Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Trees, Fruit, and Small Woodland Creatures: The New Eden

Brad Sullivan
4 Easter, Year A
May 7, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Acts 2:42-47
John 10:1-10

Trees, Fruit, and Small Woodland Creatures: The New Eden

Jesus said, “All who came before me are thieves and bandits...The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Those who came before Jesus were those who were seen as a messiah, an anointed one of God.  There was a messianic fervor in Jesus’ time, a great desire for one to arise who would be the messiah, the anointed one to drive Rome out of Israel and to lead Israel into a time of peace and prosperity, a time that would last forever.  They were wanting a new king over Israel as the messiah, the anointed one, because the anointed ones were the kings of Israel.  David, king David who slew Goliath was the second of these anointed ones, these kings.  David was seen as the greatest of all the kings of Israel, and by what Jesus said, he was a thief and bandit. 

See, God was not overly enamored of Israel’s desire to have a king rule over them.  God even warned Israel what would happen if they placed a king over themselves.  In 1 Samuel, God said to Israel that if you place a king over you, he will take your sons for his chariots and horsemen; your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive orchards to give to his friends; and 1/10 of your grain and vineyards to give to his officers and his friends.  He will take your servants and the best of your cattle, 1/10 of your flocks, and “you shall be his slaves.”

Now, being that the people of Israel thought things through about as well as we do, they said, “sounds great; sign us up!”  Now, some of the kings of Israel were pretty good, some were ok, and some were rancidly terrible, but they were all anointed ones, all messiahs.  They were all seen as the new savior of Israel, and according to Jesus, they were all thieves and bandits.  They made war.  They conquered and were conquered.  They took from the people in order to bring about their conquests, and they took from the people in order to live in the opulence fitting for a king.

Jesus did something different.  Jesus did not seek conquest.  He did not kill.  He did not take from his subjects in order to live like a king, instead he lived simply.  Jesus was anointed by God, the messiah, and he led his people by being the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.  Many people had wanted to raise Jesus up as their earthly king, as their earthly anointed messiah to lead a revolt against Rome, and he could have let them.  He could have chosen that; he had every right to, being, you know, God, but he didn’t.  Jesus chose instead to be killed, rather than have thousands or even millions be killed in order to drive Rome out for the sake of some insults, some hardships, and a building. 

That’s really what it came down to, right?  Rome ruled over Israel and collected taxes from them, usually taking more than they were supposed to.  Corruption abounded.  They began appointing the high priest over Israel, desecrated the Temple in various ways, stole from the temple, and heaped contempt upon contempt for the Jewish people and their religion.  Insults, hardships, and a building.  Jews began to radicalize amidst the oppression of Rome and the messianic fervor of the age, and in the year 66, the great revolt began against Rome.  The Jews rebelled and won their first couple of battles again Rome.  After that, things did not go well.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed fighting in the great revolt, and in the year 70, the Temple was destroyed by Rome.

Then in 132, the Bar-Kokhba revolt began.  Shimon Bar-Kokhba was yet another messianic figure who led a three year revolt against Rome.  This revolt cost hundreds of thousands of more Jewish lives and also ended in defeat.  All told, estimates are that over a million and a half Jews were killed in these two revolts, the Temple was destroyed, and in the year 135, the entire nation of Israel was destroyed, the people taken into slavery or forced to move elsewhere.

“The thief comes in only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus said.  The people of Israel followed thieves and bandits, and their lives were stolen from them.  Husbands and fathers became killers.  Men with livelihoods took up the sword and were killed.  Their whole way of life, indeed their entire nation, was destroyed. 

“I came that they may have life,” Jesus said, “and have [life] abundantly.”  The earliest disciples of Jesus followed a different path than the path laid out by the thieves and bandits who led Israel.  Jesus’ small band of disciples followed him as their shepherd, as the gate to fields of life abundant.  They followed in his ways.  When they were kicked out of the Synagogue, they did not argue that they deserved to be there, they simply met in people’s homes instead.  When Rome said they couldn’t meet in the temples of the Roman gods, they did not demand a right of worship, but met elsewhere.  They followed Jesus, the good shepherd, and God added daily to their numbers.  They were a people without a nation, a people of many nations, living wherever they were, following and believing in Jesus.  They didn’t have doctrine yet.  They didn’t have a set of beliefs about Jesus other than his teachings, his death, and his resurrection.  People followed him, believed in him and his way, and they received life, abundantly. 

