Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Deep, Honoring, Passionate Love

Brad Sullivan
Proper 17, Year B
August 30, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”  We got to hear from the Song of Solomon today, a series of poems and writings of passionate, unabashed love, the kind of love experienced between a newly married couple on their honeymoon and a long-married couple for whom that passion and unabashed love remains.  Interestingly, God is nowhere mentioned in the entire book of Song of Solomon.  Many in the church have tried to allegorize Song of Solomon to make it about Jesus’ love for the church, and that’s a valid interpretation, God’s passionate love for humanity. 

If we stop there, however, and don’t allow this book also to be about what it truly is, a writing about passionate love between people, we’d be missing out on some of the beauty of this writing and the beauty of the love we have as passionate, sexual people.  Passionate love and even sexual desire that men and women feel for each other is part of the image of God in which we were made, and ask any newlywed, it’s a good thing. 

The lovers in Song of Solomon in the passage we heard today are so in love, that once they are together, everything in the world seems beautiful.  It’s spring time.  There are flowers and turtledoves, figs ripe on the vine.  There are beautiful scents in the air, sounds of birds chirping, not a mosquito around, and it seems as if all creation was put there by God just for the love and enjoyment of the two of them. 

I’d venture to say that a lot of us have had those feelings of being so in love that it feels like every sunrise and sunset were given by God just for you and your beloved.  Beautiful, blissful creation that is made by God and given for the enjoyment of just two people who are passionately and unabashedly in love sounds an awful lot like the Garden of Eden. 

Far from sinful, the passionate love the man and woman in this passage helped them love creation more.  They seem at peace with the world, as though the love they have for each other is going to pour out onto the world around them.  Passionate and unabashed love is far from sinful, far from anything to be ashamed about.  Passionate and unabashed love is our Edenic state, how God made us to be, part of the image of God in which we were made. 

How do we then get from the good joy and beauty of the passionate love seen in the Song of Solomon to the church sometimes in our history teaching that sex is basically wrong and bad; in a marriage it’s ok, but even then, kinda questionable?  Well, as we are no doubt aware, our desires can sometimes run amuck. 

Desire run amuck is largely what Jesus is talking about when he lists some of the evil intentions that can come from the human heart:  fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  These are basically desire run amuck, desire for things and people, desire for people as things, without regard those people.  Jesus’ list of vices are all ways that people gratify their own desire, regardless of the cost to others. 

Fornication is sex for personal gratification, without truly honoring and deeply loving yourself or the other.  It is desire run amuck.  It doesn’t really bring about that deep, passionate love for each other and for all creation, such that every sunrise and sunset is made just for those two people.  I very much doubt that when someone steals something that they really want, that they suddenly notice the beauty of the flowers and the chirping birds, the love and beauty of creation surrounding and blessing them.

From the beginning, when Adam and Eve decided they desired a piece of fruit more than they desired God and each other, our sin, our missing the mark, has been our desire run amuck, when we have desired things and even people as things more than we have desired true, deep, passionate love for God and each other.  True, deep, passionate love not only desires the other, but also honors the other, and when we have that true, deep, passionate, mutual love that not only desires but honors, then all of creation sings. 

Such passionate mutual love that not only desires but also honors is a lot of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to bring about.  That’s in rather sharp contrast to the Pharisees and the Scribes being angry at Jesus because he and his disciples didn’t follow the traditions of the elders in not washing their hands appropriately.  These traditions of the elders were oral tradition based on the laws of Moses.  These traditions were intended to help people remember their deep honoring and love of God.  They just don’t seem to have been overly effective and were certainly not worth getting angry over. 

We have a lot of traditions in the Episcopal Church too, intended to help us draw near to the mystery of God, and open our hearts to God’s passionate love for us.  Some of us follow and understand these traditions really well, and some of us don’t.  Over the years, I’ve known folks would be absolutely incensed if one of the rituals and traditions in our worship didn’t go quite right.  They loved worship and traditions so much that they were angry at people when the worship and traditions didn’t go quite right.  How many parents have I talked to, fearful because their children made noise and were fidgety during church?  I tell them time and again, be not afraid.  Children can be kinda noisy and fidgety, and here in worship is where they belong. 

As Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees and the Scribes, being angry with people because traditions and worships don’t go quite right is rather backwards.  Our traditions and worship are meant to help us love each other and love God with ever greater passion, not the other way around.

