Tuesday, September 18, 2018

To Sustain the Weary With a Word

Brad Sullivan
Proper 19, Year B
September 16, 2018
Emmanuel, Houston
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-8
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

To Sustain the Weary With a Word

Years ago, when I was youth minister and assistant priest, one of the youth in the church said to me, apropos of absolutely nothing, “You shouldn’t even be paid.  All you do is talk for a living.”  She said it with a smile…I think she was joking.  We laughed.  There is a lot of talking in my job, and one thing I pointed out was, “hey, I gotta eat.”  Hopefully what I’m really doing through all this talking, is sustaining the weary with a word. 

That’s what God had Isaiah do in his years of prophesying to Judah:  sustain the weary with a word.  Judah had not yet been taken into captivity by Babylon, and Isaiah prophesied both warnings of coming captivity and promises of restoration.  Throughout Isaiah’s messages of warning and hope, there was a recurring theme of sustaining the weary with a word. 
The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people:  It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.  What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts.
Isaiah 3:13-15

One of the main problems that God had with his people was how they were treating the poor and marginalized.  ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’  The people called out.  “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers,” God responded through Isaiah.  (Isaiah 58:3)  God was not pleased with any religious sacrifice or offering while the unskilled workers were left poor and marginalized.  God was not pleased by any amount of pious devotion or faith by those in a nation in which the wealthy became rich off of the labor of the poor, and the poor did not make enough to get by. 

If it sounds like I’m getting political, talking about America, that’s what’s in Isaiah.  Isaiah was there to sustain the weary with a word, not to uphold the wealthy who kept the poor weary through low wages.  Isaiah was not about class warfare.  Neither was God.  God wasn’t telling the wealthy they had to be paupers.  He was telling them, however, that if they truly wanted to be God’s people, then they had to make for darn sure that the poor among them, the wage earners and day laborers, had more than enough to get by.  Otherwise, God said, you will not continue to be my people.  

That is the heart of God.  Don’t worry so much about pretending to love me through devotion, worship, and religion, God says.  Truly love me by making sure that the least among you has enough not to be in poverty. 
At our last diocesan council, there was talk about executive salary, and I spoke with a man who agreed wholeheartedly with Isaiah.  Years ago, this man was being paid a multi-hundred thousand dollar a year salary, and those whom he managed and oversaw were being paid not just less, but not enough.  They were struggling.  So he changed that and lowered his own salary to give substantial raises to those who worked under him.  This man didn’t talk for a living, but he did sustain the weary with a word:  the word of Isaiah, the word of Jesus which he lived out and made real in his life.

The word of Jesus that he lived out was, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  This man didn’t go hungry.  He didn’t lose his house.  He sacrificed quite a lot of luxury and convenience.  He didn’t have the lifestyle that he could have, but he had enough.  He chose to have less than the market demanded he have in order to make sure that others had what they needed.

That’s losing your life for Jesus’ sake. 

Choosing to get by with less ain’t the easiest thing in the world to do.  There are folks who will ridicule you for it.  Folks who would be made uncomfortable by it.  Choosing to get by with less so that others may have more is kind of counter to the American dream.  Work hard enough, do enough, and you can get ahead, get rich, become powerful, a captain of industry.  Choose to sacrifice your own wealth for the sake of your workers?  That’s not really in there.

“Sustain the weary with a word,” God told Isaiah, and let that word be lived out in your actions.  To be fair, everyone is weary.  Even the wealthy and powerful get weary.  We all have variations on the same brokenness inside of us:  fear, lack of trust.  From our earliest days, we all come to realize the world is often dangerous, and we can’t always trust the people around us.  Jesus understands that fear which means God shared that fear with us.  God gets it; God understands, that fear and lack of trust, our brokenness, is part of what drives us to seek power and wealth.  With enough power and wealth, we feel secure, like we don’t have to depend on untrustworthy others.  The problem is, it’s hard to get wealthy without someone down the line working for almost nothing.