Like the people of Israel, the earliest Christians were living under the corrupt and oppressive government of Rome which didn’t care one whit if any of them lived or died, but rather than fight that government, they banded together and provided for each other as there was need.  They cared about each other more than they cared about their stuff, and they cared about each other more than they cared about fighting against Rome.     

They were, as we read in Psalm 1, like trees planted by streams of living water.  I know, it’s a mixed metaphor, shepherds and trees, but we’ll go with it.  Trusting in Jesus, following in his ways, and banding together to care for one another, the earliest Christians became a forest fed and nurtured by the abundant life of Jesus.  Together, this forest had fruit in abundance, and they shared their fruit with others, even the small woodland creatures who were not a part of the forest, who did not work for their fruit.  They provided shade and fruit for these creatures living in their forest, and they and even let some make their homes in their branches, and these other creatures became trees as well, sharing in the abundant life of Jesus.  They were provided for by Jesus, by their trust and faith in him and in his ways, and they shared abundantly with others.  Now, men came with axes from time to time, the oppression of Rome, and this forest of the early church even shared abundantly with them.  Some of these men became part of the forest themselves.  Others of these men came and cut down some of the trees, but the forest remained and continued to have abundant life and to share life abundant, fed by the streams of living water of Jesus and his ways. 

This forest of the early church was the new Eden of Jesus.  That was Jesus’ kingdom.  That was the place where Jesus led his disciples, the new Eden, and the new Eden of Jesus and his way could happen in any kingdom of earth, in any place and in any time.  The people of Jesus’ way, of his movement, did not look for an earthly thief or bandit to lead them to steal what others had, to force their rights upon others, to kill, be killed, and destroy.  The people of Jesus’ way, his movement, looked to Jesus to lead them beside still waters, to be for them streams of living water so that they could be planted in any place and bring forth fruit and shade to care for those around them, to give to any as there was need.  That is life, the life abundant in the Jesus movement, life with Jesus as our shepherd. 

Looking at a modern example of a thriving church with life abundant, the church in China is in a similar place as the early church was.  The government of China is not overly enamored of Christianity, so while they allow it, they have state sponsored churches, led by earnest Christians, but regulated by the state.  Sounds a little like Israel under Rome, doesn’t it.  Rather than rebel against the government, however, many Christians in China are simply forming their own churches.  They are meeting in homes or other larger building that they own.  They aren’t demanding any rights from the government; they are just going ahead and meeting, being the church, and the government is letting them.  They come by and check the roles to know who is attending these unregistered churches, but without fighting, with no thieves and bandits to steal, kill, and destroy, these unregistered churches in China are thriving and growing.  They are becoming, like the early church, a forest planted by the streams of living water of Jesus and his ways.

Now some in this country still talk about Christianity being attacked by our government.  Rather than quibble about whether such oppression is true or untrue, I would say it is irrelevant.  Where the church thrives, it thrives not because a government allows it to.  The church thrives and becomes the new Eden whenever and wherever the people of the church follow Jesus, trust in him and his ways, and band together, caring for each other more than their rights as a church.  When the church follows Jesus and his ways, and when we band together and care for one another, we become the new Eden, a forest planted by streams of living water that thrives and has life abundantly. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Why Are We Here? For Proclamation

Brad Sullivan
Easter Vigil, Year A
April 15, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Matthew 28:1-10

Why Are We Here?  For Proclamation

What are we doing here?  It’s Saturday night on a long weekend.  We could be out on the town; or staying at home, relaxing; or watching the new Star Wars preview for the 17th, 18th, and 19th times no YouTube.  Instead we’re here in church, doing much the same thing and in the same place where we are going to be tomorrow morning.  We’ve spent the last 40 days of our Lenten journey preparing for this night.  As Jesus spent 40 days in the desert preparing for his ministry and death, as his disciples spent three years with Jesus preparing for their new life in him, we have been preparing.  We’ve been learning from Jesus, learning to follow in his way.  We’ve been working at re-membering, at joining ourselves back to him.  We’ve been learning to rely more and more on Jesus through our Lenten journey.

