Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Church: Jesus' Community of Love, Faith, and Grace - Not an Insitution



Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
April 24, 2016
5 Easter, Year C
Acts 11:1-18
John 13:31-35 
 
The Church:  Jesus' Community of Love, Faith, and Grace - Not an Institution

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." 

Hearing those words makes me love Jesus even more and want to follow him and trust in him.  His commandment that his disciples love one another is part of his farewell speech and prayer for his disciples before he is crucified.  Jesus knew he was going to die, and he knew he had a pretty good following.   He knew that if he chose to, he could have asked them to fight for him, and they would have done it.  They might have even kept him alive in their efforts.  Of course, some of them would have died in the process, and he loved them far too much for that, not to mention that he knew it was not God’s will. 

Rather than disobey God, rather than risk harm for those whom he loved, Jesus chose to be killed.  Not only that, but remember that Jesus had been working for years to reform people’s understanding of God, of their relationship to God, and of their relationship to each other.  He’d been working for years to show people that love, faith, and grace are at the heart of their way of life.   For the people of Israel, he didn’t abolish the law of their religion, he fulfilled it through love, faith, and grace.  For the gentiles, who were added to Jesus’ movement after his resurrection, he came to show them as well, that love for one another, faith in God, and grace given by God and accepted and re-given by us, is the way of life, the way of life abundant and life everlasting which he gives to us.

This movement of Jesus, this movement of love, faith, and grace which he had spent years working on, was just getting started as Jesus was about to be killed, and he chose to trust his movement to his fledgling disciples rather than risk their lives or take up the sword against another.  That is the Jesus whom we love, the Jesus whom we follow, the Jesus in whom we have faith, the Jesus who loves us and gives us grace that we might receive his grace and then offer it to others.

Love one another, Jesus said.  Have faith in me, and follow me even when you doubt.  Receive grace to forgive you of all your misdeeds, grace to heal you from the shame of the past, grace to offer to others just as I have offered it to you.  Such is the life and the community which Jesus gave to us.  When I think on that, on that community for which Jesus gave his life, I cannot help but love Jesus and want to continue on as his disciple.

That is what I see when I see the church, not an institution.  There is a paradigm shift in that when we can see the institution of the church as the church, but it is not.  The shift is to see us as that community of people whom Jesus loves. 
Last week, Kristin and I watched Spotlight, the best picture last year which told the story of the Boston Globe newspaper breaking the story of the immense systemic abuse of children in the Roman Catholic church.  As I was watching the movie and then thinking about what Jesus commanded his disciples, I kept thinking, "How did Jesus’ community of love, faith, and grace become an institution so powerful and corrupt that children around the world were being abused by priests for decades with almost total impunity?" 

The reasons and many and vast and would take looking at most of church history to fully understand.  Without going into centuries of church history, however, I will look at one culprit that allowed this to happen, and that is the near deification of clergy. 

Children often thought of the clergy as God, or at least as speaking for God.  Adults did about the same.  Clergy were put up on a pedestal throughout the institution of the church so much so that no one dared go against them.  The people ended up under the thumb and under the rule of the clergy, and it wasn't just the clergy's fault; the people also elevated them.  There was a partnership there in raising the clergy up so much so that the people were under the clergy's thumb, the clergy claiming the place of Jesus within the church, but in the total opposite way that Jesus led his church. 

While the clergy were elevated above who they actually were, Jesus descended.  That was Jesus' way.
Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
Over the centuries, the church began exalting their leaders so much so that when corruption and abuse became systemic, no one would stop it, because they couldn’t go against these exalted people. 

Now the abuse of children in the Roman church is one example of how far the church often can be from the community of love, faith, and grace which Jesus began.  It's a graphic example, but there are many ways that we can stray from the community of love, faith, and grace which Jesus began.  We also need to remember, lest we end up casting unfair aspersions, the Roman Catholic church is also a wonderful church which full of people and clergy of love, faith, and grace.  I brought up the abuse as a graphic example of  how divergent the church can become from the community which Jesus began.

Looking at this example, and how it happened, the exaltation of the clergy, we don't get to just point to Rome for that one either, lest we ignore the log in our eye for the sake of the speck in someone else’s; we often elevate clergy in the Episcopal Church too.  I’ve often heard that clergy are held to a higher standard of behavior than others, to which I continually counter that clergy are not held to a higher standard.  People may actually hold clergy accountable to standards of behavior to which they don’t hold themselves or others accountable, but there is not a different standard of behavior for clergy and for everyone else.  If there were, that would be an institutionalized system of ignoring the log in one’s own eye for the sake of the speck in someone else's.  Elevating the clergy, holding them to a higher standard, goes against what Jesus taught and is not the way of the community he founded. 

