Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Choosing to Love...Without All the Time in the World

Brad Sullivan
Ash Wednesday
February 14, 2018
Emmanuel, Houston
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Choosing to Love…Without All the Time in the World
I was on Facebook this morning as I am every morning, about to start Morning Prayer, which I pray on Facebook so others can join in praying together, and as I was about to start, I noticed a friend’s updated status (a priest friend of mine).  The status was a question and an answer. 
“So, do you have any plans for Valentine’s Day?”
“I’m going to go to work and remind everyone of their inevitable death.”
Happy Valentash Wednesday, everyone.  I loved that status update because…well, I love that kind of humor, and because it is so true.  Maybe a bit maudlin, I’ll grant you, but we really are here on Ash Wednesday to remind ourselves of our inevitable death, and of the hope that goes with it. 

We can only really come to that hope of life in and through and beyond death when we first face and accept death.  So many people fear death or try to deny death, and yet death is the one true, inescapable destiny of the human condition.  Death is also the great equalizer.  In the grave, as we return to the dust, there are no rich or poor, no righteous or unrighteous.  Death deals with all equally, as the psalmist says in Psalm 62, “Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.”

Even so, as humans, we’re generally not all that great fans of death.  Many of us try to stave it off as long as possible, we try to build up security for ourselves so we can die on our own terms, we fight wars and kill other people in order to prevent our own deaths, and yet without question, everyone is going to face death.  Living in fear of death or trying to deny death, we end up imprisoned by death, so much energy and life wasted in an effort to stave off or deny the inevitable.  Accepting death, however, and accepting the life that continues on through Jesus’ resurrection, we can be freed from death’s hold over us.  All of us go down to the grave, yet even at the grave, we make our song, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!”  Death still stings, but by accepting it, we can live with death and with hope.

Accepting death, we might be able to accept more readily the miraculous nature of our bodies.  We start as dust and we end as dust.  Our bodies are comprised entirely of things that didn’t used to be our bodies.  Every cell and atom in our bodies used to be something else, some other part of creation, and then as we began to be formed in our mothers’ wombs, all of the formerly other stuff became organized for a time as our bodies.  Our bodies remain organized in this way for a time, and then they die and decay.  The stuff that was our bodies is disintegrated, and becomes something else.  From dust we are made, and to dust we shall return.

We aren’t in these bodies for all that long, as Psalm 90 says, “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.”  Ash Wednesday reminds us of this fact.  As we put ashes on our heads and remember our mortal nature, we are offered no escape from death, no denying the fleeting nature of our bodies.  In Ash Wednesday, there is also no denying the hope we have in Jesus, that whether we live or we die, we are the Lord’s.  As the Lord’s, we continue on in life, even after our mortal bodies return to the dust.  Trusting in that, trusting in God’s continual care for our lives even after our bodies die, we are free to live without fear and denial of death.  Accepting the ephemeral nature of our lives, accepting that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we can cherish our bodies and we can cherish each other even more.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return may not be the best selling Valentine’s
Day card ever written, but such a message actually is a message of profound love.  If our lives continued on forever, then choosing to share our lives and love with each other would mean far less.  If things didn’t work out in a relationship, we’d have all the time in the world to try with someone else.  As it is, we don’t have all the time in the world, and so choosing to share our lives and love with people is a tremendous gift and something to be cherished.  As transitory as this life is, I choose to live it with you, family, friends, loved ones.  I choose to cherish you while you inhabit that body, and I choose love you, trusting that through God’s eternal life, not even the heartache of death will end the love and communion we share.  I choose to cherish and share my life with you knowing that we are all dust, and to dust we shall all return.  Maybe it’s not such a bad Valentine’s Day card after all.

God Is In the Grind

Brad Sullivan
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 11, 2018
Emmanuel, Houston
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

God Is In the Grind
Have you ever been outside walking around and then looked up and been startled, scared even, by a hideous, almost other worldly beast staring at you with hungry eyes, vicious teeth, and razor sharp claws, only to have your eyes refocus and realize you were in fact looking at a tree branch?  The tree branch didn’t change, only how your eyes saw the tree branch changed.  I wonder if that isn’t something like what happened to Peter and James and John with the transfiguration.  Rather than Jesus changing before their eyes, perhaps what changed was their eyes’ ability to see for a few minutes something they had not previously been able to see:  the radiance and majesty of the light of Jesus.  Perhaps even, Moses and Elijah had been there previously as well, unseen and unheard by Peter, and James, and John, until God changed something within them and allowed them to see and experience more of the world than any of us are able to see or experience with our regular senses. 

