Monday, November 23, 2015

Risk & Compassion: Demands of Jesus' Kingdom

Brad Sullivan
Proper 29, Year B
November 22, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
John 18:33-37

Risk & Compassion:  Demands of Jesus’ Kingdom

Last week, Lynette, our senior warden, shared with me a video of a testimony given by Travis Tinnin.  Travis just passed away a couple of days ago.  Some of y’all know him.  He grew up here in Bay City and had a wife and two-year-old twin boys.  Travis had had complications at birth and wasn’t expected to live, but he did.  Then he wasn’t expected to walk, but he did.  He lived with the cancer for longer than expected, and had children he wasn’t supposed to be able to have, and in his testimony, given about 4 years ago, he talked about the trust he has in Jesus.  He said:
Trust is agreeing to deal with someone else’s choices, for better or worse.  It’s not that I trust you to catch me.  It’s that I’m willing to fall if you don’t.  In the same way, I trust God with my life.  I don’t trust that he’ll heal me.  I trust that he’ll use me to fulfill his perfect will.       
-          Travis Tinnin

I think it’s safe to say, Travis trusted Jesus as his king, and now knows him fully as his king. 

We live in a very fearful time.  We are not currently persecuted for being Christians here in America, but after the attacks in France last weekend, and the potential of thousands of Syrian refugees coming into our country, the possibility of persecution seems to some like a potential reality.  What if enough Muslims come here that they do take over and do change our laws?  What if enough come that terrorists come too, and we actually start being killed for being Christian (or simply not the correct` terroristic brand of Muslim)?  These are questions which folks have been wondering about and wrestling with to some degree or another since September 11, 2001.

Some folks are pretty adamant that such killings and persecution will happen and want all Muslims to go.  Others don’t voice these questions, possibly having them only in the deepest places of their hearts.  Many are somewhere in between, wondering, “What is right?”  Wrestling with “What do we do?”  Many don’t want to brand all Muslims as terrorists, don’t want to assume that all Muslims seek to subjugate our population under Muslim rule, and yet many also wonder, can we risk not assuming the worst.

We live in a very fearful time.  The people of Israel, living in the first century also lived in a very fearful time.  They faced potential and often actual persecution by Rome, even as they got to live with some measure of autonomy.  They were afraid that their nation would be destroyed by Rome, as eventually it was.  They were afraid that they would have to choose to abandon their faith or abandon their lives. 

In such a fearful time, Jesus stood before the Roman governor, Pilate, as Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  If Jesus said “Yes,” then he was an insurrectionist, seeking to take the throne from Herod.  If he said “No,” then he’d have denied who he was.  Further, people had been saying that Jesus was the king, so if the chief priests and the Pharisees didn’t turn Jesus over to Pilate, then could have been seen as complicit in his insurrection, and they knew Rome wouldn’t have that.  Finally, Jesus’ disciples knew that if they were caught with Jesus, then they too would likely have been killed as fellow insurrectionists and blasphemers.  It’s easy to look back and think, “What cowards,” as they ran away and had Jesus killed, but the reality is, they were living in a very fearful time.

So too with us, we seem rather quick nowadays to label others as “coward” or “na├»ve”, as “heartless” or “brainless”.  We want to follow Jesus as our king, and we’re also afraid.  When some say that we should allow Syrian refugees or any refugees into America, others are frightened by that, even just by hearing it.  Of course they are.  We live in a very fearful time.  When others hear folks say that we can’t let Syrian refugees in, they blast those folks, saying that they are not living as disciples of Jesus.  While I personally think the Gospel does tell us to let the refugees come in, I also think we live in a very fearful time, and we’d be better off having compassion and love for each other as we talk about these different possibilities.  I think we’d be better off honoring each others’ fears and honoring each others’ desires to live out the Gospel of Jesus.
 “Love one another,” Jesus commands in John 13.  Love one another, not just those who are perfect or right.  Love one another.  Paul sums up Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness in Colossians 3, writing, “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”  The Gospel demands that we have compassion and love for one another.

