Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Honor the People, Not the Symbol.

Colin Kaepernick has incited all kinds of anger and hatred poured onto him with religious zeal and fervor, zeal and fervor the likes of which God and God’s Kingdom have not experienced in decades, if not centuries.  Mr. Kaepernick incited this zealous anger towards himself by not honoring a symbol of America.  He didn’t honor the symbol because he saw so much wrong with America that he felt to honor the symbol was to honor all that was wrong with the country.  He wouldn’t honor the symbol of America so that he could instead honor the people that are America. 

To honor the symbol is for many to honor all that is great about America.  To honor the symbol was for him to honor all that was wrong with America, and that he could not do.  Perhaps he was overly pessimistic with his view of America (I don’t believe so), but his actions were comparable to much of Jesus’ actions, refusing to honor the symbols of his religion so that he could instead honor God and God’s Kingdom. 

Jesus broke the rules of his religion in order to love, heal, and honor people.  At times, Jesus didn’t honor the symbols and traditions of his faith in order to live out the heart of his faith.

Mr. Kaepernick did the same thing by not standing to honor the flag.  His statement was not “I hate America,” or “I hate the flag, the symbol of America.”  His statement was “I cannot abide the endless violence and racism in America.” 

A statement against violence and racism is a statement which I am sure Jesus would be one-hundred percent behind.  Verbally destroying a man who spoke out against violence and racism because he didn’t honor a symbol is, on the other hand, something I am quite sure Jesus would be against. 

The religious fervor of honoring the flag at the expense of honoring people is analogous to serving wealth rather than serving God, serving things rather than serving people.  Like the Pharisees serving and honoring the symbols of their faith rather than serving God and God’s kingdom, people are serving the flag rather than serving God and God’s kingdom lived out in America.

Jesus would tell us to listen to the message Mr. Kaepernick is giving, rather than be incensed that he is not honoring a symbol.  The message is that violence, mistrust, racism, and death of minorities due to the violence, mistrust, and racism is a very real problem and threat.  A threat to the lives of individuals in this country.  A threat to the ideals of this country which the flag, the symbol, is mean to represent. 

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)  Strive first to end the violence, mistrust, and racism that is killing people in America and killing America itself.  Then, honoring the flag may be given to you as well.

Scorsese Is Directing? I’m Ok With That. Jesus? Not So Much.

Brad Sullivan
Proper 20, Year C
September 18, 2016
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Luke 16:1-13

Scorsese Is Directing?  I’m Ok With That.  Jesus?  Not So Much.

At first glance, in our Gospel story today, it seems as though Jesus is telling us we should be dishonest, and we’re pretty much confused through his entire parable.  By the end, the wraps things up pretty clearly, saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Ok, we pretty much get that.  We may not like it, but, we get it. 

In the middle, though, the master of the house praises a dishonest manager for being dishonest?  Does that make any sense to us?  I think it really kinda does.

Years ago, I saw a reality show called, “Big brother.”  It was the typical thing, a last man standing contest where people voted each other off the show, and they all lived in a house together.  They formed alliances and tried being friends and living together, and they really wanted to be friends with each other, until the times came when they ultimately all had to stab each other in the back so they could win.  All except this one guy, the guy who won.  He never actually tried to be anyone’s friend.  He’d agree to an alliance and then he’d break it.  He’d manipulate people and act like their friend and then vote them off the show.  There was no one whom he hadn’t made angry during the show.  When it finally came down to two people, there was the guy who won, and this other young woman, who had been pretty nice throughout the show.  They were making their pleas to everyone who’d been kicked off, saying basically, “Vote for me to win.” 

The young woman, who lost, was apologetic that the others had been kicked off and said she really did like them…she was so nice.  The guy who won?  He said that the whole time, his objective was to win, so of course he lied, manipulated, and made and broken alliances.  Everyone else there was a danger to him, and he wanted to win, not make friends with people he’d never see again.  They all realized he was the only one who was truly honest with them throughout the entire process.  He was shrewd in his dealings with them, and they all voted for him to win.

The master in the story that Jesus told kinda felt like the audience and the other members of that show.  “You’ve actually done kinda well here,” he’d say to his manager.  “You’ve swindled me a bit, but you actually managed something, and quite well.  You’re actually pretty good at this if there’s a gun to your head.  I just might keep you on.”