If you try to save your life, you’ll lose it, Jesus said.  Give up your abundance, your excess, your luxury (which many would call “comfort”), and see to it that those who work for very little, have enough.  If you’ve got someone who works in your home or in your yard, pay them more than they ask for.  Encourage others to do the same.  Shop at businesses that pay their workers more than the minimum.  Tell businesses that don’t, that you won’t do business there.  Sustain the weary with a word.  We’re not talking charity here, we’re talking wages needed to have enough, even if the market demands less.

I keep thinking of the Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.  It’s the story of George Bailey, a businessman who owns and operates the Bailey Building and Loan.  He was hoping for a more lucrative business, but when his father died, he ended up taking over the business because the only other lender in town was a rather greedy man named Mr. Potter.  Potter charged high interest, made a lot of money, and no small amount of people were left impoverished when they were late on their loans. 
So, George Bailey continued his father’s business, making loans to folks so they could build a house, make it till the next month or the next job, and he didn’t charge high interest, and told folks who couldn’t pay him back, to do what they could when they could.

George didn’t get rich.  He helped his community.  He had a drafty old house, an old car, and enough for his wife and kids.  He’d been a man with big dreams, and was frustrated by seeing his childhood friends getting wealthy and getting ahead while he was stuck in his hometown, not getting wealthy, sometimes wondering if he was going to be ok, if they were going to have enough.  Even so, he wouldn’t let that fear drive him to get rich off of the needs of the folks to whom he loaned money.  He helped his community.  He sustained the weary with his word and actions.

Then his bumbling Uncle Billy lost a huge amount of money, and George was facing the possibility of jail time and of losing his home and business because of the missing money.  In the midst of this crisis, his wife made some calls to friends and family to let them know that George was in trouble.  Folks from all over the community came pouring into his home, bringing money to get him out of the trouble he was in, and he received a message, in inscription in a book:  “No man is a failure who has friends.” 

That’s what giving up your life for Jesus looks like.  That’s what sustaining the weary with a word looks like.  If all you do is talk for a living, if you mow lawns, if you’re a captain of industry, or anything in between, we get to sustain the weary with a word.  We get to live like George Bailey and all of his friends.  We get to encourage others to do the same, to save our lives by giving up our lives, and to sustain the weary with a word and with action.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

There Is Only We

There Is Only We
(Meditation on Mark 7:24-30 & James 2:1-10, 17)

In one of my favorite and rather troubling passages of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is met by a gentile woman who asks him to heal her daughter.  He basically calls her a dog (we all know the modern word for female dog) and says he won’t heal her daughter.  She’s one of those others, one of those gentiles, and he’s not going to waste his time with her.

She persists and pleads with him, that even if she is a dog, she’ll take whatever scraps he drops for her.  Jesus then has a change of heart.  “For saying that,” Jesus then says, “you may go - the demon has left your daughter.”

What in the world is going on here?  I thought Jesus was supposed to be without sin, and  yet here he is calling this woman a dog and refusing to heal her daughter because she is the other.  Was he testing her, as I’d often heard asserted in various efforts to defend Jesus’ actions?  Maybe, but that’s a bit too easy, to let Jesus off the hook like that.  He wouldn’t test the faith or devotion of a gentile woman, one who wouldn’t have had any faith in God in the first place.  Such notions seem like they’re just trying to defend Jesus’ goodness as God. 

Lest we forget, however, Jesus is also fully human.  As a human Jesus had to learn and grow as we all do.  He had an uncanny knowledge and wisdom of the scriptures, and we’re also told that he grew in wisdom as he grew up.  He learned as he went, as he was taught.  He might have been taught some wrong things.

Centuries ago in America, many white folks in our country believed that black Africans were not fully human but rather some lesser being.  They therefore had no problem enslaving Africans and later African Americans because they viewed them as the other.  Something else. Something lesser.  The slave owners and others in America would of course teach this view to their children, that black people were the other, were less than human.  Children grew up knowing this to be true.