The Gospel also demands that we risk.  In John 15, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Again, in Mark 8, Jesus tells his disciples, “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Jesus guarantees that we will face persecution because of our faith.  Jesus guarantees that living out his Gospel will be risky.  To live out Jesus’ Gospel is to risk our good name, our fortunes, our family and friends’ thoughts of us, our physical well-being, and even our lives. 

Love one another, and risk for the sake of the Gospel are some of the truths which Jesus spoke.  That’s one thing Jesus came to do, to speak the truth.  In response to Pilate asking Jesus if he was a king, Jesus said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

Love one another, and risk for the sake of the Gospel, Jesus’ voice tells us.  Jesus’ voice tells us not to be afraid.  Jesus’ voice tells us tells us to confess him as God son both in what we say and in what we do.  Jesus’ voice also tells us to forgive, just as he forgave those who fell into fear, forgot their love, and denied him.  Jesus voice tells us to feed his sheep, and with the risk involved, Jesus’ voice also tells us that he goes to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house.
That’s because in our Baptism, we have already died.  We’ve shared in Jesus’ death, and we therefore share in his resurrection.  That is why Jesus tells us “be not afraid,” because amidst all the kingdoms of the earth, the only Kingdom that really matters is Jesus’ kingdom.  His kingdom is not from here, but his kingdom is lived out here.  Whenever we love one another, Jesus’ kingdom is lived out here.  Whenever we risk for the sake of the Gospel, whenever we care for the poor, the needy, the homeless, even the refugee, Jesus’ kingdom is lived out here. 

In Jesus’ kingdom, we don’t live every man for himself.  In Jesus’ kingdom, we care for each other in radical ways.  In Jesus’ kingdom, we know we can risk not only because we share in his death and resurrection, but also because in Jesus’ kingdom, we care for one another as Jesus cared for his disciples and asked them to care for him.  As Jesus was dying on the cross, he told the disciple whom he loved, “My mom is now your mom.  Take care of her for me.”  Jesus knew that he could risk death because he knew that disciple would care for his mom after he was gone.  That disciple took her into his home and cared for her as for his own mom.  “Live the way of my kingdom,” Jesus says, “trust in me, and be not afraid.” 

We live in a very fearful time, and in this fearful time, Jesus is still telling us, “Be not afraid.”  “Don’t trust that I will catch you.  Be willing to fall if I don’t.  Don’t trust me to protect me from every harm.  Trust me to use you to fulfill my perfect will.”  In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Be Not Afraid

"Be not afraid." "Love your enemy." "you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt"

I've seen all this and more, blasting the governors who are refusing Syrian refugees, and I'd like to pause in the well-intentioned vitriol (and it is well-intentioned) to remember that our civic leaders have a difficult job, with the well-being not only of themselves, but of thousands or millions as their concern.

While I am for taking in refugees, and my initial response to the governors was less than empathetic, I am not going to blast them for trying to keep their people safe. I will say I disagree, but it is not my decision to make. I don't have to wear that crown, and I don't have that responsibility on my shoulders.

Let's look at a couple other bits of scripture:
"Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone." - Titus 3:1-2
"Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them."

Accepting the rules of the authorities does not apply in all cases. Easy, sentence-long answers rarely do. We'd do well to remember, however, that there aren't easy answers to these problems.

Our authorities will make good decisions and poor decisions. We will be outraged by some of their decisions. We will do well, as we voice our opposition to their decisions, to do so with the spirit of humility and compassion.

As a follower of Jesus, I believe he tells me to risk my life for the sake of others. I don't hear him telling me, however, to risk other people's lives, forcing them to live how I believe he wants me to live. When governmental decisions go against my desire to risk for the sake of God's kingdom, I must ask myself, "am I forcing God's kingdom on others?" That is something I don't believe Jesus wants his followers to do.