Jesus didn't set himself above everyone else; he descended.  He didn't set his apostles above everyone else; he said to become a servant.  Jesus’ church is not a place where we hold one another to various standards of living at all, in actuality.  Jesus' church is not a place of keeping score with one another, keeping track of sins. 

Jesus said on the cross, "It is finished."  This system of keeping track of  sins and trying to make right for our sins to God is finished.  No more sacrifices for sins.  No more tallies.  No more keeping score.  No more gospels of sin management. 

Gospel’s of sin management have often pervaded the church, people thinking that our prime purposes in the church is to do better, sin less, and get to Heaven when we die.  Even with Jesus’ help, such a Gospel basically puts Jesus in the role of a ticket puncher.  If you’ve believed in Jesus well enough and behaved well enough (even with his help), then Jesus punches your ticket and you get to go to Heaven when you die.  We'd like to add that it's not because of anything I do, it's purely because of the grace of Jesus, but then by how we talk about it, by how we live, these gospels of sin management basically make it so that you're earning your way to Heaven.  You're doing enough that Jesus will finally agree to punch your ticket.

Fortunately, that is not the gospel for which Jesus died.  That is not the gospel Jesus taught.  That is neither the faith nor the church which Jesus left his disciples.  “Love one another,” Jesus said, “that’s how they’ll know you are my disciples.”  Jesus’ command to us continues to show his love for us.  His disciples were a bunch of screw ups, if we’re being honest (if we're going to be counting sins, that is), and Jesus entrusted his church to them not in spite of their screw ups, not because they were screw ups, but completely regardless of their screw ups.  Jesus entrusted his church to his disciples because they were his beloved.  We continue as Jesus’ church simply because we are his beloved. 

We don’t raise ourselves or anyone else up in Jesus’ church.  We don't raise ourselves above anyone else.  We accept the fact that we are beloved, and that is often the hardest task in our life, to simply accept the fact that we are beloved.  We accept the fact that we are beloved of God, and we e receive the great love Jesus has for us, not because we are worthy, not because we have earned his love, but simply because we are beloved.  We believe in Jesus, accept his love, and follow him, even when we can hardly believe, desperately clinging to this hope of Jesus’ love for us.  Even when we give up that hope and faith in Jesus' love for us, Jesus' love that catches us even and especially when we fall, Jesus love catches us.  So Jesus asks us, commands us to accept his love.  Accept that we are his beloved and then live and give Jesus’ grace.  That is the community of the church.  That is what we see, or what Jesus would like us to see, when we see his church. 

Now, we often see the church as something else.  We see the church as a vast institution, like how people viewed the Roman Catholic Church, but the Roman Catholic Church is not an institution.  The Roman Catholic Church has an institution.  The Roman Catholic Church is a community of people who are beloved of Jesus.  Period.  Full stop.  Paradigm shift:  What is the Roman Catholic Church?  Not an institution, but a community of people who are beloved of Jesus.  Then, the Roman Catholic Church has an institution which at times serves it well and at times not so well. 

Our church too is not an institution, but our church has an institution.  We have a whole institutional structure in the Episcopal Church, but that institution is not the church.  That institution is what the church has created, what we have created over the centuries to serve us.  The institution is the tool we have constructed to help us order our lives.  The institution is a tool of the church, but not the church itself.  The church itself, the is the community of the beloved.  Jesus’ church is the gathered and often disperse community (those who no longer gather, those who no longer believe but are still caught in Jesus' love). 

The church is that community of people who know, and love, and accept, and forget, and mess up with Jesus’ love.  The church are those who believe in Jesus even amidst doubt, or stop believing in Jesus, and then fall into Jesus’ grace.  The church is not those who are climbing upward and striving to heaven.  The church is those who are falling, continually falling into Jesus' love and Jesus' grace.  What is who we are as the church.  We are Jesus’ beloved, not because of who we are, not because of what we do, but simply because we are Jesus beloved.  Amen.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

"Have Some Kryptonite." - Sayings of Superman in Jesus' Kingdom

Brad Sullivan
3rd Easter, Year C
April 10, 2016
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
John 21:1-19