Perhaps Jesus took Peter, and James, and John up to the mountain top in order to change something of their ability to see and experience the world for a short time, so that they saw not only the majesty of Jesus, but also the majesty of God’s kingdom in which those who have died are still alive and well with God, and the world.  Perhaps then, when God turned the dimmer switch back down on Jesus and Moses and Elijah disappeared, what they had seen on the mountain didn’t cease to be, but only their ability to see it.  As beautiful and wonderful as the world is then, what they saw for a short time was that the world is far more beautiful than they or we could ever have imagined. 

Little wonder then that they wanted to make booths and stay there.  In any mountain top experience, any jaw dropping, mind blowing, beautiful experience of our lives, we tend to want to stay in that moment, rather than come back down to earth to the drudgery of daily life.  As much as we like to poke fun at Peter for seemingly always saying the wrong thing, I have a feeling we’d have all wanted to stay up on the mountain a little while longer as well. 

I wonder then how Peter, and James, and John saw the world once they came back down the mountain.  Did the world seem dull by comparison?  Maybe, but I sure hope not.  I hope instead that after Jesus’ transfiguration, the world seemed to Peter, and James, and John to be alight with possibility and alive with wonder.  I hope they realized that everything they saw up on that mountain was still there in the regular old mundane world, just simply hidden from their eyes.

I would say that’s the reason for any mountain top experience, any jaw dropping, mind blowing, beautiful realization of the majesty of God and his kingdom all around us.  We’re never meant to stay on top of the mountain.  The only reason we go up the mountain to see Jesus transfigured before us is so that we can come down the mountain and also see Jesus in the miracle of the mundane, the non-dopamine laced divinity of the daily drudge.  Every moment is a possibility for love and wonder.  Every person we see is a beautiful miracle of God’s design, made with the spark of God’s image and the dust of our common humanity out of which we are all made and to which we all go.  We go up the mountain in order to come down, realizing Jesus is just as transfigured at the bottom of the mountain as at the top, even if we can’t see it

Bishop Doyle writes similarly in his book, The Jesus Heist: (p. 67)
The only reason to come into a community [for worship] is so you can learn how to leave it and do the real work of worship - being with Christ in the world around us.  This is how we show the love of God - we go and love people, heal people, care for people, live with people, eat with people.  We go and discover where Jesus is in the world and join his work there.

Whether the mountain, or church service, or any experience we have of the divine, we’re never meant to stay, we’re meant to live, and we’re meant to realize that the rest of our lives are every bit as sacred.  As mundane as our lives may seem at times, they and we are all part of something bigger and far more beautiful than we can see or imagine. 

Something as simple as a kind gesture.  Giving a cup of cold water to a kid who is thirsty, as Jesus said…or an old person who is thirsty for that matter.  Going to work or school each day at a job that does not satisfy or an education that seems pointless, God is there just as much as on the mountain top in the miracle of the mundane. 

What in us keeps us from seeing the miracle of the mundane and the divinity of the daily drudge?  How about our wounds?  How about our desires to make the world be how we want it rather than to accept the world as it is?  What if we were to give some of those wounds and desires to God so that he might heal them and transform us so that we could see the miracle of the mundane and the divinity of the daily drudge? 

That’s kinda what Lent is all about, which we start this Wednesday.  That is why we give things up during Lent, and so my suggestion is this:  rather than give up something simple like Diet Coke or Chocolate, try giving up some of your woundedness which keeps you from seeing the miracle of the mundane.  Try giving up some of your desires for control which keep you from seeing the divinity of the daily drudge…or perhaps, do try giving up something as mundane as Diet Coke or Chocolate and see the miracle of the world in even so simple a sacrifice. 

In any case, realize that the sacrifice, like the mountain top, like the community gathering for worship is not the point, is not where we stay.  The sacrifice, like the mountain top, like the community gathering for worship is done so that we can then come back down the mountain, leave the gathering for worship and “do the real work of worship - to show the love of God by loving people, healing people, caring for people, living with people, eating with people:  going and discovering where Jesus is in the [mundane] everyday world and joining his work there,” for God is in the work, the common work of eating with people, living with people, working with people, getting angry with and reconciling with people, caring for people, healing people, loving people, and seeing people as brothers and sisters.  That is the work where God is at the bottom of the mountain.

