Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Giving God Away

Brad Sullivan
4 Epiphany, Year C
January 31, 2016
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Luke 4:12-30

Giving God Away

So, the people of Nazareth weren’t all that taken with Jesus, were they?  In Matthew and Mark’s gospels they were scandalized by Jesus as soon as he started preaching to them.  He was from Nazareth and they didn’t think the hometown kid could really make it so good; who was he, preaching to them?  In Luke’s gospel, however, we get a very different picture of what happened.  The people of Nazareth were awed and amazed at what Jesus had taught them, and by the works he had performed in Capernaum.  They note that Jesus was Joseph’s son, and they seem to be especially proud that a hometown boy was there, proclaiming fulfillment of Isaiah’s words of God’s grace.  “This is fantastic!”  They thought.  “We’ve always been a kind of nothing little town, and now we’ve got one of our own who’s already done great things and will do even greater things for us.  He’s one of us.  Now we’re gonna be great!”

Then, Jesus kind of let them down with what he said next.  “Yes, I’m from here, but my mission, and God’s grace is not just for you.  Heck, it’s not even primarily for you.  Just like Elijah and Elisha, I’m going to bring God’s grace to everyone, Jew and Gentile.”  As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was basically telling the people, that while it was the year of the Lord’s favor, it wasn’t necessarily going to be too terribly favorable for them. 

See, the stories he told of Elijah and Elisha were about both of those prophets preaching and healing folks who weren’t Israelites, folks who were Gentiles, and Elijah and Elisha were preaching to and healing Gentiles because they had been rejected by Israel.  Israel at the time was under the rule of some pretty bad kings, and they were no longer faithful to God, so God was taking his salvation elsewhere.  “Like Israel of old,” Jesus was saying, “y’all aren’t really as faithful to God as you’ve led yourselves to believe, and the good news is going to reach the Gentiles with much greater effectiveness than y’all.  Essentially, you’ve squandered God’s grace, so it’s moving on.”

So at that point, yeah, they got pretty upset at the hometown kid telling them that the year of the Lord’s favor had come, that they were basically going to ignore and reject it, and that the year of the Lord’s favor was going to be accepted by Gentiles rather than by them.  He was telling them, “y’all seem to want this all for yourself, for your own benefit only, and that’s not the way God’s kingdom works.  Y’all are supposed to be introducing God to the nations, not despising the nations because they don’t have God.”  They’d shut God up in a box, and God was springing out of it.  God was already there with the Gentiles, and Israel was supposed to let them know that.

So, Jesus was going to let the nations know that.  This fact apparently didn’t sit well with the people of Nazareth.  “We want you all for ourselves.  We want to control the outcome of this new prophet.  God is supposed to behave the way we want him to, the way our religion tells us he will.”  So they became angry enough to try to kill Jesus.  Their anger may have stemmed from the fact that deep inside, they knew Jesus was correct.  When we’re shamed, we often react with anger, and we’re only shamed by something if we believe there is truth to it.  The people of Nazareth seemed to know the truth of Jesus’ words, that they hadn’t been living as a light to the nations.  They hadn’t been bringing good news to the poor, release to the captive, freedom for the oppressed, and recovery of sight to the blind (even if that sight was given by another persons’ eyes, taking the blind alongside with them).  They hadn’t been living they ways that Isaiah prophesied, and then they expected Jesus to be good news primarily for them.

To be fair, that’s not an uncommon trap that people who experience grace and good news fall into.  Even Jesus’ first disciples fell into the same trap.  As Bishop Doyle points out in his book, A Generous Community, Peter and James and John wanted to build booths when they saw Jesus transfigured.  They wanted to keep control over that event and, then they could bring others there.  They would have control over that moment of grace.  Additionally, at one point when little children were trying to see Jesus, they disciples didn’t want the little children coming to Jesus.  They wanted to control access to him and to keep their places of power and authority, but Jesus wasn’t having it with them any more than the people of Nazareth.  “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “For it is to such as them that the Kingdom of God belongs.” 

Jesus and the Kingdom of God were never meant to be kept as a prize for one’s own benefit.  Jesus and the Kingdom of God were always meant to be given away.  As former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, famously said, "The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members."  Now he didn’t say only.  The church doesn’t only exist for the benefit of those who are not its members.  The church exists for both its members and for those who are not its members, but do we sometimes find ourselves in the same trap as the disciples and the people of Nazareth, wanting Jesus primarily for ourselves, working first and foremost for us? 