"Have Some Kryptonite." - Sayings of Superman in Jesus' Kingdom

As we know, Jesus’ disciples and hoards of his followers were wanting Jesus to be a big gallant conqueror who would kick out Rome and end up basically ruling over all the other nations, so that Israel would not only remove Rome from power, but would also take Rome’s place as the world power, the empire over all nations.  Jesus told his disciples and hoards of followers that he was not going to bring about some huge military campaign to establish his kingdom, at least he said this implicitly.  He taught about not fighting against the governing authorities, turning the other cheek when someone hits you; he said, “My kingdom not from here, if were, I’d have angels coming, to my rescue, but as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  Then he proved that he really was going to live by what he taught and not seek to conquer all nations by dying, dashing completely the messianic hopes that people had in him. 

As a story goes for a Messiah, it’s a rather lackluster ending.  Not very flashy, it’s a difficult cinematic climax.  It’s Batman vs. Superman, but superman doesn’t even put up a fight.  He says, “here, Batman, have some Kryptonite and do me in.”   “Lame,” many of his followers were thinking.  They were disillusioned.

Then Jesus was resurrected.  He cannot die again.  He could come and go at will at this point, appearing and disappearing.  He could presumably do anything now, and no amount of Kryptonite on Earth could stop him, and so he had a nice breakfast on the beach with his friends.  Even after resurrection, the kingdom of God was not brought about by conquering others. 

On the beach, over breakfast, Jesus got to turn around the denials Peter had given him.  Three denials, three chances to say, “I love you.”  Not only that, he asked him three times to feed his sheep.  Jesus gave grace to his disciples who abandoned him, and asked them to continue his work and ministry.  The kingdom of God is brought about through grace.

My guess is that Jesus was not overly fond of Rome as a world governing authority.  While there was much that was good about Rome, they were brutal, power hungry conquerors.  They would take over your land and then tax you to pay for the army that had just destroyed your people.  Jesus and his followers, ruling through grace, would definitely have been a better world governing authority than Rome.  The prince of peace ruling over all the nations would have been fantastic, except that to become that world governing authority, to supplant Rome, Jesus and his followers would have had to become just as brutal as Rome, killing or imprisoning dissidents, conquering nations who didn’t want to be conquered, forcing themselves onto people who didn’t want them there. 

The message of grace, the reality of grace, would have been destroyed in conquering and struggle.  The Jesus movement was not won by force, or threats, or coercion.  The Jesus movement was won through grace.  

Consider Saul who had been persecuting the church and even helping to put Jesus’ followers to death.  He was like Darth Vader hunting down and destroying the Jedi.  Then the grace of Jesus brought Saul back from the dark side of persecution and into the light of Jesus.  When Jesus spoke to Ananias in a vision, telling him to lay his hands on Saul so that he could restore his sight, Ananias was understandably wary to doing so.  I imagine he was also not overly pleased with the idea of giving sight back to the persecutor of Christians.  Like Jonah who didn’t want Nineveh to repent, that’s why Jonah fled, remember, and the fish brought him back.  He didn’t want Nineveh to repent; he wanted Nineveh to burn.  So like Johan not wanting Nineveh to repent, I can imagine Ananias not wanting Saul to regain his sight.  He deserved to be blind after what he had done.  He shouldn’t get to see and be healed.  The grace of Jesus allowed Ananias, despite his fears, to go to Saul, to lay hands on him and heal him, and to embrace him as a brother.

Then Saul became Paul, so great was his transformation through the grace of Jesus that he had to change his name.  He was a new person, and his old name would no longer do.  Paul then went about on a grace campaign, teaching about Jesus to all who would hear.  He went to gentiles, to non-Israelites, and the Jesus movement spread beyond Israel, even beyond Rome, and there was no military, no conquering, no force of any kind.  There was teaching and preaching, healing and caring for people, forgiveness and love.  The Jesus movement, Jesus kingdom, was spread through grace.

On a quick search through Paul’s letters, he mentions grace 86 times. 

Looking at our world today, how we live with grace and live out the Jesus movement, there is an awful lot of grace in the church.  There are very loud voices out there talking about Jesus, but voices which have very little to do with grace.  I was talking with my neighbor this weekend, and he was telling a story about how judgment often takes the place of grace in people who call themselves Jesus’ disciples.  He told a story of a man at work who looked at what another employee was doing and said, “He shouldn’t be doing that; he’s a Christian.” 

