Monday, September 21, 2015

Like Water for Those Dying of Thirst

Brad Sullivan
Proper 20, Year B
September 20, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Mark 9:30-37

Jesus’ disciples must have been pretty darn disillusioned and disheartened by the end of today’s Gospel.  Jesus had just told them for the second time that he was going to die.  This was not long after they had failed to cast a demon out of a little boy.  “Why could we not cast out the demon?”  They asked Jesus.  He replied that the demon could only come out through prayer.  Perhaps the disciples were relying on themselves and their supposed power, rather than relying on God.

So, they’ve got this question of power and greatness already brewing.  Then, when Jesus told them that he was going to die and on the third day rise again, they still didn’t quite understand, at least not about him rising again after three days, but they did seem to understand that he would die because they seemed to be working on a succession plan.  They were arguing about who was the greatest among them, and in light of Jesus’ declaration that he was going to die, it seems that they were trying to figure out who was going to take over once Jesus was gone.  Who would be the new messiah?

They didn’t think of messiah in terms of being God’s co-eternal Son who spoke the world into existence.  They were thinking of messiah in terms of military might and a king like David to drive the Romans out and conquer everybody else.  To this, Jesus replied that they needed to be last of all and servant of all.  Welcome a child in my name, and you welcome me.  Welcome a child in my name, and you welcome God. 

Well that probably didn’t make a lot of sense to them.  We see children as wonderful, innocent, delightful, the apple of God’s eye.  We see Jesus dwelling within all of us, so if you welcome a child you welcome God, ok we get that.  I don’t think the disciples understood.  “God is all powerful and mighty,” the disciples were likely thinking, “and children are not.  How can welcoming a child be anything like welcoming God?” 

Again, they were likely looking for Jesus to be a messiah to rule through military victory.  They were wondering who among them was mighty enough to carry his mantle.  Children weren’t going to win battles or rule, and so we have the disciples’ disillusionment.  Rather than glorious victory, Jesus is telling them that the way of discipleship is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus’ crucifixion, and that welcoming the least important in their society was like welcoming God.  Was God even mighty anymore?

In thinking about Jesus’ words about the cross, his teaching that welcoming children is like welcoming God, and his steady march toward Jerusalem and crucifixion, I thought of a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah. “Love is not a victory march.  It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” 

If only following Jesus meant victory over every battle and struggle we have, but it doesn’t.  We fail, we fall short, we know defeat.  We know the cold and broken Hallelujah that comes in those moments.  As Jesus’ disciples, we don’t always choose or even seek victory.  We seek to serve, to heal, to restore the brokenness of the world.  We seek to love, but love is not a victory march. 

Love, Jesus teaches comes from being like children.  If you want to be great, Jesus said, then be least of all.  Children were least of all, and yet he taught that welcoming a child was like welcoming God. 

Children love unreservedly.  They’ll abandon what they’re doing when they see someone they love in order to run over to that person, sometimes shouting with delight.  Children trust.  When children love and trust their parents, it takes a lot for them to lose that trust, far less than it takes adults to lose our trust in people.  Children also forgive.  They’ll be terribly upset with another kid one minute and playing joyfully with that same kid the next. 

You really want to be great and mighty, Jesus was telling his disciples, then forget about power and might.  Greatness in God’s kingdom comes from loving deeply and unreservedly.  Risk opening your heart to others, opening your heart to love.  Love is not a victory march.  Love is risky.

To love another person means that we might not be loved back. It means letting ourselves be naked and vulnerable to another person.  Letting our hearts and our souls be bare to someone else and knowing full well that we might get hurt.  That is the risk of relationship.  We know how to hurt those we love.  We know just what to say to our spouses to tear them down. We know the things that our children fear and the things that will break their hearts.

Every day we make a choice to go out into the world either letting our heart be vulnerable or hiding it away.  Hiding it away is safer and easier, but it is also not taking the risk of being loved back.  Not taking the risk of letting someone else cherish us, is a life that lacks the depth of love that God intends for us to live.  Risk love in this world, and live God’s kingdom.

If you really want to be great and mighty in God’s kingdom, then trust in God.  You may have felt let down before when things didn’t turn out the way you wanted them to.  You may have felt the sting of a cold and broken Hallelujah, but continue to trust in him.  Trust in God doesn’t mean we trust him to make outcomes happen how we want them to.  That’s not trusting God.  That’s directing God, something we’ve all probably done at times.  Trusting in God means we don’t necessarily know the outcome, and choose to put our trust and faith in God anyway, realizing we are little children, and he is God. 