If you’re anything like me, there are times when the answer is yes.  I’m guessing all of us have times when we primarily want Jesus for ourselves, and the thought of giving Jesus and the Kingdom of God away doesn’t seem right, especially if we’re giving it away to people who seem undeserving in our eyes.  Further, giving Jesus and his kingdom away raises fears that there won’t be enough for us.  If we as a church do too much work for those outside, will there still be enough Jesus left for us?  The truth is, Jesus, his kingdom, and his grace have no limits.  There is always enough Jesus to go around.  I asked last week when the good news or release from captivity has happened to us, and who was Jesus for us when that happened.  Jesus has ministered to us in all kinds of ways and through all kinds of people, and Jesus is out there too, ministering to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways and places, and he is using all kinds of people to do his ministry.  Sometimes people know that Jesus is ministering to them, and sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes people believe in Jesus when he is ministering to them and through them, and sometimes they don’t.

We heard in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this morning, “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”  If you have faith enough to move mountains but do not have love, you are nothing.  Hearts of love are even more beautiful and important to God than are hearts of faith.  “When did we see you naked and hungry and we clothed and fed you, Jesus?”  “Whenever you did so to the least people,” Jesus responded, “whenever your hearts were full of love and compassion for others.”

We are called as the church, as Jesus disciples to be people of love, people who give our love to other people.  If you listen to much Christian media lately, there seems to be a divide between people of faith, and the bad people who don’t believe.  That may work for our polarized society, but it is not what Jesus was about.  Jesus loved people, whether Jew or Gentile.  He brought faith to those who didn’t have it.  He brought hope to those who were without it.  He loved extravagantly. 

Our joy is that we too, as Jesus’ disciples get to love extravagantly, to bring hope with our love to people of faith and to people without faith.  We get to invite people to be here with us, and we get to be out there where Jesus already is, sharing love, faith, and hope, serving others as Jesus’ disciples.

In looking at the church, who we are and who we will become, Bishop Doyle writes:
The God that we choose to follow is a God who is out and among the people.  The God we follow bids us to make a Church that is…out and among the people…This God cannot be contained.  God’s mission cannot be contained…We must become a generation of church-makers who play in the waters of baptism and in the Scriptures and around God’s altar.  This is sacred and holy play through which we reenact – inside and outside church building, and in our lives – the great story of God’s creation.
We are to be about making the world into a different place…with all the tools at our disposal.  Most especially we are to make it new with God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy.  We are to share and open up our church and walk out into the sweet-smelling and lush garden of creation.  We are to invite, welcome, and connect with others.  We are to share the message that God says to all people – “Come unto me all you who travail and are heave laden and I will refresh you.”…Don’t keep the little children away.  Don’t keep away those who have tried to follow Jesus and believe they have failed.  Don’t keep [from God] those who have drifted away from church…Give God away.  By all means let them all come.  And let us go.  And let us make the church together. 


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Grace for the Vader in All of Us

Ok, here's the latest in a long line of truly important, cosmically significant thoughts I've had:  George Lucas' idea of Anakin Skywalker was really pretty darn good.

Ok, so this goes against what I've thought and written before, but here's the deal.  While the love story was not overly great, my main gripe with Anakin was that I didn't like him all that much.
He was a kid with a good heart, but...

  •     He ended up rather selfish.
  •     He was tragically afraid of losing the people he loved.  
  •     He whined.  
  •     He complained.  
  •     He was unsure of himself, in spite of being arrogant. 
  •     He was power hungry, jealous, and kind of a brat.

Such a character really makes since, being that I already knew that he succumbed to the Dark Side and became evil, murderous, kill all the Jedi guy.  I should not have been surprised that, while not initially or even intentionally evil, Anakin was rather less likable and less heroic than I wanted him to be.  It's as though I wanted Anakin to be a great and heroic person, without obvious character flaws, who rather accidentally succumbed to the dark side.  I feel like I wanted it to overtake him by his curiously reaching his hand into a pool of dark side and getting sucked in - as though it wasn't his fault.

Such a view of Anakin was never very realistic.

Anakin as made by George Lucas was less likable and possibly more frightening.  Perhaps by making him an obviously flawed character, Lucas made a character who exposed my own flaws, faults, and culpability in things I have done wrong.  Lucas' Anakin didn't let anyone off the hook for our own bad choices by showing them to be accidents.  Anakin, and we are all culpable for our poor choices.