"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law." (Galatians 5:22-23)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Below is a sermon which my wife, the Rev. Kristin Sullivan, gave at St. Mark's last Sunday while I was away at a songwriting workshop.

I love the movie About a Boy--it is about a self professed bachelor whose life is turned upside-down by a needy kid.  In the beginning of the movie there is a great scene where he talks about how he lives his life:
All men are islands. And what's more, this is the time to be one. This is an island age. A hundred years ago, for example, you had to depend on other people. No one had TV or CDs or DVDs or home espresso makers. As a matter of fact they didn't have anything cool. Whereas now you can make yourself a little island paradise. With the right supplies, and more importantly the right attitude, you can become sun-drenched, tropical, a magnet for young Swedish tourists.

He is reacting to a famous meditation by the poet John Donne who wisely observed that No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

This idea that we can be island unto ourselves is certainly not new but it has become prevalent in our culture.  We think that we can be self sufficient.  That we can take care of ourselves and that we don’t need anyone else.  We isolate ourselves within our communities and we close ourselves off to one another.  How often we neglect our community life.  It is so easy to do.  We sleep in one Sunday, skip a bible Study, don’t check in with our Christian brothers and sisters and pretty soon we have gotten out of the habit.  It is that easy.  There are a lot of reasons why people stop coming to church. But for many people I think that the prevailing reason is simply getting out of the habit.  We think that we can go it alone.  

As humans we are made to be in connection and relationship to one another.  Our brains are built to connect to other people.  Amy Banks, who is a expert in neuroscience says this: “neuroscience is confirming our entire autonomic nervous system wants us to connect with other human beings....There have been studies that look at emotions in human beings such as disgust, shame, happiness, where the exact same areas of the brain light up in the listener who is reading the feelings of the person talking.  We are, literally, hardwired to connect.”

Our life together is too important to get out of the habit of gathering together.  We cannot do this life in isolation--we cannot do this life of faith without one another.  We need to be prodded to be better people, we need to be encouraged and led and challenged by one another.  

This is what the Letter to the Hebrews is saying to us today. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.  Here is the Christian life.  Y'all these are our marching orders.  Provoking one another to love and good deeds.  As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to be a supportive, loving and provoking community.  We have a great and generous God who calls us to go into the world in LOVE.  Not in hatred, not in anger, not timidly or half-heartedly but with gusto.  We need to look into ourselves and into our communities and think about how we are treating one another.  Because it starts with us.  It starts with the community of the faithful.  We have to have our house in order, we need to treat each other with respect and kindness.  And first and foremost we need to gather together.  We need to show up for one another because none of us can go it alone.

Within the Christian community we find a group of people who are just like us.  We are all sinners in need of redemption.  We are all travelers on the journey.  When we gather together we support one another.  We learn to be vulnerable, to trust that our prayers will be prayed, that our pain will be shared.  In this community we ought to know that we are loved no matter what and that we can do nothing to be cast away.  

This is the great difference between the church and any number of other organizations that we may belong to.  In the church we are loved and accepted no matter what.  No matter what.  Through our struggling and our pain, through our good days and our bad, in our joy and in our sorrow. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God.  This is the glue that holds us together.   
This is the good news that brought us here and keeps us here.  This is the good news that we need to go out and share with the world. 

I spent Friday night and most of the day yesterday at an evangelism workshop with a group of about 20 church leaders.  Mary Parmer, who was the leader for the weekend began the day yesterday by going around the room and asking everyone to share briefly where they grew up, what their church background was and how they had come to be a part of their current church.  The stories of religious upbringing varied--everything from no church background to cradle Episcopalians and everything in between.  The stories also varied on how they had ended up at the church--but several themes emerged out of all the stories--People were personally invited to come to church, and when they got there they were welcomed.  