If you really want to be great and mighty in God’s kingdom, then forgive, over and over.  Forgive people.  Forgive yourself.  Offer forgiveness like water to people dying of thirst for our brokenness kills us every bit as surely as lack of water.  In the marriage ceremony, we have a prayer for the couple which can really apply for everyone and anyone.  “Make [our lives] together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair. 

Risk love, trust, and forgiveness, Jesus told his disciples. Risk facing the cross.  It may not be a victory march.  It may be a cold and broken Hallelujah, but it is a Hallelujah nonetheless.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

We've Got More than Enough for the Dogs Under Our Table

Brad Sullivan
Proper 18, Year B
September 6, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Jesus didn’t want to heal a little girl who was possessed by a demon simply because she wasn’t Jewish.  That’s a hard point for us to accept, and this is a difficult passage to wrestle with.  Many have said that Jesus was just testing the Syrophoenician woman’s faith, and that he really intended to heal the woman’s daughter all along, but that doesn’t really seem to follow the story. 

Jesus had traveled north of Israel to the region of Tyre.  This was gentile country, and the woman is named as a gentile.  There was no reason to test her faith.  I think we can take Jesus’ dismissal of the woman on face value.  “Let the children be fed first,” Jesus said, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.”  I was sent for Israel, Jesus told her and that’s not you.  Jesus didn’t want to heal the woman.  She wasn’t his problem.  Don’t ask me to heal you, Jesus was saying, have your little demigod idol thing heal you. 

Then, Jesus healed her anyway.  Jesus dismissed and insulted her, and the woman does not respond with anger, but takes his insult because her love for her daughter was greater than her pride.  I think in that moment Jesus saw this woman’s humanity.  No longer was she a gentile who wasn’t his problem.  She was a woman and a mother who loved her daughter. 

I don’t think that’s sinful on Jesus’ part.  He likely grew up being told that the gentiles were not their people and not their problem.  So, that’s probably what Jesus believed.  Then he met the Syrophoenician woman and realized that she was part of humanity.  No longer was she not his problem, and no longer was he here only for Israel, but for all mankind.

There has been an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria which has been growing since the uprising in 2011 aimed at ousting president Assad.  Since then, civil war has engulfed the country, both sides have targeted civilians and used them as shields, and the self-proclaimed Islamic state has taken territory and begun their brutal tactics of maiming and killing Christians, Muslims, and anyone else they deem unworthy. 

This has left over 11 million people displaced from their homes, and over 4 million Syrian refugees have fled the country, seeking asylum in surrounding nations and even up into Europe.  The crisis of refugees has caught the world’s attention recently because of pictures of little children who died trying to escape, their bodies washing up on the shores of Greece.  Folks leaving Syria said it was worth the risk because they were dead there anyway. 

This may seem like it’s not our problem.  It’s a world away.  There are so many people here who are in need.  Why give our help and our prayers to folks fleeing Syria when there’s so much to do here?  It’s not our problem, but then like Jesus with the Syrophoenician woman, we eventually see their humanity and realize it is our problem.  They are people, and as Body of Christ, we are called to seek and serve Christ in all persons.  We’ll also find, as Jesus did, that there is more than enough help to go around. 

After Jesus healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, he healed a deaf man in the largely gentile region of the Decapolis, just east of Israel.  We don’t know if this man was Jewish or Gentile.  Maybe it didn’t matter anymore.  Jesus healed him.  Not long after that, Jesus multiplied food so that from enough for a couple of people he fed 5000 people.  There was plenty of food to go around and plenty of food left over, crumbs enough for all the dogs under the children’s table. 

While believing himself to be limited in his mission, Jesus found that his mission was not limited only to Israel, and he found that he had more than enough healing to go around.  As Jesus’ body, we too have more than enough to go around.  The Syrian people are fleeing the threat of death from three different armies in their country, each of which have shielded themselves behind civilians and targeted civilians.  We have more than enough to help people this humanitarian crisis, which is one of the worst we’ve seen.    