Ok, now there are certainly many behaviors and actions which we should not be taking because those actions are harmful to others and to ourselves.  Paul wrote in his letters quite a lot about behaviors we should and shouldn’t be following as disciples of Jesus.  With love and concern in our hearts, part of the Jesus movement is certainly to help guide each other in our behaviors so that we aren’t harming ourselves and others. 

That’s very different, however, from looking at someone else and saying, “He shouldn’t be doing that; he’s a Christian.”  As my neighbor said to this co-worker, “You don’t need to be judging him; you need to take a look at the log in your own eye before noticing the speck in someone else’s.”  The co-worker needed to be living with grace.  There seemed to be behind the co-worker’s statement an “or else.”  “He shouldn’t be doing that; he’s a Christian.”  He better shape up or else…he’s not really a Christian, or else…Jesus will reject him, or else…who knows what?  There was an implication that the he wasn’t really a Christian because he wasn’t following a certain list of behaviors well enough, as if following a certain list of behaviors well enough is what makes us Christian.

Good moral teaching is absolutely a part of being a disciple of Jesus, but the point of Christianity, the message of the Jesus movement, is not “behave.”  We don’t need Jesus for that.  The point of the Christianity, the message of the Jesus movement, is grace.  Being a Christian is receiving and giving the grace of Jesus. 

 The grace of Jesus doesn’t say, “Behave or else.”  The grace of Jesus says love God, love others, love yourself, and let your actions be guided out of that love.  The grace of Jesus says you’re going to mess up a lot, and when you do, I’m going to forgive you.  The grace of Jesus sees that those who cause harm do so because harm has been caused to them, or because they are afraid, or because they think they are right.  The grace of Jesus looks at that and says “forgiven.”  That is life in the Jesus movement. 

The Jesus movement says, “You think you’re not good enough, well join the club!”  We’re none of us good enough and we don’t have to be, because what we are is enough.  The disciples denied and abandoned Jesus when he was about to be killed.  Then when he was resurrected, they were so steadfast in their discipleship, they said, “Well, I guess we’ll go fishing.”  The disciples weren’t good enough, and yet they were enough for the grace of Jesus. 


They were enough for Jesus to say, “Feed my sheep.”   Saul certainly wasn’t good enough as he was persecuting the church, and yet he was enough for the grace of Jesus to transform him into one who would grow his kingdom not by conquering, but by teaching, healing, caring for people, and sharing grace.  That’s life in the Jesus movement.  That’s the life that we get to live as the Body of Christ, sharing and receiving and giving grace.   Amen.   

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Obeying God: The Laws of Love and Grace

Brad Sullivan
2nd Easter, Year C
April 3, 2016
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
John 20:19-31

Obeying God:  The Laws of Love and Grace

“We must obey God rather than any human authority.”  That was Peter’s response to the high priest of Israel telling them to stop preaching and teaching about Jesus.  Peter’s response claimed that the high priest had no real authority, certainly no authority given by God, but that the high priest was simply part of a human institution, a rather bold claim from a fisherman whose Rabbi had been condemned as a heretic by Israel crucified by Rome.  Then again, Jesus did tend to bring out some audaciousness in people.  I suppose being resurrected tends to do that.

When Jesus first met with his disciples, they had locked the door to the room they were in because they were afraid of most of Israel which had not come to follow Jesus.  Their plan was to duck and cover, hide until the heat went down and folks had basically forgotten about Jesus.  Then, Jesus was resurrected and appeared to them.  He gave them the Holy Spirit, just as he had been given the Holy Spirit after his baptism.  It was time for them to stop hiding and go to work, spreading the news of Jesus, his kingdom, his love, and his grace.

Jesus’ resurrection gave the disciples boldness to follow him and obey him in ways they hadn’t been able or willing to before.  There they were, in front of the high priest, being told to stop their preaching, and they were flatly defying him, telling him they had to obey God rather than the high priest.  Last time someone had done that, they’d sent him to Rome to be crucified, but as Peter well knew, the death they gave to Jesus, didn’t really take, so Peter boldly declared that he would be obeying God, thank you very much.

Obedience to God and the trust that comes along with it is rather central to our faith.  When asked in baptism, “Will you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord,” we say, “I will.”  Obedience to God and following in his ways is central to scripture.  Consider Psalm 119:33-35:
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.  Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.  Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. 
Obedience to God, following in his ways and keeping his commandments is not just described as something that must be done; obedience to God is described as a delight, the longing of our souls, and a way which gives us life.

