Friday, September 15, 2017

Our Pre-Harvey Lives Are Dead and In the Tomb

Brad Sullivan
Proper 16, Year A
August 27, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Exodus 12:1-14
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Our Pre-Harvey Lives Are Dead and In the Tomb

Last Friday, I was volunteering over at FamilyPoint Resources, a little ways down Memorial from here.  Family Point has after school programs for children in this area along with other services for children and families.  With school not yet in session last week, FamilyPoint opened up to have some hang out time for the neighborhood kids, and I was there to help with that.  I spent a little bit of time on the soccer field, but mostly built LEGOs with a group kids.  It’s great getting to see what they come up with and how excited they are to show off their creations. There was the occasional dispute over, ‘that piece is mine,’ but mostly we just built together and admired each others’ creations. 

Afterwards, I was talking with the executive director, Stephanie Hruzek, about Family Point and the needs of the neighborhood.  They need folks to come help with after school, of course, and they’re also assembling teams to help muck out houses.  All are welcome to join in those efforts, by the way.  One thing that was so heartening and wonderful in Stephanie’s and my conversation  was the seeming role reversal of families that Family Point is used to serving, coming out to help serve others, be it through mucking houses, helping at Family Point, or just helping out a neighbor in any way they need.  The humanity that she has seen in the wake of Hurricane Harvey has far surpassed the damage done.  Fear of the other and fear of the unknown seem to be down right now, and our shared humanity is coming to the fore.  Stephanie shared her joy at this recognition of, this living into our shared humanity, and our hope and prayer is that this seeking out and reaching out for the other continues.

Reaching out for one another and recognizing our shared humanity feels like pre-Harvey burdens have been lifted off our shoulders, burdens we were not even all that aware of:  burdens of fearing others or ignoring others.  Amidst these burdens which we often carry, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Jesus’ yoke is his teaching, his way.  As much as our religion has at times tried to make Jesus’ way difficult and heavy, the way of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus are easy, and light.  The way of Jesus takes other burdens off our shoulders and lightens our loads as we walk this life together.  Helping others with our post-Harvey, newfound common humanity has felt lighter than before.  This is the way and the teaching of Jesus.  Post-Harvey, we’ve been walking in the way of love, and we’ve been less encumbered by the burden of fearing the other, less encumbered by the burden of ignoring the other, less encumbered by the burden of enmity towards the other.

Friends and family who have had estrangement growing over differing political and religious beliefs have found that such differences don’t matter in the wake of Harvey.  Our petty differences and even our important differences do keep us…different, but they don’t need to divide us.  If we need to be divided, God will sort that out later on.  In all seriousness, Jesus taught on several occasions that any sorting out of the people, any dividing of humanity that needs to happen will be done by God at the end of the ages.  In the mean time, Jesus taught that we are to live with each other, sometimes to put up with each other, but above all to love each other and to live out our common humanity. 

Paul told the church in Rome to “owe no one anything except to love one another.”  The burden of fear keeps us from loving one another, and there are few heavier burdens than fear - except perhaps a desire for vengeance.  Before Paul wrote to owe no one anything except to love one another, Paul wrote, “Repay no one evil for evil…never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God…” (Romans 12:17-19)  Desire for vengeance may seem justified, but it is a heavy burden, and Jesus’ yoke, his teaching, seeks to lighten that burden.

 “If another member of the church sins against you,” Jesus taught, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Ok, so if we’re being honest, going up to the person who has hurt you and going to them with your heart in your hand letting them know that they hurt you is not an easy task.  Doing so requires courage and vulnerability.  You might just get hurt again.  Going to someone and seeking reconciliation, however, is so much easier and lighter than carrying around the burden of hurt forever.  The weight of carrying that pain around is hard and heavy, carrying the accompanying fear and mistrust takes are hearts of flesh and turns them into hearts of stone, weighing us down even further.  We trust less and less and fear more and more, when we don’t seek reconciliation, and then we end up with our pre-Harvey burdens of fearing the other, ignoring the other, and holding enmity for the other.  Seeking reconciliation is a far easier and lighter burden than the burden of carrying fear, mistrust, and enmity.    

Even if you can’t be reconciled, Jesus taught that you still don’t carry the enmity around.  You drop it.  You let it go.  If you can’ t be reconciled, then let that person be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.  On the one hand, you’re considering that person to be outside of your life, apart from you.  On the other hand, what grudge would you hold against someone who is not a part of you?  Let the grudge go, let the person go, and wipe the slate clean.  It would be up to the other person at that point to rebuild the relationship.  At the same time, gentiles and tax collectors were a part of Jesus’ and the early church’s mission field, so there is a writing off and a starting over in Jesus’ teaching about when reconciliation doesn’t occur.  Death and resurrection.  Such is the way of Jesus.  Such is his easy yoke and his light burden.

