Tuesday, August 23, 2016

God Interrupts Us With Moments of Grace

Brad Sullivan
Proper 16, Year C
August 18, 2016
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 13:10-17

God Interrupts Us With Moments of Grace

 Last Sunday, we heard about Jesus saying that he came to bring division, and today, we heard about that division actually happening.  Jesus was teaching in a Synagogue, and then he stopped teaching to heal a woman who came to hear him.  We’re told she had been stooped over for 18 years, so it was known that this woman was almost crippled, and then with a word and a touch, Jesus turns chiropractor and heals her body so she can stand up straight and walk and move well.  We hear the leader of the Synagogue then, basically telling this woman she was wrong for coming to the Synagogue and making sure no one else makes such a mistake.  Rather than berate Jesus for healing her, the leader says to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”  Hey guys, don’t mess up like she did.  Come back on Sunday or Monday if you need to be healed, not Saturday.

 It seems awful, horrible of him to say that.  Of course she should be able to come to Synagogue, and of course if Jesus is there when she is there, he should be allowed to heal her.  He technically “worked” on the sabbath, but so what, it’s the power of God bringing healing to the world.  That’s what we think when we hear this story, but what if it were to happen here?

Imagine one of our parishioners reading one of the lessons Sunday morning, and then deciding he is going to heal someone within the parish.  He stops reading mid-lesson, and walks out into the congregation.  He turns to one of our beloved brothers or sisters who isn’t physically able, who can’t walk well, who is stooped over, and he says to them, “In the name of Jesus, be healed,” and he touches them, and suddenly they have strength in their arms and legs.  They can stand up straight and walk and move like they haven’t been able to for 30 years.

What do we do at that point?  “Ok, everyone, let’s sit back down for the second lesson.”  Nope, that doesn’t quite work.  There would be a myriad of reactions from all of us.  Some would be praising God.  Some would be afraid.  Some would be asking to be healed too.  Some probably would be wondering, “How much longer is this going to take?  Can we get on with communion?”  “My favorite hymn was next, come on, let’s sing.”

What does the preacher do at that point?  What do I say to follow up that?  Are we going to stop having services here on Sunday because folks from all over are going to start coming here for healing?  I can see the synagogue leader saying, “Don’t come here for healing on the sabbath.”  Can you do that healing thing in the parish hall next time, maybe in between services? Hopefully we’d just allow ourselves to be there in the presence of God made manifest in the healing, but I can see where the leader reacted badly, not quite knowing what in the world to do at that point.  I can see where the people would have been divided over their reactions to Jesus, some praising God, some afraid, some wanting to follow him, some wishing he’d not interrupt their comfortable service of teaching and worship ever again.

God interrupts us.  People interrupt us.  How do we respond when we are interrupted from our comfortable worship and walk with God?  I’m trying to pray here, how dare you interrupt me with you problems.  We’re trying to pray here, how dare you let your children make noise.  I love worship the way I like it; how dare you change something?

 My first Sunday here, we had a pretty big interruption as Will Scott, and I think he passed out, I don’t exactly remember what happened at this point, but there was some commotion back there.  So I went back to see what was happening, and he was lying down, I think one of our nurses was back there with him, and someone had called for an ambulance, so I prayed over Will and then went back up and we continued on with the service.  The paramedics arrived and we continued on, and then before they took him to the hospital, we stopped the service again and had a group prayer for Will.  Then we continued on with the service again.  He ended up just fine after that.

 We got to take this interruption and see it for what it was, a moment of grace.  Those with the ability got to care for Will, the rest of us got to pray for Will, and continued to get to worship and share communion.  The interruptions didn’t mess up the service.  They made it more beautiful.

 In other times and ways in which our prayers and our worship gets interrupted, maybe the interrupters really are just being jerks, or maybe the interruptions are moments of the presence of God breaking through so that we can be taken out of our comfort and routine and brought into the grace of God.

Perhaps the loud and busy child is a moment of grace, a chance for another adult to join with the parents to offer some loving support and attention to the child.  The person offering support would be brought out of their usual worship and brought into the grace of communion with a young family, showing them that they and their children and beloved and belong.

Perhaps the myriad distractions and interruptions we face each day are likewise moments of grace, opportunities for us to let some harrowed person know that they are worthwhile, that they are worth our time and attention.  That may seem a small thing, but being worthy of someone’s time and attention is at the core of what it is to be human.