We were made to see each other and all creation as beloved of God, and not just beloved, but deeply, passionately desired by, honored, and beloved of God.  We were made to see God, creation, and each other, through the eyes of newlywed lovers, so passionately desirous for each other, that all the world is beautiful.  We were made to live the passionate, desirous, honoring love which we heard in the Song of Solomon.  “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”  Amen.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Yes, God Does Want Us to Be Happy

Brad Sullivan
Proper 16, Year B
August 23, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Why did so many of Jesus’ disciples leave him when he told them they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood?  Perhaps some thought that was kinda gross, taking him a little too literally.  Others, perhaps knew what he was talking about and didn’t want to put in the time and effort. 

Jesus talked about the manna from heaven which Israel ate during their 40-year journey in the desert after the exodus from Egypt, and when Jesus mentioned that, some of his listeners started to get a hint that following Jesus was not a one and done kinda deal.  They didn’t get to be baptized by John, follow Jesus, and be fed every day with miraculous loaves and fishes from Jesus.  That’s not the bread he was talking about when he said eat my flesh and drink my blood.  It’s not like the manna; it’s not simply getting a miraculous physical meal every day. 

Jesus had just fed the 5000 with the 5 loaves and 2 fish, so for a minute there, it seemed to some of the disciples that if they followed Jesus, they wouldn’t have to work anymore, wouldn’t have to strive or put forth effort.  Stick with Jesus, and we’ll get food. 

So, when they realized he wasn’t a vending machine giving out free lunches, they left.  What they missed was that they could work in their daily jobs and laboring for physical food, but they couldn’t work in their daily jobs for the food Jesus was offering.  They could only get that food through Jesus, and while unearned, the food Jesus was offering did come with the cost of discipleship.  The twelve knew that cost and still stayed by Jesus’ side, because they knew who he was and they wanted the bread that he was offering them.  "Lord, to whom can we go?”  Peter said.  “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

The twelve understood the words of Psalm 84, which we prayed this morning:
For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room,*
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;
No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.
O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!
Psalm 84:9-12
Happy are they who put their trust in Jesus.  We hear cost of discipleship, and it may sound like a rather less than joyful affair.  Cost and discipleship are not particularly happy words, and yet, “happy are they who put their trust in Jesus.” 

Paul seemed rather happy in his letter to the Ephesians.  He was in prison at the time that he was writing the letter, jailed because he was a disciple of Jesus.  That is something we fortunately don’t have to worry about, but for Paul, even in prison, he seemed joyful and happy in his love for Jesus.  His love for Jesus is what got him imprisoned, and yet he called his love for Jesus armor.   

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  

Darkness, hard times, the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Amidst all of the swirling darkness around us which we know is there, armor up, Paul tells us.  Armor up in your discipleship of Jesus, and be not afraid, but happy. 

What does this happiness look like, well, it varies, but I’d say it isn’t the happiness that comes from the acquisition of stuff.  There was the wealthy man who had many things, and he wanted the happiness of the kingdom of heaven.  When Jesus told him to sell his stuff, the man went away sad.  His stuff didn’t bring him the happiness his soul was longing for, and yet he still trusted in his stuff to bring him the happiness for which he longed, and Jesus looked at him with pity and said, “how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” 

How hard it will be for those who seek happiness in stuff to receive the happiness for which their souls are longing, the happiness that comes through abiding in, trusting in, and following Jesus.  I think of the happiness of my kids when they get a new toy.  It makes them happy for a while, but not for long.  Even if it’s a cool toy and the play with it, they don’t get continual soul-deep happiness from a toy.  Now a cuddling hug from their mom, that comes a lot closer.  As a child longs for his mother’s arms, so long our souls for God. 

We have relationship and discipleship with our parents, with those who love and raise us.  A child loving and being loved by his mom is a life-long journey and relationship.  So too, abiding in Jesus is not just a quick fix.  To eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood, we must abide in him, follow him, trust in him.  Eating Jesus flesh and drinking his blood is not a pit stop. It is continual driving and striving.  A long road of discipleship, studying and taking seriously Jesus’ teachings.  Staying in community with our fellow Christians, making sacrifices to do so. 

Eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood is a long and often a difficult road of discipleship.  He promises us that it will be difficult, that people may hate, revile, exclude, tell lies about us.  Does God even want us to be happy?  Absolutely he does.  That’s why he sent Jesus to us. 
Discipleship is a difficult road at times, and sometimes it’s not so difficult, but in all times “happy are they who put their trust in Jesus.”  Amen.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Food for Our Souls, Not Our Minds

Brad Sullivan
Proper 15, Year B
August 16, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

“[Lord] Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.  Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”  These words are from Eucharistic Prayer C, the third option of Eucharistic Prayer in our Rite II, modern language liturgy.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, instituting the sacrament of his body and blood in remembrance of him.  This was just before he went to the cross and died, a meal that we would eat for the forgiveness of our sins. 

