Friday, June 30, 2017

Come On, Jesus! You’re Supposed to Be the Prince of Peace!

Brad Sullivan
Proper 7, Year A
June 25, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Genesis 21:8-21
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Come On, Jesus!  You’re Supposed to Be the Prince of Peace!

Several times last week, someone would ask me what the Gospel reading is for this Sunday, and every time I told them, their reaction was, “Oh, yuck, I hate that passage.”  Honestly, that was my reaction too.  “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”  Come on, Jesus, you’re supposed to be the Prince of Peace, not the Prince of Jerry Springer.

I could say that Jesus’ talking about family members being against each other harkens back to Micah 7:6 - “For the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”  Obviously that passage was in Jesus’ mind, but the context was that things had gotten so bad in Israel, that Micah was describing how things were, families were against each other, and children were treating their parents with contempt.  It would be a little disingenuous, therefore, to say, Jesus was just trying to remind people of scripture.  He didn’t say children were treating their parents badly.  He was saying that because of him, because of people believing in him and following his teachings, parents and children were going to turn against each other.  Those who didn’t follow him were going to turn against those who did.

This really isn’t all that surprising to those who have read the Gospel.  Jesus was a polarizing figure.  On the one hand he healed people and was a champion of the outcast and downtrodden.  He had a lot of wonderful teachings which we love to hear like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”  On the other hand, Jesus wasn’t just the easy listening station.  There was a lot of metal in him too, a good bit of raging against the machine of religious moral superiority coupled with economic and social injustice. 

Jesus did not mince words when denouncing religious leaders who demanded  religious perfection from others and yet did not care for the vulnerable and needy.  “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearances, say long prayers.”  (Matthew 23:14)   Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, because y’all are supposed to be using the money given to you by faithful Jews to help the vulnerable.  You’re supposed to be helping widows and helping others who have a hard time getting by.  Instead, you’re demanding that they do their religious duty and pay up in order to beautify the Temple.  Do you really think God will be pleased with a pretty building when his people are suffering? 

If you really want to please God, Jesus taught, then love God and love people.  Love people.  Care for them.  Help them mightily in their hours of need.  Take up your cross daily, and follow me.  Sacrifice your own safety and security in order to help people who are vulnerable, needy, down and out, rejected, and downtrodden.  Love God and love people…and don’t even pretend that you love God if you don’t love people.  There’s no way we can love God through our religion, if we don’t love people through our daily lives and actions. 

Folks like the Scribes and Pharisees, who dotted the “I”s and crossed the “T”s of their religious duties, didn’t like hearing that they actually had to care about people.  They didn’t like hearing that they would actually have to sacrifice some of their own comfort and security in order to help those less fortunate and (according to their theology) less deserving people.  “I have what I have because I’m a good, God-fearing person, and I earned it,” they thought.  “Those others would be better off than they are if they feared God like I do and worked harder.” 

That was pretty well what folks thought of the poor and the down and out back then, and Jesus was having none of it.  “No guys, the kingdom of God belongs to them too, and the kingdom of God is actualized in this world when you who have enough and more than enough, do all in your power to make sure that those who don’t have enough are cared for as well.”  Folks didn’t like hearing that.  In fact, folks killed Jesus for saying things like that.

Jesus was a polarizing figure.  Folks who really engaged with Jesus either loved him or were pretty turned off and scandalized by him.  He claimed to be God.  He claimed to be the way and the truth and the life.  He upset people’s comfortable focus on themselves, and forced them to take a hard look at others and their needs, and he taught folks to take a hard look at their own lives and see how their lives might be harming others.  Truly taking Jesus seriously today, he is still a polarizing figure.  You can love him, you can be pretty turned off by him, or you can assume he really didn’t mean or say much of what he said. 

When we do take seriously living as he taught, believing in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, then some people are going to turn against us.  Heck, even grace is going to turn people against us.  Grace is great for those whom we feel deserve it, but what about when we follow in Jesus’ way and offer grace for those who don’t really deserve it?  That’s going to anger some people, and Jesus would have us do so anyway, rather than take the easy road and get on the bandwagon of self-righteousness and condemnation. 

“Take up your cross daily,” Jesus said, “and follow me.”  Let parts of you die, daily, in order to offer grace to others.  Let some of your needs die in order to help provide for the needs of others.  Be willing to accept the deaths of relationships that will come when people turn against you for truly taking Jesus seriously. 

