Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Heaven Dwelling Within Us

Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
May 15, 2016
Pentecost, Year C
Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:14-17
John 14:8-17 (25-27)
Heaven Dwelling Within Us

Pentecost of known as the birth of the church.  It is the day in which the Holy Spirit took Jesus’ 12 chief disciples, 12 followers of Jesus, and gave them power and authority to be 12 leaders of Jesus’ church.  Now Jesus had more than 12 disciples, and his church already numbered in the hundreds at this point.  A few days before the day of Pentecost, there were 120 followers of Jesus gathered together to fill the leadership void left when Judas betrayed Jesus.  Matthias was chosen and became one of the 12 apostles, one who had been with Jesus from early on and had witnessed Jesus resurrected during the 40 days after his resurrection before he ascended into heaven. 

So Matthias filled Judas spot, the 12 apostles were gathered together devoting themselves for prayer and were waiting, as per Jesus’ instructions, for the Holy Spirit.  The rest of Jesus’ disciples?  We don’t really know, but they were likely waiting too, wondering what was to come of them and what was to come of this new Jesus movement.  Then on the day of Pentecost, 10 days after Jesus’ ascension,  Jesus’ group of followers, waiting and kind of directionless became Jesus’ church with a mission to continue Jesus’ work of healing, reconciliation, and love.  a fledgling band of Jesus’ disciples were transformed by the Holy Spirit into a world altering force.  That’s the kind of thing the Holy Spirit does, transform, give power and authority, and unite disparate people into one.

On that morning when the Holy Spirit came among the disciples, tongues of fire rested upon them, and they began to speak in other languages so that all who heard them speak, heard them in their own native tongue.  This was a reversal of the confusion of languages that had happened all the way back in the book of Genesis with the tower of Babel.  In that story, the peoples of the earth all had one language, and they united together to build a great tower, reaching up into heaven.  There was no great and lofty purpose for this, they simply wanted to “make a name for themselves.”  They weren’t seeking each others’ good; they simply wanted to marvel at their own accomplishment.  Then the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." 

In the story of Babel, God confused our speech to limit us so that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish as much mighty acts and feats as we wanted.  It’s not difficult to see why.  Many of our mighty accomplishments come with great human suffering.  The pyramids of Egypt, one of the seven wonders of the world, were built by slaves.  Men and women, beloved of God, were used up and discarded, their lives valueless to their Egyptian masters, all so that a few pompous Egyptian kings could have really pretty places to place their corpses.  To this day, we still marvel at the pyramids, I marvel at the pyramids, and in our marveling, we forget what matters most, what matters to God, the human cost of building such marvels.

So, knowing our propensity for marveling at our own magnificence while ignoring and totally devaluing other human beings, God chose to confuse our language, making it more difficult for humanity to work together to accomplish great marvels.

That is, until the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ apostles and transformed them into the church.  For the first time, a religion was no longer the religion of only one people.  People throughout the world could unite under Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The power and unity that the Holy Spirit gave had a purpose, and that purpose was not for marvelous wonders so people could make names for themselves.  The power and unity of the Holy Spirit united people of all nations and languages so that they could care for each other and value each other, the least and the great alike, and continue the work of reconciliation and love which Jesus gave in his Gospel.. 

God entrusted to the apostles and through them to the whole church, what God had not entrusted to people since the earliest days of human civilization:  the unity to accomplish great things.  The Holy Spirit united the church and gave power and authority so that Jesus’ disciples could do great things, but not marvelous wonders.  They could do the same kinds of great things that Jesus did, caring for people.  If that ain’t good news, I don’t know what is.  The well being of people is the one purpose for which God entrusts us with the power and authority of his own spirit to accomplish great things:  only for the well-being of people.

The greatest things the church accomplishes are, of course, the very things that often go unnoticed by others.  Grand structures, buildings, institutions, those are things people notice, but that’s not why God gave the Holy Spirit. 
-          During times of plague, and the sick and dying had no one to care for them but a few strangers who happened to be disciples of Jesus, that is why God gave the Holy Spirit. 
-          Helping children who have difficult home lives and less than stellar role models, providing good role models for them and loving them, that is why God gave the Holy Spirit.
-          Allowing black South Africans, who suffered decades of apartheid, to forgive their abusers and embrace them as brothers and sisters, that is why God gave the Holy Spirit.
-          Choosing unity over division, love over being right, personal sacrifice for the sake of another, that is why God gave the Holy Spirit.

