Monday, December 3, 2018

Prisoners of Hope


Brad Sullivan
1 Advent, Year C
December 2, 2018
Emmanuel, Houston
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Prisoners of Hope

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly.”  Happy Advent everyone.  Here at the beginning of the church year, we have Jesus talking about what almost sounds like a doomsday scenario.  Be on guard, guys, because it’s gonna get bad, then it’s gonna get worse, then the Son of Man is going to come, and you’ll really have to watch out.

That’s not what’s going on here.  “That day,” Jesus said.   “Be on guard…[lest] that day catch you unexpectedly.”  They day he was referring to was the day of the son of man, an allusion to Daniel chapter 7.  The son of man, or one like a son of man, or a regular dude, (depending on how you interpret the words of Daniel), a regular dude is going to come with the clouds of heaven, and he is going to lead the people of Israel, and from then on, the people of Israel will be honored and praised by all the world, and all nations will look to Israel for peace and justice and the way of God throughout the earth. 

This was Daniel 7:13-14, after the first twelve verses of Daniel 7 described four terrible kingdoms of the earth rising up and wreaking havoc on Israel.  So, four kingdoms of the earth, followed by a kingdom whose origin is from God, a divinely ordained and ordered kingdom for God’s people, Israel.

That hasn’t happened yet.  If we’re looking for historical cognates to the four kingdoms mentioned in Daniel, there are plenty of contenders like Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, but the point of Daniel’s vision is less about particular historical cognates, and more about God’s restoration of Israel after and even through destruction. 

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life,” Jesus said.  Remember Daniel’s vision?  Yes, dark days are coming, and God will be with us in and through those dark days, and afterwards, we will be restored.  “When I am killed,” Jesus was saying, “when Rome sacks Israel, when the temple is destroyed, do not become prisoners of despair, weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

Don’t become prisoners of despair during the dark times.  Whether it’s Rome sacking Israel, Harvey sacking Houston, the Camp Fire sacking northern California, we have no lack of dark times.  We’ve got distress among the nations, roaring of the seas, fires, floods, we’ve definitely got fear and foreboding.  We’ve got plenty of reasons to numb ourselves.  That’ really what Jesus is talking about, being weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.  Numbing.  Numbing out so the worries of this life seem muted, or at least for a little while, we don’t have to care as much.  Jesus is warning against responding to the worries of this life with dissipation and drunkenness. 

Don’t be prisoners of despair.  Be on guard lest you numb out and spend your life in frivolous amusement, wasteful expenditures, dissolute living…basically a lot of excess and pleasure seeking in order to numb out and avoid the darkness and worries of life. 

Almost everyone numbs in one way or another to avoid or to get a temporary reprieve from the darkness and despair and worry of so much going on around us.  We all numb out in one way or another, but don’t become prisoners of despair, Jesus taught.

Instead, Jesus taught, be prisoners of hope.  This idea of prisoners of hope comes from Zechariah 9:12, and I am completely stealing this idea from Rabbi Annie’s sermon last month during the Shabbat for Solidarity.  Become prisoners of hope.

Jesus knew he was going to die.  He knew the Temple would be destroyed and his people would be scattered to the ends of the earth.  He was acutely aware of the darkness and hardships around him, and he knew things were going to get worse, and yet he remained a prisoner of hope. 

Remember Daniel’s vision, guys.  Remember that one day, God’s kingdom will be fully lived out with Israel at the helm.  Remember the brightness of the future which casts out all the darkness of the present.  Remember, and be prisoners of hope. 

Love deeply.  Party with your friends, and enjoy life, that’s what Jesus did.  Honor and respect yourself and those around you.  Be faithful and true to who you are and who you want to be.    Serve others when they are in need, and let others serve you when you are in need.  Spend lots of time in prayer.

Jesus was constantly reconnecting himself to God through prayer.  He got overcome by the darkness of the world, just like we do, and so he spent a huge amount of time reconnecting to the light of God through prayer. 

As a people, we’re re-learning how to reconnect to the light of God through prayer with ancient practices like centering prayer and meditation.  A group meets here at Temple Sinai on Thursdays at 5:00 for Centering Prayer.  Bible Prayer groups are beginning to meet to pray though passages of scripture and to let the Spirit of God speak through the scriptures.  Groups of people are meeting for prayer in online communities when work and travel and distance won’t allow them to meet together in person. 

Praying the hours is becoming cool again.  Early in the life of the church, folks were becoming overwhelmed by the fast pace of life and the constant demands of their time and attention by second and third century society.  So, monastic communities began forming as folks left the cities to devote themselves to quieter lives of prayer, and far from drudgery, lives of service and prayer gave light, life, and joy to those who had been weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.  Nowadays, we find a new interest in monasticism in which people don’t have to become monks and nuns but continue to live their regular lives and also join with monastics in lives of service and prayer.  More and more folks are choosing to become prisoners of hope.  Morning, noon, evening, and night, we Episcopalians pray as prisoners of hope.  Even those four hours of prayer come from monastic roots, from people no longer wanting to be weighed down by numbing the worries of this life away through dissipation and drunkenness. 

