Monday, November 28, 2016

I'll Take First Watch

Brad Sullivan
1 Advent, Year A
November 27, 2016
Emmanuel, Houston
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

I’ll Take First Watch

“I’ll take first watch.”  That is a frequent refrain on the AMC hit TV series, “The Walking Dead”, a show which I have been watching the TV show now for years.  For those unfamiliar with The Walking Dead, it is a show about a zombie apocalypse and the struggle for survival of those few humans left who are not the walking dead.  Whether the survivors are walking through the wilderness or living in the moderate safety of a walled-in community, there are constant threats from zombies (what they call “walkers”) and even from other humans.  So, “I’ll take first watch” is a frequent refrain on the show, a life or death situation.

“I’ll take first watch” was also about the first thing that popped into my head when I read this Sunday’s gospel lesson from Matthew 24, in which Jesus told his disciples to keep awake and be ready.   Jesus telling his disciples to stay awake and be ready for the second coming…keeping watch during a zombie apocalypse…they’re pretty close, right?

Jesus had given these calamitous images of what would precede his coming again.  There is going to be a lot of darkness in the world before the return of the light.  So, in the mean time, keep watch.  Keep your lights burning.

The apostle Paul had this to say about keeping our lights burning:
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  (Romans 13:11-14)

Ok, so that actually sounds like a bit of a far cry from taking first watch against the threat of zombie attack.  Then again, these ideas of keeping alert, of laying aside the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light kind of fit with the walking dead analogy. 

Keep ready, lest you become one of the walking dead.  Put on the armor of light, lest you become one who is living, but who has little real life within him, what Paul calls in his first letter to Timothy, “the life that really is life.” (1 Timothy 6:19)  Stay alert lest you become one who has lost compassion.  One who has lost humility.  One who has lost unconditional love.  Stay alert lest you become one for whom forgiveness is rarely if ever freely given, but rather is given only as quid pro quo for some form of restitution.  Stay alert lets you become the walking dead, one who demonizes the other out of fear.  One for whom fear and anger have taken hold so much so, that despair and hatred are a way of life.  Stay alert lest you become a lifeless walker, one for whom belittling, beating, or even killing out of fear, or one’s religion, is preferable to taking the risky road of love, the risky road of living in peace.  The list of the walking dead goes on and on. 

So, “I’ll take first watch” actually fits rather well with our Gospel for today, although taking watch does look decidedly different than arming oneself hand and foot to try to take down a zombie.

For us, taking the watch looks a bit more like the prayer of St. Francis.  Rather than simply pray this prayer, I am going to sing it.  This is something I do from time to time during sermons.  This is a particular arrangement that I wrote combining the Prayer of St. Francis with the Serenity Prayer.

Lord, make us servants of your peace.     
Where there is hatred may we sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.                  
Where there is discord, union.
Where there is doubt, may we sow faith.         
Where there’s despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, may we sow light.   
 Where there is sadness, joy.

Lord, grant us serenity to accept what we can’t change,
Courage to change the things we can,
Wisdom to know the difference,
And make us servants of your peace.

Grant that we may not so much seek  
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,                 
To be loved as to love,

For it is in giving that we receive,                  
And it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are raised to live.
Lord make us servants of your peace.

That’s what taking the watch looks like in Jesus’ kingdom.  The prayer of St. Francis is keeping alert in Jesus’ kingdom, putting on the armor of light, as Paul wrote. 

Paul, Francis, Jesus are saying that what we do really does matter.  For Paul, this may seem a little paradoxical, considering that he and many in the early church believed Jesus was coming back very soon.  They were thinking, “Any day now, Jesus is going to come back and redeem the whole world.”  Well, with the belief Jesus was coming back very soon to redeem the whole world, why would what anyone did matter?  Jesus was right about to fix it, and yet, Paul believed that what they did, the actions they took in their lives, mattered a great deal. 

Our actions matter not because our actions are ultimately going to redeem the world.  Jesus is going to and has already redeemed the world.  Jesus is going to restore all of creation.  Some would think then that nothing we do matters.  Not so.

Jesus is Lord of all creation, and Jesus is Lord of each of us.  He has offered to be Lord of our hearts.  Why?  Because if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.

We can’t bring about the ultimate redemption of the world.  We can, however, help in the redemption of countless lives in the mean time.  We can help in the redemption of countless broken relationships.  We can help in the redemption of countless seemingly hopeless situations.  We can help in the redemption of the countless poor choices people make and poor paths people take.  We can be the light for those in darkness, helping them to see the light of Jesus, and the light of his way. 

We get to keep watch, to keep the light shining in the darkness.  Like stars shining in the night, the darker the night seems, the more stars you see.  As my five year old goddaughter, Avery, said while dancing and singing to herself in her house, “Every single star you see is one good act.”  The more we keep watch, the more stars people see, the more we shine in the darkness to guide people to the light of Jesus, to the life that really is life.