Our shared humanity, seeking out the other without fear, forgiving and actively seeking reconciliation:  these are ways of Jesus that we absolutely need in our post-Harvey lives, and what we need in our post-Harvey life as Emmanuel.  We need each other.  We always did, but pre-Harvey, we felt secure enough in other things not to realize our need for each other quite so acutely.

Our pre-Harvey lives are dead and in the tomb.   Our post-Harvey lives and post-Harvey life as Emmanuel is emerging from the tomb.  Post-Harvey, we have been woken from sleep, and we realize just how much we need each other.  More than a building, more than programs, we need each other.  Emmanuel Episcopal Church & School is a new creation by water and the Word.

We need to stay joined together, and we need to discover new ways to join together as well.  In our post-Harvey, resurrected life, we need to keep reaching out into our community.  We are a church, a people, without a building right now, and this is a challenge for us, and it is also a wonderful opportunity to live into our common humanity.  Without our building to gather in and serve from, we get to gather and serve in other people’s buildings.  We get to gather and serve in other people’s homes.  We get to join with our neighbors as they gather and serve us. 

With prayer and reconciliation, we get to continue in this resurrected life, sharing in our common humanity as a new creation by water and the Word, following in the easy way and light burden of Jesus.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sure, You're The Messiah, But...

Brad Sullivan
Proper 16, Year A
August 27, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Matthew 16:13-20

Sure, You’re The Messiah, But…

Some of y’all may not be aware of this, but children often don’t do what their parents say.  Sometimes they simply want to do their own thing, and sometimes it seems like they’re just pretty sure their parents have no idea what they’re talking about.  We’ve got this great picture of Noah when he’s a few days old in which his expression clearly states, “I get that you love me and all, but I’m not sure I trust this situation all that well; you seem to have no idea what you’re doing.”  To be fair, at the time, he was kinda right.  Since then, of course, there has never been any doubt in our children’s minds that we’ve got it all together. 

This idea of children not really trusting that their parents know what they are talking about pretty well illustrates Peter’s and the disciples rather regular response to Jesus.  “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked, and Peter answered, “You’re the messiah, the Son of God, but…”  Ok, Peter didn’t actually say “but” anything.  Immediately after his declaration that Jesus is the messiah, however, Peter told Jesus he obviously didn’t know what he’s doing.  As we’ll hear next week, Peter didn’t like what Jesus had to say in predicting his own arrest and crucifixion, and we hear in Peter’s response to Jesus an unspoken, “Well sure, you’re the messiah, Jesus, but you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.  You may be the Son of God, and all, but right now you need to listen to me. ”
“Sure you’re the messiah, but…” has turned out to be a common refrain in the church.  Like children who aren’t really sure their parents have any idea what they’re talking about, disciples of Jesus often seem to think that Jesus had it about as together as the first time parents of a newborn.   I’m talking about ways we behave and even lessons we teach which seem to counter the claim that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God.

Here are some things we’ve done or said, or at least heard of Christians doing and saying:
-          Jesus may be the messiah, but praying for our enemies doesn’t seem to keep us as safe as we’d like, so we think we should fight them first and only pray for them afterwards…
-          Jesus may be the messiah, but my eyes are just fine, log or no, and I can spot other people’s sins quite well, thank you very much…
-          Jesus may be the messiah, but we should only let certain people be a part of the church.  Jesus may have wanted all who travail and are heavy laden to come to him, but we say only those whose lifestyles aren’t too objectionable (or who at least are quiet about it) because we think his grace should only be poured out for those whom we deem appropriate…
-          Jesus may be the messiah, but contra his teaching in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, having enough to eat is only appropriate for those who have worked enough to deserve having enough to eat.  Those with more than enough shouldn’t share with those reprobates, they should get a job…
-          Jesus may be the messiah, but we don’t want to wait for God to sort out who the evil ones are at the end of the age, and we certainly don’t want all of us to grow together.  We think God is taking too long, and we want to kill off the ones we deem to be evil right now, or at least keep them far, far away from us…
-          Jesus may be the messiah, but taking up a cross, and risking death for the sake of love and peace in the world just isn’t working for me.  I’d rather live with the assurance of eternal life and not worry about too much sacrifice in this world…
-          Jesus may be the messiah, but reconciliation is too hard.  I’d rather say I’ve forgiven them, really hold a grudge, and let God work out the details…
-          Jesus may be the messiah, but his rebuke of the Pharisees was really way out of bounds; purity tests required for being Jesus’ disciples is a good thing, that way we can keep out those whom we feel are icky…

We probably wouldn’t claim that Jesus actually taught any of what I just said, but those are ways that are often lived out in the church.  There are many ways teachings which seem like wisdom but which rather counter to Jesus’ teachings.  We’re like kids who aren’t doing what our parents say.  We’re usually not trying to be openly defiant or rebellious.  We just keep thinking that the supposed wisdom right in front of us is going to work out better or be an easier path than the way of Jesus…if we even think about it much at all.  That’s kinda been our M.O. since the Garden of Eden. 