Each of us has a story about how we got here.  For some it has twists and turns, for some it is pretty straight forward.  But our stories are important.  They make us who we are.  And they are something that we need to share with one another and with those outside our community.  What makes your faith important to you?  Why do you keep coming back?  These are the stories that we need to be telling.  
The people of God are always a people who are gathered Together.  We cannot do this by ourselves.  We need one another.  We need to be able to be vulnerable, to trust in the community, and to love one another as Christ loved us.  Provoke one another to love and good deeds.  


Monday, November 9, 2015

"Give, Give!" (yes, it's sarcastic)

Brad Sullivan
Proper 27, Year B
November 8, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Mark 12:38-44

“Give, give!  Give, give!  Give, give!  Give, give, give, give!”  That was a song that a comedy group in Houston called “Radio Music Theater” used to sing.  They were a group of three comedians who wrote and starred in plays in which they all played multiple characters, and the “give give song” was from a collection of their shows in which three of the characters were Televangelist Jiffy Dillard and his faithful cohort of heartstring pulling, Bible thumping profiteers. 

They didn’t talk much about the grace of Jesus, mostly just about “wicked, wicked sin,” and the need of people to give so that with the power of Jesus, Jiffy Dillard could fight the wicked, wicked sin. 

Give.  Give till it hurts.  Give ‘cause God needs your money.  Give because you’ve got the wicked, wicked sin, and if you give, then we can minister, and God will love you more…he’ll dislike you less.  We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we?  Truth be told, Jewish folks living a couple of millennia before us had heard it all before too.

“The widow’s mite”, or “the widow’s offering” – that’s the popular title given to our Gospel story today, and we all know what I’m supposed to say about this story.  The widow had very little and yet she still gave her two copper coins (all that she had to live on).  She gave them to the treasury, to the temple.  Realizing that what she gave was a drop in a lake considering the financial burden of the temple, Jesus says she gave more than those wealthy folks who gave large sums of money.  So, I’m supposed to raise her up as an example of faith in God and encourage everyone here to contribute to our common life here at St. Mark’s; even if you only have a little bit, give what little you have, show how faithful you are, and God can do great things with it.  He’ll probably also like you a little better.

I think such an interpretation of today’s Gospel passage, minus the part about God liking you better if you give, such an interpretation certainly has merit to it, but I don’t think that is the lesson Jesus was teaching.  He had just blasted the Scribes for their long robes and prayers, making sure they looked good and righteous in front of everybody, and Jesus had blasted them for devouring widows’ houses. 

We don’t know exactly what that means, but we can surmise that they were pulling a bit of a Jiffy Dillard on folks, calling on everyone to “give, give” so that they could fight the wicked, wicked sin.  In ancient Israel, the poor didn’t have to give; they could if they wanted to out of their love of God and their love of the religion.  The scribes, however, look like they were demanding, cajoling, enticing as much money out of the widows as they could.  “God needs it, guys, you better give.”
So Jesus is calling the scribes hypocrites.  They were teaching the people, “you’ve got to give (so we can look really religious and God will be less angry with you)”, and they were forgetting the teachings of God in scripture.  God cares for the orphan and widow.  God doesn’t desire temple sacrifice.  Let justice role, defend the orphan and widow.  Let your sacrifice be a heart full of love for all people.

The religious leaders seem to have forgotten those teaching and were following the words of God that made themselves look important and needed in the eyes of the people.  They were forgetting the words of the prophets before them.  Care for my people, God said.  Care for my people; those are the sacrifices I want you to make.

So Jesus is teaching this, and pointing out how the scribes are missing the boat, and just after Jesus points out the fault in the scribes’ way, God highlights Jesus’ message by sending this poor widow to give all she had to live on for the sake of the temple.  How awesome is God at this point, sending the widow right then, saying to Jesus, “That’s a great lesson, Son, let me give you a little exclamation point on that!”

I’m guessing folks are wondering, “so are we supposed to give to the church or not?”  Well, we’re not “giving to the church,” as though it is something other than ourselves.  We’re not giving to someone else’s ministry.  We’re contributing to our common life here at St. Mark’s.  Should we contribute to our common life?  Well, if we want a building to come together and pray in, yeah. 