That also makes the grace given to Anakin by Luke all the better.  Grace wasn't given to a great man who became bad accidentally.  Grace was given to a flawed man who chose to become bad (and knew he was doing so on the inside but had enough internal dialogue to justify it).  Luke gave Darth Vader true, unearned grace.  Luke loved his dad, despite his dad becoming Darth Vader.

Grace then, for us too, is not given to us because we are great people who do bad things on accident.  Grace is given to all of us flawed and wonderful people who choose to do good and who choose to do bad.  Despite the Vader in all of us, grace is given to us because we are loved.

The Spirit of the Lord Is Upon Us

Brad Sullivan
2 Epiphany, Year C
January 17, 2016
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Luke 4:14-21

The Spirit of the Lord Is Upon Us

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  That was the teaching from the hometown Nazareth carpenters’ kid.  Not someday.  Not keep waiting on God to deliver you, but now, today, Jesus claimed, is the year of the Lord’s favor.  The spirit of God was upon him, anointing him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, an end to oppression, and the year of the Lord’s favor.   

“The year of the Lord’s favor” was possibly a reference to the year of Jubilee which God commanded in Leviticus 25.  Every fiftieth year was the Jubilee year, a year of rest for the land when the people didn’t work the land.  God promised to bless the land so that it would provide in abundance, and the people ate whatever the land provided.  Additionally, in the Jubilee year debts were forgiven.  In the 49 years before each Jubilee, if anyone fell on hard times, they could become their kinsman’s servant, being cared for by their kinsman and living as an indentured servant.  There was no interest or penalty.  Rather, those who couldn’t support themselves were cared for by their relatives, but not as a free ride; those being cared for also contributed. 

Then, on the 50th year, anyone who was living as an indentured servant was released to go back to their own house, their own land, and start over.  Everyone was to return to their own property and all of Israel was to observe this year of rest for the land, restoration for the poor, and trust in God to provide for them. 

So there was a partnership in the Jubilee year.  God blessed the land and the people, and the people trusted in God and showed mercy and forgiveness to each other.  God was reminding the people, “you became slaves in Egypt, and I delivered you.  You were hungry in the desert, and I provided for you.  Now release the land from its work and release each other from service, and trust in me to bless you and provide for you.

We don’t know that Jesus was actually proclaiming a year of Jubilee, but he was proclaiming God’s blessing on the people, release for the captive, good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.  Like the year of Jubilee, there was release, and like the year of Jubilee, there was necessarily a partnership and ownership of Jesus’ words by the people.  If there is going to be release for captive, freedom for the oppressed, and good news for the poor, those things are going to have to be lived out by those who hear Jesus’ words. 

So, then, what is the good news that Jesus was fulfilling, the good news that was to be proclaimed to the poor?  The good news is God’s love and blessing not only for those who are obviously blessed, but for the poor and marginalized as well.  The good news is God becoming human and living among us, uniting himself to us perfectly through Jesus.  The good news is the life of God’s kingdom which Jesus describes in parable after parable.  The good news is a job for the jobless.  The good news is bread for the hungry.  The good news is an employee who chooses to pay his workers what they need, even if it seems overly generous.  The good news is Jesus himself who lived among us in one body for 30 years and now lives among us in each of our bodies continuing to fulfill the good news to the poor.

Jesus also proclaimed the good news of release for the captives and freedom for the oppressed.  People are captive to all sorts of things:  prison, jail, booze, poor decisions, low expectations, harsh childhoods, poverty, anger, resentment, pride, guilt, wealth, success, anxiety, fear.  The list of things people are held captive by goes on and on, and Jesus came to proclaim release.  “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus told to the woman caught in adultery.  “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus told the woman suffering from a hemorrhage and the man who was blind.    “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus said to the dying thief crucified next to him.  “Feed my sheep,” Jesus told to the guilt ridden Peter.  Jesus proclaimed release to people held captive to all kinds of things.  He released them and told them they were God’s beloved children.  He releases us from all that we’ve done wrong and proclaims us to be God’s beloved children.

We then get to be the voice of Jesus proclaiming release, and we get to be the body of Jesus providing release to people from that which holds them captive.  As we saw in Jesus’ life, this is often messy work.  That too is the good news from Isaiah which Jesus proclaimed fulfilled.  Strive for righteousness, justice, mercy, live the ways that Jesus proclaimed fulfilled, and I will be with you, God proclaimed. 