I’m pretty sure Jesus is expecting that we’ll mess up in fact he’s certain of it, otherwise we wouldn’t need a messiah.  At the same time, accepting that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God, is meant to be a game changer for us.  Like Peter, we’re going to mess up, a lot, and we’re also meant to constantly learn from  Jesus, learn from our mistakes, and assume Jesus really did know what he was talking about. 

We’re not going to be perfect.  We’re going to mess up, a lot, and that’s why grace is so fantastic.  Grace to say, I love you and you are forgiven.  Again, our need for grace is why need a messiah in the first place.  Our challenge is to take seriously our need for a messiah and to take seriously the way and teachings of that messiah, and when we don’t follow his ways, we should claim that as our failing, not twist his teachings to suit our ways. 

Killing another, for example, should not be considered the way of Jesus, but rather a failing on our part to follow in Jesus’ way.  We may be justified in killing someone to protect the lives of others.  I still don’t believe killing another is the way of Jesus.  That’s when we repent, lay our sins at his feet, and ask forgiveness, rather than twist Jesus’ teachings to say we were following him well.

There’s been a lot of debate over the last decade about who is acceptable in the church and who is acceptable in the leadership of the church.  Folks on all sides of these questions have been looking to the teachings of Jesus to guide their beliefs and have come to different conclusions.  That’s part of our life together as we muddle through as best we can.  That’s part of the way of Jesus, that we strive together.  Unfortunately, some have decided to push out those who they feel are wrong.  Some have decided to push out those whose beliefs of lifestyles they deem to be wrong.  Such forcing out of the other is not the way of Jesus, and if we’re truly going to believe that Jesus is the messiah, we need to repent of these actions, lay our sins at his feet, and ask forgiveness, rather than twist Jesus’ teachings to say we were following him well.

Everyone needs grace.  Everyone needs forgiveness.  Everyone needs to be able to come to Jesus, learn from him, and be in communion with him.  Everyone needs the messiah, the Son of God.  Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God tells us that we are also God’s children.  Jesus was human, brother to us all, and we were all made in God’s image, made as his children.  Like children who are sometimes not all that great at listening to our parents, we are all brothers and sisters together, and we are all at times not that great at listening to Jesus.  We often say, “Sure, you’re the messiah, but…”

“Sure, you’re the messiah, Jesus, but”… that’s why we need a messiah.  “Sure, you’re the messiah, Jesus, but”…that’s why God gave us a messiah .  Despite our many protestations to the contrary, God loves us like any good parent loves their children.  Despite our many instances of assuming God has no idea what he’s doing, God looks at us and says, “my beloved.”  Despite the many times that we refuse to love and forgive each other, God looks as us in our weakness and gives us grace, gives us forgiveness, gives us a messiah, his Son, Jesus.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Only Love Can Honor Her

In response to the anger, hatred, violence, and murder at a White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, in which Heather Heyer became a martyr for peace and love, there has been an enormous amount of anger and hatred.  Mr. Trump was criticized for saying there was blame on many sides.  Then he condemned Nazis, White Supremacists, and the KKK.  Later, he again stated that there was violence on both sides of the confrontation at the rally. 

The Nazis, White Supremacists, and KKK were responsible for the violence, anger, and hatred.  I do not believe there should be a platform for their rhetoric.  I do not believe they should be given a pulpit, park, or public place of any kind to spew their venom.  With the freedoms of speech granted in this country, however, they will be granted such platforms.  It is going to happen.  Period.  I further believe, therefore, that when they meet to spew their venom, they should not be met with violence. 

I will write that again.  These groups should not be met with violence. 

Counter-protestors gathered in Charlottesville to let these groups know that they were not welcome, that their hatred will not stand.  I am glad they did.  If such a demonstration happens near me, I will join the counter-protestors, in peaceful, prayerful protest.

From what I have read, most of the counter protestors were peaceful.  From what I have also read, some of the counter-protestors were not peaceful, and some initiated physical violence.  Violence tends to beget more violence.  Anyone who physically assaults another should expect that the violence begun will continue and grow.

In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:   only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate:  only love can do that.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By responding to the white supremacists with violence, people only cemented the beliefs of the white supremacists.  President Trump said there was blame for the violence on all sides.  From all I have read, and as much as I feel rather ill saying/writing it, Mr. Trump was right.  There were reportedly counter-protestors who initiated violence.  There is blame for violence on both sides. 

