Sunday, April 16, 2017

Why Are We Here? For Proclamation

Brad Sullivan
Easter Vigil, Year A
April 15, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Matthew 28:1-10

Why Are We Here?  For Proclamation

What are we doing here?  It’s Saturday night on a long weekend.  We could be out on the town; or staying at home, relaxing; or watching the new Star Wars preview for the 17th, 18th, and 19th times no YouTube.  Instead we’re here in church, doing much the same thing and in the same place where we are going to be tomorrow morning.  We’ve spent the last 40 days of our Lenten journey preparing for this night.  As Jesus spent 40 days in the desert preparing for his ministry and death, as his disciples spent three years with Jesus preparing for their new life in him, we have been preparing.  We’ve been learning from Jesus, learning to follow in his way.  We’ve been working at re-membering, at joining ourselves back to him.  We’ve been learning to rely more and more on Jesus through our Lenten journey.

Not so tonight.  Tonight is different.  What are we doing here tonight?  Tonight we are proclaiming:  “The tomb is empty and Jesus is risen.”  That is what Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph did on the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  Theirs was the first joy of proclamation. 

They had gone to the tomb, and the tomb should have smelled of decay, of blood and sweat, and death, but it didn’t.  The tomb was empty, and rather than decay, the tomb smelled of new earth and rock, clean and pure.  It smelled of new life and new creation, for that is what the empty tomb was, new life.

On the first day of the week, the same day when God proclaimed, “Let there be light,” an angel of light rolled back the stone of Jesus’ empty tomb and showed the women the new life and new creation that had been brought about through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They saw the new light and new life that God had created once again, and then they went.

They went to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection, and Jesus met them on the way.  The new life and new creation itself met them, and he smelled of Eden, of earth and trees, of grass and fruit, of life and spring.  Seeing him was like seeing the sun rise on a beautiful field after a long, dark, frightful night.

They saw him, and they touched him, this new creation, and then they began their proclamation, the proclamation of the church that has continued on ever since and continues on this very night, across the whole earth, and in this very room.  The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, of new life and new creation continues on in our lives of service, of prayer, of conversation, and love.  The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection continues on in each person who is baptized in his name.

The act of cleansing, of washing away darkness and following in Jesus’ light is an act of proclamation that the tomb is empty.  Blood, and death, and decay have been washed away and transformed into new earth, new life, new light.  That is what we are here to do tonight, to continue the proclamation, that God has taken the darkness of the world and said once again, “Let there be light,” for the tomb is empty, and Jesus is risen.

Friday, April 14, 2017

So, I Tend to Be Kinda Grouchy

Brad Sullivan
Maundy Thursday, Year A
April 13, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

So, I Tend to Be Kinda Grouchy

I tend to be kinda grouchy.  There’s my Good Friday confession a little bit early. 

So this has been for me a fantastic Lent.  Lent is generally my favorite time of year because it’s this time of year when we get to be more intentional than usual in seeking help from God in some aspect of life, or we seek to give something up so we can further our dependence on God, and this Lent I had not come up with anything to give up by the first Sunday of Lent.  Ash Wednesday came and went, and I was thinking, “I don’t know.  I don’t eat much chocolate so that’s not going to do much…” 

Then I was talking to a Gentleman on the morning of the first Sunday of Lent, and he was talking about how Lent had been great.  He had this laundry list of things he had given up.  We’re talking chewing tobacco, coffee, alcohol, every coping mechanism a person could have, and he had gotten rid of all of them, and so I was thinking, “That’s gotta stink…,” but it had been a fantastic Lent for him because every time he started thinking about, “I really want this, or I really want that,” he took it as an opportunity to pray.  So, he was loving it, because it was this constant drawing nearer to God that he got to have.  I was thinking, “Thank you!  That should have been obvious, but thank you, and that’s what I’m going to do now.”

So, I decided to give up being grouchy for Lent.  There was one night when I was angry and upset, and it wasn’t really about my life, it was listening to the news and hearing about all the awful stuff and getting so incensed about all the bad things in the world and finally saying, with tears streaming down, “God, I cannot take this anymore.  Please get rid of this.  Get rid of this anger.  Get rid of this overreaction to everything.  I don’t want it anymore; I’m done with it,” and he took it. 