Then, some of these children began having real interactions with their enslaved fellow humans, and they began to understand that what they had been taught was wrong.  They began to understand that being from a different part of the earth and having a different skin color didn’t make people less than human.  It didn’t make them other.  They were all brothers and sisters.

I don’t know if something similar happened to Jesus, but he did grow up in a society which looked down on non-Jews and referred to them as “gentile dogs.”  Jesus was likely taught that same view as a child, knowing that gentiles were beneath him. 

Then he met one, a gentile woman with a sick daughter.  A mother who loved her daughter  and would take any insult and debasement if it meant healing for her daughter.  A mother’s love, like his mother’s love.  Human, not some lesser thing.  Perhaps this is what Jesus realized in his interaction with the gentile woman, and he saw her and all gentiles not as the other, but as beloved brothers and sisters.  In John’s Gospel (10:6), Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”  Perhaps Jesus’ ministry to the gentiles and his realization that they belonged to him just as much as the people of Israel happened in this interaction with the gentile woman. 

We don’t know, but it certainly honors the full humanity of Jesus as he learned what it was to be fully human.  Being fully and truly human means there are no distinctions between us.  There is no “us” and “them.”  James points this out in his letter.  “Do you by your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” No.  In our acts of favoritism and our us vs. them mentality, we can’t really say that we do.

In the Episcopal Church, we have a bit of a history of acts of favoritism, a bit of a reputation for accepting the well to do and having some reservations for those who are less fortunate.  This reputation is somewhat justified, somewhat not, and I see us getting better.  We’re becoming more of a community of all. 

To be fair, all churches have some form of other.  Some churches won’t allow folks who believe in evolution to be a part of them, even if they also believe in creation.  Some won’t allow folks who question their faith.  If you wonder too much, then you are declared other.

A young woman I know has been questioning her faith…not really questioning her faith, just pretty sure she doesn’t believe in the faith of Jesus, and so she has been exploring other beliefs.  Now, she hasn’t been looking at one of the other Abrahamic faith, not Judaism or Islam, nor has she explored any of the more known faiths of the world, Buddhism, Hinduism.  She’s been exploring a faith that Christians would think is pretty out there.  We’ve been discussing this, and I’ve been giving some counsel, not to keep her following Jesus (I can’t and wouldn’t make her do that), but to consider well the ways and beliefs of this other faith. 

So, last Sunday, she told me that she had decided on this other faith, but she hadn’t fully converted yet, and she asked me if she could still have communion.  “Of course you can,” I said.  Nothing could prevent her from being able to join in this meal of Jesus’ body and blood.  Nothing can separate her from the love of God in Jesus Christ.  Even though she believes in a different faith, she is not the other.

We have all sorts of others in our world today.  People of different religions.  People from different countries.  Worst of all, different political parties - those damn Democrats and those awful Republicans.  We have such a propensity for declaring someone else as other, and yet Jesus shows us in his interaction with the gentile woman, that there is no actual other.

If ever there was an other, we would be the other to God.  Wholly different from God, creatures rather than creator, and yet God became human so that we are not other than God.  In becoming human in Jesus, God became one with us.

Christian, Jew, Muslim, believer, non-believer, atheist.  Republican, Democrat, American, Russian, native, immigrant.  Gay, straight, transgender, cisgender, conservative, liberal.  Black life, blue life.  There is no other.  There is only we, all of us one with God.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Choose Whom You Will Serve (Eat)

Brad Sullivan
Proper 16, Year B
August 26, 2018
Emmanuel, Houston
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Choose Whom You Will Serve Eat

“Choose whom you will serve,” Joshua said to the Israelites.  Will you serve God, or will you serve some foreign false god or idol?  Joshua had taken over leadership of Israel from Moses just before they entered the promised land after fleeing from Egypt and spending 40 years in the desert.  In today’s passage, Israel had finished settling the promised land, the territory was all divided up, so, Joshua was leading the people in renewing their covenant with God.  Choose whom you will serve. 