In John’s Gospel, a meal is not mentioned at the end of Jesus’ life, but in the middle of his ministry.  Jesus talks about eating his body and blood, the bread which came down from heaven, after he had just fed the 5000 with the loaves and fish.  They were no longer physically hungry, and yet Jesus knew they were still spiritually famished.  They needed a different meal, spiritual sustenance, not just to prepare for the end, but for their whole lives.  We consume Jesus, take him into ourselves, and have him become a physical and spiritual part of us so that we can journey through this life, so that we can work for the Gospel, not for solace only, but also for strength; not for pardon only, but also for renewal. 

While countless Christians eat this meal every week, we can never really consider it to be routine, and certainly not mundane.  We come here for an encounter with the divine, the creator of all that is.  The enormity and power of that cannot be overstated.  Then, at Jesus’ invitation, we are bold enough to eat his flesh and blood in word and sacrament.  The enormity and power, and even audacity of that action cannot be overstated. 

I wonder if we’re not always aware of the enormity of what we’re doing when we come here.  We come for an encounter with God, asking his to take part in our lives, possibly not even really ready for him to say “yes”.  Author Annie Dillard writes about Christianity and her faith, and in Teaching a Stone to Talk, wrote about the enormity of what we’re doing here at the Eucharist.
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Kids mixing up a bunch of TNT.  God just may draw us out to where we can never return, may call us to follow and convict us so strongly, that the whole trajectory of our lives may change.  Considering the danger to our comfort and routine, one might wonder why we risk coming here at all.  I think the answer is shown in how Jesus spoke about us eating his flesh.  He talked about us eating his flesh, but the word he used did not describe a dainty eating of a nice, easy meal.  The word he used for eat connotes a ravenous ripping and chewing, the kind of eating done by someone who hasn’t eaten in two weeks.

Jesus is emphasizing the hugeness of our spiritual hunger.  He knows how much we need his life within us.  He knows how ravenous our souls are for him.

We don’t look particularly ravenous when we come here do we?  We’re sitting nicely, listening as we partake of the first part of this meal, the reading and hearing of scripture.  Jesus is the Word of God which spoke creation into existence.  So in the first part of our worship, we hear the Word of God proclaimed through scripture.  This is a meal in and of itself, an eating of Jesus’ flesh, for as Jesus said, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  We are fed by the reading of scripture and the hearing of God’s word.

Then, in the second part of our meal, we are fed by the bread and wine, the flesh and blood of Jesus.  Considering the enormity of what is happening in this meal, I can’t help but note the neat and orderly way we approach the table for Eucharist, for a meal that Jesus says we are starving for.  It seems we would be clamoring pell-mell to the table if realized our hunger.  I realize our orderly approach is also out of reverence and awe, and I’m really glad we don’t knock each other out of the way to get to the Altar Rail and receive communion. 

Jesus tells us we are starving for this meal, but he doesn’t really tell us how this meal works.  In John’s Gospel, he doesn’t even give us instructions for how to eat his flesh at all.  He simply says to do so, and he tells us what we receive in eating the meal of his flesh and blood.

We receive Eternal life – God’s life within us.  We receive life everlasting, living forever with God.  We receive a dwelling of God within us, abiding with God in Jesus.

We don’t know exactly how that works.  Jesus didn’t say, and we don’t need to know.  For a lot of parents, it is important that their children know what is going on in the Eucharist before they eat the Eucharist.  I always encourage parents to let their kids have communion as soon as they are baptized.  While none of us fully understand, kids do seem to understand almost instinctively.  This is not an everyday meal we share.  This is something else, something special.  It is a mystery, and it is a joining with God and each other.

As physical food goes, there’s not much to it, not much that would have a kid think “I just got a yummy snack.”  As food for our souls, however, this meal is enormous, and a meal which children seem to absolutely get in their souls, if not in their minds.  It is a meal, after all for our souls, and not for our minds.  We share this meal, we feast on Jesus’ flesh and blood, and he promises us life eternal, abiding with him forever…strength for the journey now, and life everlasting when our journeys have ended.  It is a meal for the ravenously hungry, who are bold enough to take this meal, to risk joining with God, being strengthened by him, and following where he leads.  Amen.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

"We Want to Hear More." The Gospel of Jesus (rather than the dangerous, false gospel so often preached)

Brad Sullivan
Proper 12, Year B
July 26, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

I had a wonderful week on our mission trip last week.  We were divided into groups, and my team spent our days digging post holes for fences with Habitat for Humanity through some of the rockiest soil I’ve ever seen.  Hard work, but very gratifying, and the youth were great, working hard, cheerful, and loving being there.