It was gone, and I felt fantastic.  I was less grouchy, less grumpy.  I had a greater capacity to be a loving person.  That has been my Lenten practice for the rest of Lent.  Every time I start getting agitated, or worried, or upset about something, I stop, and I pray, “God, please take this from me.  I don’t want to deal with it.  I can’t deal with it.  Please take this from me.”  Then I can go about and deal with whatever was getting me upset in a much more loving way. 

So it has been a fantastic Lent, and I offer that story because we’re coming to the end of Lent.  We’re starting what’s known as the Tridium, the three days, and Maundy Thursday as we’re remembering our abandonment of Jesus at the end of this service.  We’re remembering, tomorrow, the crucifixion of Jesus and the horrors of humanity.  Talk about grouchy, here was a guy loved people far too much for humanity to allow him to live, and so we’ll be remembering just how huge our capacity for atrocities and darkness is. 

Jesus knew that was coming, so he gave his disciples this new commandment, and knowing full well his disciples’ and our capacity for darkness, his final commandment was not a warning against darkness.  His final commandment was not, “Guys, try not to be terrible jerks to each other.” 

His final commandment was “Love one another.  Even as I have love you, love one another,” which tells me that despite our capacity for darkness, Jesus knows that we have a capacity for love, and not just a capacity for love, we have every bit as large a capacity for love as he does.  He didn’t say, love one another kinda like, near to how I have loved you.  He said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” 

We were made in God’s image.  Jesus was fully human.  So, every bit as much the capacity for love that Jesus has, so do we have.  That is what he left his disciples with on the night that he knew they were going to leave.  Amidst all of the darkness of the world, amidst all of the darkness that was to come, he wanted them to remember and to live out their capacity for love. 

That is what I have found this Lent in asking this continual prayer of help from God, that ultimately, asking God to help us to take away the darkness leaves us free to love.  Jesus has taken care of our darkness.  He has taken it, and he asks us continually to offer it to him, so that we then may be free to live out a life of love, a life full of every bit as much love for one another as he has for us.   

Monday, April 3, 2017

We’ll never be transformed if we aren’t willing to walk into the tomb.

Brad Sullivan
5 Lent, Year A
April 2, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
John 11:1-45

We’ll never be transformed if we aren’t willing to walk into the tomb.

Thinking about the raising of Lazarus from the dead got me thinking about death and the fear of death, and that got me thinking about Star Wars.  To be fair, most things do, but fear of death is a recurring theme in the Star Wars saga.  In Star Wars there is something called “the Force,” an almost divine-like force that some people can tap into and use to perform great feats and do great good.  There are others who can tap into the force, but use it selfishly.  The way they use the Force is called The Dark Side, and through The Dark Side, they bring about great evil.  The tragic hero of Star Wars, Anakin, is one of these good force users, but he is particularly afraid of death and the death of those he loves.  So when he receives a vision of his wife dying, he is terrified, and he seeks the advice of the wise, old Master Yoda. 

Anakin explains this vision of death, and Yoda says, "Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin! The fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side."
"I won't let my visions come true, Master Yoda," Anakin replies.
Yoda says, "Rejoice for those around us who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy, the shadow of greed, that is."
"What must I do, Master Yoda?"  Anakin asks.
"Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose."

Sadly, Anakin didn’t really take Yoda’s advice and through his fear of death and loss, he ended up acquiring great power through The Dark Side and became an embodiment of evil, the infamous Darth Vader.  Anakin was unwilling to face the tomb, for his life and the life of those he loved, and so he became and brought about the very thing he feared.  