We totally get rooting for this guy in the show who was shrewd in his dealings, and we totally get rooting for the dishonest manager being shrewd in his dealings.    If his life were a movie with the right script and a good director, we’d all be rooting for the dishonest manager by the end of the movie. 

We’re somehow just not so comfortable hearing Jesus tell the story.  Scorsese writing and directing the movie, “OK.”  Jesus writing and directing it, “Ahh, I feel weird.”
Here’s the thing.  The context is that Jesus was being shrewd in eating with sinners and tax collectors.  He didn’t threaten them, and he didn’t shun them, and he didn’t assume they didn’t have enough money to be worth his time.  He ate with them and loved them into repentance. 

Also, it started with genuine love.  They weren’t his projects; they were people whom he loved.

The manager in the story Jesus told didn’t care one whit about the people, and yet he still figured out how to do well by them and create some decent community of the Kingdom of God.  He’d be relying on their generosity just as they were grateful for his.  It was quid pro quo, to be sure, but he was going to be getting to know the people in any case.  Kingdom of God kind of living was going to happen.  Out of purely selfish desires, he got some kingdom living done.  The people of this age, Jesus said, are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

For the children of light, those disciples of Jesus who believe in his Kingdom way and the light that he is, if only they were as shrewd to care for those around them, Jesus was saying.
Remember, this is a polemic against the Pharisees and the Scribes who didn’t like that Jesus ate with sinners.  “There is grace,” the Pharisees and the Scribes would say, “but only if you follow the religious rules and clean up your act before approaching God, and pay for the temple.”  Jesus said, “There is grace.  Here, have some.  Have forgiveness, have dignity, have humanity and love.  Now let’s work on repentance so you can then also share grace, forgiveness, dignity, humanity, and love with others who need it.”

Jesus gave away grace rather than charge for it.  Jesus forgave sins when they hadn’t been paid for yet.  Jesus broke the rules of grace, at least the rules which the scribes and the Pharisees thought grace should have.  The Pharisees seemed to love their religion, the symbols and rituals of their religion.  They honored those symbols and rituals because those symbols and rituals were instruments of grace.  Unfortunately, they turned the symbols and rituals into idols by honoring the symbols and rituals rather than honoring God, God’s Kingdom, and God’s grace, which is what those symbols and rituals were meant to help them live out.

The dishonest manager broke the rules of money in order to bring about the best possible outcome for the most people.  In the same way, Jesus broke his religion’s rules of God’s grace in order to bring about the most good and the most grace for the most people so that they could live out God’s kingdom.    

“You cannot serve God and money,” Jesus said.  You cannot serve God and your rules about grace.  You cannot serve God and hold onto grace as if it is your personal possession to give out to those whom you deem worthy.  Life in the Jesus movement gives grace extravagantly.

Life in the Jesus movement also gives money and possessions extravagantly.  Jesus was also talking about money.  He was talking about how people lived their lives and how they used what they had.

The rules of our possessions says, “keep them, they are yours.”  The rules of our money say, “You earned it, it’s yours.”  Quid Pro Quo.  This for that.  Give only for what you are going to get in return.  Also, be afraid about tomorrow.  Save up and store up as much as you can, because tomorrow you just might be relying on your possessions to live. 

Jesus’ kingdom breaks the rules of money and the rules of possessions.  The rules of money in Jesus’ kingdom say, “it’s not yours, it’s God’s.  Use it for the benefit of others, for the benefit of God’s kingdom.  Use it for the benefit of those who are in need, not those whom you deem worthy.”  The rules of possessions in Jesus’ kingdom say, “Do not rely on your wealth and possessions to take care of you during hard times.  Rely on the people whom you have cared for and loved during their hard times to care for and love you during your hard times. 

Politicians get quid pro quo.  I’ll do you a favor, you do me a favor.  The children of this age are shrewd in their dealings with each other.  Would that the children of light were just as shrewd, caring for and relying on one another so that when the tables are reversed, people will be able to depend on the kindness of people to whom kindness has been shown.  Security found in people using their stuff for others, rather than security found in stuff while ignoring others. 