God told Jeremiah, “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”  We apply that verse to all people, saying that before all of us were formed in the womb, God knew us.  We are all worthy of God’s notice, of God’s time and attention.  We were not made to be alone.  We were not made to be discarded.  We were made to be connected to each other.  We were made to be worthy of each others’ notice, to be worthy of each others’ time and attention.

 The discarded woman in our Gospel story today was worthy of Jesus’ notice, worthy of his time and attention.  People in our pews who are by themselves, who are struggling with kids are worthy of our loving and caring notice, worthy of our loving and caring time and attention.  People whom we don’t like that much, or know but don’t see all that often are worthy of our notice, worthy of our time and attention.  People at the bottom of our society, those often discarded, are worthy of our notice, worthy of our time and attention.

 The world was interrupted by one such person couple of weeks ago with the photograph of a young Syrian boy.  He had survived the bombing of a building and he sat in shock in an ambulance, blank-faced, covered in dust and blood.  The world began taking notice again of the innocents of Syria, remembering that these people are worthy of notice, worthy of time and attention.  I don’t know that a whole lot is going to actually change, as those in control of the situation in Syria (Russia, ISIS, the Syrian government) simply don’t care enough (or at all) about the least among them, the weak and the discarded.  They care about their struggles for power, not about the discarded people living and dying beneath the weight of their power.

When we are annoyed by people when they interrupt us, when we disregard the least among us, when we don’t acknowledge or notice the worth of people, when we don’t give time and attention to those worthy of our time and attention, we’re not exactly bombing them and leaving them in shock, covered in dust, rubble, and blood.  At the same time, like Russia, ISIS, and the Syrian government, we are still disregarding people who are worthy of our notice, worthy of our time and attention.  When we’re annoyed by people when they interrupt us and don’t acknowledge their worth, we’re like the leader of the synagogue who said, “Don’t be healed today, come back tomorrow.”

 I don’t say this to make us feel badly about ourselves, but rather to keep us from noticing the specks in other peoples’ eyes while ignoring the logs in our own.  I also bring this up because we all want to feel worthy of notice, worthy of time and attention, love and belonging.  The more we give that notice, that worth to others, the more we will believe in our own worth, the more we will believe that we are worthy of notice, that we are worthy of peoples’ time and attention, their love and belonging.  That’s life in Jesus’ kingdom.  That’s life through the eyes and heart of Jesus.  People and the myriad interruptions they bring aren’t times to be lamented.  Rather, people and their myriad interruptions are moments of grace where we have the opportunity to affirm in others and in ourselves the great love of God and the great worth which we all share, being worthy of notice, worthy of time and attention, worthy of love and belonging.  Amen. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

All In with the Jesus Movement

Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
August 14, 2016 - Proper 15
Luke 12:49-56
All In with the Jesus Movement

Have you ever heard Jesus referred to as the prince of peace?  I’m often surprised to find that in the Gospels, Jesus is nowhere called, “Prince of Peace.”  We get that term from a passage in Isaiah 9:6 which says, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Passages in both Matthew and Luke allude to this verse from Isaiah, and we believe Jesus was the one referred to in Isaiah 9:6, so we call Jesus the prince of peace.  Jesus said, “blessed are the peacemakers.”  He told his disciples to have their peace be upon any house in which they stayed.  He told people to be at peace with one another, and he constantly told people to go in peace. 

Even at his crucifixion, he asked for forgiveness for his killers; if that’s not peace…and yet Jesus said in Luke 12:51, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”  This seems rather contradictory to what Jesus lived and taught at other times, but I don’t think it actually was contradictory.  Peace is what it seems that Jesus wanted people to have and to live, to be at peace within themselves and with one another.  I just don’t think Jesus was na├»ve enough to think that everyone actually would live in peace. 

He had a fire to kindle, a way of believing and living that got in the way of the status quo, that got in the way of peoples’ lives, and anytime you go from preaching to meddling, you’re going to cause or expose division.  I don’t know that Jesus wanted division as a goal, but Jesus wasn’t about to stop preaching simply because some or even many weren’t going to like what they heard.  He knew that those who believed in what he said would be rejected by those who did not, and he knew his followers would reject practices that ran counter to what he taught.  Division was inevitable.

Following Jesus meant being all in, it still does, actually, and being all in means changing the practices and habits of one’s life.  Look at addicts in recovery.  Being in recovery means being all in, and that usually means changing social circles if those old social circles are full of whatever the addiction is.  Being in recovery, what we would call repentance, turning around, means changing daily habits, lots of self examination, and having a mentor, someone to give guidance and support.  Being in recovery is practicing a new way of life every day.  Those changes can cause division.