Now most of us aren’t going to become an embodiment of evil because of our fears, and yet Yoda’s advice still applies to us.  “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”  Jesus said something similar in his teachings about not worrying and about losing our lives.  Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will wear, Jesus taught.  “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34)  Worrying, he taught, won’t change anything or help you in any way, but it will make you afraid and miserable.  Closely tied to not worrying was Jesus’ teaching about our lives.  He taught us to let go of that which we fear to lose.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus said,  “and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

How much of our time is spent, like Anakin, “sensing the future”, worrying about some possible future catastrophe?  How much of our resources are spent trying to stave off death?  We fear, we worry, and we take actions that are guided by our fear and our worry of death and loss, and those actions usually bring about greater death and loss. 
Jesus would prefer that we let go of that which we fear to lose and trust instead in him.  That’s what he showed us in his raising of Lazarus from the dead.  When Lazarus was deathly ill, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus, and Jesus apparently had every intention of healing Lazarus, but only after he died first, right?  Jesus waited around and let Lazarus die before he healed him, and he did so for two reasons:  one so that people could see that he, that God, has power even over death, and two because it was very important to Jesus that people believe in him.

Jesus waited around till Lazarus was good and dead before deciding to go to see him in Bethany “so that [he], the Son of God [would] be glorified through [Lazarus’ death and being raised from the dead].”  See, just before this story, Jesus had been in Jerusalem and had given sight to a man who was born blind, a miracle so great that no one had ever heard of anything like that ever happening before.  Many who did not see Jesus actually perform this miracle, however, did not believe that Jesus had done this, and later, many of them even tried to kill Jesus for claiming to be God’s son. 

So, Jesus left Jerusalem, went away across the Jordan River and then received word that Lazarus was sick.  When he arrived in Bethany which was very close to Jerusalem, with Lazarus already dead, many Jews from Jerusalem were there mourning with Martha and Mary.  Ok so, we don’t know if these were the same people who tried to kill Jesus, but they were from the same place where those doubts and death threats had come.  In fact, Jesus’ disciples were afraid of going so near to Jerusalem, believing that they were going to be killed, since last time they were there, people tried to kill Jesus. 

So, Jesus returned to Bethany to show people from Jerusalem not only a healing, but to show them that he had power to raise the dead back to life.  Jesus wanted these people to believe in him.  It was important enough to Jesus that people believe in him, in fact, that he waited for Lazarus to die and risked being killed in order to show that he truly was God’s son, and those who saw believed.

So why was it so important to Jesus that people believe in him, that he would risk so much?  Because Jesus wanted to heal them too, and believing in him was the healing they needed.  They needed to believe in him who is the light and life of all creation.  They needed to believe in his power over death.  They needed to believe that his teachings were true, that they could let go of that which they feared to lose, and trust in him.  Jesus wanted them and us to believe in him because Jesus knows what our worries and fears bring us when we follow after the ways of our worries and fears. 

Ultimately, our worries and fears bring us to The Dark Side, to Darth Vader.  Consider when we don’t trust in Jesus and don’t follow in his teachings.  Times when we have been hurt and we don’t let go of that hurt, we don’t forgive, and we cause greater strife.  Times when because of our hurt and our perceived righteousness, we retaliate and cause further harm.  Consider how much suffering is caused by our epic battle with death.  How many are killed in order to protect the lives of others.  Consider the suffering caused by our battle with all kinds of death:  physical, emotional, relational, death of goals, dreams, etc.  How often do we try to stave off and prevent death at all cost, rather than accepting death and trusting our lives and our deaths with Jesus?

Trusting in Jesus, believing in him, means letting go of that which we fear to lose.  Trusting in Jesus means being willing to face the tomb, trusting in resurrection, in Jesus’ power over death.  That’s a lot of trust because even trusting in resurrection, we don’t know what’s going to happen.  Trusting in Jesus, we need to let go of that which we fear to lose and accept death in order to be transformed. 

A couple I know and gave some counseling to was limping along with their marriage basically on life support.  Their marriage was dead, but neither was willing to face that truth.  Finally, one did, but rather than simply say, “ok, let’s get divorced,” this person said plainly what their marriage had become and did raise divorce as a possibility.  That was a bit of a shock to the other.  So, together they began facing the tomb in which their marriage had gone.  They looked at what was causing the death of their marriage.  They looked at what they each of them were afraid to lose, what each of them had to place into the tomb in order for their marriage to survive.  They worked together, and they both allowed some things to die.  Some of their dreams of what they wanted their lives to be died.  Some of their visions of what they thought marriage should be died.  Through those deaths, they found new life.  Through their willingness to enter the tomb, their marriage was transformed.  They found new life, resurrection, by letting go of that which they feared to lose and entering the tomb.