So, be a servant of God’s peace.  Be a light in the darkness.  Take first watch.  Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Life After The Apocalypse

Brad Sullivan
Proper 28, Year C
November 13, 2016
Emmanuel, Houston
Isaiah 65:17-25
Luke 21:5-19

Life After The Apocalypse

Your worst fears are coming true, but fear not.  That’s basically part of what Jesus was saying in the discourse to his disciples that we heard today.  “Guys, you’re about to be living in Diaspora again.  You are about to be scattered among the nations, living in places that don’t really support your faith.  The Temple that you love so much…it’s gonna be gone in 40 years, and in about 100 years, Israel is going to be gone too.”  Jesus didn’t get that specific with the timeline, but he was telling them about the future destruction of the temple and of the nation of Israel itself. 

“Continuing to live out your faith is not going to be easy, guys,”  Jesus was saying.  “You won’t be able to depend on the beauty or even the existence of the Temple.  You will have no state, no Jewish government to allow you to keep in the ways of your faith.  Also, y’all who are following in my way, before the total destruction of Israel, you’re even going to be persecuted within Israel.  So here then, is how y’all will need to live post apocalypse.” 

“Be steadfast in your faith, more than ever. Trust in God and in the ways of his Gospel, because you will have no temple, nor any government to turn to.  You will have no great community around you making it easy for you to live out your faith.  So be steadfast, live out your faith with intentionality.  Live out your faith with each other, and continue to follow in my ways, even when the culture around you says and does otherwise.”

As disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, we find ourselves in a much less dire but similar situation to what Jesus was preparing his disciples for.  In America, we’re not exactly persecuted for our faith, but we do live in a culture that often says and does things counter to the Gospel.  Truth be told, we often end up taking that culture as our own, and not following in the ways of Jesus ourselves all that well.

Some of Jesus’ teachings are rather difficult and don’t exactly jive with our mainstream culture or even our natural inclinations.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus said. (Matthew 16:25)  ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (Matthew 5:43-44)  ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;’ (Matthew 5:38-39)

Not easy, right.  If someone were to punch me, I would really want to punch them back.  Instead, I’m supposed to not lose my temper, not give into my anger and my hurt, and instead take a breath and say, “ok, do you need to hit me again, because if you do, here I am, you can.”  I believe that way of Jesus will bring about more peace and love in the world; I think it might actually resolve the situation, but it’s not exactly easy, and it’s not exactly the American way.  “Speak softly but carry a big stick” is a far cry from “turn the other cheek.” 

As Christians, we are somewhat a people in diaspora.  We don’t live in a Christian nation.  We don’t live in a Christian theocracy like the first century nation of Israel.  We don’t have some overarching governmental authority to help guide us and keep us in our faith.  As Wendy Claire Barrie wrote in her book, Faith at Home, the way of Jesus is “counter-cultural, revolutionary, and not quite what mainstream culture would have us believe.”  So, she writes about many ways we can live out our faith at home or at any time, when we’re not surrounded and supported by our church buildings, by the sanctuary that our church community makes for us.

Make the dinner table the altar in your house.  Prepare your meals and then eat together in such a way that the whole meal is a prayer, in which you share your stories of faith, you share where Jesus has been working in your life.  Offer up that meal to God in remembrance of Jesus, like we do here on Sunday morning.

Turn your bedtime into a time of reflection like Jesus took when he went away to a lonely place so often to pray and offer up his life to God, take that time at bedtime to God the day that is past:  the good, the bad.  “How have I turned away from Jesus?  Where have I seen Jesus in my life?”  Offer that time of reflection to God as you end your day, and as you rise in the morning, dedicate the day to come to God.  Look for all those times and places where you may see him.  You will have turned your bedroom into a sanctuary, into a sacred space for God.

Rather than seeking retribution when wronged, seek peace and forgiveness, following after the ways of Jesus. 

“Follow my way anywhere and everywhere,” Jesus said.  That’s another part of what Jesus was teaching his disciples when he told them that the temple would be torn down.  Jesus revealed to his disciples that when the temple was gone, they would need to and also be able to find him and follow in his ways anywhere in the world.  That was an apocalypse for them, apocalypse meaning a revealing, a revelation.  “God’s not just here in the Temple, or just here in Israel,” Jesus was saying.  “God is everywhere and we can live out our faith anywhere.”  So too do we get to find God anywhere in the world, anywhere in our lives.  That’s life after the apocalypse, life after the revealing.  “Your worst fears are coming true,” Jesus was saying, “but fear not, for you can find God anywhere.”