We also spent each night in worship and had time with our work crews to discuss questions that the preacher gave.  Some in my group had other questions about our faith, so we got together after dinner on Thursday along with several other youth, the other adult from our group, and we had this great conversation of faith.

One thing kept coming up during this conversation which I finally addressed to the group.  The kids kept asking about whether this group or that group would be going to hell.  I finally said, “guys, who goes to heaven and who goes to hell”, that’s not really the gospel.

Gospel of Jesus can’t be summed up as, “believe in Jesus or go to hell.” 

If it were that simple, I think Jesus would have stated it that simply.  Having showed his signs, having multiplied food in the sight of 5,000 people, I think Jesus would have simply told the people, “I am the co-eternal Son of God through whom all the world was made.  Believe that fact or go to hell when you die.” 

Jesus didn’t say that, and I don’t think the Gospel is as simple as that. 

“Believe in Jesus or go to hell” is not the Gospel.  These youth were not a part of churches in which such a gospel was taught, and yet that is what they had gleaned from what they had heard, maybe from popular Christianity.  There certainly is a lot of “believe in Jesus or go to hell” out there for people, young and old, to latch onto, but “believe in Jesus or go to hell” is not the Gospel.

Restoration of creation, repentance & forgiveness, reconciliation, love, unity with God – that is the Gospel of Jesus.

Look at the problem Jesus came to fix.  In the beginning of creation, Adam and Eve walked with God.  They were naked and unashamed.  We were made to be in deep, openhearted relationships with one another, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh relationships.  We were made to be fully our true selves with God and with each other, without fear, naked and unashamed, walking together in unity and love.

When we disobeyed God, what was the immediate consequence?  Before even the punishment that God gave, we felt shame, and we hid from each other and we hid from God.  The immediate consequence of our disobeying God was disconnection from God and disconnection from each other. 

That is what Jesus came to restore, our deep open heart to open heart relationships with God and with each other.  When Jesus had the 5000 people sit down together on the grass, he took 5000 disparate people, and he had them eat a meal together.  He had them do what family and friends do together.  He gathered up 12 baskets full of bread from the 5 loaves and 2 fish.  12 baskets for 12 tribes of Israel.  Jesus was showing the people that he came to restore them and make them whole. 

Jesus was God who had become human.  He united humanity and divinity, even closer than they were united in Eden.  That was the restoration Jesus came to bring.  We were made to be united to God, united to the creator of all life, goodness, and love.  Jesus united humanity and divinity so that we may be forever united to God.  Jesus brought us back to our original Edenic state. 

Believe in Jesus or go to hell?  That is a farce, a perversion of the Gospel, and a dangerous one at that.  I know people who have believed in Jesus, but also doubted, and because of their doubts, been told by members of their church that they are going to hell.  As a result, they have stopped believing in Jesus at all.  “Believe in Jesus or go to hell” is what many preachers preach, and what many young people hear.  It is short, easy, simple, and leaves no room for doubt.  Children and youth who are taught this version of the Gospel, therefore, will easily and readily declare who is going to hell based on their doubts or questions, and by doing so, they drive people away from Jesus. 

The young people I spoke to have likely not had preachers tell them, “believe in Jesus or go to hell,” and yet that dangerous perversion of the Gospel is so prevalent that they had still gleaned it as their basic summation of the Gospel. 

The gospel of Jesus cannot and must not be mistakenly summed up as “believe in Jesus or go to hell.”  Doing so breeds fear, shame, and disconnection…everything Jesus came to heal us from.  Think about the evangelism that goes with it…making people feel afraid enough or feel badly enough about themselves that they will turn to Jesus.

That’s what advertising agencies do!  Women are bombarded with images of airbrushed women, tacitly being told that if they don’t fit into a similar body-type, that there is something wrong with them.  Women are marketed and sold make up, tacitly being told that their faces are not worthy of being seen, without makeup covering them entirely, all so they can buy stuff from these companies.  How terrible.