We can give to organizations like World Vision who are helping to provide food and shelter for Syrians fleeing their country.  We can petition our government to allow more refugees into America.  We can learn more about the crisis and learn about other ways to help.  We can pray for the people of Syria, the refugees, those taking them in, and those in danger of dying during their travels. 

Perhaps more than pray for them a few times, we may still not really want to do much to help.  There’s too much to do here.  It’s not our problem, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.  We may want to do more to help here instead, but there’s no reason why we can’t do both.  As Jesus found after he healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, he still had plenty left to heal a deaf man and then feed 5000 people with 5 loaves of bread and two fish.  We may just find that if we give help to Syrian refugees, that there’s also a deaf man who needs healing here, or 5000 people who need food. 

We have more than enough healing and resources to go around, and like Jesus, we find that people half a world away are our problem because they are human beings made in God’s image, and through Jesus, we have more than enough love to give and we have more than enough help to give.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Deep, Honoring, Passionate Love

Brad Sullivan
Proper 17, Year B
August 30, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”  We got to hear from the Song of Solomon today, a series of poems and writings of passionate, unabashed love, the kind of love experienced between a newly married couple on their honeymoon and a long-married couple for whom that passion and unabashed love remains.  Interestingly, God is nowhere mentioned in the entire book of Song of Solomon.  Many in the church have tried to allegorize Song of Solomon to make it about Jesus’ love for the church, and that’s a valid interpretation, God’s passionate love for humanity. 

If we stop there, however, and don’t allow this book also to be about what it truly is, a writing about passionate love between people, we’d be missing out on some of the beauty of this writing and the beauty of the love we have as passionate, sexual people.  Passionate love and even sexual desire that men and women feel for each other is part of the image of God in which we were made, and ask any newlywed, it’s a good thing. 

The lovers in Song of Solomon in the passage we heard today are so in love, that once they are together, everything in the world seems beautiful.  It’s spring time.  There are flowers and turtledoves, figs ripe on the vine.  There are beautiful scents in the air, sounds of birds chirping, not a mosquito around, and it seems as if all creation was put there by God just for the love and enjoyment of the two of them. 

I’d venture to say that a lot of us have had those feelings of being so in love that it feels like every sunrise and sunset were given by God just for you and your beloved.  Beautiful, blissful creation that is made by God and given for the enjoyment of just two people who are passionately and unabashedly in love sounds an awful lot like the Garden of Eden. 

Far from sinful, the passionate love the man and woman in this passage helped them love creation more.  They seem at peace with the world, as though the love they have for each other is going to pour out onto the world around them.  Passionate and unabashed love is far from sinful, far from anything to be ashamed about.  Passionate and unabashed love is our Edenic state, how God made us to be, part of the image of God in which we were made. 

How do we then get from the good joy and beauty of the passionate love seen in the Song of Solomon to the church sometimes in our history teaching that sex is basically wrong and bad; in a marriage it’s ok, but even then, kinda questionable?  Well, as we are no doubt aware, our desires can sometimes run amuck. 

Desire run amuck is largely what Jesus is talking about when he lists some of the evil intentions that can come from the human heart:  fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  These are basically desire run amuck, desire for things and people, desire for people as things, without regard those people.  Jesus’ list of vices are all ways that people gratify their own desire, regardless of the cost to others. 

Fornication is sex for personal gratification, without truly honoring and deeply loving yourself or the other.  It is desire run amuck.  It doesn’t really bring about that deep, passionate love for each other and for all creation, such that every sunrise and sunset is made just for those two people.  I very much doubt that when someone steals something that they really want, that they suddenly notice the beauty of the flowers and the chirping birds, the love and beauty of creation surrounding and blessing them.

From the beginning, when Adam and Eve decided they desired a piece of fruit more than they desired God and each other, our sin, our missing the mark, has been our desire run amuck, when we have desired things and even people as things more than we have desired true, deep, passionate love for God and each other.  True, deep, passionate love not only desires the other, but also honors the other, and when we have that true, deep, passionate, mutual love that not only desires but honors, then all of creation sings. 

Such passionate mutual love that not only desires but also honors is a lot of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to bring about.  That’s in rather sharp contrast to the Pharisees and the Scribes being angry at Jesus because he and his disciples didn’t follow the traditions of the elders in not washing their hands appropriately.  These traditions of the elders were oral tradition based on the laws of Moses.  These traditions were intended to help people remember their deep honoring and love of God.  They just don’t seem to have been overly effective and were certainly not worth getting angry over. 