That’s not giving to God’s ministry as though it is separate from ourselves.  Deciding that we want a common life together and contributing to that life financially is a blessed thing and a wonderful way to be and to live together.  We pray with and for each other.  We share our faith.  We the joys of our lives and our sorrows together.  We share Jesus with one another. 

Does that mean we are supposed to contribute every last dime we have?  Well, I supposed if we all lived in the same house and shared cars and food, then sure, but we don’t.  Are we supposed to look at the widow in our Gospel story and feel like compared to her we are terrible, faithless people?  No.  I don’t think that’s the point of the story. 

We don’t function and live for the sake of our religion.  Our religion, the practices of our faith, the ways of the Episcopal church, function for our sake.  In pointing out the widow in the story today, Jesus is once again showing us God’s grace.  Contra all the Jiffy Dillards out there, God’s grace is not that if we give enough to make our religion rich and mighty then God will forgive us of our sins and dislike us a little less. 

God’s grace is that he loves us, period.  God’s grace is that he forgives us, period.  God knows we mess us.  God’s knows it’s hard to be human.  God knows we are bound by our sin, feeling shame and regret over the things we’ve done which have hurt people and hurt ourselves.  God’s grace is that he loves us, with all that crud, and he frees us from it, taking our sin, holding it for us, and saying, “you are beloved.”  God’s grace is that he cares for those we often forget to care about, and he then reminds us to care for those people as well. 

God does tell us to give, give.  Give, give the grace that you have received.  Give, give the love with which you are loved.  Give, give the forgiveness with which you have been forgiven.  Give, give the thoughtfulness, the care, and concern which God gives even and especially to those we often forget.  Amen. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Souls of the Righteous are In the Hand of God

Below is the sermon which my wife, The Rev. Kristin Sullivan, gave on All Saints' Sunday.  I was blessed to get to hear her words which brought tears to my eyes.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.  In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.  For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. 

This is the beginning of the reading that we heard from the Wisdom of Solomon.  It is one of the reading that is recommended in our funeral service in the Episcopal church.  It speaks to the life with God that we will live after our earthly life has ended.  A life that is free from tormenta hope that is full of immortality. 

It is a wonderful reminder that in the midst of death there is always hope.  For the Jewish people death was thought to be an end.  A person simply ceased to exist, or else they existed in a sort of limbo, separated from people and from God.  But here in the beginning of the first century the idea began to be expressed that life did not end with death.  God holds us close even after we die.

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.  It is God who holds them.  Even though their life seems to have ended, they are protected.  They are at peace.  In Christian thought we have taken this even further.

In Jesus encounter with Martha after the death of Lazarus told her I am the resurrection and I am the lifethose who believe in me will not die but live.  We are destined for life.  A life that is lived here on this earth and also a life that will be lived with God after we have died.  Our lives are a constant journey towards God.  An ever deepening relationship that does not end in death, rather it continues.  We continue to grow with GodGod continues to refine us and purify us.

My favorite image of our journey with God is that of a sea shell.  One of those conk type shells that has a point on the top and spirals down into itself.  Our spiritual life is not a point a to point b endeavor.  Rather it is more like the sea shell.  We are continually spiraling deeper and deeper into God.  Down, down , down. Deeper and deeper, more and more connected with him.  While we are here on earth and after we die.

Today in the life of the Church we celebrate All Saints Day.  A day of both remembrance and celebration.  It is a day when we remember those who have gone before us.  The Saints of God who have given their lives to his service.  Who have sacrificed and served and have gone to be in the closer presence with God. 

What we often forget is that All Saints day is about all the saints.  The ones that receive the accolades and the ones who largely go unremembered.  It is about the friends we have lost, the family members who are no longer here, the heroic and the ordinary.  It is about the imperfect everyday saints. Those folks who lived normal liveswho messed up, who asked forgiveness, who lived lives that look like ours.