Give of your money and possessions extravagantly.  Give grace extravagantly.  As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said, “That is life in the Jesus movement.” 
A way of love that seeks the good and the well-being of the other before the self’s own unenlightened interest. A way of love that is not self-centered, but other-directed. A way of love grounded in compassion and goodness and justice and forgiveness. It is that way of love that is the way of Jesus. And that way of love that can set us all free.
Someone once said, “When you look at Jesus, you see one who is loving, one who is liberating, and one who is life-giving.”  And that is what the way of Jesus is about. And that is the Movement of Jesus. A community of people committed to living the way of Jesus, loving, liberating, and life-giving, and committed to going into the world to help this world become one that is loving, liberating, and life-giving.

Break the rules and be dishonest in how you give so that you can bring about the most grace, and the most well-being for the most people.  Rather than be protectors of God’s grace, hoarders of God’s possessions, like the Pharisees and the Scribes, we are the people of Jesus who extravagantly give God’s grace and share our possessions with those who are in need both.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Bullying, Terrorism, & 9/11: The Way of Self-Righteousness Is the Way of Death

Brad Sullivan
Proper 19, Year C
September 11, 2016
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Luke 15:1-10

Bullying, Terrorism, & 9/11:
The Way of Self-Righteousness Is the Way of Death

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and people saw life and truth in him, and people flocked to him, following him and following in his way.  Jesus’ way of life was a way of love, and forgiveness, and reconciliation, a way in which he did not shun or exclude those who were considered to be sinners.  Rather, he welcomed them and ate dinner with them, and this did not sit well with the religious leaders of the time, the Pharisees and the Scribes.  They complained about Jesus, “He eats with sinners!”  They complained about Jesus, safe in their own self-righteousness, keeping the sinners at a distance, keeping them shunned, keeping them away, so that the Pharisees and the Scribes could be righteous in their own eyes.

The way of Jesus is life.

The way of self-righteousness is the way of death.      

We suffered horrific example of the way of self righteousness 15 years ago today on September 11, 2001.  Men who wanted all non-Muslims to be killed, ended over 3000 lives on that day.  They wanted not only all non-Muslims killed, they wanted all people who didn’t practice their particular brand of Islam killed.  Their way was the way of self-righteousness, believing themselves to be righteous in God’s eyes and believing all others to be unrighteous and therefore deserving of being shunned, excluded, and even killed.  We saw in them that the way of self righteousness is the way of death.

In contrast to that, I got to spend the weekend on a youth retreat at Camp Allen called Happening.  It has been a wonderful weekend with youth and adults from around the diocese renewing their faith and commitment to Jesus and to following in his way. 

At the same time, I heard stories of youth being bullied, youth who had been excluded by other Christians for not being “Christian” enough or for not being the right type of Christian.  I heard stories from an adult who works with youth in crisis, and she told about youth who had been bullied, some because they are gay.  They were usually bullied by other Christians who told them they couldn’t be friends with them anymore because they were gay, and so they were bulled and excluded, some even bullied and excluded to the point of suicide. 

Those who did the bullying were following the path of self-righteousness, the path of death, and those who did the bullying were terrorists every bit as much as those on 9/11.  They used words as their weapons rather than planes, but self-righteousness and contempt for those whom they saw as unrighteous was still what drove them.  They killed every bit as surely as the terrorists did, they just used their victims’ own hands to do so.

The way of self-righteousness is the way of death.

We also have to realize that I’m talking about youth, teenagers and some pre-teenagers who were trying to do the right thing.  Some were just being mean, but many were trying to follow Jesus.  They were bullying and excluding to try to push the other into repentance, to try to push them to be righteous, but that was not the way of Jesus.  Jesus didn’t bully and exclude.  He welcomed sinners and ate with them. 

The only people Jesus seemed not to love being around were the self-righteous: those who would bully and exclude, and if you go far enough down that path, even kill the unrighteous.  While the terrorist and the bully, some were even well meaning, trying to do the right thing, the way of self-righteousness is the way of death. 