We have a lot of traditions in the Episcopal Church too, intended to help us draw near to the mystery of God, and open our hearts to God’s passionate love for us.  Some of us follow and understand these traditions really well, and some of us don’t.  Over the years, I’ve known folks would be absolutely incensed if one of the rituals and traditions in our worship didn’t go quite right.  They loved worship and traditions so much that they were angry at people when the worship and traditions didn’t go quite right.  How many parents have I talked to, fearful because their children made noise and were fidgety during church?  I tell them time and again, be not afraid.  Children can be kinda noisy and fidgety, and here in worship is where they belong. 

As Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees and the Scribes, being angry with people because traditions and worships don’t go quite right is rather backwards.  Our traditions and worship are meant to help us love each other and love God with ever greater passion, not the other way around.

We were made to see each other and all creation as beloved of God, and not just beloved, but deeply, passionately desired by, honored, and beloved of God.  We were made to see God, creation, and each other, through the eyes of newlywed lovers, so passionately desirous for each other, that all the world is beautiful.  We were made to live the passionate, desirous, honoring love which we heard in the Song of Solomon.  “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”  Amen.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Yes, God Does Want Us to Be Happy

Brad Sullivan
Proper 16, Year B
August 23, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Why did so many of Jesus’ disciples leave him when he told them they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood?  Perhaps some thought that was kinda gross, taking him a little too literally.  Others, perhaps knew what he was talking about and didn’t want to put in the time and effort. 

Jesus talked about the manna from heaven which Israel ate during their 40-year journey in the desert after the exodus from Egypt, and when Jesus mentioned that, some of his listeners started to get a hint that following Jesus was not a one and done kinda deal.  They didn’t get to be baptized by John, follow Jesus, and be fed every day with miraculous loaves and fishes from Jesus.  That’s not the bread he was talking about when he said eat my flesh and drink my blood.  It’s not like the manna; it’s not simply getting a miraculous physical meal every day. 

Jesus had just fed the 5000 with the 5 loaves and 2 fish, so for a minute there, it seemed to some of the disciples that if they followed Jesus, they wouldn’t have to work anymore, wouldn’t have to strive or put forth effort.  Stick with Jesus, and we’ll get food. 

So, when they realized he wasn’t a vending machine giving out free lunches, they left.  What they missed was that they could work in their daily jobs and laboring for physical food, but they couldn’t work in their daily jobs for the food Jesus was offering.  They could only get that food through Jesus, and while unearned, the food Jesus was offering did come with the cost of discipleship.  The twelve knew that cost and still stayed by Jesus’ side, because they knew who he was and they wanted the bread that he was offering them.  "Lord, to whom can we go?”  Peter said.  “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

The twelve understood the words of Psalm 84, which we prayed this morning:
For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room,*
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;
No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.
O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!
Psalm 84:9-12
Happy are they who put their trust in Jesus.  We hear cost of discipleship, and it may sound like a rather less than joyful affair.  Cost and discipleship are not particularly happy words, and yet, “happy are they who put their trust in Jesus.” 

Paul seemed rather happy in his letter to the Ephesians.  He was in prison at the time that he was writing the letter, jailed because he was a disciple of Jesus.  That is something we fortunately don’t have to worry about, but for Paul, even in prison, he seemed joyful and happy in his love for Jesus.  His love for Jesus is what got him imprisoned, and yet he called his love for Jesus armor.   

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  

Darkness, hard times, the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Amidst all of the swirling darkness around us which we know is there, armor up, Paul tells us.  Armor up in your discipleship of Jesus, and be not afraid, but happy. 

What does this happiness look like, well, it varies, but I’d say it isn’t the happiness that comes from the acquisition of stuff.  There was the wealthy man who had many things, and he wanted the happiness of the kingdom of heaven.  When Jesus told him to sell his stuff, the man went away sad.  His stuff didn’t bring him the happiness his soul was longing for, and yet he still trusted in his stuff to bring him the happiness for which he longed, and Jesus looked at him with pity and said, “how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” 

How hard it will be for those who seek happiness in stuff to receive the happiness for which their souls are longing, the happiness that comes through abiding in, trusting in, and following Jesus.  I think of the happiness of my kids when they get a new toy.  It makes them happy for a while, but not for long.  Even if it’s a cool toy and the play with it, they don’t get continual soul-deep happiness from a toy.  Now a cuddling hug from their mom, that comes a lot closer.  As a child longs for his mother’s arms, so long our souls for God. 

