Monday, January 16, 2017

Fumbling In the Dark

Brad Sullivan
2 Epiphany, Year A
January 14, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
John 1:29-42

Fumbling In the Dark

Repentance leads to seeing Jesus.  That is what I heard in our Gospel story this morning, as John was declaring Jesus to be the Lamb of God, the one who would take away the sins of the world.  John said that he came baptizing so that Jesus would be revealed to Israel.  Now John came with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and his doing so led to Jesus being revealed as God’s son after he was baptized by John.  This baptism of repentance led to a revelation of Jesus, seeing him as more than a carpenter’s son, but as the Son of God who has saved the world from their sins.  For us, repentance leads to seeing Jesus as well and being guided by the light of Jesus, without which, without Jesus, we’re fumbling in the dark.

We may not feel like we’re fumbling in the dark.  We’re so often guided, after all, our own lights, one of which being the light of some truth that we hold.  Guided by our own lamps of truth, it’s little wonder we end up fumbling in the dark, especially considering how vitriolic our lamps of truth have become as of late.  We know that we are right, or even if not completely sure of our own correctness, we know with absolute certainty that the other side is wrong.  That vitriol, that certainty in our own truth leaves us fumbling in the dark..

Jesus is the light of the world, the light of God, we’re told in the first chapter of John, and we’re told that Jesus came with grace and truth.  Jesus came with truth, and we tend to hold onto that truth as best we understand it, especially when we’re fumbling in the dark.  Even more than the light of Jesus’ truth, however, we need the  light of Jesus’ grace. 

Jesus’ grace didn’t demand total understanding of truth from people.  Jesus spent time with a lot of people who certainly didn’t seem to have truth wrapped up particularly well.  Jesus was called a friend of sinners, and as such he didn’t lambast or lecture them.  He had dinner with them.  When he saw people fumbling in the dark, he gave them grace and love to be their light along with his truth.

Jesus came with grace to see us as fumbling in the dark as well, doing our best as we walk along the well worn paths of our lives, when we’re often not even guided by light anymore, but simply by repetition, following in the same old paths, the same old ways that we can follow with our eyes closed, ways that don’t lead anywhere good, but ways which we know so well that they just feel right.  Jesus came with grace enough to give us light so that when we repent, when we turn from those well worn paths toward a new path, we have light to follow in the way of Jesus.  

Back in high school, I believed I was following in the way of Jesus.  I’d grown up a Christian my whole life, and I knew nothing but the truth.  I knew about the Gospel and about Jesus.  He was the truth, and that was that.  So, at times back in high school, I ended up following a particular path, a path called:  moral superiority and mocking of liberals and various morally unacceptable people in the guise of righteously upholding Jesus and Christian values.  It felt like truth.  It was really just bullying.

My views on various things changed over the years.  Various truths changed, but I still believed in Jesus.  In my late teens and early twenties, I began to repent of the ways I had been walking, so certain of my truth that I could denigrate others for not holding the same truth. 

Then, in seminary, I found myself agreeing with some of the more liberal views on several issues, especially the hot button issues of the time.  I was sickened, however, at how the opposing views, views which I had previously held, were not really welcome on campus.  The goal of Virginia Theological Seminary was for all views to be welcome, but in practice, VTS was following the same path I had followed back in high school, though at VTS it was called:  intellectual superiority and mocking of conservatives and various morally unacceptable beliefs in the guise of love and respect for all people.  It felt like truth to those on that path.  It was really just bullying.

Those of us who have been on that path, the path of (assumed) truth without grace, believe our own beliefs to be right and afford little or no grace to those with opposing views. When I have been on that path, I was blinded.  I knew where I wanted to go.  I knew the end, what was right, where we should all (I assumed) go as a society, but getting there, I was fumbling in the dark. 

Repenting of that certainty, that truth without grace, I found myself less certain about where I was going, but more confident in how I was getting there, guided by the light of Jesus. 