So then, God became human and lived these very ways that he commanded.  God lived with his people as Jesus and got down in the muck with them to fulfill what he had proclaimed through Isaiah.  That’s the good news of the Gospel, and then, Jesus says there’s even more good news.  Y’all get to get down into the muck of each others’ lives too.  As Paul writes in Romans 12:16, “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”

God fulfilled Isaiah’s words by associating with the lowly, by becoming one of us.  He showed us that associating with the lowly is the way of the good news of his Kingdom.  He also showed us that everyone is lowly in some way.  Do not be haughty, do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Everyone is held captive by something, and no one is too good to associate with the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. 

There is freedom in those words.  There is freedom in realizing we really are all in this thing together.  There is freedom in realizing we all have muck in our lives.  There is freedom in fulfilling Isaiah’s words, in being helpers for one another in the muck of our lives.  We were after all made from the dust of the ground, the muck of the earth, and we were made to be helpers for one another.  For Adam, when God saw that it wasn’t good that he was alone, Eve was the good news. 

As Jesus’ body and Jesus voice, we get to be the good news for each other.  We get to be the good news in our more private lives, and we get to be the good news as the church.  We get to mentor children in our schools, some of us through Kids Hope USA beginning in a couple of weeks at Linnie Roberts.  For the kids whom we mentor, we are the good news.

We get to give as we each have means to do so.  We get to give to each other and to those we know who are in need.   For some, this will be giving in a big way for someone who is really down and out.  For some, this is will be smaller things, but no less big to the person in need.  We get to be the good news.

We get to be the good news when we cook breakfast on Friday mornings and offer Bible study and prayer.  We get to be the good news when we sit and talk with the folks who come in to eat, and often, they get to be the good news for us. 

We get to be the good news to young frightened mothers and mothers to be when we donate to and volunteer with the Women’s Pregnancy Center.  We get to be the good news that says, “You aren’t judged; you are loved.  You’re baby is not a mistake, but a blessing.  You are not raising your child alone, for I am with you.”  That is the good news the mentors give to young frightened moms who come to the Pregnancy Center.

So how are we all going to be the good news?  How are you going to be the good news?  How am I going to be the good news?  What good news has Jesus brought to you, and who was Jesus when he brought that good news to you?  How have Jesus’ words be fulfilled, and how as Jesus, will you fulfill them?

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because he has anointed us to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

 Today this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Everyday Jesus vs. Apocalypse Jesus

Brad Sullivan
2 Epiphany, Year C
January 17, 2016
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
John 2:1-11

Everyday Jesus vs. Apocalypse Jesus

So when Jesus and his mother, Mary, were at a wedding, and the wine ran out, Mary told Jesus, "They have no wine."  And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." It seems that Jesus thought his mother was telling him they needed wine for the Last Supper.  “My hour has not yet come,” Jesus said.  “It’s not time for that important meal yet, mom, I don’t need any extra wine.” 

Then, I’m assuming one look from Mary told Jesus, “Son, I know we’re not there yet, but in the mean time, there is a whole lot of living to do.  Give these people some wine…and don’t ever refer to me as ‘woman’ again.”  “Oh, you mean wine for the party?”  Jesus realized.  “Good idea Mom, the stuff they’ve been serving so far isn’t that good anyway...and yes ma’am,” and then Mary commanded the wine steward to do whatever Jesus said. 

Why was this such a big deal, and why was Mary so intent on making sure there was wine enough at the wedding?  It may seem like an odd miracle to start letting people know that the Messiah has come, making sure there was plenty of really good wine, but Jesus helped the couple and family out quite a bit.  This was a wedding, and wine at a wedding was a big deal, much like it often is today. 

Providing the wine was more than getting folks drunk.  Providing the wine helped the couple start out on the right foot.  If the party didn’t go well, people would talk.  Social shaming is far from new, and running out of wine at the wedding could have been the talk of the town for quite some time.  Social status meant a good bit, more perhaps even than it does now.  Providing wine for the party meant that this couple didn’t get shamed on their wedding night, meant that their marriage didn’t begin badly.

It seems no surprise then, that Mary, was the one who insisted that this young couple not be shamed on their wedding night.  Mary knew quite well the shunning that goes with shaming and diminished social status.  She was, after all, the possible adulteress wife of Joseph who ended up pregnant before she was even married.  That was a big deal in those days, and she likely suffered much scorn.  Jesus may well have been thinking, “no wine, no big deal.”  Perhaps in directing Jesus to provide more wine, Mary was also helping to teach him and remind him about how badly we often treat each other and how important every day of our life is, not just the end.  Jesus’ hour had not yet come, but the newlywed couples’ hour was right then.