Not so tonight.  Tonight is different.  What are we doing here tonight?  Tonight we are proclaiming:  “The tomb is empty and Jesus is risen.”  That is what Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph did on the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  Theirs was the first joy of proclamation. 

They had gone to the tomb, and the tomb should have smelled of decay, of blood and sweat, and death, but it didn’t.  The tomb was empty, and rather than decay, the tomb smelled of new earth and rock, clean and pure.  It smelled of new life and new creation, for that is what the empty tomb was, new life.

On the first day of the week, the same day when God proclaimed, “Let there be light,” an angel of light rolled back the stone of Jesus’ empty tomb and showed the women the new life and new creation that had been brought about through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They saw the new light and new life that God had created once again, and then they went.

They went to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection, and Jesus met them on the way.  The new life and new creation itself met them, and he smelled of Eden, of earth and trees, of grass and fruit, of life and spring.  Seeing him was like seeing the sun rise on a beautiful field after a long, dark, frightful night.

They saw him, and they touched him, this new creation, and then they began their proclamation, the proclamation of the church that has continued on ever since and continues on this very night, across the whole earth, and in this very room.  The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, of new life and new creation continues on in our lives of service, of prayer, of conversation, and love.  The proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection continues on in each person who is baptized in his name.

The act of cleansing, of washing away darkness and following in Jesus’ light is an act of proclamation that the tomb is empty.  Blood, and death, and decay have been washed away and transformed into new earth, new life, new light.  That is what we are here to do tonight, to continue the proclamation, that God has taken the darkness of the world and said once again, “Let there be light,” for the tomb is empty, and Jesus is risen.

Friday, April 14, 2017

So, I Tend to Be Kinda Grouchy

Brad Sullivan
Maundy Thursday, Year A
April 13, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

So, I Tend to Be Kinda Grouchy

I tend to be kinda grouchy.  There’s my Good Friday confession a little bit early. 

So this has been for me a fantastic Lent.  Lent is generally my favorite time of year because it’s this time of year when we get to be more intentional than usual in seeking help from God in some aspect of life, or we seek to give something up so we can further our dependence on God, and this Lent I had not come up with anything to give up by the first Sunday of Lent.  Ash Wednesday came and went, and I was thinking, “I don’t know.  I don’t eat much chocolate so that’s not going to do much…” 

Then I was talking to a Gentleman on the morning of the first Sunday of Lent, and he was talking about how Lent had been great.  He had this laundry list of things he had given up.  We’re talking chewing tobacco, coffee, alcohol, every coping mechanism a person could have, and he had gotten rid of all of them, and so I was thinking, “That’s gotta stink…,” but it had been a fantastic Lent for him because every time he started thinking about, “I really want this, or I really want that,” he took it as an opportunity to pray.  So, he was loving it, because it was this constant drawing nearer to God that he got to have.  I was thinking, “Thank you!  That should have been obvious, but thank you, and that’s what I’m going to do now.”

So, I decided to give up being grouchy for Lent.  There was one night when I was angry and upset, and it wasn’t really about my life, it was listening to the news and hearing about all the awful stuff and getting so incensed about all the bad things in the world and finally saying, with tears streaming down, “God, I cannot take this anymore.  Please get rid of this.  Get rid of this anger.  Get rid of this overreaction to everything.  I don’t want it anymore; I’m done with it,” and he took it. 

It was gone, and I felt fantastic.  I was less grouchy, less grumpy.  I had a greater capacity to be a loving person.  That has been my Lenten practice for the rest of Lent.  Every time I start getting agitated, or worried, or upset about something, I stop, and I pray, “God, please take this from me.  I don’t want to deal with it.  I can’t deal with it.  Please take this from me.”  Then I can go about and deal with whatever was getting me upset in a much more loving way. 