It is deadly and sinful, and if we’re honest, the way of self-righteousness is also a part of all of us.  There are times when I’ve felt pretty self-righteous and had to be called down.  I assume there have been times when all of us have felt fairly self-righteous. Self-righteousness is a sin which we all share every now and then.  So it’s fortunate that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. 

As we look at those and think about those whom I heard about this weekend who did the bullying, I need to remember to look at them through the eyes of compassion, not the self-righteous eyes of judgment.  Judging their acts as harmful.  Judging them as sinners whom Jesus would welcome and eat with, because that is the way of Jesus, the way of life.  The way of love.  The way of reconciliation, forgiveness, and redemption.  Even those who have bullied others to the point of death, even those who commit atrocities and acts of terrorism because of their self-righteousness:  when they realize they have been following not the way of life but the way of death, they turn from that way, and they find Jesus welcoming them, inviting them to share a meal with him, because the way of Jesus is the way of life.  Amen.     


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Let Go of Everything We're Afaid to Lose

Brad Sullivan
Proper 18, Year C
September 4, 2016
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Let Go of Everything We’re Afraid to Lose

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are two of the most polarizing figures in American politics right now, understatement of the year.  They’re probably two of the most polarizing people in recent memory.  Folks are even stopping being friends with other people (at least on Facebook) because of whom they support.  There’s nothing new about people not being overly comfortable talking about politics, but not even being able to say who you support for fear of total ridicule and scorn seems kinda new to me.  Whether it is because of who our candidates are or a sign of the times, these two political candidates have ended up being extremely divisive and polarizing figures.

Now, it would be an overstatement to say that if you support one of the candidates, you have to hate members of your family who support the other one…an overstatement for most people.  Some probably feel that way, but my point is, that’s what Jesus said about himself.  You cannot be my disciple unless you hate members of your family.  I don’t know that he meant that once you decide to be his disciple, you have to start hating people.  I think it was more that once you become his disciple, your family might hate or reject you, and you’ve got to be willing to accept that, or on the other hand, if your family isn’t living as his disciple, you still need to, even if that causes friction.  In short, Jesus was a polarizing figure far beyond Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

If we are to take Jesus seriously today, we find that is still just as polarizing.  Not because he said outlandish, hurtful things, not because he was untrustworthy.  Jesus was and is polarizing because he spoke hard truths; looked deeply into the heart of things; and lived an intentional, well thought out, and loving life.  Jesus lived a life in which he loved people more than things, in a world in which many people value their things at the expense of treating other people well.  Anyone who does not give up their possessions cannot be my disciple, Jesus said.

That’s not exactly incendiary rhetoric, unless you valued your money, your excess money, more than you valued people in need.  His teachings were incendiary if you let your love of your religion trump love of God and people.  His teachings were incendiary if you noticed the flaws and misdeeds of others while ignoring your own.

Jesus was pretty darn uncompromising in his general stance that we don’t get to do what we want to do when what we want is going to hurt someone else.

“You want a divorce, Pharisee?  Sorry, dude, but that would leave your wife destitute.  Yeah, I get that her pot roast is usually dry and that she isn’t as hot as your remember from 15 years ago.  You need to grow up and honor the marriage vows you made.”
Folks didn’t like hearing that.

“Yes, vineyard owner, I get that not everyone worked the same amount today, but they still need enough to live on.  Pay them all a full day’s wage, even those who only worked for a few hours.”
Folks didn’t like hearing that.

“Very impressive and expensive stuff you’ve got here.  You’ve got way more than you need, though.  You know, there’s a lot of people in this town who don’t have enough.  You could sell some of your possessions and ensure that some folks in your city have a roof over their heads or the tools they need to start earning a living at a trade.  You want to keep all your stuff instead?  Then you really can’t be my disciple.”
Folks didn’t like hearing that.

“But I don’t want to forgive these people,” some would say.  “They really hurt me.”  “Well then,” Jesus said, “you can’t be my disciple.,”
Folks didn’t like hearing that.

Imagine what parents might have said to their children who had begun following Jesus.  “If you start forgiving people like that, son, folks are going to walk all over you your whole life.  You need to man up, be strong, and stop being such a pansy.”  Another father might have said, “Don’t even think about giving away your possessions.  I worked hard for this family, and now you want to just give away your stuff?  That’s a betrayal of all my years of work.  I didn’t work for some strangers I don’t even know.  I worked for you, so don’t you dare destroy that with this crazy Jesus.”