Men are made to believe by advertising and marketing that unless they are muscular, chiseled, great smelling and uber-masculine, they are not worthy as human beings.  All so they can buy stuff from the very companies making them feel badly about themselves.  How terrible.

The false gospel of “believe in Jesus or go to hell” evangelizes in the exact same way as companies trying to sell us stuff by making us feel badly about ourselves.  They make us believe we are wicked and worthless sinners, destined only for eternal torment, unless we assent to or believe in the fact of Jesus’ divinity.  How terrible.  There is no good news there. 

We are unquestionably flawed – we make bad decisions which hurt ourselves and others.  We sin.  The gospel of Jesus offers us forgiveness, guidance, new direction, and a new life so that we don’t have to be defined by our bad decisions.  We don’t have to be defined by our sins, but are defined as beloved children of God…children who need guidance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.  Jesus, the good shepherd, offers us those things.  Like the 5000 people, Jesus fed, Jesus knows we are hungry too, for guidance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love, and he would never leave us unfed.

That is the gospel of Jesus.

The God of all the universe united himself perfectly to us by becoming human in the person of Jesus.  Jesus brings us back to Eden where we may be naked and unashamed before God and where we may be naked an unashamed before each other.  Jesus told his disciples when we walked on the water, “do not be afraid.”  “It is I[, the creator of the universe]; do not be afraid.”

What two things do we generally fear more than anything else?  Death, and disconnection.  We fear death, and we fear being disconnected from others.  We fear being rejected by others, being the target of gossip, being on the outside, not worthy of others’ love.  Amidst all this fear, Jesus says, “It is I[, the creator of the universe]; do not be afraid.”

Jesus came to restore our connection to God so that we might also live wholehearted, connected lives with each other, once again being naked and unashamed, living open heart to open heart connection with each other, and seeking repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation in order to do so.  Jesus also came to show us that we needn’t fear death because our lives continue on after we die.  We get to keep on living with God in Christ.  Even after our bodies have died, we get to return to Eden. 

That is the Gospel of Jesus.

When I said this to the young people on that mission trip, their faces seemed to say that their minds were blown, and they sat there saying, “we want to hear more.  Can we skip Eucharist.”  We were about to go have Eucharist, and I said, “no, we can keep the conversation going later, but we’re not going to break communion in order to do that.  We’re going to join with the whole body and have communion together.  That is also the Gospel of Jesus.

Our young people, and people of all ages need to hear the Gospel of Jesus, not a false perversion of it.  We all need to go out there and preach this Gospel.  Preaching in this case, was a conversation, it wasn’t on a street corner.  We need to tell people the good news of Jesus, not the scary, manipulative false advertising that is so often mistaken for the Gospel.

Let us pray.  Almighty God and Father, we pray that Jesus may dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. We pray that we may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God, for that is the Gospel of Jesus.  Amen.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Armor & Sword

Brad Sullivan
Proper 11, Year B
July 19, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The people in Jesus’ day flocked to him.  They went running around a lake to reach him, and thronged to him in the marketplace.  He called them sheep without a shepherd, and we saw last week what their shepherds were like.  Herod had an innocent man killed so he would look powerful in front of his friends.  The Pharisees and other religious leaders demanded perfection regarding religious practice, but they didn’t help regular people connect to God while living their normal, everyday lives.  People flocked to Jesus and fought to be near him.

Why are so many not flocking to Jesus now?  Folks don’t seem to be getting healed of physical infirmities like they once were.  Physical healing is not needed as badly as it once was, we have doctors for much of that healing.  We still need healing from Jesus, however, healing from depression, disconnection, over-stretched lives, unending pull of the next thing.  Perhaps people don’t flock to Jesus nowadays because they aren’t sheep without a shepherd, but sheep with too many shepherds. 

For some, money and defining success and self worth through money is their shepherd.  Some find leisure activities to be their shepherd, with such a strong need to unwind and relax.  Self improvement can be a shepherd, “be your best self now.”  There are a huge variety of activities which promise the world to those who participate.  A lot of them offer good morals and to build good character.  In popular Christianity the church offers a kind of one and done baptism.  Once you’re baptized, you’re kinda done.  You get to go to heaven, so you don’t need to worry about anything else.  What else then, does the church offer in popular Christianity?  It offers good morals and good character. We’ll, if folks think they can get that playing soccer, then what’s the point of church?   

We have too many shepherds, and we’ve ended up with a lot of people who have forgotten the point of our life together in the church.  If all it is, is good morals and character, then people can get that elsewhere from all the other shepherds. 