For many folks, people’s worst fears came true when Donald Trump was elected president.  To be fair, I think a lot of people’s worst fears came true when Barak Obama was elected president…and before that, and before that.  People’s worst fears often come true when we elect a new president (or when darn near anything happens that people don’t like). 

In both cases, with both our president-elect and our current president, I think some of people’s fears were probably well-founded.  Presidents make bad decisions, we see who is coming, and we expect those bad decisions.  I think also that some of those fears are not well founded, but largely emotional reactions that get so worked up that we’re afraid it’s all coming to an end, but I don’t think that particular apocalypse is going to happen because of who’s sitting in office.  The real apocalypse for me, the real revelation has been to see how much hope or despair we place in one person. 

I’ve seen it written and heard it said many times that “We need to bring God back to our country.”  When did he leave?  Perhaps we at least thought he left when anyone started thinking that it is up to our president or anyone in our government to allow us to believe in God, follow in the ways of Jesus, or teach us how to follow in the ways of Jesus.  I don’t want the government teaching us how to follow in Jesus’ ways.  They suck at it.  Sorry, but they do.

Whether we’re talking about the president or congress or any government official, whoever it is, is not Jesus.  That one person, whoever it is, is not in charge of us following in the ways of Jesus.  Regardless of who is president, regardless of if we like that person or not, we are still a people in diaspora.  We are still disciples of Jesus living among a nation, within a culture that does not seek first and foremost to follow in Jesus’ way, and it is not up to any president to teach people to follow in Jesus’ way. 

It is not up to a president or anyone else to teach our children to follow in Jesus’ way.  It is not up to a president or anyone else to show people the light of the Gospel, the love of Jesus, and the peace of his way. 

It is rather, up to us, Jesus’ disciples, to show people the light of the Gospel.  It is up to us, Jesus’ disciples, to show people the love of Jesus.  It is up to us, Jesus’ disciples, to show people to peace of Jesus’ way.  It is also up to us to notice all of the times, and places, and ways that we see Jesus in the world.

That is life after the apocalypse.  God still the creator, ruler, and redeemer of all creation.  God is still anywhere and everywhere in the world, and as disciples of Jesus in this house or in our own houses, or anywhere in the world, we get to see God’s presence and point it out.

Regardless of what anything in the culture or world around us may say, regardless of whether our worst fears have come true or our prayers have been answered, the question we ask ourselves is:  “What do we give our hearts to?”  That’s what belief really is, not just what we think is true, but what do we live and follow?  What do we give our hearts to?

Living in diaspora, it is easy to give our hearts to all kinds of ways that are not the way of Jesus, and we usually do so for really good reasons, like being connected with other people or seeking solace from the storms of life.  At the same time, living in Diaspora, we can find Jesus and find people following in his ways in all sorts of places and situations that on the surface don’t seem particularly Jesusy. 

Jesus is alive and well in all kinds of ways and places, in our religious culture and even in the culture around us.  In giving our hearts to Jesus, we don’t need to rail against and point out all the places, and people, and situations that are “bad and evil” and say, “Jesus isn’t there.”  Jesus might argue that point with us.  Giving our hearts to Jesus and living in disapora, living in a culture that is not particularly Christian, we get to point out all the ways and places that Jesus is there, all of the ways and places where we see Jesus in the culture and the lives of people all around us.  Even in the places where people think, “I shouldn’t tell the priest that I’m going here’s Saturday night, I’ll pray on Sunday morning.”  No.  If you’re somewhere on Saturday night, Jesus is there too, and you get to point it out.  You get to notice, and see, and show where all the blessing are in this world.  That’s life after the apocalypse.

Wherever we see grace, we see the way of Jesus.  Wherever we see forgiveness and love, we see the way of Jesus.  Wherever we see people doing their best to make the right choice, we see the way of Jesus.  Even living in disapora, even living in times when our worst fears have come true, fear not, Jesus says.  Fear not, and give your hearts to me.  Do not fight against each other or the culture around you, but follow in my ways, practice your faith even if it is counter-cultural, and then open your eyes to see me everywhere in the world around you.  Amen.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Way of Jesus: Breaking Down the Wall that Divides Us

We are a nation divided.  We have been for a long time, and we are divided in many ways, not just Trump v. Hillary.  In the church, as members of the Body of Christ, we are sadly not that different in our division over the same issues.  We were called to be one in Jesus, and yet we are often divided over any number of issues (beliefs, church doctrine, political affiliation, biblical interpretation, dog people vs. cat people, the list goes on and on). 

Yet, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians,
[Jesus]  is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2:14-16)
Paul was writing about the initial division in the church between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.  He said we are one.  He said Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us. 

Why then, do we keep building it back up?