A friend and colleague of Kristin’s was at a fundraiser and raffle to support a girls’ softball team in his community.  One of the raffle items was an AR-15, and this man really doesn’t like guns.  So, he spent thousands of dollars on raffle tickets, won the rifle, and had a friend help him turn it into gardening tools.  Swords into plowshares.  He took an instrument of death, and turned it into instruments of life, and he has received death threats for having done so.  He’s lost friends, received thousands of hateful messages, and he’d do it again, seeking life, rather than the possibility of death.

Jesus’ teaching that he has come to set family members against each other is still not my favorite passage to hear.  It’s not exactly the feel good film of the summer.  The reality of suffering ridicule, of straining and even losing relationships over taking Jesus seriously is, however, the way of Jesus.  What Jesus taught in our Gospel passage today is the way of him who is the truth and the life.  Do we dare take Jesus seriously?  Imagine the world if we do.  Imagine the changes in the world when we and other Christians acknowledge and share our faith in Jesus not through religious moral superiority while ignoring the problems of others, but rather through living and sharing our faith in Jesus by daily sacrificing greatly for the sake of others. That’s life following the way of Jesus, life in the Jesus movement. 

Thinking only about myself, hearing today’s passage leaves me not wanting to hear Jesus’ words.  Thinking about others, however, I want to hear more of today’s passage.  Thinking about others, I find hope and joy in today’s passage.  We get to be part of the Jesus movement in which we sacrifice some of our own safety and security for the sake of others, to provide safety and security to those who don’t have enough.  We get to accept grace for all those times when we don’t follow Jesus all that well, and we get to offer grace to those who don’t deserve it.  We get to offer grace even to those who would turn against us for taking Jesus seriously and following him as the way, the truth, and the life.  We get to be part of the Jesus movement, knowing that there will be consequences, and choosing for the love of others, to follow Jesus.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Wonder Woman & the Divine Feminine
(WARNING:  There are some spoilers below, so I recommend bookmarking this page, watching the movie, and then returning to read.)

So I saw the new Wonder Woman movie on opening night with my wife, and we loved it. Great action, plot, writing, acting.  It was funny and serious, exciting and heartfelt.

What I loved most about the movie was the portrayal of the divine feminine.  Diana was a goddess, brought forth from Zeus in order to protect humanity from (all kinds of bad things, including ourselves), and she was absolutely devoted to that cause.  Fierce and strong in combat, uncompromising in her moral compass, and more than ready to question a group of generals who didn't seem to care that those they commanded would die while they sat safely giving orders, she was a warrior to be feared by any who would try to inflict harm.  In short, she was a protector.

This is one important aspect of the divine feminine:  Protector/Warrior.  Far from just being a masculine trait, protector is part of the divine image that is hard-wired into femininity. Think of a mother protecting her children - few, if any, things in this world are more fierce.  As a warrior, she was unrivaled, not only because of her strength, but also because of her femininity - she fought not for anger or vengeance, but ultimately for love.
(For a Christian perspective (or at least this Christian's perspective) see Genesis 1:27; Isaiah 66:13; Matthew 23:37)

Another aspect of the divine feminine seen in Wonder Woman:  Mother/Caretaker.  She was on an urgent mission to stop a great evil from destroying humanity...she keenly felt the urgency of her task.  So, as she walked the streets of London to find her adversary, she was immediately side-tracked and almost jumped with delight as she saw a little baby.  "Oh, a baby!", she exclaimed, rushing over to get a better look.  It was funny, sure, but it also exemplified something great about the divine feminine.  As a mother-figure and caretaker, she delighted in life, in innocence, in babies.  Even with her urgency, she did not have blinders on to the beauty of life all around her.

This role of lover and caretaker showed up again in the scene from the picture above.  They were very close now to her final adversary, and according to her male companions, they didn't have time to save the besieged villagers in the war zone through which they were traveling.  Nope!  Not for Diana.  She would not leave them to die, and so she was once again (seemingly) side-tracked from her mission.  She once again showed that being a protector/warrior did not prevent her from also being a mother/caretaker.  In fact, the one worked with and complimented the other.  It was beautiful to behold.