The ones who died way to young, who didnt get to live long lives, but who lived lives that touched others none the less.  Lives that changed us and changed the world around us.  I have an app on my phone called time hop that shows me each day pictures and other things that I posted in years past on a particular day.  When I looked at my time hop yesterday the first entry, from last year, was a picture of two names that I had written on the labyrinth outside during the all souls day remembrance last year.  They were both of friends that I lost when I was in seminary.  Two young men who died way too young.  But two friends who touched my life for the better.  Whose lives are intertwined with mine forever.  

They were great saints to meThey might not have been to youbut to me they changed the way I looked at the world because they were in it.  Who are those great saints for you?  Who has touched your life and left it forever changed.  A parent, a friend, perhaps even a complete stranger.  Each year the list gets longer.  Most of the folks whose names we will read today have not have touched the lives of millions of people, but their effect in the lives of those they have touched is like ripples in the water.  They have changed our lives and because they were in our lives we will changed the lives of other people.  People that we no longer see, but who are no less a part of our lives.

The Saints change our lives.  They give us an example of how to live a life striving towards God. A life that changes other lives.  They remind us that we are striving towards holiness.  Towards a life better lived in connection to God.

As many of you know Brads father died in May of this past yearhe is one of the saints who has been added to our list this year.  At some point this summer as we were saying our bedtime prayers Noah, our oldest son prayed for his granddad.  His younger brother piped in that Granddad was deadIn the way that only a five year old can do.  But without missing a beat Noah sagely saidGranddad is still alive with God. 

And so he is.  We gather around this altar today to celebrate the fact that we are are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who are very much alive with God.    

Today is a day to remind ourselves that those who have gone before us may have left us, but God will never leave them.  They gather with himand gather with usconstantly moving in and out of our lives.  As our funeral liturgy reminds us For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended. 

This day we remember that all the saints are gathered around us.  During the Eucharistic prayer Sue will be reading the names of the saints that have been submitted this year to remind us that when we gather at this table we are all one with Christ. Those who have gone before us, those who have yet to be born and uswe who tarry here on this earthly plain.  Striving after God.  Working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  Marveling at Gods creation and taking care of Gods people. 

May all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Where, O Death, Is Your Sting?

"Where, O death is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?"  In short, death's sting is in the sudden ripping away from us those whom we love.  Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 15:55 point to the resurrection and Jesus' victory over death, but let's face it; death still stings.  A lot.

When those we love die, part of us dies with them.  It is brutally painful, and it often feels as though the world stopped and yet you are the only ones who knows it.  The silly world and everyone else continues on, completely unaware that it has all come to an end.  As one who believes in Jesus, I do believe in his resurrection.  I believe that in death, life is changed, not ended, and that when we die, we go on living with Jesus in God.  I believe our life and unity with God through Jesus can't be ended by death.  Still, death sucks.  My father died five months ago, and even though I believe Dad is well and good with Jesus, his death still stings like a sonofabitch.

Earlier this week, a good friend of mine suffered the loss of her mother.  It was totally unexpected, and my friend is knee deep in the sting of it.  I called her yesterday evening to talk, and amidst tears and sharing our pain of loss, my friend said, "it's been years since I've wanted so badly to call people and actually hear their voices; typing and reading on social media just won't do."

Later that night, I was reading the beatitudes in Matthew's gospel, and I was struck by Matthew 5:4, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."  Of course, folks try to comfort us when we are mourning, but the blessing Jesus describes is more than kind words from those we love.  When we mourn, our defenses tend to be stripped away.  We're raw and exposed, and in that fragile state, the true and deep connection of those we love can sink into our hearts in ways our regular defenses don't allow.

When we are mourning, our fig leaves are gone, and we are left a little more naked, a little more vulnerable, and a little more receptive to our longing for human connection.  Nothing less, nothing else will really do.  We need to be comforted by people when we mourn, and we need to be comforted by God when we mourn.  While saddened and devastated with grief, we walk more closely with God and with other people. 