That is the Jesus movement.  Continuing the Jesus movement is why God gave the Holy Spirit.  God gave the Holy Spirit so his mission of reconciliation and love could be lived out within his church.  The Holy Spirit can do what even Jesus could not do, dwell and move and work among multitudes of people all at the same time.  Jesus left the disciples so that the Spirit could come.  The Spirit comes to us, where we are, God’s light inhabiting our bodies so that the love and reconciliation of Jesus can be lived out in us.  Poet Mary Oliver wrote:

The spirit likes to dress up like this:  ten fingers, ten toes,
shoulders, and all the rest at night in the black branches, in the morning
                        in the blue branches of the world.
                        It could float, of course, but would rather plumb rough matter.
                        Airy and shapeless thing, it needs the metaphor of the body, lime and appetite,
the oceanic fluids; it needs the body's world, instinct and imagination
                        and the dark hug of time, sweetness and tangibility,

                        to be understood, to be more than pure light that burns where no one is--
                        so it enters us--in the morning shines from brute comfort
like a stitch of lightning;
                        and at night lights up the deep and wondrous drownings of the body like a star.

God took no pleasure in our trying to ascend to heaven by some mighty act of building a great tower.  God took no pleasure in our trying to be great, but not because God does not take pleasure in dwelling with us.  Rather than have us harm each other and enslave each other to build some great tower to reach into the heavens, God sends the light of his Holy Spirit so that heaven may dwell within us.  We need not make a name for ourselves because God has already given us a name, and that name is beloved.  So to continue Jesus’ work of reconciliation and love, to continue the Jesus movement, God has given us his spirit and united us as one church so that Heaven will dwell within us and through us.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Everyday Glory

Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
May 8, 2016
7 Easter, Year C
Acts 16:16-34
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

Everyday Glory

I often pray, generally every day, at least once every day, and generally if I’m praying for something that I want, I’ll say a sentence or two about it, but sometimes I find that it’s something that I’m desperate for God to say yes to, and so I’ll not just give the one or two sentences, but then I’ll think, “Is there any other way that I can ask this and make sure to cut off any loop hole that God might be able to wiggle out of saying yes.  I feel that’s a little bit like Jesus’ prayer for his disciples at the end of John’s Gospel.  He’s praying that the disciples would be one, that they would be united in his love, and in all of the different kind of ways that he asks this, we find an awful lot of passion in this prayer.

We call Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and death, his passion, and we also find in this prayer his passion for his disciples.  He is giving this passionate plea to God the Father that God will take care of them when he has gone:  when he dies and when he ascends.  Jesus knows he is not going to be with them much longer, so he gives this impassioned plea to God, making sure God can’t wriggle out of it in any way, and what does he pray for? 

He prays for unity and love among not only his disciples who are there but also among future generations of disciples who will come to believe in him through their words.  Ultimately, then, Jesus prays that his disciples will be formed in and live out the image of God in which they were made.  John says “God is love.”  We understand God to be a unity of persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bound together so completely in love, that they are one.  So Jesus is praying that his disciples would be one as he and the Father are one, that they would love one another, that they would know the Father’s love.  He’s praying that his disciples will live out the image of God in which they were made. 

Then, Jesus also prays that they will behold his glory, the glory that he was given before all of time.  What kind of glory was he hoping that they would behold?  Is this a prayer that they would see his heavenly glory as we hear about being revealed in Revelation in the heavenly city and heavenly throne that comes?  I think quite possibly, “yes.”  He’s praying that they will see this full revelation of his heavenly glory at the end of all time or at the end of their lives, but glory does not only come then. 

They see his glory also when he is resurrected.  They see his glory also when he is arrested.  They see his glory also when he is crucified.  I could call this “earthly, everyday glory,” Jesus’ glory of accepting death, accepting the cross, and trusting in God for the resurrection.  This everyday glory is the kind of glory we get to experience (hopefully) every day. 

I’m stealing the phrase, “everyday glory,” from the band Rush, and one of their songs called, “Everyday Glory.”  I’m not going to play the song; I tried playing a Rush song on my guitar months ago, and I think we can all agree that was a mistake.  So today I’m just going to give you the chorus:
            Everyday people.  Everyday shame.  Everyday promise shot down in flames.
            Everyday sunrise. Another everyday story. Rise from the ashes a blaze of everyday glory.

Well, that’s accepting the cross, dying, and being resurrected right there, the kind that happens in our everyday lives.  “Everyday people.  Everyday shame.  Everyday promise shot down in flames.”  The wonderful messiah that everyone thought Jesus would be as he accepted his death on the cross, shot down in flames.  Everyday sunrise - Easter.  Another everyday story. Rise from the ashes a blaze of everyday glory, and there we have resurrection.

In our everyday lives, then, what does everyday glory look like?  We rise from the ashes to what?  We rise from the ashes to Jesus’ prayer, to unity and love.  That’s the everyday glory that Jesus prays for us, that we would behold his glory in our lives.  That everyday glory, that everyday resurrection, that everyday unity and love doesn’t just come through resurrection; that is the resurrection.  The everyday glory comes through the cross. 