We have relationship and discipleship with our parents, with those who love and raise us.  A child loving and being loved by his mom is a life-long journey and relationship.  So too, abiding in Jesus is not just a quick fix.  To eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood, we must abide in him, follow him, trust in him.  Eating Jesus flesh and drinking his blood is not a pit stop. It is continual driving and striving.  A long road of discipleship, studying and taking seriously Jesus’ teachings.  Staying in community with our fellow Christians, making sacrifices to do so. 

Eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood is a long and often a difficult road of discipleship.  He promises us that it will be difficult, that people may hate, revile, exclude, tell lies about us.  Does God even want us to be happy?  Absolutely he does.  That’s why he sent Jesus to us. 
Discipleship is a difficult road at times, and sometimes it’s not so difficult, but in all times “happy are they who put their trust in Jesus.”  Amen.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Food for Our Souls, Not Our Minds

Brad Sullivan
Proper 15, Year B
August 16, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

“[Lord] Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.  Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”  These words are from Eucharistic Prayer C, the third option of Eucharistic Prayer in our Rite II, modern language liturgy.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, instituting the sacrament of his body and blood in remembrance of him.  This was just before he went to the cross and died, a meal that we would eat for the forgiveness of our sins. 

In John’s Gospel, a meal is not mentioned at the end of Jesus’ life, but in the middle of his ministry.  Jesus talks about eating his body and blood, the bread which came down from heaven, after he had just fed the 5000 with the loaves and fish.  They were no longer physically hungry, and yet Jesus knew they were still spiritually famished.  They needed a different meal, spiritual sustenance, not just to prepare for the end, but for their whole lives.  We consume Jesus, take him into ourselves, and have him become a physical and spiritual part of us so that we can journey through this life, so that we can work for the Gospel, not for solace only, but also for strength; not for pardon only, but also for renewal. 

While countless Christians eat this meal every week, we can never really consider it to be routine, and certainly not mundane.  We come here for an encounter with the divine, the creator of all that is.  The enormity and power of that cannot be overstated.  Then, at Jesus’ invitation, we are bold enough to eat his flesh and blood in word and sacrament.  The enormity and power, and even audacity of that action cannot be overstated. 

I wonder if we’re not always aware of the enormity of what we’re doing when we come here.  We come for an encounter with God, asking his to take part in our lives, possibly not even really ready for him to say “yes”.  Author Annie Dillard writes about Christianity and her faith, and in Teaching a Stone to Talk, wrote about the enormity of what we’re doing here at the Eucharist.
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.  For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Kids mixing up a bunch of TNT.  God just may draw us out to where we can never return, may call us to follow and convict us so strongly, that the whole trajectory of our lives may change.  Considering the danger to our comfort and routine, one might wonder why we risk coming here at all.  I think the answer is shown in how Jesus spoke about us eating his flesh.  He talked about us eating his flesh, but the word he used did not describe a dainty eating of a nice, easy meal.  The word he used for eat connotes a ravenous ripping and chewing, the kind of eating done by someone who hasn’t eaten in two weeks.

Jesus is emphasizing the hugeness of our spiritual hunger.  He knows how much we need his life within us.  He knows how ravenous our souls are for him.

We don’t look particularly ravenous when we come here do we?  We’re sitting nicely, listening as we partake of the first part of this meal, the reading and hearing of scripture.  Jesus is the Word of God which spoke creation into existence.  So in the first part of our worship, we hear the Word of God proclaimed through scripture.  This is a meal in and of itself, an eating of Jesus’ flesh, for as Jesus said, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  We are fed by the reading of scripture and the hearing of God’s word.

Then, in the second part of our meal, we are fed by the bread and wine, the flesh and blood of Jesus.  Considering the enormity of what is happening in this meal, I can’t help but note the neat and orderly way we approach the table for Eucharist, for a meal that Jesus says we are starving for.  It seems we would be clamoring pell-mell to the table if realized our hunger.  I realize our orderly approach is also out of reverence and awe, and I’m really glad we don’t knock each other out of the way to get to the Altar Rail and receive communion. 