Saying so makes me feel rather ill.  I want to blame only the white supremacists, and doing so certainly makes me feel better for any and all ways that I have contributed to violence, anger, and hatred in my own life.  Doing so is also rather disingenuous.  I do not believe physically attacking the other is the right thing to do, no matter how much the other pisses me off. 

As a disciple of Jesus, I keep looking to his teachings and his way.  His way says to “pray for your enemies,” “bless those who curse you,” and even “love your enemies.”  Jesus’ way did not say, “punch a Nazi.”  I’d like to do so.  Part of me would like to find a Nazi and beat him near to death, but that would do no good.  I would not be innocent of violence simply because the person was a Nazi.  I would rather be guilty of violence and guilty of spreading hate…my own hate.  Hatred would remain, and even be multiplied by such an act.  Showing such a person love, however, especially from the very people he hates, just might change his heart.  Love could help drive out the hate.

By saying there is blame for the violence on both sides, Mr. Trump is correct.  I do not support Mr. Trump.  I believe he bears much of the responsibility for the violence in Charlottesville and elsewhere because of his violent rhetoric.  Through his words, he played on the very worst of our humanity in order to get himself elected President.  He used our hatred and our fears (which is not to say that everyone who voted for him did so out of hatred or fear).  He fanned the flames of racism and stoked the fires of anger, and then said we should all come together.  He can’t have it both ways.  I do not trust, believe in, or support him.  I will not, however, ignore a true statement when it is made simply because I dislike the speaker. 

There was, unfortunately violence begun on both sides, even if it was only done by a small minority of the counter-protestors.  If all of the counter-protestors had been peaceful, then the White Supremacists, the Nazis, and the KKK would not have a leg to stand on.  Unfortunately, those on the side of the counter-protestors who led with violence gave credence to the “blame on both sides” argument .  I wish the argument couldn’t be made that there was blame on both sides, but because of

the violence of a few, that argument can be made. 

If we are truly going to come together as a people of peace, then we all have to own our own violence.  That is something else that Jesus taught, that if we are going to call out the sins of another, we have to acknowledge and own our sins first.  Truth be told, none of us is innocent.  None of us can claim not to be a part of the violence all around us.  That is why I believe Jesus came to redeem all people, not just "those people over there."

What am I to do then with my anger, hatred, and desire for violence against White Supremacists, Nazis, and the KKK?  I am to offer in prayer that anger, hatred, and desire for violence to Jesus.  I am literally to pray that Jesus will enact the violence against them which I would like to enact.  Yes.  You read that right.

The reason for asking Jesus to harm those whom I would like to harm, however, is not because I believe he will do so, but rather precisely because I believe he will not do so.  Jesus, God, is the only place my anger, hatred, and desire for violence can be safely left.  Jesus is the only person who can deal with my darkness appropriately, the only person I can truly trust with my anger, hatred, and desire for violence. 

I do not believe God is going to enact terrible violence on someone simply because I’m pissed off and want him to.  Rather, God will take my anger, hatred, and desire for violence and transform my heart so that I will instead have love, compassion, and empathy.  Then, my heart will be in the right place to be able to oppose the anger, hatred, and violence of others.

This usually takes time, and it is not an easy path.  It is, however, the way of Jesus who said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” 

When I heard about the death and martyrdom of Heather Heyer, I wanted to respond with violence.  I wanted to unleash the full torrent of my anger, hatred, and fear on anyone who could be considered guilty of the anger and hatred which led to her death.  Doing so, however, is not the way of Jesus.  As much as I want to give in to my anger, hatred, and fear, I cannot do so and also follow the way of Jesus.  When I do give in to such darkness, I have to do all in my power to make amends…which is also the way of Jesus. 

Regarding then our President and his assertion that there is blame for violence on both sides.  I don’t want to admit that he is right, because I find him reprehensible.  I don’t want to admit that he is right, but I must.  There is blame on both sides.  There was anger, hatred, and violence by at least some on both sides. 

If we are going to heal and move ahead towards peace, then we must admit to these truths.  Violence and fear towards those whom we fear brings greater violence, not peace.  Violence and anger towards those who anger us brings greater violence, not peace.  Violence and hatred toward those whom we hate brings greater violence, not peace.  We cannot drive out violence and hatred with violence and hatred.  We cannot ignore or excuse some violence and hatred and expect peace to reign.  If we truly want peace, we must denounce all violence and hatred. 

If we truly want peace, we must according to my belief in Jesus, place our anger, hatred, and desire for violence at Jesus’ feet and ask him to transform it into love, compassion, and empathy.  Only then will our hearts be ready to confront the anger, hatred, and violence of others.  Only then will we be ready to risk injury and even death for the cause of love and peace. 

Heather Heyer died for the cause of love and peace.  We cannot honor her with anger and hatred.  We cannot honor her with violence.  Only love can honor her.