In the context of our Gospel reading today, I think it might be more appropriate to say, “Choose whom you will eat.”  I know; it sounds bad, but Jesus said that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him, and he abides in them.

Of course, Jesus is not talking about literal eating.  Instead of saying, “go eat Jesus,” think instead about, “having a diet” of Jesus.  If I were to say, “I have a pretty steady diet of Jimmy Fallon in the evenings,” I think you would all understand that I mean I watch the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon most evenings.  I don’t actually do that, but I needed an example that most everyone would get.  We don’t say, “I eat people,” but we do talk about having diets of a particular person’s music or writing, teachings or commentary. 

So, Jesus is telling his disciples to have a pretty steady diet of him.  Spiritual food.  Soul food.  Heart food.  Heck, even brain food. 

I tend to have problems when I choose food other than Jesus.  I tend to get frustrated pretty easily; I’ll make comments under my breath, roll my eyes, the kind of general nastiness that is terribly destructive, even if it is sometimes seen as no big deal.  Such nastiness, such disdain for another is a big deal. It reduces the beautiful, beloved humans around us to contemptuous things to be conquered.  I was reminded of this recently.  Such behavior is not the way of Jesus, and such behavior comes from eating any of a thousand things other than Jesus. 

When we’re calm and at peace with one another, in good times or in bad, it’s a good bet we’ve been feeding ourselves with Jesus.  On the other hand, when the little things leave us angry, resentful, contemptuous, it’s a good bet we’ve been eating something else.

There’s the old Cherokee proverb which says there are two wolves inside of each of us struggling for control.  One of the wolves is darkness and anger, violence and hatred.  The other wolf is light and peace, compassion and love.  Which one wins depends on which one we choose to feed.
So, how do we feed the good wolf?  How do we make a diet of Jesus?  Well, there are thousands of ways to make Jesus our soul food diet…at least 42 ways to make a diet of Jesus.  One way I made a diet of Jesus back in high school was reading scripture every night and praying just before going to sleep.  This practice filled my soul and gave me visions of what life can be. 

Paul’s words from Ephesians from a couple of weeks ago:  “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  More than good advice, more than a command to try harder and do better, these words from Paul give a vision of what life is like when we make a steady diet of Jesus.  Reading or remembering Paul’s words; putting away all anger, and wrangling, and slander; being kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving; I picture myself living those words in daily life.  I breathe Paul’s words in and let them feed my soul, feed the good wolf, and for those moments, I am what Paul describes.  My anger melts away and in its place, forgiveness, healing, and love fill my body and soul.

Scripture of one way to make a diet of Jesus.  Prayer is another:  sometimes with words, sometimes in the silence of the moment, simply being present to God in creation all around you.  Eucharist is a way to make a diet of Jesus.  Prayer and bible study with others.  Serving people around you.  Allowing people to serve you when you are in need.  Not responding to someone when angry or upset, but waiting until you are at peace so your response can honor the made in God’s image human being in front of you.  Noticing…simply noticing the lives of those around you, choosing not to be indifferent to the lives and the challenges of those around you. 

All of these and so many more are ways to make a diet of Jesus. 

See, God desires lives of peace and wholeness for each of us, and, in the realm of , “you are what you eat,” God offers himself as our soul food so that we may have lives of peace and wholeness. 

Last week in a radio interview on NPR with a young woman whose life was made whole and set on a new path when she chose to make a steady diet of Jesus.  Lulu Garcia-Navarro* was interviewing Yvonne Orji, a comedian and actress in the HBO show, Insecure, and she described her character in the show as “a beautiful mess.”  She can’t quite get life together, doesn’t have great relationships with guys, though she keeps trying, dislikes her job, and is basically struggling in a life that she doesn’t know how to manage. 