Over the last week, I realized that I again needed to repent from walking that same, well worn path of self-righteous, supposed truth.  My supposed truth without grace was in the belief that the wrong candidate had won the presidential election.  I wasn’t really excited about Hilary, but I was so turned off by Trump’s rhetoric and seeming character flaws.  I knew I was right and the other side was wrong, until I finally really listened to my cousin, a Trump supporter, and I realized how self-righteous I had been in my belief.  Supposed truth without grace and bullying had become my path again, and I was wrong. I needed to repent of that path and let the light of Jesus be revealed to me once again. 

My less than stellar views of our president elect didn’t change, but I can hold those views more lightly now.  I may very well be wrong.  He may be exactly what this country needs.  More importantly, having repented of the path of supposed truth without grace, I can follow Jesus again when he says to his disciples, “come and see”, rather than be deaf to his invitation or too caught up in thinking myself right even to care.  In my supposed truth without grace, I was blind to Jesus all around me.  I was blind to Jesus in people all around me.  I was wrong.  I needed to repent of that path.  I’m guessing I’m the only one.

Here’s what I think now regarding the election, and I offer these thoughts for all of those still struggling with the decisions or the reactions of those on the other side.  People made the best choices they could with the information they had and the information which they were able to believe.  Folks on both sides of this thing have asked, “how could you possibly have voted for [this candidate], knowing [this terrible thing] about them.”  How could you be so stupid or immoral as to vote for whichever candidate?  That’s about the sentiment I’ve heard quite often.  Now, not wanting the other candidate to win is pretty normal, but good gracious, it seems that an awful lot of people on both sides viewed the other candidate as the latest incarnation of Satan. Some even thought the comparison gave Satan a bad name.

How could either side vote for a candidate who seemed so horribly flawed to the other side?  Well, it’s really kind of simple.  Our brains will only allow us so much cognitive dissonance before they begin jettisoning some bad information (or assuming it to be false) so that they can handle and align what we do with what we believe.

Adding to differences of policy off, folks were fearfully and (strongly) against Trump because of what he’d said and done/reportedly done.  They saw a particular character emerge from the information given, a character which could not be supported.  Folks who were against Hillary, saw a similarly deficient character emerge based on what Hillary had said and done/reportedly done, a character which could not be supported. 

Both groups did the best they could with the information they had, and many within both groups had to ignore/gloss over, or explain away some of the more troubling aspects of each candidates’ character.  Regarding the truth of either candidate and the soundness of a vote for either, we’re all fumbling in the darkness, doing our best with very limited knowledge of truth.  We have incomplete truth.  We can’t have anything but incomplete truth. 

Grace, on the other hand, well that we have in abundance, and grace is something we can give in abundance.  Many want us to come together as people, as the body of Christ, and we need to.  We need to give each other grace with our competing, incomplete truths, grace enough to say, “I truly believe you were doing the best you could.” 

Otherwise both sides of any issue continue to walk on well worn paths that feel like truth, but which are really just bullying.  When we’re on those paths, no matter how certain we are, we’re blind, our paths lighted only by the darkness of certainty and truth without grace which end up leaving us fumbling in the darkness of bullying. 

Repenting of that path, we can see Jesus again.  Turning toward Jesus, with his light to guide us, we don’t always know exactly where we are going, or where we’ll end up, but we do know the way.  Jesus is the way.   With the grace of Jesus and restored relationships to guide us, we travel together toward an uncertain future, secure not in the destination, secure not in the end, but secure in each other, and secure in the grace of Jesus to guide us.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

And That's What Christmas Is All About: Becoming Human On A Lark

Brad Sullivan
Christmas Eve, Year A
December 24, 2016
Emmanuel, Houston
Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
Becoming Human On A Lark

And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.  Every time I hear Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth, I hear Linus telling the Christmas story to Charlie Brown, letting him know what Christmas is really all about.  Christmas is about the joy of God becoming human and how fantastic it is that God thinks highly enough of us, love us enough, that he actually wanted to be one of us.  How crazy is that?  How great, but is God just totally nuts?  Maybe.  Now, rumor has it that becoming human:  living, dying, being resurrected for our sake, was always part of God’s plan, but what if it started on a lark, kind of just a crazy, whimsical idea?  Imagine Jesus, before becoming human, saying to his Father:

Jesus:               Dad, you know how much we love those humans?