Or another, “Well, if that’s how you want to run your business, like a charity, good luck, but your workers are going to walk all over you.  Pay ‘em a full day’s wage for a few hours work.  You’ll be sunk and then you can work for me.  Moron.”

Folks either really loved what Jesus taught, or they really, really hated what Jesus taught.  There wasn’t a whole lot of in between.  So, Jesus told folks that they needed to consider the cost of being his disciple before deciding to follow him.  “Your family and friends may turn away from you.  You’ll need to give up a lot of what you have so that we can live this life together and so that those who don’t have enough will have enough.  There will be burdens, hard to bear, and you’ll need to take those too.

As sales pitches go, that’s a little unorthodox, and yet for many people, it worked.  Folks saw in Jesus something greater than their stuff.  Folks saw in Jesus something greater than their pride.  Folks saw in Jesus something worth the cost that he warmed them they would pay.

Yeah, Lord, our stuff is pretty cool, but I do think I like people better.  I get that some will see forgiveness as weakness, but I see it as the strength of letting go of my hurt and offering grace.  I get that in an economy of exchange, people should get nothing more than they worked for, but I like the economy of your kingdom better, where we choose to be generous so that those who can’t work enough still have enough to live on.

While some were scandalized by those teachings, others saw something beautiful in his teachings.  Even more, people saw in Jesus forgiveness and grace, love and kindness, and a way of life that didn’t care about self righteousness but cared about righteousness for the sake of others.  In Jesus, people seek to be righteous not so that they will be good enough for God.  In Jesus, God makes us good enough through his grace, through his forgiveness and love.  In Jesus then, people seek to be righteous for the sake of others.  I will do right so that I don’t harm others, so that I do good for others.

That also was scandalous to many.  “This Jesus is claiming God’s grace and forgiveness, but only the priests can declare God’s forgiveness as the people offer sacrifices to God,” said the religious leaders.  Jesus spoke for God because Jesus was God.  Jesus declared God’s forgiveness not because some religious task had been completed, but because he could see in people’s hearts regret for what they had done and a desire for a new start, a chance to lead a new life, and so Jesus granted people that new life, granting them God’s forgiveness and grace and freeing them from the bonds of fear and shame that had kept them dwelling in their tortured past.

Jesus offered people a new life of freedom and grace.  Jesus declared as beautiful those whom society had cast aside.  Jesus even said to invite such people into your homes.  Have dinner with the poor, the outcast.  Get to know as brother, sister, friend, those whom society would write off.  Then you might actually have a reason to give up your possessions to share with those who are now your brothers, sisters, and friends.

Folks don’t want to sell their possessions and give away their money away simply entrusting someone else to spend it.  Folks often don’t trust that some other person is going to spend their money better than they would.  Sharing with the outcast of society who have now become our brothers, sisters, and friends, however, now that’s a different story.  That’s the church truly living as the church.  That’s following what Jesus taught.  That’s a new life, freed from love of possessions, freed from fear and pride.  The life of Jesus’ disciples is a life of freedom and grace.

What if things go wrong as we start to share?  What if we end up feeling duped or used?  What if our new brother, sister, or friend ends up betraying us in some way?  Well, then it’s time for forgiveness and grace.  Even as we may or may not say, “no more,” to that person we still show that person love, forgiveness, and grace, perhaps even a second chance when they’ve shown true repentance and regret.

Following Jesus isn’t playing it safe.  We’re going to be used, mistreated, ridiculed, sometimes even by members of our own family.  Jesus said we would.  Jesus said we would be bearing a cross, an implement of torture and death, not playing it safe.  Playing it safe means putting our trust in our stuff, even trusting in people and our religion as possessions, things to keep us safe.  Following Jesus, choosing not to play it safe, we need to let go of everything we’re afraid to lose.  Then we can put our trust in him, in his grace and love, in his mercy and forgiveness.  Following Jesus, then, we receive a new life, a life no longer bound by fear and shame.  Following Jesus, we receive a new life of freedom and grace.  Amen.