Like being in recovery, being a part of the Jesus movement means being all in.  It means repentance of ways of life which cause harm.  Being part of the Jesus movement may mean changing social circles, or it may mean giving up some of the behaviors a person used to have, things that are harmful.  Being all in means practicing the new way of life in Jesus, keeping the fire burning.  Being all in means following in Jesus with one’s whole heart, repenting authentically and completely, even realizing that we’re going to fall short.  Such all in following of Jesus is going to cause some division.  The Jesus movement doesn’t have time or room for halfhearted love or entitled repentance, thinking that because I believe in Jesus I don’t have to take his teachings and way of life all that seriously.  The Jesus movement requires total commitment.  Even knowing that we’re not going to get it right all the time, fully expecting that we will continue to need to repent, the Jesus movement means being all in, not halfhearted.

I generally don’t use sports analogies to talk about the Gospel, I think mainly because I’m not a particularly athletic person, but we’re talking about practicing new ways of life.  Sports kinda works, plus it’s the Olympics, and I think it’s just about required that we do some olympic-y themed sermon.  So, for me, not an Olympian, playing various sports as a kid, I would go to a weekly practice, play whatever game it was in the yard maybe once a week for about 10 minutes, and then go to the game and hope or even think that I might do ok, or at least better than last time.   I didn’t really like practicing so oddly enough I didn’t really improve much at any of the sports I played. 

In stark contrast to that, I was blown away by seeing Katie Ledecky swim the 800M freestyle a couple of days ago.  Before the race even started, I was blown away that they were swimming fast for over 8 minutes straight, around a half a mile.  On some level, I knew that people did this and are able to do this, heck we’ve got an Ironman swimmer, biker, and runner here in the congregation, but still somehow I just didn’t get that you could swim for 8 minutes like they do in the Olympics.  So, they did, and Katie not only broke her own world record, she finished 11 seconds faster than the silver medalists.  She was halfway across the pool on her last lap before anyone else had made the turn. 

That, my brothers and sisters, requires commitment.  I’m sure she had to repent at some point too, had a Little Debbie snack cake at some point or another, but to swim on her level, she was all in.  Practicing on the level of Olympic athletes requires a whole-life commitment, sometimes even moving to another place and living with the other athletes for a while.  They aren’t athletes for an hour or two a week, and not for a practice, a tournament, and a few minutes in the yard.  It’s a whole lifestyle.  It’s being all in.

The Jesus movement requires practice.  We can’t approach it like I did as a kid, kick a ball around for a few minutes once a week and think you’ll do well in the game.  The fire of the Jesus movement requires Katie Ledecky kind of practice.

A word about that, though.  If you’re like me, seeing the Olympics often inspires me to want to get in better shape, to be like the Olympians.  Generally I’ll go out and walk the dog a little bit more often, or if I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I may even jog a little bit.  My challenge has always been going out and doing too much too fast.  I’ll go out and jog a mile having not jogged in months or longer, and as you’d guess, that’s about the last time I’d jog for a while.  The fire is quickly burnt out because I threw all of the fuel into the flames right away, rather than slowly building and tending the fire.  A short jog every other day, gradually increasing in length and frequency, would be much better. 

So too with being all in with Jesus, we generally can’t change everything in our lives all at once and expect anything to stick.  The fire will burn out, and we’ll end up tired and disillusioned.  The fire of the Jesus movement requires slow and steady practice, continually increasing in duration and frequency, the flames slowly growing and burning brighter as with the Holy Spirit, we continually collect and add fuel to the fire.  We aren’t doing this alone, we partner with God every step of the way.

The fire of the Jesus movement requires prayer and self examination.  As we go along, we keep making changes to our lives as we continually examine our lives in light of Jesus’ Gospel.  We gradually let go of things that keep us from loving and living with our whole hearts.  We let go of things that keep our hearts and minds from God and others.

The fire of the Jesus movement requires others with us to serve as guides and mentors and for use to guide and mentor others.  We don’t go it alone.  Being all in means being all in with others.  We have the whole church, and we also have those few people who truly understand us and who help us in our practice of walking and living the Jesus movement.  We have those few people whom we can be honest to when we know we need to repent, those few people who will hold us accountable for our actions, who can admit with us that we’ve done wrong without judging us as being bad.  These are our coaches, our friends, those who help us tend and grow the flames.