God is in the grind of daily life.  Realizing that truth, trusting that God is in the grind just as much as on the mountain, we can spend the grind in worship and prayer, in communion with God, every moment a miracle, every step a sacred act, resting in God’s presence, even in the mundanity of daily life, for God is in the grind. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Families of the Earth Can Be Blessed Through You

Brad Sullivan
2 Epiphany, Year B
January 14, 2018
Emmanuel, Houston
John 1:43-51

The Families of the Earth Can Be Blessed Through You

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  I love this question of Nathanael’s partly because it appeals to my snarky side, and also because the obvious answer is supposed to be “no.”  Nazareth was a Podunk little sparrow fart town.  The messiah was not supposed to come from there, and further, at least in Nathanael’s mind nothing good could come from such a crummy place.  Nathanael would have rather written off Jesus and anyone from Nazareth.  Let’s leave those people there, and go on and hope for the messiah to come from somewhere important.  God just wasn’t playing Nathanael’s little game of making sure things looked good enough on the outside to stroke his ego.  “Sorry Nate,” God said.  “I know you want to be associated with a Messiah from somewhere awesome, but I’m not here to inflate your sense of self importance.  I’m here to bring about my kingdom of love, grace, and truth, and that includes places like Nazareth, and other little sparrow fart town and countries.”

When we get tied up in the place, the location where greatness is supposed to be, where we think God is supposed to be, God just says, “Oh you silly humans; I’m not in any one place.  I’m in all places, and like the Psalm says, even and especially with those people and places whom you often deem too lowly to matter.”  So while the obvious answer is “no, nothing good can come from the proverbial Nazareth,” God’s response is “come and see.”

Nathanael reluctantly does, “Fine, we’ll go see your crummy Messiah,” and Jesus tells him something pretty huge.  First he convinces him that he is someone worth hanging around and listening to, and then he tells Nathanael, “You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

This is of course alluding to Jacob’s ladder, the story in Genesis where Jacob (who would later be renamed Israel) was sleeping outside and he had a dream of the heaven’s opened up and the angels of God ascending and descending upon a ladder to heaven.  In the dream, God spoke to Jacob and told him,
all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’  Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’  And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

This promise of God indeed came to pass.  Jacob was renamed Israel, and from him and his children came the people of Israel, the laws and ways of God, the prophets, and Jesus himself.  So, when Jesus told Nathanael “You will see heaven opened and the angles of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” he was telling Nathanael that families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring (children, disciples, people whom you will teach about me and my ways).  “You, Nathanael, can be like a new Jacob.  God’s mission of healing humanity, of reconciliation to each other and to God can be lived out through you, Nathanael, and not only that, families of the earth will be blessed through you and through those who come after you.  Through you, Nathanael,” Jesus was saying, “the salvation that I offer, the life of God’s love, grace, and truth, can be known and lived and passed on to others, and families of the earth will be blessed through you and through those who come after you.”

You may notice, however, that there aren’t too many St. Nate churches.  “Through you, Nathanael, families of the earth will be blessed,” and yet we hear very little about Nathanael after this.  Most of what he did was not recorded in the pages of history, and yet through this seemingly unimportant man, families of the earth were blessed.  Like Nathanael, most of our names will not be written in the stars or even in the pages of history, and yet, the families of the earth can be blessed through each of us.  We can all be like a new Jacob, people of the earth blessed through us and those who come after us, as we live out Jesus’ ways and share with them his kingdom of love, grace, and truth.

Further, the kingdom of God can indeed come from Nazareth, or any other sparrow fart nothing of a place because God does not dwell only in one place, like the place where Jacob was.  Indeed, the dwelling place of God was in Jesus himself, with the angels ascending and descending on him.  The dwelling place of God is within all of creation and within humanity itself:  you, me, the important people from great places, and the lowly schlebs from sparrow far places like Nazareth and flooded out shells of buildings. 

We are Emmanuel, and God is with us.  God dwells with us and within us.  We can live out God’s kingdom of love, grace, and truth anywhere, and through us God can bless the people of West Houston and beyond to truly the ends of the earth.  As far as we can go and as many come to know and follow Jesus through us, God can bless the people of the earth. 

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?  Can anything good come out of this little flooded out gathering of Jesus’ friends?  Come and see.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The questioners, the loners, the kids with behavior problems...

Brad Sullivan
2 Christmas, Year B
December 31, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
John 1:1-18

The questioners, the loners, the kids with behavior problems...