These activities needn’t be in competition with the church, but it is a struggle.  It is a struggle to come to Jesus.  It is hard to break the hold of our other shepherds.  We have commitments which we don’t want to break.  We don’t want to break our word.  It’s tough. 

We also have our baptismal covenant, the commitment we made to live together as disciples of Jesus, to raise each other up, to teach our children to follow Jesus, to live as disciples of Jesus, to raise each other up, to teach and follow the ways of Jesus, our ways as Episcopalians, to be here for worship and Eucharist.

Many of the other activities and things we follow (other shepherds) are good things in and of themselves.  They seem like armor protecting us from boredom, disconnection, getting into trouble, allowing us to unwind, enjoy life, etc.  Many, when they end up excluding our communal faith and connection to God, however, become swords which leave us even more exhausted.  Our other shepherds, the armor we carry, become swords which harm us.

Music: Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson
Lyrics: Neil Peart

The snakes and arrows a child is heir to, Are enough to leave a thousand cuts
We build our defenses, a place of safety, And leave the darker places unexplored

Sometimes the fortress is too strong Or the love is too weak
What should have been our armor Becomes a sharp and angry sword
Our better natures seek elevation, A refuge for the coming night
No one gets to their heaven without a fight

We hold beliefs as a consolation, A way to take us out of ourselves
Meditation, or medication, A comfort, or a promised reward

Sometimes that spirit is too strong Or the flesh is too weak
Sometimes the need is just too great For the solace we seek
The suit of shining armor Becomes a keen and bloody sword

No one gets to their heaven without a fight, A refuge for the coming night
A future of eternal light.  No one gets to their heaven without a fight

Confused alarms of struggle and flight, Blood is drained of color
By the flashes of artillery light.  No one gets to their heaven without a fight
The battle flags are flown At the feet of a god unknown
No one gets to their heaven without a fight.

Sometimes the damage is too great. Or the will is too weak
What should have been our armor Becomes a sharp and burning sword

If we want to keep this life we have, then we have to fight for it.  Mostly, we need to fight within ourselves to not to be pulled by the voices of the many shepherds around us, and listen to the voice of Jesus, our one true shepherd.

As we heard from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (from Ephesians 2:11-22)

We are the Body of Christ.  We are connected to God and each other through Jesus.  We have God’s very eternal life abiding among and within us.  It is given as a gift, and yet we must fight to keep it.  We don’t fight others.  The fight is within ourselves, a war within us, as Paul says, between our spirit and our flesh, and we have many shepherds often clamoring for our attention.  We want to keep our life in Jesus.  We want to follow our one true shepherd, and we want to keep, strengthen, and grow our life together in Jesus, and we can’t do so without a fight.  Amen. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sufficient Grace for Our Foolishness

Brad Sullivan
Proper 10, Year B
July 12, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Mark 6:14-29