When Mrs. Orji, first got the script, she said that the character in the show was who she would have been like if she hadn’t gotten saved when she was 17.  She’d grown up as a Christian, but not necessarily making a diet of Jesus.  In college, she was planning on going kinda nuts with her newfound freedom and likely make a lot of mistakes which could have had some lifelong consequences. 

Then she went to a Bible study and heard a woman there refer to God as “Daddy.”  That seemed odd to her, calling God “daddy, but she said, “there was something so pure and passionate about [this woman’s] relationship with God that caused that to not be weird for her.”  Yvonne decided she wanted that, whatever she had to do, and she stared making a diet of Jesus.  That changed the course of her life, gave her strength and security to follow where God was directing her, which was different that what her parents wanted for her, and brought her to a place of peace and wholeness, living a life that she never imagined.

That’s what happens when we make a diet of Jesus.  Rather than the unhealthy chaos that comes from filling our souls with all the junk food out there, making a diet of Jesus brings us peace and wholeness, and even new direction, that we may never have imagined, or maybe have only imagined. 

So I leave you with an imagining, with an image of what life on a steady diet of Jesus can look like, in the words of Terri Hendrix in her song called, The Last Song.

May your peace be an anchor in stormy times.
May your hope run like a river that will never run dry.
May your burdens grow light;
May your worries subside.
This is my prayer for you.**

*          https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=639321123
**        https://terrihendrix.bandcamp.com/album/wilory-farm

Friday, August 24, 2018

"This Is My Prayer For You"

May your peace be an anchor in stormy times.
May your hope run like a river that will never run dry.
May your burdens grow light;
May your worries subside.
This is my prayer for you.

The Last Song - Track 12
Terri Hendrix

Monday, July 30, 2018

Kneeling to Jesus, to Freedom, to the Man Who Wouldn't Be King

Brad Sullivan
Proper 12, Year B
July 29, 2018
Emmanuel, Houston
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

Kneeling to Jesus, to Freedom, to the Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

I was at a teacher’s party last week with Kristin, for the teachers at her school; spouses were invited, and we actually got to see each other, which was lovely.  We were meeting at one of their houses, and the Astros game was on, so as we were talking, we’d catch glances of the game, and unfortunately, the Astros were losing to the Texas Rangers.  So at one point, the host and I were watching the game for a few minutes, and he rather sheepishly admitted to me that he was, in fact, a Rangers fan, having lived in Dallas for many years, and was rather happy with the score. 

There was no problem, but there was a hint of a possibility of a problem.  Was it ok for him to admit that he was a Rangers fan?  Was I going to get upset and offended and think less of  him?  Did his identity as a Rangers fan somehow butt against and attack my identity as an Astros fan?  No, of course not.  Except for that passing split second when it did.  So deep is our need for identity and some feeling of power and control, that even people rooting for a different team in a game in which we’re not playing, can feel a little bit like an attack.

This idea of our desire for power and control was expressed very well in the Marvel superhero movie, The Avengers.  Simplifying the plot to bare bones, you’ve got Loki, the bad guy from another world, who wants to rule over a planet and be king of an entire people, so he chooses earth.  After causing a good amount of destruction, Loki has a crowd of people before him, and he tells them all to kneel before him.  Then he grins a little triumphantly and says,

Loki:    “Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power.  For identity. You were made to be ruled.  In the end, you will always kneel.”

Captain America and Iron Man end up saving the day in that scene, but there is so much truth in that little speech and dialogue.  Our mad scramble for power, for identity.  We want to belong, and that belonging ties in with our identity.  That’s why you have people fighting with each other and getting serious, even angry and violent in speech and action over things like sports teams. 