Here we are back in Lent again, and of course the prayer of Jesus is a prayer from Lent, his prayer for his disciples just before he is arrested and crucified, but the prayer teaches us something more about resurrection.  It teaches us that glory is not greatness.  It can but, but today, we’re talking about glory as waiting, and trusting, and letting something die.

That is the everyday glory that Jesus is praying for his disciples, that they would trust in God as he has trusted in God, even to the cross.  Jesus is praying for his disciples that they would wait patiently for God, even as Jesus waited patiently in the tomb.  I don’t know what three days feels like when you are dead, but I imagine it feels like an eternity. 

Jesus prays for his disciples that as he died on the cross, that they would let die within themselves whatever is keeping them from unity with one another, let die within themselves whatever is keeping them and love for one another.  Jesus showed us the way, on the cross, to everyday glory, and so we are called to follow him to the cross and to let die within us whatever needs to die, those things that we hold fast to in order to prevent ourselves from being harmed.  We don’t want to be wounded again as we get wounded throughout our lives and so we armor up, and Jesus is saying, “Let go of that armor.” 

We need to become weak.  We need to let ourselves die. 

Then, letting ourselves become weak, letting ourselves die, God takes over, and we allow ourselves the freedom to follow and to trust in God, trust in his way, in his way, trust that even though we may not know what in the world is going on, we’re going to trust in God.  As we do that, we find that we embrace death.  We embrace the cross, and then, from the ashes of that death, rises everyday glory. 

When we become weak enough, we find that we can love, because we are no longer so strong that we don’t need love.  When we become weak enough, we find that we can be unified because we must be.  When we are strong, we need no one else. 

To find the unity and love that Jesus prays that we will have through his impassioned, no-loophole prayer to God, he prays that his disciples will wait on God, that his disciples will trust in God, and finally that his disciples will let themselves die in an everyday way so that they could then rise in everyday glory.

An everyday people with everyday shame, with their everyday promises shot down in flames, but then an everyday sunrise with their everyday stories, rise from the ashes in a blaze of everyday glory.  Amen.


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Alms for An Ex-Leper?

Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
May 1, 2016
6 Easter, Year C
Acts 16:9-15
John 5:1-9

Alms for An Ex-Leper?

In the movie, The Life of Brian, Monty Python showed a rather silly example of this idea that being healed can actually be rather difficult.  The movie was a comedy, which took place in Israel during the lifetime of Jesus.  Brian, a historically insignificant and unknown Jew, found himself caught up in a series of crazy situations, his life often mirroring the life of Jesus.  In the scene showing the difficulty of being healed, Brian is walking through town when a man comes prancing up to him asking, “Alms for an ex-leper?”  Brian is not initially interested, and there is some haggling going on as the Ex-Leper continues to reduce the amount he is asking for when he finally comes to his rock bottom offer: 

Ex-Leper: Okay, sir, my final offer: half a shekel for an old ex-leper?
Brian: Did you say "ex-leper"?
Ex-Leper: That's right, sir, 16 years behind a veil and proud of it, sir.
Brian: Well, what happened?
Ex-Leper: Oh, cured, sir.
Brian: Cured?
Ex-Leper: Yes sir, bloody miracle, sir. Bless you!
Brian: Who cured you?
Ex-Leper: Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business, all of a sudden, up he comes, cures me! One minute I'm a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood's gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave! "You're cured, mate." Bloody do-gooder.
Brian:  Alright, well, here you go.
Ex-Leper:  Half a denarii for my bloody life story.
Brian:  There’s just no pleasing some people.
Ex-Leper:  That’s just what Jesus said sir.

The ex-leper did admit that leprosy was awful and that he would have preferred Jesus to have come back and given him some less-bothersome, yet alms-worthy malady, so that he could have continued to ply his trade of begging alms.  Sometimes, the hardest thing in the world is to be healed.  Without healing, life may be kind of crummy, but we adjust and adapt and become so accustomed to how things are, that we’d prefer not to be healed over risking changing how things are. 

“Do you want to be made well?”  Jesus asked the man who had been ill for 38 years. I heard the suggestion recently that Jesus’ questions was not rhetorical, but an honest question.  “Do you want to be made well?”  Jesus had a gift to offer this man, but he would not force it on him.

Imagine the change that would come upon this man when suddenly he was made well, when suddenly he wasn’t lying by this pool anymore waiting to come into the waters.  When he didn’t’ have people pitying him anymore, he whole world was going to change.  Responsibilities would be now upon him.  While welcome, that was probably going to be a daunting transformation of his life.

If we look at this story of physical healing and apply it to our spiritual healing, we see Jesus asking us that same question, “Do you want to be healed?”, and we find that our answers are not always “Yes.”  For the healing that comes through accepting Jesus’ grace and love, through trusting in him and following in his ways, sometimes our answer to “Do you want to be healed?”, is “Yes, but not yet.” 