Over the weekend, a priest friend of mine and I talking and joking together about challenges of church life, and she said, “Yeah, church would be great if it wasn’t for all the people.”  It’s a common joke about the imperfections of the Church which is the ecclesia (or gathering) of Jesus’ friends.  Jesus’ ecclesia of friends began as a rather rag tag group of also-rans, the island of misfit toys type folks who needed and wanted the love and belonging which Jesus was offering.  Being a rag tag group of folks, the church was always an imperfect bunch, and that proud tradition has continued on to this day.

As the church, the ecclesia, the gathering of Jesus’ friends we’re a group of people who follow in Jesus’ ways, except when we don’t.  We love well, giving compassion to those who really need it, to those whose lives have been shattered and need someone to sit with them among the broken pieces of their life and slowly begin sweeping them up and putting the pieces back together.  That is, except for when we don’t love well for a variety of reasons, when our own lives just aren’t up to it, or when our own brokenness prevents us from seeing the broken person in front of us as a person, and we instead just see a broken thing.

As Jesus’ ecclesia, his gathering of friends, we love God and love people above all else.  That’s our way of being.  Some friends of mine recently told me that in their efforts to love God and people above all else, they’ve been going through their house get rid of anything that they would be really upset about if it was broken by a child…or an adult.  They want their home to be a place of love, where adults and children know they are loved, and that they are loved more than the stuff in their house.  That’s a great model for the church, where we love God and love people above all else, except of course when, in our efforts to love God, we end up loving things, and we place that love of things in front of loving people.  It happens.  The church is imperfect because it is irrevocably peopled with people.

In John’s Gospel this morning, we heard that the Word of God, which is God, is also the life and light of all, and that the Word of God became human, as Jesus, and lived among us as one of us.  That was really his first mistake, wasn’t it?  The Word of God already had a perfect ecclesia going, a perfect gathering of beloved friends with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  This perfect ecclesia remained perfect until the Word became flesh and lived among us.  Then, Jesus joined us to the ecclesia of God, along with all of our imperfections.  That’s kind of the beauty of it.  If God had wanted a perfect ecclesia, then I suppose he wouldn’t have become human at all.  We wouldn’t celebrate Christmas, and there would be no baby Jesus, or adult Jesus, or even teenage angsty Jesus.  There would just be the perfect ecclesia of God, without humanity, but God didn’t want that perfect ecclesia, a perfect church.  God wanted the ecclesia of Jesus’ friends, the church, the gathering with humanity, along with all of our imperfections, even if that meant that we mucked things up a bit.  So, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

In becoming human and living among us, God showed us his love for us, not his desire for us to be perfect.  I mean, I suppose it’d be nice, but God showed that he loves us, warts and all.  He then formed the church, the ecclesia or gathering of Jesus’ friends, so that we could further share his love for people, warts and all.  Jesus wanted not a perfect ecclesia, but an ecclesia that shared his heart for people and his willingness to sacrifice personal comfort and convenience (and quite a bit more than that) for the sake of people…especially the ones no one else seemed to care that much about. 

The questioners, the loners, the kids with behavior problems.  Seek them out, invite them in, and love them more than your stuff, Jesus has taught his church, and be willing to sacrifice your personal comfort and convenience for their sake. 

The people who don’t have life figured out and have spent their life mucking it up for themselves.  The people who have life figured out and learned from a young age that life is harsh and cruel.  The people who have been rejected by their peers, rejected by society, rejected by their church or family.  Seek them out, invite them in, and love them more than your stuff, Jesus has taught his church, and be willing to sacrifice your personal comfort and convenience for their sake.

The people who aren’t like us, who make us uncomfortable, whose very existence disrupts our world, shattering the illusions we created to make our world seem safe.  The people whose need is greater than we can provide, whose loneliness and despair are deeper than we can see, and whose desire for connection and companionship is greater and more beautiful than even they are aware.  Seek them out, invite them in, and love them more than your stuff, Jesus has taught his church, and be willing to sacrifice your personal comfort and convenience for their sake.

We’re not going to fix every problem or make any lives perfect.  The lives of all people still have that one flaw in them, that all lives involve people and are therefore irrevocably messed up, messed up just like the church, the ecclesia, gathering of Jesus’ friends, and Jesus didn’t form his ecclesia of friends in order to make a perfect institution.  Jesus formed his church, his gathering of friends, in order to share with us his light, because he simply wanted us to be a part of the life of communion shared between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and so with all our imperfections, we reach out with that same light to others, and we sit with them in their imperfections, not to make them perfect, not necessarily to fix them, but simply to dwell with them, to shine some light into the darkness of their lives, and to join in communion with them, becoming friends, and joining together in the Church, ecclesia, the gathering, of Jesus’ friends.