Being all in with Jesus may even cause division.  Some may not like the fact that we love Jesus.  Ok.  Just make sure it is others who are rejecting you.  We may reject practices, but not people.  We may choose to live certain ways or not to live in other ways.  In the Jesus movement, we choose to live in ways that bring about greater faith, hope, and love, and we reject in our own lives those things which get in the way of faith, hope, and love.  What get’s in the way of faith, hope, and love for each of us, may not get in the way for someone else.  The fact that we believe in Jesus doesn’t mean that we require others to believe.  We don’t reject those who don’t believe in Jesus.  We do accept, however, that we may be rejected because of our beliefs and way of life. 

That’s being all in.  Believing in Jesus, following in his ways, tending the flames and practicing our faith and way of life, paying and asking for the Holy Spirit to partner with us, and being with others for mutual coaching and support…that is how the fire of Jesus is kindled in us, burns in us, and spreads to others.   Even if some reject us, because of our faith, hope, and love in Jesus, we choose to be all in.  Amen.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Risky Road of Love

Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
August 7, 2016 - Proper 14
Luke 12:32-40

The Risky Road of Love

I had a great week as a session director last week at Camp Allen.  Having grown up going to summer camp there, it was a joy to be on the other side of things as one of our directors for 8 & 9 year olds.  There were fun and games, time spent in prayer, and a program each day talking with the kids about parts of the Gospel.  On one of the days, we talked about Resurrection, and we talked not only about resurrection after physical death, but also resurrection of many deaths throughout our lives.  One example we discussed was the death of a friendship.  The kids totally got that when we talked about kids being mean to each other, and the friendship dies.  Then, we talked about kids reconciling, and that being resurrection of the friendship, a new life.

At one point the next day, a couple of boys got in a little scuffle.  One of the boys kicked another in the shin, “for no reason”, said the boy who had been kicked.  We talked to them separately, and the one who did the kicking said that the other boy had been pushing him down all week, and he was basically so fed up that he snapped.  He was obviously very upset, feeling bullied.

We had the two apologize, and later, I then heard the one who had gotten kicked say he hated the other kid.  I happened to be right behind him when he said this, so I asked him about it.  He first said he hadn’t said it, and then I said, “but I thought I just heard you say you hated [the other boy].”  “Maybe,” he said.  I chuckled on the inside, and then we sat down and talked for a minute.

I asked why he hated him, and he said the other kid was always getting upset over nothing.  They had used to be friends, and now they weren’t anymore, after he’d gotten kicked, he said.  I then described that as the death of their friendship, and he agreed.  So, I next asked about resurrection of their friendship.  I told him that the other kid said that the one I was talking to had been pushing him down all the time.  “I never did that,” he said.  “I believe you,” I said, “but the other kid thinks you’ve been pushing him down.  He’s truly hurt by something you’ve been doing around him.  Now it’s time to get curious and ask him about it.  Tell him that you’ve not been meaning to push him down or be mean to him.  Ask him what you have been doing that’s been hurting him, and see if y’all can work that out.  I know you haven’t been trying to hurt him.  Make sure he knows that too.  Then, perhaps y’all’s friendship can have new life.” 

He seemed to get what I was saying and agreed to it.  What this took was for the two boys to see things from the other’s perspective.  They got to see the world not only through their own eyes, but also through the eyes of Jesus.  There was kingdom living and a casting aside of fear in being generous with how we view the other’s motivations and actions.  What if I’m wrong?  What if he really is a jerk?  What if he hurts me again?  We cast that aside and trust in God’s kingdom way.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  God’s kingdom is a gift which we receive. 

We don’t take it, we receive it, and Jesus tells us how to receive God’s kingdom:  Sell your possessions and give alms.  Be generous towards others, and do not be afraid of not having enough.  There is a great saying which I’ve heard recently, author unknown, and the saying is, “People were created to be loved.  Things were created to be used.  The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.” - author unknown  

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  Do not love your things.  Love people.  Use your things, and greater still, use your things to help you love people.  

That is how Jesus tells us to live in his kingdom which sounds a little scary, but basically kinda good.  Then Jesus gets to the kinda scary part, right?  “Be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  If you knew when the thief was coming, you would not let your house be broken into.  Ok, let’s be honest, that’s a little scary, but remember, it’s an analogy.  Jesus isn’t coming to steal your stuff.  He really doesn’t care at all about your stuff.  Jesus is coming, and we have no idea when he’ll show up, so be ready for his coming at all times.  Live always ready to receive God’s kingdom by how you chose to live, and remember Jesus started this whole section of teaching with, “Do not be afraid.”  I think some fire and brimstone preachers should remember that.  Do not be afraid, and remember and strive to live at all times in such a way as to receive God’s kingdom.  Live generously and lovingly towards others.    