Father:             Yeah, Son.  I do.

Jesus:               Have you ever thought about how great it would be to actually be one of them?

Father:             What do you mean, Son?

Jesus:               Well, we love them so much, I’d really like to be one of them, like how people share their lives and experiences with each other, and they draw nearer to each other through sharing their lives together.  You know how you’re always wanting humans to draw nearer to you?  Well, how much nearer can you get?  We become one of them.

Father:             (considers for a moment)  You know, that’s really not a bad idea.  Let’s see what the Spirit says.  You’ve been listening, I take it?

Holy Spirit:     Of course I have, and I think it’s a lovely idea.  Connect with them, show them how much we care.  You know, it may even be a chance to redeem them.

Jesus:               Hey.
Father:             Hmm, you know that’s a heck of an idea, something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

Holy Spirit:     I know you have.

Father:             They separated themselves from us in the Garden.

Jesus:               So we join ourselves back to them by becoming one of them. 

Father:             Hmm…except there’s still that sin problem.

Holy Spirit:     Oh, there you go again.

Father:             Well, it’s a big problem.

Holy Spirit:     I know it is.

Father:             They keep hurting each other, hurting themselves, putting up barriers between each other, barriers between them and us.

Holy Spirit:     Uh huh. (kind of patronizing)

Father:             We are love.  We don’t have any barriers between us.  It’s not like we can have Jesus go out there and sin.

Holy Spirit:     I know.

Father:             (sigh, exasperated)  All I ever wanted was for them to love each other like we love our-self, like we love them.  It gets very frustrating.

Holy Spirit:     Well you know, if he becomes human, Jesus could join with all of their sins in his death.

Jesus:               Wait, what?

Father:             Oh, now you’re talking.  We could somehow pour all of humanity’s sins onto him so even their sins won’t separate them from us.

Jesus:               Um…guys, I’m not so sure…

Holy Spirit:     It’d have to be a memorable death, too, something gruesome…

Jesus:               Ok guys, hold it.  I was thinking of something simple, like a little weekend tryst…

Father:             Oh, no that wouldn’t do.  You’d need to do the whole thing, you know, grow up, be born…

Jesus:               Ewe!  You’re joking, right?  You’ve seen how that whole birth thing happens?

Father:             You said you love them.

Jesus:               Oye!  They are awfully cute.  Ok, full deal.  When do you think I should be born?  The 1970s had really good music, Star Wars…no, late 1940s, early 50s England.  I‘ll grow up with David Bowie.  It’ll be awesome.

Father:             Oh Son, I’ve got just the place.

Ok, so lest I lead us all into heresy forever, I pretty sure that conversation never took place, but I love the idea of God becoming human, of Jesus being born, on a lark, as someone who really loves someone else and simply wants to spend more time with them.  That’s what Christmas is all about.  God saying to humanity, “I love you, and I’d really like to spend more time with you.”  That may seem awfully simple, but I believe nothing in creation has greater healing power than relationship and love.

In Eden, we walked with God, naked and unashamed.  There were no barriers to our relationships with God and no barriers to our relationships with one another.  Over time then, we kept on and keep on putting up more and more barriers to each other.  Initially, we decided that we wanted knowledge:  Adam and Even ate from the tree of knowledge.  There was much unknown in creation and the fear of the unknown began gnawing at us, eroding our trust in God, until we decided that we desired knowledge more that trust, and the first barrier to relationship was raised.

