A Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost

Year B – Proper 12 – 29 July 2012

John Edward Miller, Rector

 I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

 -Ephesians 3:14-21


The Collect

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


“You are so grounded.” That’s what an earnest mother decided she must say to her son. Her words conveyed the intensity of her feelings, but the comment was punitive; it was not meant as a compliment. Indeed, she had just made a pronouncement; and if you’ve said or heard such a thing, you know how the statement was intended. It came on the heels of an overnight escapade that had ended badly. The boy was AWOL, and had been caught sneaking back in just before sunrise. His transgression would cost him dearly; that much was clear. Life as he knew it was about to change. The conviction on the mother’s face was the direct opposite of the guilty look on his.

“Grounded” is a word with a checkered history. It can be a trendy catch phrase, or it can be a significant statement of truth. In the scene just described we get the former sense. The boy’s mom was simply using a colloquial idiom to render a just sentence on her wayward child. Being “grounded” here means a temporary punishment – a stripping away of freedom and entitlements, because someone has broken the rules. Parents use it as a tool to regain control, and make their children straighten up and fly right. Their “grounded” children will tell you it’s just a notch or two above incarceration. But for both parent and child, the meaning of the expression is clearly negative. Neither the one who does the grounding nor the one who gets grounded has the upper hand. One has to be the warden, while the other does the penance.

But the word “grounded” is much more than a stylish idiom. It has also had a variety of serious meanings, ranging from the technical to the sublime. These uses of the word have a common denominator to which we can all relate, and that denominator is the earth itself. The earth is our planetary platform for our journey through time and space. It serves us literally and figuratively as the solid foundation for our life. So, it is little wonder that the earth connection – our grounding – is something that we take seriously. When we say, “grounded,” the reference may be literal one, an existential one, or one that involves truth and the realm of the spirit. Grounding may be for practical purposes, or for safety’s sake, or for the sake of authenticity, or wholesomeness, or something that transcends the present. But in every case, the ground reference has a direct bearing on life.

For example, in the field of aviation grounding is a safety precaution. Pilots all know what “grounded” means. For them it is a dreaded condition – one that forbids an aviator to take off. An order of that sort clips the wings of a pilot; it keeps him literally on the ground. However, for both the pilot and his passengers, it can be a lifesaving judgment call.

In electronics it is always good to be grounded. If you’ve ignored this piece of wisdom, then you may have already learned that shocking truth. What that entails is “connecting of electrical equipment and wiring systems to the earth by a wire or other conductor. The primary purpose of grounding is to reduce the risk of serious electric shock from current leaking into uninsulated metal parts of an appliance, power tool, or other electrical device.[1] Electrical power is serious stuff; our wellbeing, if not our life, depends on respecting its potential for good or harm. It is always important to know that one’s circuitry is grounded.

Connecting to the earth can also have an existential benefit. When I was a child, I had an aversion to cemeteries. Actually, I had a morbid fear of them. My dad’s health was extremely fragile, and so as a child, I connected the dots between his condition and our mortality. Thus, when I came to St. Mary’s, I had some serious adjusting to do. My first office looked out over the portion of the churchyard containing the earliest burials in our parish history. At first it was a challenge for me, but gradually, with the change of the seasons and the goings to and fro of deer and fox and wild turkeys, I became accustomed to looking out over those old stones. Holt Souder taught me to treat the cemetery as a vital part (so to speak) of our community. And from Parson Holt I inherited the sacred opportunity to be the keeper of the churchyard. For over thirty years now, I have marked graves, met the gravedigger, conducted services of committal, cast real earth on the coffins of the dead, saying, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I have stood silently while the graves were closed, and all of the sod is replaced and tamped down. My Burial Office book is torn and tattered and filled with grains of red Goochland soil. I love that battered book. My associate Christopher Brookfield gave it to me when I was ordained. With his usual wit he stuck a note in it which read, “I hope this will be helpful to you; it has been a real life-saver for me.” He was right. It has helped me become grounded. Now I feel only comfort when I walk through the churchyard. I feel connected not only to the earth, but also to the lives of those who rest in peace in this sacred ground.

Touching the earth with bare hands, and standing on the earth barefooted, is a powerful reminder of our beginning, and our end, as creatures. In Genesis God scoops up Eden’s moist earth and forms the first human with his hands. The Hebrew text says that the Creator molded Adam from the adamah – the earth. Then God held his freshly-sculpted creature and breathed into Adam’s nostrils, making him a living being.[2] That inspiration gets us going; although we are earthy, and not ethereal, in origin, our dust is not simply dust. We are created for a purpose. Our role is to represent ( i.e., re-present) our Creator in this world; we are made in God’s image, and our destiny is to conduct our life in a manner that is godly. To do that, however, is difficult. Our earthiness distracts us, and weighs us down. Our life, as God intends it, needs continuous inspiration. 

That need was foremost in Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians. The Apostle’s desire was that God would animate his people – that is, literally enliven us – with a kind of resuscitation that only God can give. Thus he prayed that God

 . . . may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.[3]

Paul’s hope was that we, like the Ephesians, might be aware of God’s constant gift, waking up and arising to new life, refreshed by the knowledge that we are being “rooted and grounded in love.”