That was St. Augustine of Hippo’s famous prayer, “Lord, please make me a Christian, just not yet.”  He believed that if he were to become a Christian, he would have to change his life; he’d have to give up a rather carefree, womanizing life, and actually be dedicated to Jesus’ teachings.  He believed that following in Jesus’ way would be a better life for him.  He believed that it would be more fulfilling, that it would bring about more good, that he would actually enjoy life more, but he just wasn’t ready to bite the bullet and stop his carousing, carefree, party-boy life.  So, his response to Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well?”, was “Yes Lord, just not yet.”

Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is to be healed.  The healing that Jesus offers means transformation, and transformation is a daunting prospect.  I may know that things aren’t good the way they are, but I can’t imagine life any other way.  We may hold onto our past hurts, cling to our pain, because it feels like a shield against future pain.

The man Jesus healed had been ill for 38 years.  The story doesn’t say what his malady was, just that he was ill.  He said he had no one to put him into the pool when the water was stirred up (when the healing powers of the water were present), and so someone else would always beat him to the water.  I’ve always imagined the man as a cripple who was crawling to the water with lifeless legs dragging behind him, and perhaps that is the case, but perhaps not. 

Perhaps the man could walk, he just walked slowly, fearful of what would happen if he was healed, or maybe fearful that he would enter the water and not be healed.  Perhaps he was afraid that he would enter the water and not be worthy of being healed.  Remember that sickness was often seen as an affliction given by God as punishment for sin.  If the man entered the water and was not healed, then he was not forgiven.  Perhaps that fear of being unforgiven, that fear of being unlovable was too great, and the man remained as he was.

Ultimately, that was the healing Jesus gave to the man.  He cured the man’s illness, whatever it was, and in doing so, he declared the man forgiven of his sins and beloved of God.   Be not afraid, be not ashamed, for you are God’s beloved, and God’s grace is more than sufficient for your sins. 

Lutheran Pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, wrote of God’s grace being enough for her sins.  She had at one point been a bit of a jerk to a parishioner, totally unknown to the parishioner, but it was weighing on her, and she needed absolution; she needed to say out loud to another human being the crappy thing she had done, and she then needed to hear the words of God’s forgiveness spoken over her.  So, she called her friend, Caitlin, who was also her confessor.  Of Caitlin, she wrote:
[Caitlin] knows me.  Really well.  And she is unimpressed with my sin.  I’ve told her things about myself that I’ve not told anyone else and she still wants to be my friend.  Not because she is magnanimous but because she believes in the power of forgiveness and the grace of God. 
Caitlin was unimpressed with Nadia’s sins.  That’s how God is with us, unimpressed with our sins.  Our sins are a big deal to us, and in one sense our sins are a big deal to God.  Our sins are a big deal and they matter to God because our sins are the ways we hurt ourselves and each other.  Our sins are a big deal to God because we are a big deal to God.  Through our sins, we end up separating ourselves from each other and from God, and God wants to be united to us and for us to be united to each other.  So our sins are a big deal to God, a big enough deal that God became human in the person of Jesus and let us kill him on the cross so that he could receive all of our sins, receive all of our sins in that macabre embrace, and having taken all of our sins upon himself, could say, “Father, forgive them.” 

Such is the grace of Jesus, that having taken all of our sins upon himself and having been killed by us, he has forgiven us.  So, while our sins matter to God, God is also totally unimpressed by our sins, because his grace, forgiveness, and love are so much greater.  The sins of the entirety of all human kind throughout all time are very great indeed:  pettiness, insults, jealousy, abuse, rape, murder, genocide, holocausts.  The sins of humanity are vast as the ocean, limitless as the sky, beyond our reckoning, and the sins of humanity are totally unimpressive when met with God’s grace, forgiveness, and love.

That is what Jesus offers us when he says, “Do you want to be healed?”  Imagine a life not held captive by guilt or shame from past sins.  Imagine a life not constantly scrambling to be good enough to be worthy of God’s love.  Imagine a life not held captive by the past hurts that others have given because you have been forgiven yourself by God and therefore able to forgive others. 

Imagine a life transformed, sometimes a daunting prospect, and so Jesus asks, “Do you want to be healed.”  Do you want to be transformed by God’s grace?  Do you want to be transformed by God’s forgiveness?  Do you want to be transformed by God’s love?  Do you want to let go the sins and the hurts of the past as God has let them go for you?  Do you want to accept that there will be more sins and hurts in the future and let go of those as well?  No longer clinging to our sins and our hurts, no longer clinging to our feelings of needing to be good enough to be worthy of God’s love, not longer clinging to all of the past and future mess, “Do you want,” Jesus asks, “to fall into God’s grace and accept that you are forgiven and beloved?”  Amen.