Saturday, November 15, 2014

Enter Into the Joy of Your Master

Enter Into the Joy of Your Master
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
November 16, 2014; 23 Pentecost, Proper 28, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Matthew 25:14-30 – Jesus said, "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"
_____________________

This parable is not a story in praise of the Protestant work ethic – the notion that if you work hard and live frugally, you will make evident your virtue and your salvation, and God will bless you. Like the third little pig, who sternly built his house with brick and didn't waste his time with music or dance. You'll just have to go to another church to hear that sermon. More important: Jesus' listeners would have never heard that work ethic message from this parable.

This parable is a story about a harsh man who reaps where he doesn't sow and gathers where he didn't scatter seed – a man who can strike fear and intimidation into others so that they will do morally questionable things in order to further his wealth and power, in order to enter into the joy of their master. You might want to hear that last phrase spoken in the voice of the Dark Sith Lord of Star Wars, the Emperor Darth Sidious – "Anakin. Enter into the joy of your master."

So, a little background information: As far as we know, there was no banking system in first century Palestine. If a wealthy person needed to go on a journey and could not take all of his money with him, he would entrust his money to the safekeeping of a reliable friend or servant. It was called leaving the money on deposit, a very common practice. In early Christian worship, part of the liturgy included the congregation's making a pledge to deal honestly with money left with them on deposit.

Jewish rabbis taught that the best way to protect money left with you on deposit would be to bury the money in the ground. One who took such precaution would be free of any liability from its loss. The third slave in Jesus' parable followed the correct religious teaching.

Here are a few other related points: Roman law limited interest rates to a maximum of 12%. The book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scripture forbids charging any interest whatsoever to fellow Israelites. Interest may be charged to foreigners, however. During the Middle Ages, the Christian church considered lending or usury as a particularly heinous sin. In Luke's gospel, Jesus said simply, "Lend, expecting nothing in return."

So, what about these other slaves who return the master's money doubled – a 100% return on investment. The crowd of Jesus' listeners would have murmured knowingly. For anyone to double their money in first century Palestine, they must have done something exploitative, probably illegal and certainly immoral. [i]

What the first two slaves did violated the religious teachings and the moral sensitivities that Jesus would have expected from those who listened to his parables and those who followed him. But what the first two slaves did was not uncommon, and it did not violate the expectations or practice of certain powerful and wealthy elites who exploited the occupied provinces for their ambition and avarice in the competitive world of the Roman aristocracy. In this parable, two worlds collide – the Empire's elite and the faithful, humble common person. Jesus simply exposed a reality that has not quite disappeared from our world today. It is as true today as it was when Jesus taught -- "to all those who have, more will be given and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. Still the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

I sat next to an interesting person at an out-of-town dinner this week. Allan is bright, gregarious, and a delightful conversationalist. He told me he used to live in Northwest Arkansas. He started out up here in sales. Allan was a good salesman. His product was a respectable one, but he offered some clues that implied that sometimes he realized that purchasing his product might not be in the best interest of all of his customers. Allan did well, though; well enough to be promoted into management, where he found himself mostly dealing with numbers rather than people. But he was making a whole lot of money.

Allan sensed that he was missing something, and so, at mid-life, he made a dramatic career adjustment. Part of his discomfort occurred when Allan's father became ill, and Allan was too far away and had too many job responsibilities to be very present and available to his father. His father had died, and now his mother was getting older. Allan missed the woods and the landscape of home. Also, there was something in his soul that wasn't being fed by his high paying corporate management job.

Allan jumped at the opportunity to move back home to direct a network of small, non-profit rural medical clinics focused on serving the poor and uninsured. He was glad to be working with people again. He was proud to be doing something he really believed in, a vocation that fed his soul. He was happy to be near his family and back in the woods, in touch with the energies that nurture a deep place in his heart.

When he talked about his son, it struck me that Allan's example might have rubbed off on the young man's character also. His son is a good athlete, and, like Allan, a pretty big boy. But when the consuming time and sacrifices of playing football competed with his love of hunting and the outdoors, the young man told the all-demanding football coach "good bye" and returned to his first love. Allen grinned ear to ear talking about some of their shared adventures in the woods. Underneath his narrative, I could hear a soft, gentle breeze through the leaves whispering to them, "Enter into the joy of your Master."