Jesus tells us we are starving for this meal, but he doesn’t really tell us how this meal works.  In John’s Gospel, he doesn’t even give us instructions for how to eat his flesh at all.  He simply says to do so, and he tells us what we receive in eating the meal of his flesh and blood.

We receive Eternal life – God’s life within us.  We receive life everlasting, living forever with God.  We receive a dwelling of God within us, abiding with God in Jesus.

We don’t know exactly how that works.  Jesus didn’t say, and we don’t need to know.  For a lot of parents, it is important that their children know what is going on in the Eucharist before they eat the Eucharist.  I always encourage parents to let their kids have communion as soon as they are baptized.  While none of us fully understand, kids do seem to understand almost instinctively.  This is not an everyday meal we share.  This is something else, something special.  It is a mystery, and it is a joining with God and each other.

As physical food goes, there’s not much to it, not much that would have a kid think “I just got a yummy snack.”  As food for our souls, however, this meal is enormous, and a meal which children seem to absolutely get in their souls, if not in their minds.  It is a meal, after all for our souls, and not for our minds.  We share this meal, we feast on Jesus’ flesh and blood, and he promises us life eternal, abiding with him forever…strength for the journey now, and life everlasting when our journeys have ended.  It is a meal for the ravenously hungry, who are bold enough to take this meal, to risk joining with God, being strengthened by him, and following where he leads.  Amen.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

"We Want to Hear More." The Gospel of Jesus (rather than the dangerous, false gospel so often preached)

Brad Sullivan
Proper 12, Year B
July 26, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

I had a wonderful week on our mission trip last week.  We were divided into groups, and my team spent our days digging post holes for fences with Habitat for Humanity through some of the rockiest soil I’ve ever seen.  Hard work, but very gratifying, and the youth were great, working hard, cheerful, and loving being there.

We also spent each night in worship and had time with our work crews to discuss questions that the preacher gave.  Some in my group had other questions about our faith, so we got together after dinner on Thursday along with several other youth, the other adult from our group, and we had this great conversation of faith.

One thing kept coming up during this conversation which I finally addressed to the group.  The kids kept asking about whether this group or that group would be going to hell.  I finally said, “guys, who goes to heaven and who goes to hell”, that’s not really the gospel.

Gospel of Jesus can’t be summed up as, “believe in Jesus or go to hell.” 

If it were that simple, I think Jesus would have stated it that simply.  Having showed his signs, having multiplied food in the sight of 5,000 people, I think Jesus would have simply told the people, “I am the co-eternal Son of God through whom all the world was made.  Believe that fact or go to hell when you die.” 

Jesus didn’t say that, and I don’t think the Gospel is as simple as that. 

“Believe in Jesus or go to hell” is not the Gospel.  These youth were not a part of churches in which such a gospel was taught, and yet that is what they had gleaned from what they had heard, maybe from popular Christianity.  There certainly is a lot of “believe in Jesus or go to hell” out there for people, young and old, to latch onto, but “believe in Jesus or go to hell” is not the Gospel.

Restoration of creation, repentance & forgiveness, reconciliation, love, unity with God – that is the Gospel of Jesus.

Look at the problem Jesus came to fix.  In the beginning of creation, Adam and Eve walked with God.  They were naked and unashamed.  We were made to be in deep, openhearted relationships with one another, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh relationships.  We were made to be fully our true selves with God and with each other, without fear, naked and unashamed, walking together in unity and love.

When we disobeyed God, what was the immediate consequence?  Before even the punishment that God gave, we felt shame, and we hid from each other and we hid from God.  The immediate consequence of our disobeying God was disconnection from God and disconnection from each other. 

That is what Jesus came to restore, our deep open heart to open heart relationships with God and with each other.  When Jesus had the 5000 people sit down together on the grass, he took 5000 disparate people, and he had them eat a meal together.  He had them do what family and friends do together.  He gathered up 12 baskets full of bread from the 5 loaves and 2 fish.  12 baskets for 12 tribes of Israel.  Jesus was showing the people that he came to restore them and make them whole. 

Jesus was God who had become human.  He united humanity and divinity, even closer than they were united in Eden.  That was the restoration Jesus came to bring.  We were made to be united to God, united to the creator of all life, goodness, and love.  Jesus united humanity and divinity so that we may be forever united to God.  Jesus brought us back to our original Edenic state. 