Continual prayer and reconnecting to the light of God.  Serving others in need and allowing others to serve us when we’re in need.  Partying with friends and enjoying life while honoring and respecting ourselves and those around us.  Love deeply.  These are the ways Jesus lived as a prisoner of hope, and how Jesus taught us to be prisoners of hope. 

Restoration is coming from God.  That is our hope.  In little ways every day, God is restoring creation in and through us.  One day, God will restore all of creation with Israel at the helm.  So do not numb out.  Do not be weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life as prisoners of despair.  Instead, love deeply as prisoners of hope. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

...Then Were We Like Those Who Dream...


Brad Sullivan
Proper 28, Year B
November 18, 2018
Emmanuel, Houston
Mark 13:1-8

…Then Were We Like Those Who Dream…

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” (Psalm 126:1-2)  That’ Psalm 126 verses 1-2, and whether in those words or in other words, that idea is a recurring theme through the history of Israel.  “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”  God restores Israel.  God restores his people.  God restores creation and covenant.

Before God restored the fortune of Zion, well obviously Zion’s fortunes weren’t doing so well.  Babylonian captivity and the near total destruction of the nation of Israel.  The capturing of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines, God’s very presence seemingly taken from Israel.  40 years of wandering in the desert after the Israelites lost faith in God that he could bring them into the land that he had promised them.  God’s anger and rejection of the people of Israel after they formed a Golden Calf to replace God almost immediately after God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt.  In each of these cases, after Israel’s fortunes weren’t doing all that great, God restored the fortunes of Zion, and then were the people of Israel like those who dream, then was their mouth filled with laughter and their tongue with shouts of joy.

That portion of Psalm 126 seems to me the unspoken promise within Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple.  His warning / prophecy sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it.  Not only will the temple be destroyed, there will be wars, rumors of wars, nation against nation, earthquakes, famines, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.  “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs,” Jesus said. 

All that stuff I just described, it’s gonna get worse after that.  The birthpangs, they begin, and then there’s full blown labor, and it’s gonna hurt, cause labor tends to do that, and sorry guys, there’s no epidural for this one, no nerve block.  The best you can do is that breathing thing.  Labor is coming, guys, and it’s gonna hurt, Jesus was saying, but let’s put a different emphasis on what he said.  Rather than, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs,” let’s say, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” 

Well, after birthpangs and labor comes a baby.  So, what you’re saying, Jesus, is that after the destruction of the temple and all that other bad stuff happens, something fantastically wonderful is coming?  Oh!  Well that’s great!  “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream.”  That’s what’s coming.

Now, what came was not the rebuilding of the temple, nor even the restoration of the nation of Israel, at least not for about 1900 years.  What happened was the people of Israel were dispersed and scattered without a nation, and the people of Israel survived, and even thrived.  Rather than ceasing to be a people, they became even more fully a people, God’s chosen people spread throughout the world.   The Temple was not restored in Jerusalem, and the religion changed at that point, but synagogues spread throughout the land.  A people with one temple became a people with countless temples where folks could come and dwell and become God’s people. 

I would say Emmanuel had a fairly decent dose of birthpangs back in August of 2017.  I could say that Harvey and Emmanuel’s flooding, and all that has happened since “is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” To be faith think we’re still in labor, but guys, all that has happened, the flooding, the work, the fear, the discord, the coming together and the work to be done is but the beginning of the birthpangs. 

A baby is coming.  New life is coming.  What’s that gonna look like?  What does it mean for us to be a post-Harvey Emmanuel, a new creation by water and the word?  I think we’re starting to find that out as we go, as we receive hospitality, as we continue to be Emmanuel even without our home, as we learn to be adaptive, gracious and flexible, practicing gratitude as life comes our way. 

Ultimately, I think a post-Harvey Emmanuel, a new creation by water and the word, looks like a spiritual oasis in West Houston in which we are a spiritual oasis because you are a spiritual oasis, and you are a spiritual oasis, and you, and you, and all of y’all, and I are all spiritual oases.  The Emmanuel being born is an Emmanuel in which the community is a spiritual oasis as we are all spiritual oases.

That’s the disperse nation of Israel after the destruction of the temple, bringing the light of God not in one place, but in countless places throughout the world.  Emmanuel as each of us being a spiritual oasis in which God’s presence, peace, and nurture is present wherever any one of us is present, deeply rooted in prayer and scripture, deeply rooted in Jesus, always acting in love for others, with compassion, mercy, and peace. 