That is they way and the joy which Jesus’ disciples were following when Peter told the high priest they had to obey God, rather than him. 

Of course, the high priest was trying to follow in God’s ways too.

Obedience to God, or to anything for that matter, can be a joy partially because obedience can simplify life a bit.  Should I do this or that?  Well, following God’s ways, you should do that.  Ok, done.  Don’t have to think too much about it, don’t have to get too caught up in the subtleties and nuance of the situation.  Simply follow and obey.  Such simple obedience can be a wonderful shelter in a crazy, complex, and frighteningly ambiguous world.  We have to be cautious, however, that such simple obedience to God’s ways does not lead to harsh observance and strict enforcement of his laws.  Such is the problem with many radicalized groups who become so zealous for their understanding of God’s way that they end up harming others in God’s name.

Harsh observance and strict enforcement of God’s laws was how the chief priests and Pharisees lived in Jesus’ day, ultimately leading to Jesus’ death.  Harsh observance and strict enforcement of God’s laws was where Saul found himself when he was persecuting the early church.  Harsh observance and strict enforcement of God’s laws is how radical Muslims live, although they largely misinterpret or willfully misrepresent even Islam’s understanding of God’s laws. 

We want certainty in an uncertain world, and so we can end up zealously following God’s laws in ways that end up harming others.  In the movie Choclat, the mayor of a small town is ardent and zealous in his observance of the ways of the church, as is the town under his watchful eye.  They mayor even rewrites the priests sermons for him when he feels the priest isn’t being zealous enough.  You could describe the town as over-churched and under-graced. 

As the movie opens, the town is beginning their observance of Lent, and at the same time, a woman moves into town and opens up a chocolate shop.  This does not sit well with the mayor at all.  It is brazen and quite unseemly to tempt people out of their Lenten fasts with chocolates and sweets.  Even worse, the woman has a daughter born out of wedlock and she is not a Christian.  So, the mayor begins a harsh campaign against this woman and her shop, despite the fact that she is bringing a huge amount of healing to the community and the strained or dying relationships between many people living there.

They mayor was so zealous in his desire to follow God’s laws that he became a tyrant, and there was certainly no joy in his observance of God’s laws.  He was kinda miserable, because he was trying to follow God’s laws, but he was doing so without the laws of love and grace.

Faith, hope and love, or even faithfulness, hope and love, abide, and the greatest of these is love.  The law of love would keep us from harming others despite how zealous we become for God’s ways.  The law of love reminds us that obedience to God’s ways is meant to give us life.  The law of grace reminds us to be gentle, understanding, and forgiving in how we live out our obedience to God’s laws.  The laws of love and grace allow us to obey God’s laws with joy.

Without love and grace, it is little wonder that we often become ardent in our adherence to part’s of God’s law.  God’s laws and God’s ways give us grounding and some certainty in an uncertain world.  If we feel God’s laws are being threatened, then some of our stability and certainty is being threatened.  The world is suddenly dangerous and frightening again. 

That is when we remember God’s law of love and grace, and we put our trust in Jesus’ resurrection.  Like Peter, trusting in Jesus’ resurrection, we can follow Jesus’ ways without being afraid of those who don’t.  We’re going to follow in Jesus’ ways and not be threatened by those who follow Jesus a little differently that we do.  We seek to follow in Jesus’ ways, and we take delight in obeying God’s laws.  We give up some of our freedom and find ourselves set free in following God’s ways.  Ask the addict who had been free to use whatever he was addicted to and then gave up that freedom to obey the ways of God.  Doing so set that person free from the bondage of addiction.  Obeying God’s ways sets us free from any number of chains, that freedom gives us great joy. 

Jesus’ resurrection gives us freedom to obey God despite opposition from the world around us.  Jesus’ resurrection tells us to fear not when others don’t follow in his ways, because our lives are his, and he will keep us in this life and in the next.  Jesus’ resurrection allows us to obey God and to live out the laws of love and grace.  Amen.



Thursday, March 31, 2016

The New Garden

Brad Sullivan
Easter Sunday, Year C
March 27, 2016
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
John 20:1-18

The New Garden

Mary thought Jesus was the gardener.  As she was weeping outside Jesus empty tomb, wondering who had stolen Jesus’ body, she turned, and Jesus was there, having been raised from the dead, and she thought he was the gardener, and so he was.  Jesus was the one who made the very first garden in Eden, and so standing in this new garden of Jesus’ resurrection, Mary is the first one to see and experience the resurrection life.  Jesus calls Mary by name, and then she knows him, and she clings to him, her heart full of love and joy at seeing Jesus before her, standing with her in the rebirth of creation.