Believe in Jesus or go to hell?  That is a farce, a perversion of the Gospel, and a dangerous one at that.  I know people who have believed in Jesus, but also doubted, and because of their doubts, been told by members of their church that they are going to hell.  As a result, they have stopped believing in Jesus at all.  “Believe in Jesus or go to hell” is what many preachers preach, and what many young people hear.  It is short, easy, simple, and leaves no room for doubt.  Children and youth who are taught this version of the Gospel, therefore, will easily and readily declare who is going to hell based on their doubts or questions, and by doing so, they drive people away from Jesus. 

The young people I spoke to have likely not had preachers tell them, “believe in Jesus or go to hell,” and yet that dangerous perversion of the Gospel is so prevalent that they had still gleaned it as their basic summation of the Gospel. 

The gospel of Jesus cannot and must not be mistakenly summed up as “believe in Jesus or go to hell.”  Doing so breeds fear, shame, and disconnection…everything Jesus came to heal us from.  Think about the evangelism that goes with it…making people feel afraid enough or feel badly enough about themselves that they will turn to Jesus.

That’s what advertising agencies do!  Women are bombarded with images of airbrushed women, tacitly being told that if they don’t fit into a similar body-type, that there is something wrong with them.  Women are marketed and sold make up, tacitly being told that their faces are not worthy of being seen, without makeup covering them entirely, all so they can buy stuff from these companies.  How terrible.

Men are made to believe by advertising and marketing that unless they are muscular, chiseled, great smelling and uber-masculine, they are not worthy as human beings.  All so they can buy stuff from the very companies making them feel badly about themselves.  How terrible.

The false gospel of “believe in Jesus or go to hell” evangelizes in the exact same way as companies trying to sell us stuff by making us feel badly about ourselves.  They make us believe we are wicked and worthless sinners, destined only for eternal torment, unless we assent to or believe in the fact of Jesus’ divinity.  How terrible.  There is no good news there. 

We are unquestionably flawed – we make bad decisions which hurt ourselves and others.  We sin.  The gospel of Jesus offers us forgiveness, guidance, new direction, and a new life so that we don’t have to be defined by our bad decisions.  We don’t have to be defined by our sins, but are defined as beloved children of God…children who need guidance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.  Jesus, the good shepherd, offers us those things.  Like the 5000 people, Jesus fed, Jesus knows we are hungry too, for guidance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love, and he would never leave us unfed.

That is the gospel of Jesus.

The God of all the universe united himself perfectly to us by becoming human in the person of Jesus.  Jesus brings us back to Eden where we may be naked and unashamed before God and where we may be naked an unashamed before each other.  Jesus told his disciples when we walked on the water, “do not be afraid.”  “It is I[, the creator of the universe]; do not be afraid.”

What two things do we generally fear more than anything else?  Death, and disconnection.  We fear death, and we fear being disconnected from others.  We fear being rejected by others, being the target of gossip, being on the outside, not worthy of others’ love.  Amidst all this fear, Jesus says, “It is I[, the creator of the universe]; do not be afraid.”

Jesus came to restore our connection to God so that we might also live wholehearted, connected lives with each other, once again being naked and unashamed, living open heart to open heart connection with each other, and seeking repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation in order to do so.  Jesus also came to show us that we needn’t fear death because our lives continue on after we die.  We get to keep on living with God in Christ.  Even after our bodies have died, we get to return to Eden. 

That is the Gospel of Jesus.

When I said this to the young people on that mission trip, their faces seemed to say that their minds were blown, and they sat there saying, “we want to hear more.  Can we skip Eucharist.”  We were about to go have Eucharist, and I said, “no, we can keep the conversation going later, but we’re not going to break communion in order to do that.  We’re going to join with the whole body and have communion together.  That is also the Gospel of Jesus.

Our young people, and people of all ages need to hear the Gospel of Jesus, not a false perversion of it.  We all need to go out there and preach this Gospel.  Preaching in this case, was a conversation, it wasn’t on a street corner.  We need to tell people the good news of Jesus, not the scary, manipulative false advertising that is so often mistaken for the Gospel.