Wonder Woman also inspired those around her as:  Muse/Encourager.  One soldier boasted of his prowess on the battlefield, and then when it was time to act, he found he couldn't.  He was an obviously wounded man with scars deep down, and he was as rough as they come, yet something kept him from fighting that day.  Later that night, after the battle was won, Diana heard him singing, entertaining a group of people during a victory celebration.  She loved it, delighting once again in his humanity, the vulnerable, wounded man, who not only fought, but also sang.  When he apologized later for his failure on the battlefield, she simply praised him for his singing, praised him for that beautiful part of his soul that still clung to and remembered the love and beauty of the world.  He found healing in her words, and the next time battle came, he did not hesitate.

A final aspect of the divine feminine which I saw in Wonder Woman:  Lover/Beloved.  Diana loved deeply, universally, and personally.  Diana was continually horrified at the terrible things we do/did to each other, horrified at the darkness of humanity.  Her heart was broken time and again when she beheld such atrocities.  She also loved one man in particular, and was his beloved as well, and when he was killed, she went into a rage.  What was left but to exact revenge on any and all who had caused him to die, to destroy any and all who may one day cause harm to others?  She had seen the darkness of humanity, a darkness that lies in all of humanity, and there was only one surefire way to destroy that darkness:  eradicate humanity.  She found, however, that love was stronger than anger and hatred.  Her love guided her to see that our darkness did not define us, that despite our atrocities, we were also lovers, also beloved.

Diana's role as both lover and beloved kept her fighting to protect people, delighting in humanity, caring for people.  Her love kept her encouraging the good in people, inspiring the best in them.

The divine feminine is as aspect of God which we need and which we need to remember.  Protector/Warrior.  Mother/Caretaker.  Muse/Encourager.  Lover/Beloved.

As we are all made in the image of God, both male and female, we miss so much of who and what God is when we acknowledge only the masculine aspects of God.  The divine feminine is so deep and beautiful, protecting and compassionate, inspiring and loving.  Thanks be to God for this aspect of God.  Thank you also for all involved in Wonder Woman, for bringing us this beautiful, powerful character, and for bringing such a beautiful portrayal of the divine feminine.

Love, Grace, and Communion: The Holy Trinity

Brad Sullivan
Trinity Sunday, Year A
June 11, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

Love, Grace, and Communion:  The Holy Trinity

A couple of years ago on Trinity Sunday, I had this idea to preach about God as a frosted Donut, as a way of describing the Trinity, with The Father as the dough part, Jesus as the frosting, and the Holy Spirit as the hole, where, it’s kinda hard to define, it’s kinda hard to explain the Holy Spirit, but it isn’t a donut without the hole.  Thankfully for the sake of the congregation a couple of years back, I decided not to do that.  It would basically be heresy, unless it’s Shipley’s Donuts, but in all seriousness, I’ve heard similar approaches to describing the Trinity, such as, “God is like an egg” with the shell, white, yoke:  three and yet one.  Of course that’s three parts that make the whole egg, rather than three whole persons who make the whole God.  Honestly, if we’re going in that direction, I kinda like the donut thing better, but the big problem with any such means of trying to describe God as a trinity of persons is none of those metaphors say anything at all about God as a relationship of persons.  The relationship is key to who God is and what God is as a single God in Trinity of persons.

So as an analogy for understanding God as being three persons and yet one God, I’d like for us to think about our own relationships.  Are we closer to people whom we have never met and don’t even know exist, or are we closer to people whom we love deeply?  Obviously, we are closer to people whom we love deeply.  We know them intimately.  We get to know the deep parts of who they are.  As we love more and more, we become more and more connected to a person, and while we are still distinct persons, we become more and more united as our love for each other grows. 

Ok, so multiply that by infinity, and we have some understanding of God as three persons united so completely in love for one another that they are one.  It still doesn’t entirely make sense to our rational little brains, but it also kinda does.  God is a relationship of persons:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each fully God, and yet each distinct from the other, so completely united in a continual dance of love that they are one.

Then there are, of course, the inevitable questions of this Trinity of persons such as, “which one came first?”
“Oh, they’ve always been together as one.”
“But I thought the son was begotten of the father?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“So when did that happen?  How long was the Father around before the Son was begotten of him?”
“Oh no, they’ve always been together forever.”

Whenever we try to tease out all the specifics of how God as a Trinity of persons works we generally end up with God as a frosted donut.  Tasty, but perhaps an understanding of God as Trinity comes less from our brains and more from our hearts.