Then, Jesus tells her to go to his disciples and tell them that he has been raised, “do not cling to me,” Jesus says, and as much as Mary wants to stay, to hold on to Jesus forever, she trusts him.  She lets go, and she goes to the disciples to tell them the good news that Jesus has been raised.  This new Eve in the new garden trust in Jesus, and we see the effects of resurrection immediately taking place.  The serpents’ whispers to stay or she will never see him again fall on deaf ears, and she trusts in Jesus. 

Of course we still mess up, don’t we?  There is still sin in the world.  There are still countless ways that we harm each other, countless ways that we separate ourselves from each other and separate ourselves from God, which is why Jesus joined himself to us and took all of our sins upon himself on the cross.  We sin and we die, so Jesus took all of our sin and death and joined it to himself.

In the incarnation, becoming human, God joined himself fully to humanity in Jesus.  That was the point, to restore us to unity with God.  If we’re going to be fully restored to God, then we must be restored to God even in death, and if we’re going to be fully restored to God, then we have to be restored to God even in sin.  I supposed Jesus could have suddenly started sinning, God sinning against humanity in order to join with us even in ways that we harm each other, fracture our relationships, and separate ourselves from God and each other, but he didn’t.  God loves us too much suddenly to decide to sin against us, and we’ve got more than enough sin and harm to go around, so Jesus took our sins upon himself on the cross so that even our disconnection from God has been united to God. 

On the cross, Jesus took all of the ways that we harm each other and disconnect ourselves from each other and from God, Jesus took all of that, and united himself to it, so that even at our worst, we can still be united to God.  Those who have murdered people and raped people, those who have abused their bodies with drugs and harmed other people with drugs, those whose hearts are hardened by unforgiveness and those whose hearts are broken by shame, even those who kill themselves and others in acts of terrorism:  all of their sins were united to Jesus on the cross.  All of our sins were united to Jesus on the cross.

Having taken our worst upon himself, Jesus died to unite us to God even in death, and then he was raised so that we get to be united to God in new life. 

That new life began on this day almost 2000 years ago as Mary stood with Jesus in the new garden.  Jesus, the new Adam trusted in God with his life and death, and Mary, a second Eve, standing there in the garden, trusted in Jesus.  In the resurrection, the world is changed, and we are changed. 

In the resurrection, in the new garden, we are given grace upon grace.  Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor who as a young woman had been addicted to drugs and alcohol.  She cared deeply about people and had grown up in a church (rules) – ended up breaking free from those constraints and into drugs and alcohol.  She was trapped. 

She then went on a date with a guy named Matthew (whom she later married), and Matthew happened to be a Lutheran seminary student who had the same passion for community and caring for those in need as she did. Reluctantly she went with him to a Lutheran church, and she loved the liturgy.  She called it “choreographed sacredness,” she called it. “It felt like a gift that had been caretaken by generations of the faithful and handed to us to live out and caretake and hand off.”  That sounds like the Episcopal Church, doesn’t it? 

Grace, however, was the key for her conversion.  She hadn’t learned about grace in the church where she grew up.  There she had mostly learned a bunch of rules she had to follow lest Jesus be angry with her.  “But I did learn about grace,” she said, “from sober drunks who managed to stop drinking by giving their will over to the care of God and who then tried like hell to live a life according to spiritual principles.” In the Lutheran church (like the Episcopal Church), she found the centrality of grace. 

Nadia found resurrection – new life, restoration, and reconciliation.  The resurrection of Jesus in the new garden, lived out in a community of grace.  She’s one of countless people whose lives have been transformed by Jesus’ resurrection.  She didn’t turn her life around and then come to Jesus.  She came to Jesus as she was, and he loved her as she was, and then gave her grace and offered her a new life trusting him, doing her darnedest to follow in his ways, and accepting his grace when she messed up.  That’s life in the new garden.  