I know there are many in this room who are grateful to have a job, any job. There are others who are unemployed and need work, any work. Many people are not in a position like Allen was, to consider a change of employment as an adjustment toward a more wholesome lifestyle.

But there are others who may be in work that might prompt them toward some soulful questions. Is what I am doing something of deep value to common good? Can I be proud of the service or product I offer? Am I able to do my work with a sense of integrity and honor? Am I part of a virtuous business system? Does working in this job fulfill my calling to be a whole and balanced person? Does this work demand too much of me, too much of my soul, too much of my life?

There are harsh businesses environments which can strike fear and intimidation into employees so that they will do questionable things in order to further the wealth and power of the business. Their masters will often exercise control by rewarding their good and trustworthy slaves with great return on investment. But at what cost?

Does this parable speak to you and to your circumstance? Whose slave are you? If you are to enter into the joy of your master, who is your master? For some of us, Jesus' parable might be a poignant invitation to ask ourselves some soulful questions.

What does it mean for you to enter into the joy of your master?


[i] Again I am thankful to my friend Paul McCracken, archeologist and scholar of the Jerusalem Institute for Biblical Exploration, for his weekly blog, Nov. 11, 2014 – bookncatz@msn.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, November 01, 2014

Mind Boggling and Fantastic

Mind Boggling and Fantastic

Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
November 2, 2014; All Saints' Sunday, Year A
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Matthew 5:1-12 – When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."


__________________________________

At least since 1997, scientists have been exploring evidence that describes nature as a kind of hologram. The idea is that the information about what happens in our three-dimensional world is encoded in quantum equations on the two-dimensional boundary of three-dimensional space/time. (I hope I get this right.)

Imagine the universe shaped like a can of soup with a boundary of light-energy-information. Inside the can-shaped boundary are all of the galaxies, stars, black holes, gravity, and us – everything in what we call the universe. The information describing all of these realities resides like a label on the outside of the boundary, on the outside of the can. From that two-dimensional boundary our three-dimensional world exists like a physical 3-D movie projected from the two-dimensional boundary of the universe. All of the information that is us – our universe – resides at the cosmological horizon and is universally accessible.

Now, I don't know if I got that right. I know I can get Art Hobson or Lothar Shafer to correct my science. I may be wrong in my details, but I know I'm correct in spirit. The nature of the universe, as scientists now explore it, is mind-boggling and wonderfully fantastic. We'll come back to this.


The Beatitudes that we just heard from Matthew's gospel are also mind-boggling and wonderfully fantastic. Matthew beautifully summarizes Jesus' spiritual teaching in these ten "Blessings." The word here translated "Blessed" can also be translated "Happy." How blessed and happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the reviled and persecuted, and so forth.

But at first glance, it doesn't make much sense, does it? I'm not about to go up to someone overwhelmed with grief because their loved one has just died tragically, and say, "How blessed and happy are you, for you will be comforted." I'm not about go up to someone whose life is so meek and marginal that they don't know where the next meal will come from, and say to them, "How happy and blessed are you; you are going to inherit the earth."

But Jesus says all of these things, and they turn our minds inside out. It is like he is saying that life is radically different than our experience of it.

When we experience spiritual poverty, he is saying that we are already embraced by the kingdom of heaven. When we mourn our losses, he says we are already living within a comforting reality transcending all we can lose. He tells us we need no merit or status to be given the whole. Our deepest frustrations and yearnings can and will be satisfied. We can relax. So can everyone else. Jesus tells us that when we let go of all the distractions, we experience God. And when we live in God's energy, we discover we are God's beloved children. Therefore, if others attack or hurt or punish us for acting out of loving compassion, they can't really hurt us. We are always and everywhere embraced within the eternally loving vitality of God.

Jesus poses these wild assertions as facts. Facts as real and true as the law of gravity. The Beatitudes are spiritual realities of a universe breathed into being by the wisdom of divine love. That's mind-boggling and utterly fantastic.

So, back to our universe shaped like a can with all of the information of the galaxies and every living thing residing on the edge of the boundary. Remember, scientists talk in metaphors like this.

James Finley is a writer and retreat leader who was a student of Thomas Merton. Finley uses a different metaphor – a magician. When a magician says, "Pick a card, any card," you already know, it doesn't matter which card you pick, the magician will inexplicably find it in your pocket or behind your ear.