We tend get so wrapped up in the end, in the tasks we have, etc. that we miss or mistreat the people and the world around us.  We’ll have a deadline or we’ll be late, and in our anxiety and dwelling about that end, we can be rather less than cordial towards others, especially if they interrupt us or make us even later.  We dwell on the end and miss or mistreat the people and the world around us.

We even tent to dwell on the apocalypse.  Whole fields of study, books, movies, theologies all dwell on the apocalypse, the end of the world.  Why?  Perhaps because it is scary and big and it makes for a great book or movie, but perhaps too because the apocalypse is easy, simple.  Our anxieties seem to push us as a society to the apocalypse, contemplating, fearing, dwelling on the end of the world.  Even if not the end of the world, conversation in Bible study often turns to the end of our lives and what happens after we die.  Certainly there is anxiety about our deaths and the end of the world, but I think our conversations about Jesus often turn to the end of our lives and the end of the world not because we are anxious about then end, but because we are anxious about right now.  Whatever the end will be, we ultimately don’t have much control over it.  The end is much simpler than now. 

Living isn’t easy, and there is plenty to fear today.  It can be simpler in one’s belief in Jesus to skip to then end not have to actually live, but we’re not here just for the end.  We’re here for all the living before the end.  Jesus also isn’t here just for the end.  He isn’t present only at the end.  He blessed and sanctified not only our deaths but our lives.  Jesus is here for every day of our living, including the end.  It’s nice to know too that even Jesus was at times perhaps too focused on the end and needed a reminder from his mom, “it’s time for living, son.  Be the light of the world, even here, now, for this young couple.”

The best wine, like what Jesus helped serve at the wedding, is here for us not only at our last supper, but for all of the meals and feasts in between.  The light of Jesus is here for the unimportant and mundane, which is where much of our lives are spent.  The important and mundane of every day are important enough for “Everyday Jesus” to hallow and sanctify with his presence.  It may not make for as good of a movie or be as flashy and exciting as “Apocalypse Jesus”, but that’s not where we live.  We live in the everyday.  We live in the simple anxieties and joys, the humdrum and excitement of everyday life.  Mary reminded Jesus, and Jesus reminds us all, that he is here with us and for us in our everyday lives, because all of our lives are hallowed and sacred.  Amen. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Heathen Preaching to the Church

Brad Sullivan
1 Epiphany, Year C
January 10, 2015
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The Heathen Preaching to the Church

When Jesus came to be baptized by John, people had been coming in droves to be baptized by him.  It was like a lengthy mass baptism as people came who were seeking God’s kingdom, seeking a new life and a new way of life in God’s kingdom, rather than the ways of the kingdoms of the earth.  This was far more than a liturgical new years’ resolution, far more than individuals wanting to be better.  They were seeking a whole new life, a whole new way of life.  They were sloughing off the old ways of the old age and the kingdoms of the earth, and preparing for the new age of God’s kingdom. 

For us, we largely have individuals or a few people getting baptized at any one time, and over the centuries, people have begun to see baptism as being about personal salvation:  individuals choosing to “get saved” and secure entry for themselves into God’s kingdom.  From the beginning, however, baptism was not just about an individual’s salvation, but an entire people choosing to divest of the old ways and to put on the new garments of life in God’s kingdom.  Then, they devoted the rest of their lives to living out the ways of God’s kingdom, bringing it about and living God’s kingdom, even as they awaited the day when God’s kingdom would come fully.  Baptism was not about securing individual entry into God’s kingdom when a person died, but people living out God’s kingdom while alive.

Baptism as sloughing off of the old ways and allegiance to the old kingdoms and inaugurating life in God’s kingdom, that is the baptism with which Jesus was baptized.  Then, after he was, he was anointed by the Holy Spirit and proclaimed as God’s son, the beloved. 

Anointing and proclamation were essential elements of declaring leadership in ancient Israel.  The ancient kings of Israel were anointed with oil and proclaimed as God’s chosen kings.  The prophet Samuel anointed Saul and then David after him, speaking for God in proclaiming them to be God’s chosen kings of Israel.  When Jesus was anointed, however, it was not by God’s prophet, but by the Holy Spirit.  The proclamation came not from a human intermediary, but from God himself.  Jesus was the one to lead this new kingdom of God.  Jesus’ kingdom.  Jesus’ authority. 

How did he assert his authority?  Well, he prayed a lot.  He taught people about his kingdom.  He helped people.  He spoke out when he saw people in authority abusing or misusing their authority. 

