a duty, an inevitable duty. It is a holy time, though; often very hard. It is mysterious. I've waited like Habakkuk with dying friends and with families crying, "How long, O God?"

I've told you before that I am a natural doubter. There aren't many things that I approach with a simple faith. I tend to struggle; I often ask "Why?" and "How long?" and so many other questions.

But, I've been through the death journey with enough people that I now approach the time of death with a very simple faith. I really trust God about our dying. I believe God uses the dense time before death to do works of healing or of insight that might otherwise be impossible in normal time. Sometimes I know the grief is so thick that everything seems only dark or tragic in its midst. But so often, in retrospect, I've seen grace and healing emerge out of that thin space before death. I've seen relationships reconcile; I've seen fears evaporate; I've seen trust deepen. Amazing things happen during the journey into death. Occasionally we experience them in moments during the journey. Sometimes it is only later when we realize in retrospect something significant has happened. But I've been in death's presence enough to trust God deeply and simply. God uses our time of death to do good things. With that little faith, I find I am usually able to take my place at the watchpost and wait. There is some comfort in the waiting. There is a vision. God's vision. There is hope, and faith, and love.

I recently read a wonderful book titled, "And There Was Light," the memoir of Jacques Lusseyran, who lost his eyesight in an accident when he was eight years old. When Hitler invaded France in 1940, seventeen year old Jacques formed an underground resistance group. Jacques had developed such keen skills of non-visual observation that he could intuit through his senses when someone was truthful and trustworthy and when they were not. So Jacques was in charge of recruitment.

But the work was risky, and the Gestapo eventually found them. In prison as Jacques learned that his whole network of friends had been arrested, he knew it was likely they would all be killed. He prayed, he thought, he worried. "Then, by chance," he writes, "I hit my elbow hard on the wall. It hurt a little, and then did me a lot of good. I cried aloud, 'I am alive, I am alive.'

"One small piece of advice," he writes. "In a spot like this, don't go too far afield for help. Either it is right near you, in your heart, or it is nowhere… If you try to be strong, you will be weak. If you try to understand, you will go crazy… Reality is Here and Now. It is the life you are living in the moment. Don't be afraid to lose your soul there, for God is in it."[i]

Living in the moment, Jacques endured prison and brutal interrogation. Eventually he was crammed into a cattle car and transported to a German concentration camp.

He wrote about how the prisoners coped at Buchenwald. "All of us were naked, if not literally, to all effects. We had no rank, no dignity, no fortune left… and no face to save. Every man was cut down to himself, to what he really was."[ii] Jacques was perplexed by a criminal who years before had strangled his mother and his wife, but now freely shared his bread with others "at the risk of dying sooner." And an honest tradesman, the father of a fine family, who would "get up in the night to steal the bread of other men."[iii]

Jacques said that it was especially hard for the religious whose God no longer worked for them; hard for the respectable "who still ran after their lost respect;" and hard for the intellectuals who found their knowledge useless. Jacques writes, "The rich were the ones who did not think of themselves, or only rarely, for a minute or two in an emergency. They were the ones who had given up on the ridiculous notion that the concentration camp was the end of everything, a piece of hell, an unjust punishment, a wrong done them which they had not deserved. They were the ones who were hungry and cold and frightened like all the rest, who didn't hesitate to say so on occasion – why conceal the real state of things? – but who in the end didn't care. The rich were the ones who were not really there."[iv]

Like the old men over seventy, who seemed already "to belong to a better world." Jacques "found nothing but gladness" in them. "They absorbed Buchenwald as part of the great outpouring of the universe…"

"That is what you had to do to live in the camp: be engaged, not live for yourself alone. The self-centered life has no place in the world of the deported. You must go beyond it, lay hold on something outside yourself. Never mind how: by prayer, if you know how to pray; through another man's warmth which communicates with yours, or through yours which you pass on to him; or simply by no longer being greedy. Those happy old men… asked nothing more for themselves, and that put everything within their reach. Be engaged, no matter how, but be engaged."[v]

There is a vision. "If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay." Live in the here and now. It only takes a little faith, the size of a mustard seed. A little faith goes a long way. So do what you have to do. Be engaged. Be absorbed in the great outpouring of the universe. Do not live for yourself alone, but lay hold on something outside yourself. Enter the mystery of life until by your final duty, you enter the mystery of death. And if you can, be rich before that time; be nothing but gladness. Eventually it will all be light. Eternal light. Here and now, it doesn't even take eyes to see such light.

[i] Jacques Lusseyran, And There Was Light, Kindle location 3337
[ii] Ibid, location 3789
[iii] Ibid, location 3844
[iv] Ibid, location 3789
[v] Ibid, location 3836