See, what Jesus ultimately wants for us is transformation.  That is why it is so important to him that we listen to him and believe in him.  Jesus wants us to be transformed into light and life, and we’ll never be transformed if we aren’t willing to let go of that which we fear to lose and walk into the tomb.  If we trust in Jesus and believe in him, then we can accept and face our deaths.  We can enter the tomb and be transformed.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Babies Crawling On the Ever-Shifting Sands of Time

Brad Sullivan
2 Lent, Year A
March 12, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
John 3:1-17

Babies Crawling On the Ever-Shifting Sands of Time

“They say that these are not the best of times, but they’re the only times I’ve ever known.”  That’s from poet and prophet, Billy Joel, in the song Summer Highland Falls.  That single idea, that these aren’t the best of times, but they are the only times I’ve ever known, that idea holds true for each new generation, doesn’t it?  When we’re first born, the world doesn’t seem crazy and messed up.  It just seems like the world, even if it is crazy and messed up.  Then we get older and the world seems different, and we get older and the world seems even more different.  The world changes more and more, until sometimes folks find themselves living in a world they no longer really recognize or understand. 

New folks move into the neighborhood and the neighborhood changes.  The constant and regular practices of our religion become less constant, not at all regular, and the younger generations don’t do things the way we used to.  Texting replaces written invitations to parties and other events.  The interwebs replace print media.  Star Wars gets taken over by Disney!  Ways of life, unacceptable when we were children are now acceptable decades later.  Whatever the changes, they’re happening all the time, all around us.  We’re often longing for the past, or the good old days, or the way we did things “back in my day,” and into this longing for the past, this longing for some firm footing on the ever shifting sands of time, Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”     

Well, if you are born from above, then what are you, or what is your spirit, but that of a newborn baby?  See babies and children don’t long for the good old days.  They see the world around them, and they can live in it and accept the world as it is.  They can see God in the world all around them.  The Kingdom of God is not hidden from the eyes of infants and children because they aren’t looking for God’s Kingdom in some longed-for and likely over-romanticized past.  Infants and children can simply live into God’s Kingdom in the ever changing present. 

Our ties to the past are not a bad thing in and of themselves.  They give us wisdom and some grounding in the ever-shifting sands of time, but those very ties to the past, when tied too tightly, end up binding us so that we can no longer move, and we see the sands a-shifting, we see the times a-changing, and we become afraid.  That is how Nicodemus felt when he came to Jesus stating, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”  Nicodemus made a statement, declaring that Jesus was from God, but Nicodemus also came to Jesus at night.  He was curious about Jesus, but he was also frightened.  Jesus didn’t mesh with what he thought he knew about God’s Kingdom, and behind Nicodemus’ statement that Jesus had come from God, was a question.  “How can it be that you come from God, when what you say and do, while like what God taught, seems so different from the religion that I know?” 

Something of what Jesus said and did resonated very deeply with Nicodemus.  In Jesus, Nicodemus could see the Kingdom of God, and at the same time, Jesus was different than the religion of Nicodemus’ childhood and training, and the fear that Nicodemus felt at that difference was eclipsing his curiosity.  Be born from above, Jesus said.  Be a baby again, full of curiosity and without fear, trusting not in the past, but in God and God’s Kingdom all around you.

In these first weeks of Lent, Emmanuel has decided to get curious about God and God’s Kingdom all around us.  On Ash Wednesday, we had our regular services here, and we also changed how we’d always done things by bringing ashes and prayers with us out into the surrounding community for “Ashes to Go,” something churches have been doing close to about 10 years now, actually.  We went out into the world, where Jesus already was, and we both offered moments of grace in the ashes and prayer, the holy things of our church, and we received moments of grace from the people we met.  We didn’t bring Jesus to anyone.  Jesus was already there, and we got to encounter Jesus together.  So, we’re going to hear stories from a couple of the folks who went out for “Ashes to Go.”