Jesus did not force his kingdom.  He could have, of course.  As he told Peter, when he was being arrested, Jesus could have commanded legions of angels to fight for him, to prevent his arrest, and presumably make happen anything he wanted to happen.  Jesus’ might, his command, and his authority exceeded that of any king of the earth, and yet when it came time to fight, Jesus let the kingdoms of the earth kill him.  Jesus chose to let his kingdom be lived out by choice, not by force.  Jesus’ kingdom, the new age, is lived by people choosing to follow him and live his teachings.  One day, yes, his kingdom will come fully, but until then, he left to human choice, how much his kingdom would or would not be lived out here on earth. 

So what are some of the ways of the new age, the age of Jesus’ kingdom that he teaches, but does not force?   One is Jesus’ notion of fairness.  Remember the end of Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard?  The owner of the vineyard hired some folks at the beginning of the day and promised them a days’ wage.  Throughout the day he found other people who hadn’t found work, and he hired them too.  Then they were all paid the same. “Hey, that’s not fair,” they guys who worked all day said, “those guys earned just as much as we, and yet they didn’t work nearly as long as we did.”  “True, they didn’t work as long as y’all did,” Jesus would say, “but they still needs enough to live on, doesn’t they?”  (Matthew 20:1-16)  In the new age of Jesus’ kingdom, fairness is superseded by basic human needs and love of people.

Another way of Jesus’ kingdom is the approach to institutions and religion.  Jesus was teaching the Scribes and the Pharisees about how they keep their traditions for the sake of the institution of their religion and end up ignoring God’s ways.  “Sorry, Mom and Dad, but I can’t support you in your old age,” they would have people say.  “I’ve got the means to support you, but I have to give that money to the Synagogue.”  “No, young man,” Jesus would say, “you need to take care of your parents first.  Half the reason to give to the Synagogue is so they can care for people in need.  If you take care of your parents, then the Synagogue won’t have to.”  (Mark 7:6-13)  Our institutions are not more important that the people for whom they were made.

We live smack dab in the middle of the kingdoms of this world, the kingdoms of the old age.  Many of these kingdoms have been influenced by Jesus and his kingdom, but the kingdoms and governments of the earth are still kingdoms of the old age.  This means that even as we try to influence the kingdoms of the world, we are also influenced by the kingdoms of the world.  We hear the ways and wisdom of the kingdoms of this world, kingdoms that we love (our government, our businesses, our American way of life), and we end up following the ways of these kingdoms, sometimes even when they don’t follow the way of Jesus’ kingdom.     

Our challenge is to live in both worlds, the old age of the kingdoms of the earth and the new age of Jesus’ kingdom.  Our challenge is to live Jesus’ kingdom without forcing his kingdom on others.  Like Jesus, the way for us to live his kingdom is to pray a lot, to teach about his kingdom and way, to help people, and to speak out when we see people in authority abusing or misusing their authority.  This also means that we may need to put away our swords when our teaching and speaking out angers those who hear.

A friend of mine read an article I had posted about the church’s need to invite people to join them in worship and to teach people about Jesus, no longer assuming that most people know about Jesus.  She pointed out that many people don’t want to know about Jesus and are quite frankly tired of having Christianity forced down their throats, being told that they are terrible people or being threatened with hell for not believing in Jesus.  She wrote,
Setting up missions to convert the heathens is not what the church needs. Fighting injustice, battling for the rights and dignity of the poor, helping to create a world without prejudice, these are missions Jesus would get behind. The like-minded people who join a church because it's focused not inward on their own population but outward on what good they can do in the world are people you can be proud to call brothers and sister in Christ.

My friend is, by the way, not a Christian, the heathen preaching to the church.  I agreed with her about the mission of the church, and I also wrote the following regarding evangelism and sharing our faith, beliefs, and the ways of Jesus’ kingdom:
I do assume that lots of people would benefit from hearing [about Jesus and his kingdom]. I do assume that people would benefit from hearing about and living the way of Jesus: a way of love, compassion, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, relationships chosen over being right, etc…I don't believe our faiths were ever meant to be kept quiet. We were meant to connect to each other, and sharing our deeply held beliefs is a prime way we do that. Evangelism is that offering of self, the sharing of who we are via what we believe. When shared, not forced, it can be great. Some will find it to be good news and want to believe the same. Some will simply find it interesting and know a person better.