Now, Finley says, imagine you are out walking on the beach and God says, "Go ahead, pick a grain of sand, any grain." No matter what grain of sand you choose, God is present in it. Since God is not subject to division or diminishment of any kind, God is completely present in that one little grain of sand. Furthermore, since the whole universe flows from God, is sustained by God and subsists in God, you are holding in your hand a grain of sand in which you, along with the whole universe and everyone and everything in it, is wholly present.

Mind-boggling and utterly fantastic.

Finley goes on to imagine God inviting you to pick a place, any place; pick a circumstance, any circumstance where you might find yourself. Wherever you are, God is there. God invites you to choose something like that grain of sand – anything at all – an autumn leaf, a chair, a shoe – "No matter what you might choose, you realize you are choosing something in which God is wholly present, loving you, and all people and all things, into being."

Then God invites you to reflect on any aspect of yourself. Your spiritual poverty, your grief, your smallness, your yearnings, your most generous self, your heart's desire, your goodness, your fears, your most threatening circumstances. That's just the list from the Beatitudes -- parts of us that are always with us.

God invites you to reflect on any aspect of yourself. No matter what aspect of yourself you focus on, God is there, wholly present in each breath, each thought and feeling, each turn of your head. You realize, as you sit, that God is present as the ungraspable immediacy of your sitting. As you stand, God is there as the ungraspable immediacy of your standing. As you laugh, God is there as your laughter. As you cry, God is wholly present in each tear that falls from your eyes.

It does not matter what little thing you might choose, within or around you. It might just be the thing that awakens you from your fitful dream of being separate from God, who is the reality of yourself and all that is real. May each of us be so fortunate as to be overtaken by God in the midst of little things. May we each be so blessed as to be finished off by God, swooping down from above or welling up from beneath, to extinguish the illusion of separateness that perpetuates our fears. May we, in having our illusory, separate self slane by God, be born into a new and true awareness of who we really are: one with God forever. May we continue on in this true awareness, seeing in each and every little thing we see, the fullness of God's presence in our lives. May we also be someone in whose presence others are better able to recognize God's presence in their lives, so that they, too, might know the freedom of the children of God.[i]

The scientists say we are inseparable from the information at the edge of the universe. Jesus and the mystics say, Blessed are those who know that they are inseparable from the love and grace of God immediately present within us and all creation. Blessed are you, beloved children of God.


[i] James Finley, Epilogue, from Oneing: The Perennial Tradition, Center for Action and Contemplation, 2013

___________________

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, October 25, 2014

Learning from Philip

Learning from Philip
Sermon preached by the Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas
October 26, 2014; 20 Pentecost, Proper 24, Year A, Track 2
Episcopal Revised Common Lectionary

Matthew 22:34-46 – When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
                 `The Lord said to my Lord,
"Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet"'?
 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

__________________________________

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself."

It was a cold morning. I was driving toward my church in Fort Smith to open up for the early service. There was no traffic at that hour. Back then I drove a 1937 Chevy street rod. Kathy called that car my mid-life crisis. It was a pretty toy that ended up becoming a pretty expensive toy. But that morning, driving down an empty street, the light turned red on me. I stopped, and a small, cold looking fellow in Army fatigues wobbled a bit unsteadily across the street, his breath visible in the chill. Instead of staying in the crosswalk in front of my car, he headed right toward me. My first reaction was an anxious one, but then he grinned a big wide smile, exaggerated by his missing two-front-teeth. He signaled for me to roll down my window. I rolled down my window. "Hey Father, how much would you take for that car? I wanna buy your car?"

"I think my wife would give it to you, but I'm pretty attached to it," I said.

"I like that car, Father," he chuckled, his blood-shot eyes glistening. I caught a whiff of what he must have been drinking that night to keep himself warm. "I'm gonna buy that car from you," he laughed as he walked on, crossing in front of me.

It was weeks, maybe months later, when I got a call from one of our local recovery programs. They said a fellow named Philip had checked in to their 30-day detox and rehab center. When they asked him about his income, he told them he was on disability. When they asked who his payee was, he said, "The Father down at the Episcopal Church." "Are you the Father down at the Episcopal Church?" "Yes," I said. "But what's a payee?"

So they explained the system to me. When someone is placed on disability for addiction, the government requires a payee to serve as the party responsible for administering the funds for the disabled person. The rehab center needed a payee to cover the costs of Philip's stay with them.