Hooray for getting to talk about beheading this morning.  I know it’s my personal favorite topic first thing on a Sunday morning.  Earlier in the week, Kristin asked me about mock enthusiasm if I was looking forward to preaching about the beheading of John the Baptist.  “Is that the Gospel for this Sunday?”  I asked.  “Yup, it’s great, isn’t it?”  She replied.  “Oy,” I think was my response.  There is grace in this story, however.  We just have to find it.  So here we go.
Herod was basically a puppet king.  Rome was the true ruler over Israel, even though Israel had some amount of self-rule beneath the umbrella of Rome.  Herod was king of Israel, but only because Rome didn’t want to devote the resources to rule them directly.  I can imagine Herod feeling rather powerless as this puppet king.  He felt powerless and so he stared being reckless and dangerous.  He promised up to half of his kingdom to his step daughter, but half of kingdom was not really his to give.  Rome had the authority, not Herod. 
Despite this fact, despite being a puppet king, Herod did have the ability to rule his people well.  He had the influence in Rome to bring about some good.  While we don’t know exactly how he ruled, it seems that instead of ruling for his people, he generally sought more and more power for himself.  He wanted to be great and mighty in the eyes of others.  Feared.  Admired for his wealth and influence.  He wanted his ego stroked.    
So, in his powerless desire for power, he started being reckless.  He gave himself a birthday party and began feeling powerful like he wanted.  Surrounded by the powerful people beneath him, his courtiers, officers, and rulers of Galilee, he began to feel great and mighty in their eyes.  His step daughter danced, and they were all pleased.  He looked like a great king, or at least he thought he looked like a great king in their eyes.
Drunk on his supposed power, he got brazen and did something stupid.  He offered his step daughter more than he either could or wanted to give.  Expecting a relatively small request from the young girl, he makes a grand gesture, again looking powerful.  The plan was to look mighty and beneficent through his grandiosity in offering and generosity in giving. 
            Then, of course, he got caught in his rash offer and was left with a choice.  Have a good man killed, a man whom he feared and respected, or give up his ruse of power and do the right thing.  Herod could have backed down from his rash oath he made to give his step daughter half of his kingdom. 
He could have said, “I’m sorry, but the power and authority of my kingship went to my head.  I cannot give half of the kingdom.  Without Rome, it is not mine to give.  I am not powerful as I want to be as king.  We will talk later about what gift I can give, but the head of this man, I cannot give.  As for you, my courtiers, officers, and leaders of Galilee, we know we don’t have the power of a sovereign nation, but let us work together to be the best rulers we can be for the sake of our people.”
That might be a little too 21st century to have actually come out of Herod’s mouth, but he could have admitted that he messed up, admitted that even the party he threw was a bit of a farce, and then sought to take the power that he and his officers did have and use it for the good of the people.
I don’t know that any of them really had the character to do that, I do believe Herod regretted his decision and would like to have learned from it.  The point, however, is not what could have been, but what could yet be based on the decisions we make. 
We all have power, even in small amounts.  We all have some way to effect change in our lives or in the lives of those around us.  Sometimes we also feel powerless to effect the change we would like to.  I’m guessing in those times when we’ve felt powerless, we, like Herod have sometimes done the wrong thing, maybe not full on beheading, but the wrong thing nonetheless.  We’ve likely regretted it.
            Here’s where graced comes in.  Last week, we heard Paul talking about weakness, and God being strong when we are week.  We heard about God’s grace being sufficient for us when we are weak.  When we are weak and feel powerless, God’s grace is sufficient for us.  We find with God’s grace that we don’t need the power we wished we had.  With God’s grace, we find that what power we do have is sufficient.  We may need to change our goals or recognize our area of influence to affect the world is smaller than we would like, but with God’s grace, we realize it isn’t our world, and what power we have to affect change is sufficient.
            When we mess up and regret it, we find God’s grace is sufficient for our forgiveness.  God’s grace is sufficient for us to make amends.  God’s grace is sufficient for us to admit that we’ve done wrong, talk openheartedly to those around us, and seek together to live God’s kingdom. 
Herod was a fool in offering his step daughter half of his kingdom.  I’m guessing we’ve all been fools as one point or another.  God’s grace was sufficient for him to get out of that by admitting that he acted rashly and repenting of it, like King David did.  God’s grace is sufficient for us to admit when we acted as fools, repent, feel kinda dumb, and then accept the love and forgiveness of God and others. 
We’re God’s children, Paul reminds us.  We are beloved of God.  We’ve got a lot of darkness within us, enough even to do the stupid things Herod did.  We’d be fools to think otherwise.  Even with that darkness within us, we are still God’s children, beloved of God.  We mess up, regret it, and there is God’s grace, unexpected, undeserved, offering us love, forgiveness, and guidance to start life anew.  Amen.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Imperfect Vessels of God's Grace

Brad Sullivan
Proper 9, Year B
July 5, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Did you notice that Jesus didn’t send out his disciples to preach and to heal people until the disciples had seen Jesus rejected in Nazareth?  I wonder if they needed to see that, to know they might be rejected before they were sent out.  Maybe they needed to be kept from being too elated, as Paul wrote about himself.  Paul wrote that he was made weak and tormented by a messenger of Satan, and that he prayed to God for it to leave him.  In response, God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Not exactly the response Paul was looking for, but he understood.  We can get too puffed up, too strong on our own, and then we tend to give too much glory to ourselves.  Even when our words say otherwise, pride ends up telling us that we are great.  Feeling self-sufficient can leave us isolated, closed off.  We can end up scornful and contemptuous of those needing help…even if we help them.  “Thank God we’re not like that.” 

Imagine if the disciples went to heal people and to preach repentance while thinking in their hearts, “Thank God we’re not like those people.”

Paul said, when we are weak, then we are strong – because we have to accept our dependence on others, and we have to accept our dependence on God. 

Jesus certainly made sure his disciples would not be self-sufficient when he sent them out to preach and heal in the villages around Nazareth.  They weren’t allowed by be strong so that they had to rely on the charity, meaning love, of others.  Go in weakness so that God’s love may be made strong.  Allow the strength of others to care for you as you go, so that God’s love may be made strong.  Go also realizing that you may be rejected, just as I was rejected, and allow God’s grace to be sufficient for you. 