We also desire power over the changes and chances of this life.  Millenia of war exhibit our desire for power and how we seek power over others sometimes for protection, for identity, for one group’s wrong ideology or way of life.  We do desire power over situations we don’t like or decisions with which we disagree, and in our desire to make the situation or outcome be what we want, we often respond to others with verbal and sometimes even physical violence. 

That’s what Loki did.  Then, at the end of his little speech, as Loki says, “you will always kneel,” a man stands up and says,

German Man:  “Not to men like you.

Loki:    “There are no men like me.” (Loki responds.)

German Man:  “There are always men like you.”

There are always people like Loki who seek power over others.  There are always people like Loki who seek to subjugate people or situations to their wills or desires.  If we look deep inside, those people like Loki are all of us.  We all desire power over the changes and chances of this life, and we all, in our less that wonderful moments, end up using power to get what we want in ways that cause harm or subjugate others to our wills.

Paradoxically, as much as we desire power, Loki was right that we also seek subjugation.  Most of us want people in governmental authority over us, and most of us don’t want those jobs.  There are areas in which we want power, and there are areas where we’d rather be subjugated to someone else’s power, a good ruler, and to let that person take over responsibility.

There is peace in surrender.  There is the peace of child who doesn’t have the weight of ruling over the household.  Think of Israel demanding of God a king to rule over them.  God warned them, “he is going to subjugate you under his will,” and the people responded, “that’s fine, just so long as we can have a king to rule over us.”

During Jesus’ day, Israel had a puppet king ruling over them, while Rome was actually in charge.  They didn’t like this king; things were not good under his rule or under the rule of Rome, and when people kept seeing Jesus’ power to heal, to perform miraculous works, they decided he should be king.  “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”

Jesus would not be the ruler over us in any kind of system of power and authority of this world. 

Bishop Doyle writes about Jesus’ rejection of the power and violence of the world in his book, The Jesus Heist.  He writes, “Jesus makes clear that violence is to be met with peace and nonviolence.”  “The way of the society of the friends of Jesus [is to] avail themselves of different weapons [than the weapons of this world]:  presence, conversation, and humility.”  That’s what Jesus did with people.  He had dinner with them.  He talked with people.  He was with them in their lives, joys, and struggles.  In Jesus, Bishop Doyle writes we are freed from the systems of violence and domination in this world, through unity with Jesus and conversion in him.

There is a paradox of surrendering to Jesus.  All power and authority is his, and he will not use that power and authority to subjugate us.  Jesus is not going to force and control us.  Surrender to Jesus’ power and authority is surrender to freedom in Jesus.

Freedom to love without fear.  Freedom to love others and live out the image of God in which we were made.  Freedom to let go our anger and our hurt which lead us to want control over situations and control over others:  in the board room, in our homes, at work, on the freeway.  We have freedom in Jesus to let go of our desires for control and realize, it’s ok to forsake the anger, and fear, and hurt within us, and to live love instead.

There is freedom in Jesus to accept the changes and chances of the life.  Freedom from the need for fear and violence to keep us safe and secure.  When a loving parent tucks a child in to bed at night, sometimes laying down with them as they drift off to sleep, giving them a blessing on their forehead, fears and worries slip away, and the child rests secure, knowing that all is well.  Mommy and Daddy are there.

Our surrender to Jesus is like that child with a loving parent.  In Jesus, we can rest secure and at peace, even with the changes and chances of this life. 

Back to Loki in his mad quest for power, he was right that we will always kneel to something.  Kneeling to Jesus, we kneel to one with all power and authority who chooses not to rule over us through his power and chooses not to force us to do anything at all.  Instead, we bow to kneel to Jesus, and he frees us to live and love without fear. 

As Paul wrote, “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”

Paul goes on to pray that we may have some comprehension of the vastness of the love of Jesus, so that as we kneel to him, we may be filled with the full peace and love of God, resting secure that the power of God working in us can accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine.  We kneel to Jesus and find freedom, freedom to love and live without fear.