In the new garden, we don’t hide behind fig leaves.  In the new garden of Jesus’ resurrection, we walk with Jesus as we are and we allow his grace to heal us.  In the new garden of Jesus resurrection, we follow Jesus, we trust in him, we follow where he leads, and we receive grace when we don’t follow all that well.  Out of the depths of despair, sitting beside whatever tomb we have made, we see Jesus who calls us to him by name, who holds us, gives us grace and new life in his new garden.  Amen.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Baptized Into Jesus' Death

Brad Sullivan
Easter Vigil, Year C
March 26, 2016
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Romans 6:3-11
Luke 24:1-12

Baptized Into Jesus’ Death

Alleluia, Christ is risen!  Gosh that feels good to say.  We get to revel in the glory of Jesus’ resurrection again.  I know we still have been throughout Lent, but our focus was more on our shortcomings and failings and the reasons for Jesus suffering and death.  Now, our focus is more squarely on Jesus and his resurrection, the effects of his suffering and death.  Those effects are life, restoration, and reconciliation for all.

Why did Jesus have to die?  We get questions like these from kids, from adults, from Christians and from non-Christians.  We often say, “to pay for our sins,” and that is true, but it also leads to questions about why, if God is so forgiving, did God not just forgive us outright?  Why take the penalty on himself?  There are a variety of answers posed:  to satisfy God’s justice, to satisfy God’s vengeance, simply because it just doesn’t seem right not to have someone pay the penalty.   All valid and possibly true answers, but let’s look at Jesus’ death from the standpoint of his life and incarnation.  Why did Jesus have to die?  Because we die.

In the incarnation, God joined himself fully to humanity in Jesus.  That was the point, to restore us to unity with God.  If we’re going to be fully restored to God, then we must be restored to God even in death, and if we’re going to be fully restored to God, then we have to be restored to God even in sin.  I supposed Jesus could have suddenly started sinning, God sinning against humanity in order to join with us even in ways that we harm each other, fracture our relationships, and separate ourselves from God and each other, but he didn’t.  God loves us too much suddenly to decide to sin against us, and we’ve got more than enough sin and harm to go around, so Jesus took our sins upon himself on the cross so that even our disconnection from God has been united to God. 

On the cross, Jesus took all of the ways that we harm each other and disconnect ourselves from each other and from God, Jesus took all of that, and united himself to it, so that even at our worst, we can still be united to God.  Those who have murdered people and raped people, those who have abused their bodies with drugs and harmed other people with drugs, those whose hearts are hardened by unforgiveness and those whose hearts are broken by shame, even those who kill themselves and others in acts of terrorism:  all of their sins were united to Jesus on the cross.  All of our sins were united to Jesus on the cross.

That’s why Jesus had to die, to unite us to God in life, in sin, and in death. 

Then, Jesus was resurrected.  Jesus defeated death and rose again from the dead to eternal life.  Jesus was and is still united to humanity in his resurrection, so in Jesus life, death, and resurrection, we are united to God in life, sin, death, and in eternal life after death. 
Death has been transformed into a vehicle from life to life eternal.  That is why Jesus had to die, so that we could live.  Even at our darkest moments, in the pit of despair, at the bottom of the sea of silence, in the suffering of sin and the finality of death, Jesus is there saying, “come with me, for our life together is not over.  Come with me into the light, and share with me in life everlasting.”  Amen.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Braving the Tranquil Sea of Silence

Brad Sullivan
Good Friday, Year C
March 25, 2016
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
John 18:1-19:42

Braving the Tranquil Sea of Silence

Silence.  That what is called for often in our liturgy, silence.  Silence can be the sound of prayer, the sound of relaxing and taking a break for a while.  After a long day and once the kids are to bed and before binge watching Netflix or reading starts, it can be very healing to sit in silence for a few minutes.  Silence gives our brains time to unwind.  Silence allows us to notice our breathing and to marvel at the miracle of our lives, our bodies, the presence of God around us and within us.  Silence can be the sound and the sounds of life without the noise of everything else.

Silence can be a beautiful thing.  Silence can also bring to the surface things we’d rather keep buried.  Silence brings a void, and inevitably something will come to fill that void, often the memories we’d rather than deal with, the decisions which haunt us, the scars left by others.  In the tranquil sea of silence we see peace and beauty, but with pain and death lurking just beneath the surface. 

Perhaps that is why silence is so rarely sought.  Silence beckons to us, invites us to sail upon her waters, and yet we often dare not even approach the shore for fear of what may come forth, and so we draw back from the tranquil sea, retreating once again into the forest of voices and noise, hiding in the din of life, hiding from the truth that would otherwise rend our hearts.

As Simon and Garfunkel wrote in The Sound of Silence:
            And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.