Paul Tillich, who lived 20 centuries after his namesake, advanced the Apostle’s purpose in our time by taking his stand “on the boundary” between philosophy and theology. Tillich’s method was to correlate existential questions with theological answers. When it came to the question of God, Tillich courageously pursued it beyond all established doctrine to a radical place. And here I should explain that “radical” does not mean heretical. It comes from the Latin, radix, which means “root.” Tillich plunged into the depth of the matter instead of seeking to get to a place above and beyond the ground where we live and move and have our being. What he declared was that God was not a being among other beings, even if that assumed that God is the highest being. Tillich’s understanding is that God is the depth or ground of all being; God is being itself – that which makes all other forms of being possible.[4]  And the ground of all being is love.    

Our consciousness of this ground of all things is the connection that feeds and supports real life – life empowered by the spirit of New Being. This is the “new creation’ of which Paul speaks in his epistles.[5] It is the state of being in which sin, which is separation or alienation, according to Tillich, is overcome, and death is transcended by new life. And the re-creation comes into sharp focus in Jesus, who offers us the love of God. Tillich said: 

 The New Being is manifest in the Christ because in Him the separation never overcame the unity between Him and God, between Him and mankind, between Him and Himself. This gives His picture in the Gospels its overwhelming and inexhaustible power. In Him we look at a human life that maintained the union in spite of everything that drove Him into separation. He represents and mediates the power of the New Being because He represents and mediates the power of an undisrupted union. Where the New Reality appears, one feels united with God, the ground and meaning of one’s existence. One has what has been called the love of one’s destiny, and what, today, we might call the courage to take upon ourselves our own anxiety. Then one has the astonishing experience of feeling reunited with one’s self, not in pride and false self-satisfaction, but in a deep self-acceptance. One accepts one’s self as something which is eternally important, eternally loved, eternally accepted.[6]  

 Our parish secretary, Lori Smiley, is one of my guides in this life. Her wisdom is a gift that our staff shares as a regular benefit. Lori recently asked what my sermon would be based upon this week. When I replied that I was exploring Paul’s insight about our being “rooted and grounded in love,” she said, “People who are grounded in God have no need to change others.” Exactly, I thought. Love is unconditional acceptance. When we experience love like that, we are touched by a power that builds up and restores and redeems us. It tells us, “You are accepted just as you are.” That is our ground; that is the breath of God filling our nostrils, our lungs, our whole being. That is gift of life.

It may take a while to trust the gift and the Giver. We earthlings have a tendency to think we can do this thing called living on our own, and on our own terms. In the face of such grace as this, we resist, holding our breath, hesitating to inhale. But if we relax, and let go, the inspiration is at our access, always. Accepting the gift is an acquired taste; receiving it requires as much grace as the gift itself offers. 

I learned that from my father, and my mother. In 1953, when I was five, my father was rushed by ambulance to MCV. He was having difficulty breathing, and his strong, muscular frame was being overtaken by paralysis. Soon, he would ceased breathing on his own, and was put on life support. The diagnosis was “polio,” a disease that attacked his neuromuscular system, causing him to lose the capacity to function from the neck down. It was as if the ground below his feet had given way; he was in freefall. Dad was placed in an artificial respirator called an iron lung. The machine was a piece of simple genius. It was designed to breathe for the patient, who was inside its metal tube. At one end was a great bellows, working like our diaphragm; at the other end the patient’s head stuck out through a foam rubber gasket. When the bellows expanded, a negative pressure created a vacuum inside the tube. And because nature abhors a vacuum, the patient’s nostrils and mouth, exposed to the outside, would become the channel for air to rush in to fill the vacuum.

It was a brilliant concept. It worked well, but only if the patient was willing to let go of fear, and to trust the machine. I am told that Dad, like all others who were placed inside the iron lung, had great difficulty at first. His life was hanging by a delicate thread. But he had my mother constantly with him. She prayed, and coaxed, and coached him through the crisis. With her help, he relaxed, and let the breath of life in. Love saw him through. Love kept him alive and vibrant, although greatly impaired by polio, for the subsequent thirty-five years. Love was the ground of his being. My brother and I were witnesses to a miracle, and we are beneficiaries of the power of New Being. The challenge now, is for me to let go of fear, and to trust, and to breathe. Love is the ground beneath my feet. I am learning to put my full weight on that foundation.

In another letter to Christians like you and me, Paul wrote that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[7] Thanks be to God that we are so grounded. Amen.  



[2] Genesis 2:7.

[3] Ephesians 3:16-19.

[4] For an excellent summary of Paul Tillich’s contributions to 20th century theology, please see William E. Hordern, A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968), pp. 170-190. 

[5] E.g., Galatians 6:15: “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”

[6] Paul Tillich, “The New Being,” a sermon in his collection entitled, The New Being (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955). P. 22.

[7] I Corinthians 13:7-8.