So it has been a fantastic Lent, and I offer that story because we’re coming to the end of Lent.  We’re starting what’s known as the Tridium, the three days, and Maundy Thursday as we’re remembering our abandonment of Jesus at the end of this service.  We’re remembering, tomorrow, the crucifixion of Jesus and the horrors of humanity.  Talk about grouchy, here was a guy loved people far too much for humanity to allow him to live, and so we’ll be remembering just how huge our capacity for atrocities and darkness is. 

Jesus knew that was coming, so he gave his disciples this new commandment, and knowing full well his disciples’ and our capacity for darkness, his final commandment was not a warning against darkness.  His final commandment was not, “Guys, try not to be terrible jerks to each other.” 

His final commandment was “Love one another.  Even as I have love you, love one another,” which tells me that despite our capacity for darkness, Jesus knows that we have a capacity for love, and not just a capacity for love, we have every bit as large a capacity for love as he does.  He didn’t say, love one another kinda like, near to how I have loved you.  He said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” 

We were made in God’s image.  Jesus was fully human.  So, every bit as much the capacity for love that Jesus has, so do we have.  That is what he left his disciples with on the night that he knew they were going to leave.  Amidst all of the darkness of the world, amidst all of the darkness that was to come, he wanted them to remember and to live out their capacity for love. 

That is what I have found this Lent in asking this continual prayer of help from God, that ultimately, asking God to help us to take away the darkness leaves us free to love.  Jesus has taken care of our darkness.  He has taken it, and he asks us continually to offer it to him, so that we then may be free to live out a life of love, a life full of every bit as much love for one another as he has for us.   

Monday, April 3, 2017

We’ll never be transformed if we aren’t willing to walk into the tomb.

Brad Sullivan
5 Lent, Year A
April 2, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
John 11:1-45

We’ll never be transformed if we aren’t willing to walk into the tomb.

Thinking about the raising of Lazarus from the dead got me thinking about death and the fear of death, and that got me thinking about Star Wars.  To be fair, most things do, but fear of death is a recurring theme in the Star Wars saga.  In Star Wars there is something called “the Force,” an almost divine-like force that some people can tap into and use to perform great feats and do great good.  There are others who can tap into the force, but use it selfishly.  The way they use the Force is called The Dark Side, and through The Dark Side, they bring about great evil.  The tragic hero of Star Wars, Anakin, is one of these good force users, but he is particularly afraid of death and the death of those he loves.  So when he receives a vision of his wife dying, he is terrified, and he seeks the advice of the wise, old Master Yoda. 

Anakin explains this vision of death, and Yoda says, "Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin! The fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side."
"I won't let my visions come true, Master Yoda," Anakin replies.
Yoda says, "Rejoice for those around us who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy, the shadow of greed, that is."
"What must I do, Master Yoda?"  Anakin asks.
"Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose."

Sadly, Anakin didn’t really take Yoda’s advice and through his fear of death and loss, he ended up acquiring great power through The Dark Side and became an embodiment of evil, the infamous Darth Vader.  Anakin was unwilling to face the tomb, for his life and the life of those he loved, and so he became and brought about the very thing he feared.  

Now most of us aren’t going to become an embodiment of evil because of our fears, and yet Yoda’s advice still applies to us.  “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”  Jesus said something similar in his teachings about not worrying and about losing our lives.  Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will wear, Jesus taught.  “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34)  Worrying, he taught, won’t change anything or help you in any way, but it will make you afraid and miserable.  Closely tied to not worrying was Jesus’ teaching about our lives.  He taught us to let go of that which we fear to lose.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus said,  “and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

How much of our time is spent, like Anakin, “sensing the future”, worrying about some possible future catastrophe?  How much of our resources are spent trying to stave off death?  We fear, we worry, and we take actions that are guided by our fear and our worry of death and loss, and those actions usually bring about greater death and loss. 
Jesus would prefer that we let go of that which we fear to lose and trust instead in him.  That’s what he showed us in his raising of Lazarus from the dead.  When Lazarus was deathly ill, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus, and Jesus apparently had every intention of healing Lazarus, but only after he died first, right?  Jesus waited around and let Lazarus die before he healed him, and he did so for two reasons:  one so that people could see that he, that God, has power even over death, and two because it was very important to Jesus that people believe in him.