Think about how much logical sense some of our relationships make?  Brain work or heart work?  God is described after all as love, not logical rational sense.  Consider how Paul ended his second letter to the church in Corinth.  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”  Those are words of the heart. 

Love.  The basis of all our relationships.  The best of who we are.  Peaceful, giving, not worried or concerned about what’s next, but content with now and fully present with the person right in front of us, fully honoring the person right in front of us.  Love means seeing ourselves as we truly are, warts and all, and not only accepting who we are, but delighting in who we are.  Love means seeing others as they truly are, warts and all, and not only accepting who they are, but delighting in who they are.  Love means seeing our common humanity, that divine spark, divine image in which we were all made, and living into and honoring that common humanity.  Love means giving for the sake of the other and also receiving from the other.  Love means honoring, accepting, and delighting in each other, recognizing and celebrating the beauty in each of us.

Grace…for all the times we don’t love.  Grace.  Forgiveness and understanding.  Compassion and empathy.  Grace is forgiving others for the hurt they have caused us.  Grace is looking at those who have harmed us and seeing them through eyes of compassion and empathy, offering some understanding that they are wounded as well, and they only hurt out of their own hurt and fear.  Grace is saying “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” even as they nail you to a cross.  Grace is the acknowledgement of our common humanity, our common weakness, our common harming of each other and offering peace to those who have harmed us, even as we accept peace from others, accept in our own hearts for the harm we have caused. 

Communion.  Delighting in time spent together.  Shared meals.  Shared endeavors.  Shared lives.  With love and grace, we share and join together with others, enjoying the love we share, grateful for the grace we give and receive, free to be fully who we are, loved and accepted by others without pretense or show, without hiding our true selves, unashamedly being seen, seeing others, giving and receiving love, and gratefully receiving and giving grace.  We enjoy life together, and we share our lives with one another. 

You want to know what God is like as a Trinity of persons?  Who or what do we understand God to be?  Love, Grace, and Communion.

Love does not exist without grace and  communion.  Grace does not exist without love and communion.  Communion does not exist without love and grace.  Each are distinct, and yet they are inseparable. 

With such a life of love, grace, and communion, Jesus told his disciples to go and baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Go and baptize into the way, into the very life of love, grace, and communion.  We baptize and are baptized into the life of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We baptize and are baptized into the life of God who is love, grace, and communion. 

Echoing and reminding us of Jesus’ command to his disciples to go and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, I say this day to go and invite people into the life of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Go and invite people into the life of God who is love, grace, and communion.  Live the life of love, and grace, and communion.  Life the very life of God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Live that life with others in how you love them, how you offer them grace, and how you share communion with them. Say to those who are spiritual but not religious that the life of love, grace, and communion is the life of God.  Say to those who have been harmed by churches preaching an angry God who hates most of who and what we are that such a God does not exist, but is the vain invention of fearful men. 

Say to them that the God we know, the God we worship, the God whose very life we live is love, grace, and communion.  Go and teach them about God who is love, grace, and communion; God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Baptize them with your words.  Share communion with them in your actions.  Love them well, and ask for grace for those times when you don’t love them well.  Share the very life of God, the very life of Jesus, and invite them to be disciples of Jesus as well, sharing also in the life of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God who is love, grace, and communion.   

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Love Is Gritty, Love Is Hard, Love Is an Empty Tomb

Brad Sullivan
7 Easter, Year A
May 28, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
John 17:1-11
Love Is Gritty, Love Is Hard, Love Is an Empty Tomb

I had a conversation with a nine year old last week about this Sunday’s gospel passage.  I read it to him and then asked him what he thought.  He said that it sounded like Jesus and the Father saying, “If we get to be in heaven for ever, why don’t the people on earth get to?”  Meaning, “why shouldn’t the people on earth get to be with us in heaven forever as well?”, and of course, we do.  That was Jesus’ life’s work and his prayer for his disciples which we heard today, that they would be one and he and the Father are one. 

The Father, and the Son, and the (not mentioned in this passage) Holy Spirit want us to be one with them and each other just as they are one.  There’s nothing better in the world, nothing better in all of the universes than the unity of Jesus and the Father and that’s the unity Jesus is praying for us to have!  That unity with each other and unity with God is being with God in heaven forever, and I don’t mean because we have unity with God, then we’ll get to be with God in heaven forever.  I mean having unity with God and each other is right now being in heaven with God forever. 