Let us pray.  Almighty God and Father, we pray that Jesus may dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. We pray that we may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God, for that is the Gospel of Jesus.  Amen.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Armor & Sword

Brad Sullivan
Proper 11, Year B
July 19, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The people in Jesus’ day flocked to him.  They went running around a lake to reach him, and thronged to him in the marketplace.  He called them sheep without a shepherd, and we saw last week what their shepherds were like.  Herod had an innocent man killed so he would look powerful in front of his friends.  The Pharisees and other religious leaders demanded perfection regarding religious practice, but they didn’t help regular people connect to God while living their normal, everyday lives.  People flocked to Jesus and fought to be near him.

Why are so many not flocking to Jesus now?  Folks don’t seem to be getting healed of physical infirmities like they once were.  Physical healing is not needed as badly as it once was, we have doctors for much of that healing.  We still need healing from Jesus, however, healing from depression, disconnection, over-stretched lives, unending pull of the next thing.  Perhaps people don’t flock to Jesus nowadays because they aren’t sheep without a shepherd, but sheep with too many shepherds. 

For some, money and defining success and self worth through money is their shepherd.  Some find leisure activities to be their shepherd, with such a strong need to unwind and relax.  Self improvement can be a shepherd, “be your best self now.”  There are a huge variety of activities which promise the world to those who participate.  A lot of them offer good morals and to build good character.  In popular Christianity the church offers a kind of one and done baptism.  Once you’re baptized, you’re kinda done.  You get to go to heaven, so you don’t need to worry about anything else.  What else then, does the church offer in popular Christianity?  It offers good morals and good character. We’ll, if folks think they can get that playing soccer, then what’s the point of church?   

We have too many shepherds, and we’ve ended up with a lot of people who have forgotten the point of our life together in the church.  If all it is, is good morals and character, then people can get that elsewhere from all the other shepherds. 

These activities needn’t be in competition with the church, but it is a struggle.  It is a struggle to come to Jesus.  It is hard to break the hold of our other shepherds.  We have commitments which we don’t want to break.  We don’t want to break our word.  It’s tough. 

We also have our baptismal covenant, the commitment we made to live together as disciples of Jesus, to raise each other up, to teach our children to follow Jesus, to live as disciples of Jesus, to raise each other up, to teach and follow the ways of Jesus, our ways as Episcopalians, to be here for worship and Eucharist.

Many of the other activities and things we follow (other shepherds) are good things in and of themselves.  They seem like armor protecting us from boredom, disconnection, getting into trouble, allowing us to unwind, enjoy life, etc.  Many, when they end up excluding our communal faith and connection to God, however, become swords which leave us even more exhausted.  Our other shepherds, the armor we carry, become swords which harm us.

Music: Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson
Lyrics: Neil Peart

The snakes and arrows a child is heir to, Are enough to leave a thousand cuts
We build our defenses, a place of safety, And leave the darker places unexplored

Sometimes the fortress is too strong Or the love is too weak
What should have been our armor Becomes a sharp and angry sword
Our better natures seek elevation, A refuge for the coming night
No one gets to their heaven without a fight

We hold beliefs as a consolation, A way to take us out of ourselves
Meditation, or medication, A comfort, or a promised reward

Sometimes that spirit is too strong Or the flesh is too weak
Sometimes the need is just too great For the solace we seek
The suit of shining armor Becomes a keen and bloody sword

No one gets to their heaven without a fight, A refuge for the coming night
A future of eternal light.  No one gets to their heaven without a fight

Confused alarms of struggle and flight, Blood is drained of color
By the flashes of artillery light.  No one gets to their heaven without a fight
The battle flags are flown At the feet of a god unknown
No one gets to their heaven without a fight.

Sometimes the damage is too great. Or the will is too weak
What should have been our armor Becomes a sharp and burning sword

If we want to keep this life we have, then we have to fight for it.  Mostly, we need to fight within ourselves to not to be pulled by the voices of the many shepherds around us, and listen to the voice of Jesus, our one true shepherd.

As we heard from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (from Ephesians 2:11-22)

We are the Body of Christ.  We are connected to God and each other through Jesus.  We have God’s very eternal life abiding among and within us.  It is given as a gift, and yet we must fight to keep it.  We don’t fight others.  The fight is within ourselves, a war within us, as Paul says, between our spirit and our flesh, and we have many shepherds often clamoring for our attention.  We want to keep our life in Jesus.  We want to follow our one true shepherd, and we want to keep, strengthen, and grow our life together in Jesus, and we can’t do so without a fight.  Amen.