Jesus was rejected in Nazareth because he called up short those in Nazareth.  It is one thing for someone who is supposed to have life all figured out to teach us about life.  (clergy, life-coach, counselor, Oprah) We can have the experts teach us about life, because then we’re comfortable in our place.  We don’t feel threatened because, well, they’re the expert.  We don’t have things as together as the expert, but we’re not supposed to, we think.  They’re the expert.  They’re on a higher level, so their teaching doesn’t threaten my worth on the lower strata where I reside.

When someone who seems just as like us begins teaching us, then we have problems.  They’ve risen above their station because they’ve risen above us.  If they, who were just like us, are now “above” us, then my place in the universe, in society is threatened.  I feel less, because they are more.  I feel threatened by one of my own teaching me.  “Who the hell do they think they are,” right?

Jesus teaching in Nazareth exposed the people’s weakness in ways that the religious elite teaching them did not.  They didn’t like feeling weak, so they shut out the teaching.  They closed themselves off to Jesus, and put their armor in place so they wouldn’t be hurt by their acknowledged weakness.  They felt stronger.

Their armoring up, however, was not strength.  It was shame and fear.  Jesus called his Nazareth brothers and sisters to repent, to be the light to the nations God made them to be, to show the world the love of God.  They heard his message, however, and they felt exposed.  Through one of their own preaching to them, their armor of fig leaves dropped off, and they had to take seriously their own weakness.  I’m guessing they didn’t like what they saw, because you tend not to reject someone who makes you happy.  They felt weak, so they got angry with Jesus, and they put their armor of fig leaves back on, and they pretended that it made them strong, but strength is not pretending that we have it all together.  Strength is not fooling ourselves into thinking that we are righteous and self-sufficient.

Strength is acknowledging our weakness and asking for help.  In doing so, we risk having to change.  We risk letting Jesus in and letting Jesus’ teachings in and changing us.  We also risk connecting with others.  Acknowledging our weakness means our armor comes off.  We drop our fig leaves, and you know what everyone can see then.  When we drop our fig leaves, we let others in.  We let God in, and God is made strong in our weakness.  Love is made strong when we are connected to one another and vulnerable with one another.

We are all imperfect vessels of God’s grace.  Our church is an imperfect vessel of God’s grace.  That’s why we need God’s grace.  We’re doing the best we can, muddling through, doing well, messing up, revealing our strengths and our weaknesses as we go along.  Rather than being made perfect, we are told, God’s grace is sufficient for us, and with God’s grace, we continue to muddle through. 

The focus is not our muddling, but God’s grace. 

Go not only to give, but also to receive.  Go to accept God’s grace, to give God’s grace, to proclaim God’s grace, and to continue on the work that Jesus gave his disciples.  Go to help heal the world, and to be healed in the process.  Go to help reconcile people to each other and to God.  That is what Jesus came to do, to transform the world through reconciliation. 

As Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry said in his sermon to General Convention:
[Jesus] came to show us therefore how to become more than simply the human race – that’s not good enough – came to show us how to be more than a collection of individualized self-interests, came to show us how to become more than a human race.
He came to show us how to become the human family of God. And in that, my friends, is our hope and our salvation, now and unto the day of eternity.
Or to say it another way.
Max Lucado who’s a Christian writer says “God loves you just the way you are, but he [doesn’t intend] to leave you that way.”
Jesus came to change the world and to change us from the nightmare that life can often be to the dream that God has intended from before the earth and world was ever made.
Fooling ourselves into thinking we are self sufficient keeps us in a nightmare of life, leaving us believing we don’t need the grace of God.  Fooling others into thinking we are self sufficient them in a nightmare of life, thinking they are even more damaged than they are, that they only need God’s grace because they aren’t as good as the folks who have it all together.  Thinking that we have it all together, or expecting that we do, keeps us in the nightmare of life in which we cannot be fully reconciled with each other and with God. 

Jesus came to change the world to change us from than nightmare of disconnection to the dream of connection and love that God has intended from before the earth and world was ever made.

So go, as imperfect vessels of God’s grace.  Go as part of this Episcopal Church, this imperfect vessel of God’s grace, into an imperfect world in desperate need of God’s grace.  Go acknowledging your weakness and our weakness.  Go, believing that even as we continue to muddle through, God’s grace is sufficient.  For when we are weak, then God is strong.  Amen.