Well, fear plays into why we allow hostility to continue.  So does being hurt by the other.  In short, as much as we have been redeemed by Jesus, we are still broken and are still constantly in need of Jesus’ healing and restoration.  We still break each other out of our brokenness and are still constantly in need of Jesus’ forgiveness and reconciliation.

People on both sides of the presidential election were doing their best to make a choice that is right for this country.  That is the way of Jesus.

Some people on both sides have said and done hateful and hurtful things, and as the Body of Christ, our joy is to get to offer grace to those who have hurt us and those we love.  Offering grace is the way of Jesus.

People on both sides of the presidential election have been vilified, condescended  to, and told what to do by folks the other side.  As disciples of Jesus, we have the joy to get to offer compassion, empathy, and hear the stories of people who are tired of being vilified and condescended to.  Offering compassion, empathy, and hearing people’s stories is the way of Jesus. 

Many people who voted for President-Elect Trump are joyful that he won.  Many people who voted for Secretary Clinton are fearful that she lost.  As disciples of Jesus, we get to be curious and find out why.  We get to continually break down the dividing wall between us.

Remember that the first dividing wall between two people was made of fig leaves.  Adam and Eve, once they disobeyed God, were no longer naked and unashamed.  Instead, they were ashamed and fearful.  They hid, and put a dividing wall between themselves and between them and God:  fig leaves and accusations of blame and passing the buck. 

The way of the Gospel of Jesus is to be naked and unashamed.  The way of Jesus is to be fully who we are with each other and to let the grace of Jesus dwell in our hearts to allow us to see and love each other as we are, rather than as we think the other should be.

So, we get to be curious.  We get to ask each other, “Why did you vote for Trump/Clinton?”  Then, we get to listen.  We get to listen and not be right, not assume anything, and not give a response - other than “thank you.”.  We get to simply see the human being in front of us and remember the image of God in which they were made, the grace of Jesus which redeems, and the Holy Spirit which dwells within them.

We get to remove our fig leaves and embrace each other as brother and sister, for that is the way of Jesus. 

Be kind to others, and love those of whom you are most afraid. Remember, the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Let no evil talk come out of your mouth, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Let humility, compassion, and love rule in your heart.

Blessings and peace to you all.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Prayers and Scripture for All Saints’ Day

Begin, if you can, by lighting a candle, or sit in silence for a moment to create sacred space and a peaceful time.  You can pray the following by yourself or with others.  Use some or all of the readings.
Prayers are from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer; Scripture is from the New Revised Standard Version.

Beginning Prayers

Light and peace, in Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Thanks be to God.

A Prayer for All Saints (BCP p. 245)
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord:  Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.

Readings from Scripture
2 Esdras 2:42-47
I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude that I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, ‘Who are these, my lord?’ He answered and said to me, ‘These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God. Now they are being crowned, and receive palms.’ Then I said to the angel, ‘Who is that young man who is placing crowns on them and putting palms in their hands?’ He answered and said to me, ‘He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.’ So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord.

Hebrews 11:32 - 12:2
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Wisdom 5:1-5, 14-16
Then the righteous will stand with great confidence
in the presence of those who have oppressed them
and those who make light of their labours.
When the unrighteous see them, they will be shaken with dreadful fear,
and they will be amazed at the unexpected salvation of the righteous.
They will speak to one another in repentance,
and in anguish of spirit they will groan, and say,
‘These are persons whom we once held in derision
and made a byword of reproach—fools that we were!
We thought that their lives were madness
and that their end was without honour.
Why have they been numbered among the children of God?
And why is their lot among the saints?
Because the hope of the ungodly is like thistledown carried by the wind,
and like a light frost driven away by a storm;
it is dispersed like smoke before the wind,
and it passes like the remembrance of a guest who stays but a day.

But the righteous live for ever,
and their reward is with the Lord;
the Most High takes care of them.
Therefore they will receive a glorious crown
and a beautiful diadem from the hand of the Lord,
because with his right hand he will cover them,
and with his arm he will shield them.

Revelation 21:1-4, 22-22:5
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practises abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.

Observe a Moment of Silence

Prayers for the Saints
Name before God those saints in your life, your friends and loved ones who have died and yet are alive in Jesus.  Name those saints of the church whose lives and witness inspire you.


The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.

A Prayer for the Departed (BCP p.253)
Eternal Lord God, you hold all souls in life:  Give to your whole Church in paradise and on earth your light and your peace; and grant that we, following the good examples of those who have served you here and are now at rest, may at the last enter with them into your unending joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Concluding Prayers

The Song of Simeon
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake
we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

Lord, you now have set your servant free *
   to go in peace as you have promised;

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
   whom you have prepared for all the world to see:

A Light to enlighten the nations, *
   and the glory of your people Israel.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
   as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake
we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

Let us bless the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

The almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Song, and Holy Spirit, bless us and keep us.  Amen.