Silence is the sound of death.  Silence was the sound of Jesus tomb cut out of the rock.  Silence was the sound of Jesus’ body without the movement of breath, without the flow of blood, without the beating of his heart.  Silence was the only sound that was left when the sins of all humanity were poured out upon Jesus.  The author of life had been killed, taking upon himself the judgment due to all of humanity, and the Word of God which spoke the words “Let there be light,” in the beginning of creation was left was left in silence.

As humanity ran back into the forest of noise and distraction, Jesus sailed the sea of silence and then left the boat, only this time he did not walk on the sea, he sank down, swallowed up by all that lay beneath, and left the sea tranquil and calm as before. 
We know that Jesus was resurrected a few short days after his death.  We know that Jesus left the sea of silence, and yet, Jesus is still there, along with all of sins of humanity, the memories we’d rather than deal with, the decisions which haunt us, the scars left by others.  Jesus is there in the silence inviting us to face what we’d rather not face, inviting us to look into the face of the demons within. 


Jesus is inviting us to trust him, to follow him into the silence, to join with him there in the silence of his tomb, and to trust that he will bring us out with him as well, giving us new life with him.  First, however, we have to face the silence of his tomb.  We have to brave the waters of that tranquil sea and to face what lurks beneath.  We have to go down into the sea of silence.  Amen.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Nothing Will Keep Me From Loving You

Brad Sullivan
Maundy Thursday, Year C
March 24, 2016
Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Nothing Will Keep Me From Loving You

Last weekend Kristin and I spent Friday night with my cousin and his wife in Tyler, TX.  We went to a great barbeque place and then to a pub and had some local beers.  While were there, Kelly, my cousin-in-law told us about talking earlier that day with her co-workers about what they were doing for the weekend, and Kelly said, “oh, we’re going to have a great weekend, my cousins are coming into town.”  Somehow, it came up that Kristin and I are both priests, and Kelly’s friends said, “Oh, what are you going to do?”  She said, “No, no, it’s ok.  They’re cool.” 

Somehow and for quite a number of reasons, Christians and especially priests are associated with no fun.  It’s like this guilt feeling like we get to have fun, so long as we don’ t get caught.  I remember in college hearing about a Christians on campus group that told their members that when they went into a bar, to be sure to hide any crosses they wore as jewelry so that no one would think badly of Christian folk. 

How crazy, messed up, backwards, and completely missing the mark is that? 

As Christians, as disciples of Jesus, we certainly do intend to live well.  We intend to live in such a way as not to bring harm to others and not to bring harm to ourselves.  In fact, if we’re really living as disciples of Jesus, we take it a step further and intend to live in such a way to bring about good for other.  We serve one another.  Of course we do.  That’s what love does. 

We also fail miserably a lot of the time both at not harming and at doing good.  So far I have described nothing that would separate a Christian from anyone else.  You don’t have to be a Christian to want not to harm others, and you don’t have to be a Christian to want to do good for others.  You certainly don’t have to be a Christian to fail miserably. 

What makes us Christians, quite simply, is Jesus.  We rely on Jesus.  We rely on his grace and his love to nurture us, guide us, forgive us, and love us. 

Jesus’ command to his disciples was that they love one another.  Jesus’ command to us is that we love one another.  Not that we don’t have fun, not that we try to hide having fun from each other, or God forbid from a priest.  Love one another. 

Love means digging deep.  Love is not a surface affair.  Love means we’re going to get our hearts broken.  Love means we’re going to get dirty as we love others who have fallen.  Love means being with and loving people as they are, not as we want them to be.  Love also means that no amount of failing at love will end the love.  “Nothing will keep me from loving you,” Jesus said, “now love each other that way.”


Not Fire Not Ice – Ben Harper.  
There is not a river wide.
Not a mountain high.
And neither sin nor evil.
Could change how I feel inside.
Could change how I feel inside.

Not all the strength of the ocean.
Not all the heat from the sun, from the sun.
Now, others have tried, I just can't deny.
For me you are the one.
For me you are the one.

The true love is priceless.
For true love you pay a price.
But there's nothing can keep me from loving you.
Not fire, no not ice.
Not fire, no not ice.

Like a hero or a champion.
You are the best, you're the best.
Like religion or superstition.
With you I am blessed.
With you I am blessed.

Now the river may grow wider.
The mountain may reach past the sky.
And wether or not you feel the same.
My love shall never die.
My love shall never die.

The true love you give and take.
The true love is sacrifice.
But there's nothing can keep me from loving you.
Not fire, no not ice.
Not fire, no not ice.
Not fire, no not ice.

Amen.