Jesus waited around till Lazarus was good and dead before deciding to go to see him in Bethany “so that [he], the Son of God [would] be glorified through [Lazarus’ death and being raised from the dead].”  See, just before this story, Jesus had been in Jerusalem and had given sight to a man who was born blind, a miracle so great that no one had ever heard of anything like that ever happening before.  Many who did not see Jesus actually perform this miracle, however, did not believe that Jesus had done this, and later, many of them even tried to kill Jesus for claiming to be God’s son. 

So, Jesus left Jerusalem, went away across the Jordan River and then received word that Lazarus was sick.  When he arrived in Bethany which was very close to Jerusalem, with Lazarus already dead, many Jews from Jerusalem were there mourning with Martha and Mary.  Ok so, we don’t know if these were the same people who tried to kill Jesus, but they were from the same place where those doubts and death threats had come.  In fact, Jesus’ disciples were afraid of going so near to Jerusalem, believing that they were going to be killed, since last time they were there, people tried to kill Jesus. 

So, Jesus returned to Bethany to show people from Jerusalem not only a healing, but to show them that he had power to raise the dead back to life.  Jesus wanted these people to believe in him.  It was important enough to Jesus that people believe in him, in fact, that he waited for Lazarus to die and risked being killed in order to show that he truly was God’s son, and those who saw believed.

So why was it so important to Jesus that people believe in him, that he would risk so much?  Because Jesus wanted to heal them too, and believing in him was the healing they needed.  They needed to believe in him who is the light and life of all creation.  They needed to believe in his power over death.  They needed to believe that his teachings were true, that they could let go of that which they feared to lose, and trust in him.  Jesus wanted them and us to believe in him because Jesus knows what our worries and fears bring us when we follow after the ways of our worries and fears. 

Ultimately, our worries and fears bring us to The Dark Side, to Darth Vader.  Consider when we don’t trust in Jesus and don’t follow in his teachings.  Times when we have been hurt and we don’t let go of that hurt, we don’t forgive, and we cause greater strife.  Times when because of our hurt and our perceived righteousness, we retaliate and cause further harm.  Consider how much suffering is caused by our epic battle with death.  How many are killed in order to protect the lives of others.  Consider the suffering caused by our battle with all kinds of death:  physical, emotional, relational, death of goals, dreams, etc.  How often do we try to stave off and prevent death at all cost, rather than accepting death and trusting our lives and our deaths with Jesus?

Trusting in Jesus, believing in him, means letting go of that which we fear to lose.  Trusting in Jesus means being willing to face the tomb, trusting in resurrection, in Jesus’ power over death.  That’s a lot of trust because even trusting in resurrection, we don’t know what’s going to happen.  Trusting in Jesus, we need to let go of that which we fear to lose and accept death in order to be transformed. 

A couple I know and gave some counseling to was limping along with their marriage basically on life support.  Their marriage was dead, but neither was willing to face that truth.  Finally, one did, but rather than simply say, “ok, let’s get divorced,” this person said plainly what their marriage had become and did raise divorce as a possibility.  That was a bit of a shock to the other.  So, together they began facing the tomb in which their marriage had gone.  They looked at what was causing the death of their marriage.  They looked at what they each of them were afraid to lose, what each of them had to place into the tomb in order for their marriage to survive.  They worked together, and they both allowed some things to die.  Some of their dreams of what they wanted their lives to be died.  Some of their visions of what they thought marriage should be died.  Through those deaths, they found new life.  Through their willingness to enter the tomb, their marriage was transformed.  They found new life, resurrection, by letting go of that which they feared to lose and entering the tomb.

See, what Jesus ultimately wants for us is transformation.  That is why it is so important to him that we listen to him and believe in him.  Jesus wants us to be transformed into light and life, and we’ll never be transformed if we aren’t willing to let go of that which we fear to lose and walk into the tomb.  If we trust in Jesus and believe in him, then we can accept and face our deaths.  We can enter the tomb and be transformed.