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The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold was the 25th Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church USA, headquartered in New York, NY. He is retired.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

The Episcopal Church


Sermon for Proper 19

Hebrews 12:1-7 (8-10) 11-14

September 16, 2001

These two parables that Jesus sets before us--the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin--reveal God as a God who does not remain distant and remote but actively seeks us out and searches for us. And Jesus is the embodiment of God's yearning after us, God's desire to draw us to God's own self.

I think here of one of the psalms that has been very important in my life, Psalm 139. It goes like this:

Lord, you have searched me out and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up.
You discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting places
And are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips
But you, O Lord, know it all together.
You press upon me, behind and before,
And lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.
It is so high that I cannot attain to it.
Where can I go then from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there.
If I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me
And your right hand hold me fast.

A wonderful description of the God who searches us out, who seeks us, and goes with us to the far reaches of the earth and there enfolds and keeps us.

I think too of another Psalm: Psalm 27, in which the psalmist cries out to God, "You, O God, speak in my heart and say, 'Seek my face.'" And the psalmist replies to this interior voice of God speaking, "Your face, Lord, will I seek."

So the Gospels and the whole tradition of our faith are about God's seeking us and God's Word made flesh in the person of Jesus--seeking us not from afar, from some mountain top or the far reaches of the sea, but seeking us in the immediate and concrete context of our daily lives. Jesus, it's worth pointing out, in many respects led a quite ordinary life. He was so much a part of the fabric of his own immediate situation that people discounted him. You may remember in the Gospel of John when Jesus says, "I am the Bread of Life come down from heaven," the response of the people who hear him is, "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he say, 'I have come down from heaven?'" Or, again, Jesus' own observation that a prophet is without honor in his own hometown. So the ordinariness and immediacy of God's way with us in Christ is sometimes off-putting and yet this is the way in which God seeks us. God intimately yearns after us in the person of Christ. And this yearning, this intimacy, this immediacy, run counter to some of the more dramatic hopes and expectations we have about how God ought or should enter our lives. And yet, God in a wonderful way, and sometimes very ironic and humorous way, can use everything, everything to search us out and draw us to God's own self.

I come from a tradition that places high value on sacraments, and the sacramental way in which God encounters us through bread and wine, oil and water, human touch, the spoken word. These very ordinary things of everyday life can become the medium for God's own self-disclosure, become the way in which God in Christ can encounter us in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of the cup, in the waters of baptism, in the anointing of the sick, in the laying on of hands in healing or blessing, in the word of absolution spoken to a penitent. In all these ways, God can show up and surprise us and break into our lives in the full force of his compassion and love.

So the sacraments have taught me that everything, everything, can be used by God, even things that seem incidental or remote or even at times problematic in the ways in which God in Christ encounters me, breaks me open, draws me out of myself, draws me in this deeper intimacy and relationship with him.

Some years ago as I was serving as Bishop of Chicago, I was walking home at the end of a very arduous day, the kind of day in which I had fallen victim to self-pity, and I said to myself, "How did I ever get into this? Why do I have to suffer such indignities and all of that?" And as I walked home in the slough of despond, completely enwrapped in my own self-pity, I noticed a man sitting on the steps of a funeral home, and I thought, "Oh, boy, another street person. He's going to ask me for money." And I thought briefly of crossing to the other side of the street until I remembered a certain parable that Jesus told about the Good Samaritan and the priests all passing by on the other side of the road. And, therefore, I decided I better keep going. But I decided to walk swiftly and not to look in the direction of the man sitting on the steps. But out of the corner of my eye as I drew closer, I could see him sort of fill with air and sit up straighter, and I thought, "Oh, boy, here it comes, no matter what."

And as I got along side him, I did look at him. He looked at me, and he smiled this incredible smile, and he said, "Hey, man, you really look great! You really look great!" And that was it. There was no request for money. There was just this great smile and this affirmation that I really looked great. I looked down at myself and realized that I was wearing--as many Episcopal bishops do--a purple shirt. So I go, "Well, maybe it's the color that has engaged him." But be that as it may, I smiled back, I said, "Thank you," and I continued on my way with a spring in my step, released from my self-pity and desolation. And I realized as I reflected the rest of the way home on that chance encounter that Christ had met me in the man sitting on the steps of the funeral home and said, "Frank, I've had enough of this desolation and self-pity. Lighten up!" And the way in which Christ got through to me was through that flashing smile and "Hey, man, you really look great!"

So that's a sacramental moment. That's one of the ways in which I was surprised by grace in a way that completely undid me and took me out of myself. But there are other ways as well and I share some of these with you to encourage you to listen to your life, to look at the circumstances that determine the patterns of your own being because you may find there incredible grace buried under the surface of things if you simply expect more of God's encountering you in the ebb and flow of the daily round.

Sleep. Sleep is another place where I have been encountered, because when we're asleep we're in a state of undefendedness and vulnerability. I've had some incredible dreams that have been very important to me and continue to be important as markers in my own life, as reminders of God's action in my own deep self.

And then there have been odd moments when, for instance, I once heard a voice in my mind in the middle of sleep, and it addressed me in French. And I woke up and I thought, "What on earth is this?" I'd had French years ago in school--haven't used it for at least several decades--and then I translated it: "I am your true teacher and I will teach you all things." And I thought, "Who is this speaking to me?" Well, of course, it was Christ, and Christ got my attention in a very direct way by using French rather than English. Now this may seem remote and bizarre, but God is incredibly imaginative, and I think we're too circumscribed to God in God's own ways with us, and there are times when that phrase comes back to me, particularly when I'm facing difficult things, I say, "OK, Christ is my true teacher and he will teach me everything." And it's just the question then of my own staying with this, with my own being patient, and my not bolting and running off out of fear.

So there are many ways, many ways, in which God's intimacy in Christ is revealed to us. And there are several sentences I keep always before me that have been extremely helpful in this regard. One comes from the French philosopher and priest Pierre Tielhard de Chardin. He said, "By means of all created things without exception, the Divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us." And there are times when I want to rip up the letter someone had sent me, I want to slam the phone down, I want to stick my fingers in my ears, I want to throw the fax machine out the window and never receive a communication from anyone else again. And I say, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. 'By means of all created things without exception, the Divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us.' Frank, you're meant to receive this, you're meant to hear these words, and it's your response to them that makes the difference whether these become an occasion for grace and growth or become a way in which you shut God's deep desire out of your life."

And the other sentence comes from a man named James Finley, a disciple of Thomas Merton. He said, "A simple openness to the next human moment brings us into union with God in Christ." A simple openness to the next human moment brings us into union with God in Christ. I forget that frequently, but when I remember it, there is always grace in the occasion at hand.

So, questions you might ask yourselves:

"How is God seeking me today?"
"Is God seeking to speak to me through some unlikely person?"
"Is God speaking to me through a book I happen to pick up or an article I happen to see?"

Yes, these things may seem random and by chance, and yet I think they are profound ways in which God in Christ is seeking to draw close to us and be one with us. God's imagination and God's ways of seeking us are boundless. They're both gentle and fierce, subtle and ironic, obvious and overt. So, my friends, be ready to be found out by the God who seeks and searches, and don't resist. Receive God with an open heart.

Let us pray.

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment and light rises up in the darkness for the godly, grant us in all our doubts and uncertainties the grace to ask what you would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices and that in your life we may see life and in your straight path may not stumble through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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