That’s what I see in a post-Harvey Emmanuel.  We gather as a spiritual oasis, and we leave as spiritual oases where the weary, the sin-sick, and the burdened come to be refreshed by the love and peace of Jesus present in each one of us.  As spiritual oases, we each continually refresh ourselves through daily prayer, almost monastic in our practice of the four daily prayers of the Episcopal church.  We continually refresh ourselves with daily reading of scripture, dwelling in God’s presence throughout history in the sacred stories of our faith.  We continually refresh ourselves through other practices through which we remember and become aware of God’s presence, and love, and peace all around us. 

No ain’t none of us gonna get it right all the time, and sometimes the best we’re gonna do is to reach out to someone else when our well has run dry and we need refreshment from them as a spiritual oasis.  That too is what Emmanuel is becoming, this new baby being born, the new creation by water and the word.  All the turmoil and strife has been but the beginning of the birthpangs.  Emmanuel is becoming what we have been striving to be, a spiritual oasis in west Houston, by each one of us continually refreshing ourselves in God’s presence, and love, and peace.  Emmanuel is becoming a spiritual oasis in west Houston by each one of us becoming a spiritual oasis.  Emmanuel is becoming a spiritual oasis as our hearts are filled with God’s promise of restoration.  “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

Monday, October 29, 2018

Out of Anger, Hatred, and Killing, “Let There Be Light”


Brad Sullivan
Proper 25, Year B
October 28, 2018
Emmanuel, Houston
Mark 10:46-52
Isaiah 2:2-4

Out of Anger, Hatred, and Killing, “Let There Be Light”

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”  (Genesis 1:1-3)  Bartimaeus, a man who was blind called to Jesus to have mercy on him, and when Jesus asked what he wanted, he said, “My teacher, let me see again.”  Jesus said, “Go; your faith has made you well,” and immediately Bartimaeus could see.  Where there had been a formless void and darkness for Bartimaeus, Jesus spoke, and there was light. 

It is no stretch to draw a connection between the light at the beginning of creation and the restoration of sight for Bartimaeus, because there was so much more going on with Bartimaeus than one man getting to see again.  The same voice that said, “Let there be light,” said to Bartimaeus, “Go; your faith has made you well.”  God was once again bringing light into the darkness. 

You might think that God would get tired of saying “let there be light” over and over again in the midst of our darkness, but it seems that in God’s love, God never tires of bringing light into the formless void of our darkness.  Anger, hatred, killing.  “Let there be light,” God says.  “Let there be light.”  The healing of Bartimaeus was a sign, a reminder that God is always taking the darkness of the world upon himself and bringing light and healing to this broken world.

I’m guessing that most people who witnessed Bartimaeus’ healing didn’t think to themselves, “Oh, God is restoring light into the void and darkness of humanity’s sin.”  Most probably just thought, “Cool, Barty can see again,” but restoration and healing of creation is what was really going on in the healing of Bartimaeus, and the really cool thing about Bartimaeus is, he got to be a part of Jesus healing and restoring creation.  He got to be a part of Jesus’ light casting out darkness. 

Now, Bartimaeus didn’t do anything great.  All he did was ask Jesus for help, but because he did, Jesus got to show that the light of God has not left the world in darkness, but rather God’s light is always with us in this world casting out darkness for those who wish to see.

We are here worshipping in a Jewish Synagogue because after Hurricane Harvey flooded our church, the Rabbi and people of Temple Sinai offered their sacred space for us to worship in on Sundays.  They were the light in our darkness, and as with Bartimaeus, there was and is now something so much bigger going on than a small Christian community getting a place to gather for worship.  In our communities coming together, God is working to heal his world.  In our communities sharing Temple Sinai’s house of worship, God is casting out the darkness of anger, hatred, and killing.
Now, there was no anger, hatred, and killing between Emmanuel and Temple Sinai, but as we saw yesterday in Pittsburg, there is still plenty of anger and hatred towards and killing of the people of Israel.  People at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg were gathered yesterday for a Shabbat service, for Sabbath rest and peace, and a man walked in and killed 11 people simply because he hated wanted to kill Jews.  The darkness of anti-Semitism, that anger, hatred, and killing is tragically still with us.

So, when I say we are a part of something so much bigger than ourselves by gathering here for worship at Temple Sinai, I mean we are a part of God casting out the darkness of anti-Semitism, of anger, hatred, and violence of all kinds.  By being here, we are a part of God’s continuing story of taking the formless void and darkness of humanity’s anger, hatred, and violence, and saying to that darkness, “Let there be light.” 

Now, like Bartimaeus, we haven’t done anything.  All the work was done by a Jewish rabbi and her congregation saying, “Come, worship, let our house be your house.”  All we did was say, “yes please, thank you,” and God said, “Let there be light.”