Jesus tell us we are blessed when we mourn, because during those times of mourning, we can be closer to how we were in Eden than in most other times in our lives.  While I wouldn't wish the sting of death on anyone, I can't deny the blessing Jesus talked about.  I'm grateful for the blessing that comes with grief, the open heart that allows grace to fall inside because nothing else will suffice.

Death is awful and final (except that it isn't), and though Paul might have misplaced it, death's sting is doing quite well, ready to strike every time death occurs.  I can't deny that, and I won't deny that.  I have to admit how much death stings.  Then, I can also take seriously the grace of Jesus, the blessing of Eden, and the new life given in resurrection.  Death sucks, but it doesn't have the final word.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"Wrong Kingdom," Jesus Said.

Brad Sullivan
Proper 25, Year B
October 25, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Mark 10:46-52

“Wrong Kingdom,” Jesus Said.

We heard in Mark’s Gospel this morning, that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem by way of Jericho.  Y’all remember a rather famous story involving Jericho and a young man named Joshua who led the Israelites to glorious victory against the people of Jericho.  Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down.  That was the beginning of Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan, the land which God had promised to Israel through Abraham.  Eventually, Israel conquered all of the land of Canaan and set up their capital in Jerusalem where David reigned as king.

Now, we have Jesus, the son of David, going to Jerusalem by way of Jericho.  Interestingly enough, Jesus’ name in Hebrew is Joshua:  Jeshua, Iesus, Jesus.  So we have Jesus, who is the new Joshua and the new Davidic king going to Jerusalem by way of Jericho, and yet his actions are decidedly different from his predecessors.  Jesus doesn’t conquer Jericho; he heals a blind man there.  Jesus doesn’t set up his kingdom in Jerusalem by winning military victory over his enemies; he lets his enemies kill him. 

Jesus was inaugurating his new kingdom, God’s kingdom here on earth, and he did so through peace and healing rather than through war and killing.  Jesus gave his life for the sake of his people.  Jesus’ kingdom is not one of domination, but of service, of giving up one’s life for the sake of others. 

That sounds good in theory, doesn’t it?  With so many school shooting lately, I’ve heard and been a part of several conversations regarding what we would do if a gunman came to wherever.  Some say they would profess their faith if it meant being shot.  Some say they wouldn’t.  Some plan on having a gun with them to shoot the bad buy, while others say the way of Jesus is not to kill, but to lay down one’s life for the sake of the Gospel.

I used to have my very clear answer worked out:  I’m a disciple of Jesus, so I’d let myself be killed.  I had an easier time with that prior to being a father and a husband.  Now, my faith in Jesus tells me not to kill, but to show even the gunman love by valuing his life more than he values mine, but I also think, “I don’t want to leave my kids without a dad.”  There’s a conflict between what I believe Jesus teaches about life in his kingdom and my fear for my children’s well being.  I believe good would come from following Jesus’ teaching to lay down one’s life for the sake of the Gospel.  I trust that.  I have a hard time trusting that my kids will be ok without me.

That makes me a bit hypocritical.  Another question has come up along the same lines as the gunman question.  Can we truly be a church of Jesus’ disciples and also own guns as means of safety?  Can we claim to follow Jesus while intending, in certain scenarios, to kill people?  Does that make us hypocrites?  Maybe, yeah, it might just make us hypocrites.  The truth is, we’re all hypocrites, and we’re all striving to be less and less so.  The bigger problem is not being a hypocrite, but in not realizing the ways in which we are one.

In healing Bartimaeus, Jesus highlights again the point he made to James and John.  “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45).

See, Bartimaeus’ request of Jesus was in stark contrast to James’ and John’s request of Jesus just before this.  James and John were unaware of any healing they might have actually needed (and we all need healing of some kind).  Instead, James and John asked for power and position in God’s kingdom.  After years of learning from Jesus, their request was not, “Lord help me follow you more nearly,” or “let me serve others more compassionately.”  Their request was, “make me powerful and mighty.”  Make me like Joshua and David of old.  “Wrong kingdom,” Jesus said.