Then we felt ashamed for what we had done and so we hid, and we covered ourselves with fig leaves, and the next barrier to relationship went up.  Then God came and found us and asked what had happened, and we lied, passing the buck onto the serpent, passing the buck onto Eve, rather than fessing up to our fears and our lack of trust, and so another barrier to relationship went up.  We went from naked and unashamed to hidden and full of shame, and ever since then, we’ve continued to put up barriers to relationships, as broken people raising defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from harm.  The result of course, is that we end up harming our relationships with God and with each other…wars, murders, fights, broken friendships, all because we choose not to trust but seek instead to protect ourselves from harm, when the risk and trust of relationship is really the only thing that can heal us. 

So in order to heal us, God gives us the very risk and trust of relationship that we so desperately need.  God gives us himself, naked and unashamed, vulnerable as a newborn baby:  Jesus, born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph, a young couple, faithful and kind.  They were not great rulers.  They had no great power to offer God any great protection once he became human.  God decided to trust us with the vulnerability of his human life, offering us his vulnerable, naked, and unashamed self, trusting in nothing more than the care of two loving and faithful parents. 

See, God wants us to love and trust him and so God chose to love and trust us.  God also knows that life is hard, and knows we’re not always great at trusting anyone, especially someone who hasn’t walked in our shoes.  So, God became human to say, “I love you, and I think you humans are pretty fantastic.  So I am going to show up in your life, naked and unashamed, so that you can trust me, and if you will allow it, I will take down all of the barriers that you have put up.”   

That’s what Christmas is all about.  That’s a pretty serious deal, God healing humanity by becoming one of us.  At the same time, I have to think that for the creator of everything to become human, he’s got to be kind of crazy, whimsical, fun too.  Imagine God as a toddler walking around in his creation, living amongst his beloved humans, constantly delighted by what’s around him.  Imagine 2 year old Jesus running around constantly thinking, “This place is great!  Look at that tree; I love that tree.  Ooh, a lake!  I think I’ll go swimming or maybe walking.” 

The very fact of the incarnation, God’s crazy notion to become human and live here with us shows us just how fantastic it is to be living here on this earth and that in God’s eyes, we really are pretty fantastic. 

We also need to remember of course, that life is also not always fantastic, that life is sometimes rather terrible, that we are sometimes rather terrible, and on Christmas we celebrate that Jesus came to live that part of our life too.  God gets the messy parts of our lives, the times in our lives and world when things are far from fantastic.  Jesus claimed even those bad times and those bad parts of our lives as his own when he became human.  That’s what Christmas is all about.

The greatest gift God ever gave us was the gift of God’s-self.  God gave us the gift of being naked and unashamed with us, loving and trusting us so that we might once again be naked and unashamed with him and with each other.  The greatest gift we can give each other, then, is the gift of ourselves, fully living, loving and trusting one another.

Jesus became human so that we could love each other in and through the bad times and the good times, and then see each other and see this world and think, “this is fantastic.”  Jesus became human so that we could remove our barriers, trust each other and trust God, and then love fully, love with whimsy, love on a lark.  That’s what Christmas is all about.  Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2016

I Am One With The Force, and The Force Is With Me.

Ok, so having seen "Rogue One" twice now, I can definitely say my favorite line in the movie is, "I am one with The Force, and The Force is with me."  (Admittedly, "It's high...It's very high."  is a close second - thank you Alan Tudyk!)  Fear not, there are no spoilers below!

In the film, a blind, former [servant of a Jedi temple] is also a man with deep faith in The Force.  He believes all things are connected through The Force, and he proves to be not only a fearsome warrior, but also a wise companion, friend, and guide.  His faith in The Force guides him through the darkness, removing his fear, as he continually seeks to align his will with that of The Force. 

Sound familiar?  For anyone who is a disciple of Jesus, it sounds very familiar (although, we have our faith in, you know, Jesus).  For me, watching this film and hearing the blind man's repeated prayer, having faith in Jesus is having faith in The Force.  Not that I'll be able to use a lightsaber or move things with my mind.  Rather, the belief that all of life is connected, that we can navigate through the darkness of life by aligning our wills with that of the creative force which made and binds all things...for me, that creative force is Jesus. 