That is the story we are a part of by being here.  That is the story we get to tell because we are here.  We get to be a part of and tell the story of God healing creation.  I hope we don’t miss that.  I hope we don’t take this time gathering for worship in this sacred and holy place and simply think, “cool, we got a place to worship.”  There is so much more going on here than just having a place to gather on Sundays.   Jesus said his followers would be kicked out of the synagogues, and yet here we are.  Peace and wholeness in creation is being restored. 

In Isaiah 2:2-4, we here a vision of peace, of peace in Jerusalem and peace in the world.

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’  For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:2-4)

That is the story we get to be a part of by worshipping here on Sundays, by accepting Temple Sinai’s offer for light in our darkness.  People need to hear this story.  It’s a story worth telling because it is part of a story that is so much bigger than we.  Like Bartimaeus’ story was so much bigger than just him receiving his sight, our being here is part of God’s story of constantly saying, “Let there be light,” to the formless void and darkness of humanity’s anger, hatred, and killing.  In the wake of 11 deaths at Tree of Life Synagogue, tell this story.  Tell the story of Emmanuel at Sinai, the story of this congregation opening up their hearts to us, the story of God saying, “Let there be light.” 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

...And All the Water Was At Ease


Brad Sullivan
Proper 21, Year B
September 30, 2018
Emmanuel, Houston
Numbers 11:4-6,10-16,24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

…And All the Water Was At Ease

Between the woods the afternoon
Is fallen in a golden swoon.
The sun looks down from quiet skies
To where a quiet water lies;
And silent trees stoop down to trees.

And there I saw a white swan make
Another white swan in the lake;
And, breast to breast, both motionless,
They waited for the wind's caress,
And all the water was at ease.
-          The Mirror, A.A. Milne

That poem is The Mirror by A.A. Milne, one of my favorites.  My mom used to read the Complete Poems of Winnie the Pooh to my brother and me as kids growing up, and I have been reading those poems to our kids as they grow up.  I love the peace and beauty of this poem where there are these two swans seemingly similar and yet as different as they can be, different as night and day.

One swan is flesh and blood, bones and feathers, the other one photons reflected off the surface of a lake, and yet they touch, uncrowded, sharing that space in peace, waiting for the wind’s caress.

Jesus’ disciples could have learned a little something from these two swans.  When they saw the other casting out demons in Jesus’ name, it was too close:  too close to who they were and what they believed, and yet too different.  He was not one of them, and they wanted him to stop. 

I think we understand the disciples reaction pretty well.  I daresay last week was one of the most contentious weeks in America in quite some time…in politics which then affected most of our lives, with the continued senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh as we heard from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and her allegations of sexual assault against Judge Kavanaugh. 

How could anyone who believes her possibly be a Christian, or how could anyone who believes him possibly be a Christian?  The confirmation for a Supreme Court judge has been ripping us apart because we can’t imagine the other side belonging.  “If you do this or if you declare that, then I just declare you to be outside of Jesus and his way.”  “If they are in the church, then I am going to have to leave.” 

Which group gets to be a follower of Jesus?  Which group gets to declare who gets to be a follower of Jesus?  Which political party gets to claim Jesus and be his followers? Which socio-economic group gets to claim Jesus and be his followers?  Which race or gender gets to claim Jesus and be his followers?

Well, it’s pretty clear.  Jesus said that whoever agrees with him in at least 83.4% of what they do and say and believe…  He didn’t say that. 

“Whoever is not against us are for us,” Jesus said.

The other who claims Jesus and does deeds of power in Jesus’ name, is claimed by Jesus.  So we gather, breast to breast, motionless, and wait for the wind’s caress, and all the water is at ease.

What are we to do then with those with whom we disagree so viscerally that there is violence inside of us ready to explode out?  We speak with those other, kindly, and we listen to those others.  We talk.  We allow ourselves to be right.  We allow the other to be wrong.  Hopefully they allow us to be wrong, and we don’t declare them outside the camp, or terrible, or awful…even if we’re thinking it.  We gotta leave a little room for Jesus in that.  For if our rightness causes us to sin, then cut it out and allow ourselves to be wrong.

How do we live with those with whom we disagree?  Well, we continue to follow our baptismal covenant.  We continue to speak, and work, and strive for justice.  We continue to speak, and work, and strive to respect the dignity of every human being, including the wrong ones.  We continue to speak, and work, and strive for the values we hold, and then we allow those others to still be wrong and to still be disciples of Jesus.  “Have salt within yourselves, and be at peace with one another,” Jesus said.

Those who claim Jesus and strive for his kingdom and whose ways and beliefs you find abhorrent?  We’ll, you’re probably right that they are wrong, and Jesus’ grace is sufficient for their wrongness and for yours.

As silent trees stoop down to trees, we remain breast to breast, both motionless, and we wait together for the wind’s caress, and let the water be at ease.