Bartimaeus’ blindness highlights James’ and John’s spiritual blindness, emotional blindness, discipleship blindness.  They thought they had it together enough to request power and authority in Jesus’ kingdom, but they were blind to what Jesus’ kingdom was; they were blind to what they needed.  Bartimaeus knew not only that he needed to see, but once he could see, he knew he wanted to follow Jesus.  While Bartimaeus’ ailment was rather obvious to him, this passage highlighting the spiritual blindness of James and John reminds us of how often we fail to recognize or fail to admit what our ailments are and what healing we need from Jesus. 

What if Bartimaeus hadn’t admitted he was blind?  He was calling for Jesus and then when Jesus asked “what do you want me to do for you?”, what if Bartimaeus had said, “oh, I’m really ok, I’ve just got a head cold right now, or it’s probably just allergies or something; do you have a Benadryl, or any…you know what, it’s ok, I’m sorry I bothered you.”  He’d have stayed just as he was and just where he was.  He couldn’t follow Jesus until he admitted what was obvious, that he was a mess and needed healing.

That’s kinda what we do sometimes, when we don’t admit to ourselves or to one another, or to Jesus that we even have problems.  We stay just as we are and we stay just where we are.  Sometimes it’s just too tough or scary to give up our life, right?  If I admit to Jesus or even to myself that this part of my life needs fixing, and if I ask Jesus to fix it, well then I really do have to fix it with Jesus’ help.  I might have to give up some part of my life.  That’s what Jesus calls us to do, to give up our lives and follow him.  As Shane Claiborne wrote in Red Letter Revolution, subtitled What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said, “Jesus didn’t come for folks who have it all together, but for folks who are willing to admit they are falling apart.” (Shane Claiborne, Red Letter Revolution, p. 29)

Jesus came for folks willing to admit where our hypocrisies are.  As Christian author and sociology professor, Tony Campolo, says when people claim he’s a hypocrite, “yeah, I am a hypocrite. Come to my church, you’ll fit right in.”  He doesn’t mean this in a snarky way, but in an honest open invitation kind of way.  We’re all hypocrites in some way.  Ultimately, hypocrites are the only people that need to come to church.  The ones who do are the ones who know they are blind and are asking Jesus to heal them.  We pray to Jesus, “grant us the faith and the peace to know what is right and good in your Kingdom, and give us the grace and strength then to live out your kingdom way.” 

Regarding “what would we do” scenarios with gunmen…ultimately, we have no idea what we’d do.  We don’t know how our brains would react.  Peter knew he would kill for Jesus.  As Jesus was being arrested, Peter even started to, pulling out his sword to fight and kill for Jesus.  “Put away your sword,” Jesus said.  Peter was willing to lay down his life, sword in hand, in battle.  Then he found that he wasn’t willing to risk laying down his life by being arrested and killed without the chance of fighting back.  Of course years later, he did lay down his life, acquitting himself quite well, being crucified for following Jesus.

So what is our “lay down our life” plan?  Let someone kill us for the sake of Jesus Kingdom, for the sake of being a servant of peace?  Yes, I believe that should be my plan.  If the gunman scenario ever happens, then I’ll find out what I’ll do.  In the mean time, we all have plenty of chances to give up our lives for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom.  We have plenty of chances to sacrifice, to be servants, to let the needs of others come before our own needs.  We have plenty of chances to ask Jesus to heal us, and to give up those portions of our lives that keep us from living out Jesus’ Gospel.  We have plenty of chances every day to shine the light of the Gospel into the lives of those around us.  So we pray, “Lord Jesus have mercy on us sinners not only by healing our blindness and hypocrisies, but by showing us where our blindness and hypocrisies lie; grant us the faith and the peace to know what is right and good in your Kingdom, and give us the grace and strength then to live out your kingdom way.”   Amen.