We are to live and preach and teach Jesus’ kingdom by truly adopting his ways as ours, and then talking about his kingdom not simply as an imperative of scripture (that’s what the Scribes and Pharisees did).  We’ll live and preach and teach Jesus’ kingdom by living it and then offering what we have lived and experienced to others.  Consider Jesus and his baptism, the sloughing off of the old age and the old ways of earthly kingdoms.  Consider his anointing by the Holy Spirit and the proclamation from God that Jesus is his beloved Son and the king of the new age and life in Jesus’ kingdom.  Then, consider your baptism into his kingdom.  Remember your baptism, the sloughing off of the old ways and the desire and commitment to live and proclaim Jesus’ kingdom and the new age of his ways.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Following Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt: The Way Forward for the Church

Brad Sullivan
2 Christmas, Year C
January 3, 2015
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Mary and Joseph took Jesus from Bethlehem and fled to Egypt, fleeing for Jesus’ life, threatened by the murderous king Herod.  This was not the first time someone from Israel fled to Egypt under the threat of death.  Back before Israel was a mighty nation, there is Israel the man, whose favorite son, Joseph was about to be killed by his brothers because they were jealous of him.  At the last minute, one of the brothers, Judah, decided to sell him into slavery rather than kill him, so Joseph was taken by to Egypt by some passing traders.  Going to Egypt, his life was spared.

Years later, Joseph had become the Pharaoh’s second hand in Egypt by predicting a drought and having them store grain to prepare.  When the drought hit, Joseph’s brothers and his father, Israel, were starving, and so they fled to Egypt to escape death.  Once there, they were reunited with their brother and son, and the sons of Israel became the people of Israel, and centuries later, under Moses’ leadership, the people of Israel left Egypt to become the nation of Israel.

Jesus’ life retells this earlier story, fleeing to Egypt to escape death, then returning to his home to become who he was.  Neither journey was an easy one to make, but they were necessary.  Mary and Joseph took the journey to Egypt, to the unknown, in order to protect their beloved son, Jesus, and by doing so, they kept the light of his Gospel burning bright.

The church throughout the United States, we’re facing declining worship attendance for many reasons.  More folks work on Sunday than they did 30 years ago.  Many folks are traveling to see family, others are tired and wanting to stay home with their immediate family.  Still others are finding more entertaining ways to use their free time on Sunday.

Additionally, more and more people are changing their religious affiliation from Christian to “none”.  People are leaving the church, and leaving their faith in Jesus along with it.  We now have a new mission field full of people who either don’t know or have forgotten the light of the Gospel, and we have a church that is not equipped to bring the light of the Gospel to them.

We’ve operated under an attractional model of church for centuries.  “Build it and they will come”, or even “invite them and they will come” has been our primary way and often our only way of spreading the light of Jesus.  Our invitations are reaching some, but our invitations are not reaching the majority of people who have either left the faith or have left the habit of coming to church to worship with their community.

The slow and steady shrinking of the church is happening faster and faster.  More and more people see the church as an institution, and they are untrusting of the institution.  Many people live in small communities where it is not economically feasible to build a church and pay a clergy to lead them and fulfill their sacramental life.  Our sacramental way of life and sharing the light of Jesus has become limited by our attractional model of church, bringing people here, being the only way that we live out the Gospel.

It is time for the church, like Jesus before her, to go to Egypt.

In our context, going to Egypt means adopting new ways of living and sharing the Gospel.  We’re going to continue worshipping here.  We’re going to continue inviting people to share in our life here.  We also need to start meeting in small groups and small communities in which not everyone may come here to worship, but their communities and groups would still be connected here, even sacramentally.

Bishop Doyle in his upcoming book calls this “Small Batch:  The Local, Organic, and Sustainable Church.”  This is not the end of church as we are used to, but the addition of new ways, or really old ways, of being church.   Some of the earliest churches met in Synagogues or other places for worship in fairly large communities.  Some of the earliest churches also met in peoples’ homes or in small assemblies in public places.  They would share scripture together, pray together, and they would share a meal together in Jesus’ name, remembering his last supper with his disciples and his command that they continue to share bread and wine in remembrance of him.

This was the fastest period of church growth ever, and there were many models for how people worshipped and lived their lives as Jesus’ disciples in community with others.  Quite unlike our modern sensibilities that church and faith should be quiet and private, faith was talked about in these small communities of friends or small communities of people with similar vocations.  Faith was shared, and peoples’ relationships came to be formed around their affection for each other and through sharing their faith with each other.

The light of the Gospel spread not only through invitation to large communities.  The light of the Gospel also spread through sharing faith in Jesus, through prayer, worship, and Eucharist in small batch communities:  people who were together first through their affection for each other and then held together even more strongly through their faith and life in Jesus.