In the last couple of days, I've been praying the prayer from Rogue One.  "I am one with The Force, and The Force is with me."  At first I was thinking "Jesus" when saying "The Force", and later, I began saying "Jesus" rather than "The Force".  I'm not a big fan of taking everything cool and trying to Jesusize it (usually in an effort to make Christianity cool for some unknown others).  In this case, the prayer from the movie and the idea behind it fit well with my faith in Jesus (and seemed cool to me, being the big Star Wars dork that I am). 

So, "I am one with Jesus and Jesus is with me" has become my new prayer.  It's been a helpful and empowering refrain while engaging in the daily struggles of life, that I am one with all that is, and the creative force behind everything is with me.  The prayer has brought me peace and a more continual desire to be a force for peace. 

...imagining myself as a blind guardian with a bow staff doesn't suck either. 

May The Force be with you.


Monday, December 12, 2016

The Great Lie of Life

Brad Sullivan
3 Advent, Year A
December 11, 2016
Emmanuel, Houston
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

The Great Lie of Life

We hear in our story from the Gospel according to Matthew today a story about John the Baptist, sitting in prison and wondering if all he had done had been worth it.  Was God’s kingdom truly coming?  Was salvation actually at hand?  Or, had he thrown his life away, been miserable out in the wilderness, eaten locusts for God’s sake (literally for God’s sake), and ended up in prison, soon to be killed, all for a lie, a misguided zealot’s farce?  Was Jesus truly the messiah, the anointed one?  So he asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus could never give a simple “yes” or “no”, could he?  When John’s disciples asked the very direct question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another,” Jesus answered, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” 

I can hear in Jesus’ response, the tacit, “Of course I am, John.  Doesn’t that sound like salvation?  Doesn’t that sound like the kingdom of God?”  But then I can imagine John thinking, “Thanks, Jesus, that sounds great for those people, the lepers, the deaf, the dead, the poor, but I’m sitting here in prison.  Have I thrown my life away for nothing or not?”

To that second, unasked question, Jesus preemptively says, “blessed are those who take no offense at me.”  “Take no offence at me, John, even though I am not all that you thought I would be.  Fear not, even though I have allowed you to be imprisoned.  Fear not, even though I have not taken command of Israel and destroyed Rome.  Fear not, John, because the Kingdom of God, that political, social, and religious revolution for which you entered the desert, for which you have been imprisoned, that revolution will not come at the point of a sword, nor will the turning of the world upside down come with the violent upheaval of mighty forces and fields drenched in blood.

“The turning of the world upside down, the revolution, the movement for which you have given your life, John, will come with each life which repents of anger, destruction, and isolation, and which turns instead towards love. 

“Remember all those people who came to be baptized, John, those who were so thirsty for the waters of repentance, that they entered the Jordan River with you, those muddy waters, filthy, dirty as sin.  Those people entered those waters not so that I could take up the sword against the occupying nation of Rome.  Those people entered the waters not so that we could shed blood and turn the waters of the Jordan from brown to red. 

“Those people entered the waters of the Jordan because they wanted to draw near to God and they didn’t want their past or future sins and wrongdoings to prevent them from drawing near to God ever again.  They entered the waters of the Jordan to be free.  They wanted to be free from the shackles which the religious elite had placed on them, telling them that they were never good enough to approach God.  They wanted to be free from the same old ways of life which they thought would bring healing and wholeness, free the same old ways of life which they thought would soothe the suffering of their souls and fill the void, but which only left more brokenness and the void in their souls even greater.  Those people entered the desert with you so that they could wash, be made new, and then leave the desert for the promised land of life in God’s kingdom.