"Well," I said, "the name Philip doesn't ring a bell with me, but if he says I'm his payee, I'll be glad to come down and see what the situation is." It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

It seems Philip's payee had been fleecing money from him, and Philip liked my car. So when they asked him who his payee was, he just made it up and said I was. We talked a while. I learned about the responsibilities of a payee. And we made a deal. I'd be his payee and take care of his living costs as long as he was sober. If he started drinking though, I'd put his money in the bank for him. I wasn't going to pay for his drinking. Until he was sober again, he was on his own. Philip grinned that big, toothless grin and we shook on it.

We got him set up in a pretty spare furnished apartment. I didn't know what I was doing and made some mistakes at first. I wrote up a budget and schedule for him for rent and food and essentials. A couple of days later he came back. "Father, don't be mad at me. I gave away the money to a poor family with two children." "Okay," I said, admiring his generosity but anxious about his own slim margins. "How much did you give them?" "Oh, all of it, Father," "What? Nearly $400? That was everything you had to live on for the whole month." (It was the first week of the month.) "Oh, Father. They need it more than I do. They have children to take care of. I got one of them a little Teddy Bear," he grinned. "Philip…!" I moaned. "No wait, Father. Don't be upset with me. They really need it, for those children. I can get by just fine. Why I could go down on Garrison Avenue right now and panhandle, and I could get ten dollars, twenty in half an hour. Maybe even more. One time a guy gave me a fifty dollar bill. Can you imagine that? Fifty bucks! Wow. I felt rich. He must have been rich."

I  learned something fascinating. Philip felt absolutely secure. Philip knew he could take care of himself. He didn't have to have income in order to get by. He didn't have to have a home to be just fine. More than once he said to me, "The good Lord will take care of me. He's never failed me. I believe that. You believe that too, don't you, Father?" And he looked at me in a way that made me wonder about my own level of trust.

Philip's sense of security and unattachment to money made him free in a way that I am not free. Free enough to give all of his money to a family poorer then he was simply because they had children. Often Philip acted with spontaneous, radical generosity that just amazed me. Philip needed to plan in order to keep enough money for his rent and utilities. I had to adjust my plan for him as his payee to account for his radical generosity.

Now, I'm not built like Philip. I'm not spontaneous and radically generous as he. I'm also not that secure or that free. I need to plan in order to be generous, in order to give money to good things before I rationalize my wants into exaggerated needs.

You see I find it is easy for me to exaggerate my needs and to get very attached to my wants. I can rationalize buying a 1937 Chevy street rod. I needed that car. Actually, it is my appetites need some discipline.

Unlike Philip, I need to plan in order to be generous. I like making a plan to give away a known percentage of my income as an act of gratitude to God for all that I enjoy, and as an act of generosity toward some things I believe in and want to support. I think tithing is a satisfying and fulfilling act that generates in us some of the joy that Philip experienced whenever he gave to children.

I encourage you to make a plan in order to be generous. Give away a known percentage of your income. Give it to St. Paul's, and to KUAF and 7hills or to whatever you believe in. Give spontaneously whenever we have our Community Kids Closet drive to get winter coats for kids or when we help John Agana ship a container to his home in Ghana.

Give because you need to. Give because you are so happy to be able to give. Give because you've got a home and electricity and water. Give because it feels good. Give because you can do better things with your money than buy whatever your version of a 1937 Chevy street rod might be.

And be glad. Giving is a way of loving. Give to God because you love God. Give as a way of loving your neighbor as yourself.

Give to St. Paul's because you love God, and because everything we do is about Jesus' liberating commandment of love – Love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself. That's what we're trying to do – as spontaneously and generously as we can.
___________________________

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, October 18, 2014

Whose Eikōn is this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



[i] Robert Sardello, The Contemplative Action of Devotion, published in Oneing: The Perennial Tradition, Franciscan Media, 2014.
[ii] http://wallyodum.blogspot.com/2008_02_23_archive.html

____________________________

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, September 20, 2014

It's Not Fair

It's Not Fair

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's not fair.


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

Saturday, September 06, 2014

A Joyful Mind

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

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

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

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

Following the news lately has been terribly demoralizing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

__________________________________________

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance and love.

For information about St. Paul's Episcopal Church and its life and mission, please contact us at
P.O. Box 1190, Fayetteville, AR 72702, or call 479/442-7373
More sermon texts are posted on our web site: www.stpaulsfay.org
Click the “Video Online” button to watch full services and sermons live-streamed or archived.