Over the centuries, our worship life centralized around the altar and we developed the model for church and the way of life to which we are all accustomed.  This way of life for the church has worked well and continues to work well for many of us, but we cannot continue with our current way of communal church life as the only way.  Nationwide, declining membership in the church, declining membership, and declining faith in Jesus show us that we can’t simply stay as we are.  We must remain as we are, and we must also go to Egypt.  We must go to a place that is for us, largely unknown, but is the place in which the sons of Israel became the people of Israel, the place in which Jesus escaped death, and the metaphoric place in which the early church thrived and grew.

While keeping one foot firmly where we are, we’re also going back to the earliest times of the church, and like the earliest church, we don’t exactly have a roadmap.  The earliest church often had traditions which they kept and they also made their way as they went.

We don’t have a roadmap for how Small Batch communities are supposed to work either.  So we’ll try things.  One thing I’ve talked to some folks about already is forming some small groups with people for whom we already have great affection, people who are already our friends.  These small groups of friends can agree to meet here for worship together at least once a month.  They can also meet together at other times for Bible study and prayer, for meals and sharing faith.  They can grow their affection for one another by intentionally living out their faith tougher.  Then, these small batch communities could invite another friend to join them, and our shared life in the Gospel of Jesus would deepen and grow.

There are other things we’ll try, other small groups with some folks who may or may not worship here, but who will worship together.  We’ll succeed, and we’ll fail, and we’ll try again.  We don’t exactly know where this is going, but we do know where we are headed if we do nothing and continue on the same path.  Nationwide continued decline.

I’m going to keep pushing for folks to start small batch communities.  If you’ve got an idea for one, start it, talk to me about it, and I’ll support you.  We can’t be afraid of failure or afraid of what others will think.  What we need to do is to dare greatly for the sake of the sake of the Gospel, and so I leave us with the words of Theodore Roosevelt and the words of St. Paul.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face I marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best know in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly…
-          Theodore Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that be testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
-          Paul, Romans 12:2

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Christmastime Is (still) Here

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  On the eve of 2016, I am not only preparing for the new year, but am also still celebrating Christmas.  For many Christians, Christmas is a day, but for us, it is a season lasting 12 days from December 25th until the Epiphany on January 6th.  Our tree is still up and our lights are still on as we continue to celebrate the light of Jesus coming into the world and into our lives.  

At our Wednesday Bible study and Eucharist, we discussed the opening of John's Gospel and the light of Jesus which the darkness cannot overcome.  Two questions arose:  What is the light of Jesus, and is it in us because we are human or only if we believe in Jesus?

The light of Jesus is not overly easy to define, and that's a good thing.  When we distill God down to simple definitions, we tend to end up with a fairly shallow view of God.  "God is love" works well, but than again, what is more mysterious and deep than love?  The light of Jesus is the very life of God which spoke all of creation into existence.  The light of Jesus is Jesus himself, his ways, his teachings, his love of humanity, his love of God, his deep affection for all of creation.  The light of Jesus is what Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The light of Jesus is all of these things.  The light of Jesus is present whenever darkness and the works of darkness (misery, anger, suffering, hardness of heart, hate, non-forgiveness) are being cast out.  

Is the light of Jesus in us only if we believe in Jesus?  Again, this is difficult to know with certainty, but my belief is that the light of Jesus is within all of us.  It is part of what makes of human, the image of God in which we were all made.  Knowing Jesus and following in his ways brings that light to the forefront of our lives.  The light of Jesus still shines in those who don't know Jesus - people made in the image of God, with the light which casts out darkness.  We can recognize the light of Jesus wherever, whenever, and in whomever we see darkness and the works of darkness being cast out.  

Our lives are meant to shine not only to bring the light of Jesus, but also to bear witness to the light of Jesus.  Our human nature is not ours alone, but a nature which is intimately connected to the God who made us.  His light shines in us.  

The question arose during the Bible study as to whether we have light within us that is our own, or are we only good because God dwells within us.  We cannot separate the two.  Part of what it means to be human is to have God's light shining within us.  That is our human nature.  God's light is not separate from us, placed within us to fix us of our humanity.  God's light is part of who we are, part of our make up.  The light of Jesus is part of our true humanity.  Through our lives, we seek not to overcome our humanity, but to live out our humanity in its fullness, with the light of Jesus, the image of God in which we were made, shining within us.
Merry Christmas.