Jesus gives this analogy to create some urgency in us, because he knows we tend to slack off over time.  If we knew Jesus was coming in three weeks, we’d clean up our acts pretty quickly and be generous and loving toward each other.  His coming creates some urgency in us.  I can see at least three reasons for this.  Wanting his acceptance, the short timeline, and the joy of his love could all drive the urgency in us to be generous and loving towards others if we knew Jesus was coming in three weeks. 

With the first reason, we want Jesus’ acceptance, so we clean up our acts and look our best at his coming.  The problem is, that is basically a self-centered reason, and Jesus talked about being generous and loving toward others for their sake, not our own.  Also, we don’t need to hustle for God’s acceptance; we have already been given God’s acceptance through Jesus.  Now we simply get to love other for their sake, not to try to hustle for God’s acceptance.

The second reason we would find urgency in knowing Jesus was coming in three weeks is that with such a short timeline, we find it easy to do without.  We can do without stuff and be generous and loving towards people for three weeks.  No big.  Of course, Jesus is asking us to be generous and loving all of the time.  Act all of the time as though Jesus was coming in three weeks. 

Finally, the joy of Jesus’ love is why we could be generous and loving towards others if we knew he was coming in three weeks.  That’s why it’s easier to be kind to people around Christmastime.  The joy of Jesus’ love is in the air, it’s palpable.  We find it somehow easier to receive that joy and love and so we give it out to people all around us. 

So, with Jesus’ teaching to be ready, Jesus is saying to behave every day with the joy and love we experience around Christmastime.  Treat every day like Christmas is just around the corner.  Treat every day like Jesus is right about to show up.  Now, remember that you are already accepted and loved by him, so do not be afraid.  Share the joy of that palpable love which he has for you and for all.  Be loving and generous towards others because others are so beloved and valued.  Give of your things, because in God’s kingdom, we love people, not our things.  Other people, then love us, not their things.   

I heard a great example of this Kingdom generosity and loving people not things while listening to This American Life on the radio yesterday.  This was a story of refugee camps in Greece, and one camp housed Yazidi refugees from Iraq.  The Yazidis are a often persecuted people whom America helped when ISIS was trying to annihilate them completely, and now they are largely living in camps fleeing genocide.  In the particular camp I heard about yesterday, there is a man who made a shop selling necessities for life, food and other things.  He charges very little, making almost no profit, and sometimes, people we come by and simply drop off money without taking anything.  That’s because they took what the needed sometime previously.  He runs the store on credit, asking people to pay what they can, if they can.  At the current rate, he won’t be able to stay in business for more than a year or two longer, but he refuses to charge more or to stop giving to people on credit which they may or may not be able to pay.  He said he’d rather go out of business than stop giving credit to people.  He’s not running this shop to get rich.  He’s doing it for his people.  He’s not their leader; he’s just one of his people. 

This man is not a Christian, but a darn good example of Jesus’ teaching.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  This man is truly living God’s kingdom in how he treats others…loving people more than things, and truly being not afraid. 

Living out God’s kingdom, receiving God’s kingdom requires us to see the world differently than we may otherwise.  The refugee with the shop didn’t see people taking his stuff.  He saw people in need and he saw his stuff as being able to fill that need.  From there, is there anything these people won’t do for this generous man when he is in need?  They are choosing not to be afraid and choosing to love people rather than loving stuff.

The boys at Camp Allen initially saw a mean kid who kicked them.  Then they began to see through the lens of God’s kingdom, a hurt kid who felt like he was being bullied.  From there, they could learn to love each other rather than holding on to hurt.  Our hurt, our fear, feelings of being right:  those can be things too, things that we hold onto in order to protect ourselves.  Those boys at Camp Allen were learning to let go of those things.  They are learning not to be afraid of each other, but to treat each other with generosity of spirit, seeking love over fear.

Fear says keep what you have; take care of yourself.  Love says, “do not afraid; give generously for the sake of others.”  Whether our things are physical things or mental/emotional things that we hold onto for self-protection, Jesus teaches us to receive God’s kingdom by giving up those things and taking the risky road of love instead.  Remember, “People were created to be loved.  Things were created to be used.  The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.” - author unknown  

So, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Receive God’s kingdom and take the risky road of love.  Amen.