“God’s kingdom is not brought about through the continual shedding of blood, the killing and exclusion of those we believe to be unworthy of God, and the only way I could free you, John, would be to let the bloodletting begin again, so no, John, I am not going to free you.  ‘Am I the one who is to come or should you wait for another?’  Here’s what’s happening, John. ‘The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’  Remember, it was for such as those that you baptized, John.  So take no offense at me, for the Kingdom of God is indeed at hand. 

“At the same time, yes John, you are going to die in prison.  In fact, you’re going to be beheaded at the hands of a faithless, immoral, and impulsive ruler, simply because he was turned on by a young woman’s dancing.  The kingdom of God is at hand, and you are going to die senselessly for your efforts in bringing it about. 

That’s probably not what John wanted to hear.

For us, 21st century disciples of Jesus, those of us who are a part of the Jesus movement which John helped start almost 2000 years ago, we too get to be a part of the Kingdom of God.  We too get to help bring about the Kingdom of God and live into the Kingdom of God, continually turning toward love, continually turning toward Jesus, and offering that love to others, offering Jesus to others…everyone we see, including the poor, the blind, the lame, the marginalized, the overworked, overstressed, those trying like hell to live life the right way, and certain that most of the time they are failing.  We get to offer love, grace, forgiveness, mercy.  We get to offer Jesus.

At the same time, like John, we will at times still find ourselves in prison, wondering when Jesus is going to come, and the only answer we will receive is, “I’m not coming.”  Like everyone in the world, we who are part of the Jesus movement have sicknesses which are not healed, loved ones who die too soon, relationships which are broken.  Like everyone else in the world, we suffer from sorrows, addictions, times of being overwhelmed and feeling trapped, times in which we feel imprisoned by life.

Contra some clap-trap out there that various preachers peddle as gospel, believing in Jesus and following in the Jesus movement does not earn us a get out of suffering free card.  We all know this.  We still struggle with life:  bad jobs, no jobs, difficult or failed marriages, disease, sickness, senseless death, dashed hopes.  Like with John, this is probably not what we wanted to hear this Sunday, but we’re fooling ourselves if we try to pretend anything else. 
Like John sitting in prison, following Jesus, giving our lives to his teachings and his service, trusting him and following in his movement…all of that affords us no special protection.  We suffer and we die just like everyone else. 

The great lie of life, the great lie of medicine, the great lie of wealth, and even the great lie of some modern pseudo-Christianity is that we can avoid suffering and death.

Avoiding suffering and death is not the Gospel.  The Gospel is that our suffering and death is not punishment from a capricious, child-like God with a nasty temper and a mean streak a mile long. Suffering and death is simply a part of life, and the Gospel accepts that truth.  The Gospel then tells us another truth:  we are not alone in suffering.  We are with a God who likes humanity so much that, even with our human frailty, he thought it would be a really good idea to become one of us.  God loves us so much that he actually wanted to be human.  So the Gospel truth is we are not alone even in death, and death does not have the final word.  Life continues through suffering.  Life continues after death. 

Accepting that fact, accepting that we are all dust, and to dust we shall return, we can then let go of the countless ways we try to avoid suffering and death.  We can let go of that fruitless struggle and then grasp with both hands the life that truly is life.  Letting go of fear, we can truly live and see all of the joy and beauty in this world, even in the midst of suffering and death.

It’s a risky road, the Jesus movement, the revolution for which John prepared the way.  Love always is a risk.  But, the life of the Jesus movement, the life in which the downtrodden and unacceptable are loved and included, that life is worth the risk.  The life of the Jesus movement, the life in which God is with us in our sorrow and death, the life in which we are never alone, and we remain with each other even in our sorrow and death, that life is worth every risk, even the risk of feeling disappointed as we sit in whatever prison we find ourselves hearing Jesus tell us that he isn’t coming this time.

If we’re truly honest with selves, all of life is a risk.  Waking up in the morning is a risk.  In the Jesus movement, however, we risk with each other.  We risk for each other.  We risk with God for the sake of all of those who come to the dirty as sin waters of the Jordan seeking freedom, seeking acceptance, seeking Jesus.  Amen.