Heaven is all around us.  The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven is here, now, in the very air we breathe, for in God we live and move and have our being.  Jesus was praying for our unity with each other and God now, for eternal life now.  “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  Knowing Jesus, following in his way, believing in him is eternal life, lived in this world, in this life, and continued on after death, in the next life, for there is nothing better in the world, nothing better in all of the universes than the unity of Jesus and the Father, and that’s the unity Jesus is praying for us to have!

At the same time that Jesus was praying for his disciples, praying for us, however, did you notice how much he was talking about himself?  Glorify me so that I may glorify you?  Much of John’s Gospel has Jesus talking about himself.  There is very little teaching about God’s kingdom, few moral lessons, no parables…almost all of Jesus’ teaching involves an explanation about who he is and why people need to believe in him.  “I am one with the Father, I am the good shepherd, I am the vine, I am so humble and yet so awesome.”  Ok, that last one was made up; in John’s Gospel, we don’t get the humble, self-effacing Jesus we see in Mathew, Mark, and Luke.  Jesus is constantly talking about himself and kinda saying how great he is.  This is a bit of a side bar, but John’s Jesus often sounds to a bit to me like the rapper Eminem in the rap song Without Me:  “This looks like a job for me, so everybody, just follow me, cause we need a little controversy, and it feels so empty without me.”

I realize in saying that, I just secured about 7 more years for myself in purgatory, comparing Jesus and Eminem, (he’s a child of God), but  often, as I read John’s Gospel, I am struck by how much Jesus sounds like a rapper rapping about himself.  Rappers that I have heard tend to rap about themselves especially early on in their careers, as if to introduce themselves:  “here’s who I am, here’s my story, here’s why I’m legitimate and worth your listening to, and here’s the story within me that is screaming to get out.”

That’s kinda what Jesus was doing in John’s Gospel.  Jesus was constantly telling people about who he was, how great he was, and how much they needed to believe in him.  Of course that’s what he was doing, because of who Jesus was and because there were so many false narratives out there about life and about God.  The narrative about Jesus was screaming to get out of him.  The narrative about what life truly is, about who God truly is was screaming to get out of Jesus, and he only had that one life, that one chance to tell the narrative of God, the narrative of love.

Jesus had one chance, and he didn’t want to blow it, so he taught people how to live, how to love, he taught about God’s kingdom, he showed them what life was like in God’s kingdom so they could live out God’s kingdom, and he taught about himself, because at the heart of God’s kingdom is Jesus.  The heart and soul of God’s kingdom is the new Eden, the new creation where we walk with God and each other, naked and unashamed, and the heart and soul of that new Eden is Jesus.

So Jesus did talk about himself because he wanted everyone to know and share in the eternal life  of the new Eden which is unity with him and the Father. Remember, there is nothing better in the world, nothing better in all of the universes than the unity of Jesus and the Father, and that’s the unity Jesus was praying for us to have!

That unity, known by another word is love, and not just sappy, hallmarky, pop song love.  Love is the cross.  That’s where Jesus was going just after the prayer he prayed for his disciples.  Love is sacrifice for the sake of the beloved.  Love is gritty; love is hard; love is not pouty or jealous, boastful or rude.  It makes a way for the beloved; it does the hard work of seeking peace and working through resentment.  Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing; love repents of wrongdoing and seeks to heal past hurts.  Love rejoices in kindness and truth, and love prefers having a good relationship to just being right.  Love bears the good times and hardships.  Love believes in the beloved.  Love makes its home in hope, and love endures all things for the sake of the beloved. 

Love goes to the cross for the sake of the beloved.  Love kneels at the foot of the cross to mourn for the beloved.  Love is tears and joy.  Love is laughter and pain.  Love is sticking by the beloved through sickness and death.  Love is caring about someone through their anxieties, doubts, and fears.  Love is not wanting more and more, not demanding what is deserved, but being content with enough so that another can also have enough. 

Love is also an empty tomb.  Love is new life, new creation.  Love is joy in each new day, each new moment.  Love is setting aside the past to be made new in the present.  Love is trusting in Jesus’ resurrection, trusting in his narrative about God, and life, and himself.  Love is eternal life, knowing God and Jesus Christ whom he sent. There is nothing greater in all the world, nothing greater in all of the universes than love, and love is the unity of Jesus and the Father, the unity and gritty kind of love that Jesus is praying for us to have, for us to be in heaven forever with him and the Father.