Good morning, I was one of the Ashes to Go people who went to the park and ride.  There were about six of us gathered near where people get off the bus, and my main job was to hold the sign up that said, “Ashes to Go,” so as many people as possible could see it, but I was a part of some interactions there, and I found the whole thing to be moving to me and to other people also.  There was one young couple there who drove up and asked one of us to go over to them.  One of our members went to them, and they asked us to pray for them because they wanted to have a baby.  So she prayed for them, not only that they would have a baby, but that God would bless them in ways to make their lives full.
Many folks would come by, and some would look at us like “are you serious?”, and others would give us a big smile, some would say, “I went this morning.”  It was a start, a good start, and I hope it will continue.  Thank you.

Good morning.  For myself, it was also a very spiritual experience.  Like our sister said, we had a sign that said, “Ashes to Go,” and next year we need three signs so we can spread out a bit more.  The first person who came up to us said, “Is this for real?”  During the hour we were there, so many people came up with different outward expressions of the Holy Spirit that had gone into them.  Some were smiling.  Some weren’t sure.  There were people who’d be coming off the bus, and you could see that they were tired, but when they saw the sign, they got a skip in their step, they were smiling at us, and it was beautiful, it was wonderful.  There was one lady who came up, and she had a lot on her mind; she was very quiet, and we asked if she would like to have ashes.  She said, “no thank you,” and she walked past.  Then she stopped and came back and asked for prayer for her son.  So we prayed together for her son, and then she said, “Now I would like ashes.”  So it was incredible to experience this, and I hope we all have the opportunity to do this again, and I will volunteer for next year.  Thank you very much.

Good day.  I was not part of taking the ashes to the street, but Brad gave my family Ashes to Go, a little take home packet and Ash Wednesday service.  For the past five years, I’ve been to St. Mark’s Episcopal for the 7:00 a.m. service since it fit my schedule, but this year, my schedule didn’t allow me to go to make that service, and my wife and I couldn’t make the evening service here, and Brad knew that, so he gave us Ashes to Go for our home.  I mentioned it to a neighbor, who mentioned it to another neighbor, and we ended up with seven people in our home that evening, and we read through the service together.  I started the service, and our daughter wanted to read the scripture.  After she got through about a paragraph, she wanted to read the second scripture, and then the third scripture, and we had a little bit of a tug of war so my wife and I could read a scripture, and we all got our scripture in.  From that, our neighbors were there and participating, and as Brad said, we didn’t bring Jesus to anyone, but we found him together in our house that night, and it was very moving.  I think if anyone can do that and open up, which we all can, tell someone, and I will be part of next year’s on the street.  I think that’s great, and I’ll make time.  Thank you.

We never know where or in whom we might encounter God, for God’s Spirit blows where it chooses, and we do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  Beyond the Church, God’s Kingdom shows up all the time, in all kinds of different ways, from the mystical to the mundane.  God’s Kingdom isn’t overly concerned with the artifices of any longed-for past because God’s Kingdom has been ever present in through and beyond all of our presents and all of our pasts. 

In ancient Israel, when a foreigner, Naomi, clung to her mother-in-law, Ruth’s, neck and said, “I will not leave you,” God’s Kingdom was present.  When Jesus said, “neither do I condemn you,” and “Father forgive them,” God’s Kingdom was present.  In 15th century England, in the birth of the Anglican Church, God’s Kingdom was present.  During that same time, when Europeans began coming to this land, God’s Kingdom was present.  God’s Kingdom was present in this land, in fact, long before Europeans arrived with Christianity, or was God not here yet?  God’s Kingdom has been present during times of darkness in this land and during times of light.  God’s Kingdom has been ever-present in this and every land throughout all time, showing up whenever and in whomever it would. 

Some, like Nicodemus, would see it and think, “that can’t be God’s Kingdom, it doesn’t fit with what I know.”  Fortunately, God isn’t bound by what we know in our ties to the past.   So it is with those who are born of the Spirit.  They are babies once again, tethered to the past, but also free to live in the world as it is rather than as it was, free to be curious about the world, free to explore as all newborn babies do.  Newborn babies, born not of the flesh, but of the Spirit, is what Jesus has formed us and called us to be, over and over again, to enter back into God’s womb and are then born once again.  Jesus has sent us out to live and proclaim God’s Kingdom,
wherever it happens to be, even in the crazy newness of our constantly changing world, and the ever-shifting sands of time upon which we travel.