Sunday, July 5, 2015

Imperfect Vessels of God's Grace

Brad Sullivan
Proper 9, Year B
July 5, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Did you notice that Jesus didn’t send out his disciples to preach and to heal people until the disciples had seen Jesus rejected in Nazareth?  I wonder if they needed to see that, to know they might be rejected before they were sent out.  Maybe they needed to be kept from being too elated, as Paul wrote about himself.  Paul wrote that he was made weak and tormented by a messenger of Satan, and that he prayed to God for it to leave him.  In response, God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Not exactly the response Paul was looking for, but he understood.  We can get too puffed up, too strong on our own, and then we tend to give too much glory to ourselves.  Even when our words say otherwise, pride ends up telling us that we are great.  Feeling self-sufficient can leave us isolated, closed off.  We can end up scornful and contemptuous of those needing help…even if we help them.  “Thank God we’re not like that.” 

Imagine if the disciples went to heal people and to preach repentance while thinking in their hearts, “Thank God we’re not like those people.”

Paul said, when we are weak, then we are strong – because we have to accept our dependence on others, and we have to accept our dependence on God. 

Jesus certainly made sure his disciples would not be self-sufficient when he sent them out to preach and heal in the villages around Nazareth.  They weren’t allowed by be strong so that they had to rely on the charity, meaning love, of others.  Go in weakness so that God’s love may be made strong.  Allow the strength of others to care for you as you go, so that God’s love may be made strong.  Go also realizing that you may be rejected, just as I was rejected, and allow God’s grace to be sufficient for you. 

Jesus was rejected in Nazareth because he called up short those in Nazareth.  It is one thing for someone who is supposed to have life all figured out to teach us about life.  (clergy, life-coach, counselor, Oprah) We can have the experts teach us about life, because then we’re comfortable in our place.  We don’t feel threatened because, well, they’re the expert.  We don’t have things as together as the expert, but we’re not supposed to, we think.  They’re the expert.  They’re on a higher level, so their teaching doesn’t threaten my worth on the lower strata where I reside.

When someone who seems just as like us begins teaching us, then we have problems.  They’ve risen above their station because they’ve risen above us.  If they, who were just like us, are now “above” us, then my place in the universe, in society is threatened.  I feel less, because they are more.  I feel threatened by one of my own teaching me.  “Who the hell do they think they are,” right?

Jesus teaching in Nazareth exposed the people’s weakness in ways that the religious elite teaching them did not.  They didn’t like feeling weak, so they shut out the teaching.  They closed themselves off to Jesus, and put their armor in place so they wouldn’t be hurt by their acknowledged weakness.  They felt stronger.

Their armoring up, however, was not strength.  It was shame and fear.  Jesus called his Nazareth brothers and sisters to repent, to be the light to the nations God made them to be, to show the world the love of God.  They heard his message, however, and they felt exposed.  Through one of their own preaching to them, their armor of fig leaves dropped off, and they had to take seriously their own weakness.  I’m guessing they didn’t like what they saw, because you tend not to reject someone who makes you happy.  They felt weak, so they got angry with Jesus, and they put their armor of fig leaves back on, and they pretended that it made them strong, but strength is not pretending that we have it all together.  Strength is not fooling ourselves into thinking that we are righteous and self-sufficient.

Strength is acknowledging our weakness and asking for help.  In doing so, we risk having to change.  We risk letting Jesus in and letting Jesus’ teachings in and changing us.  We also risk connecting with others.  Acknowledging our weakness means our armor comes off.  We drop our fig leaves, and you know what everyone can see then.  When we drop our fig leaves, we let others in.  We let God in, and God is made strong in our weakness.  Love is made strong when we are connected to one another and vulnerable with one another.

We are all imperfect vessels of God’s grace.  Our church is an imperfect vessel of God’s grace.  That’s why we need God’s grace.  We’re doing the best we can, muddling through, doing well, messing up, revealing our strengths and our weaknesses as we go along.  Rather than being made perfect, we are told, God’s grace is sufficient for us, and with God’s grace, we continue to muddle through. 

The focus is not our muddling, but God’s grace. 

Go not only to give, but also to receive.  Go to accept God’s grace, to give God’s grace, to proclaim God’s grace, and to continue on the work that Jesus gave his disciples.  Go to help heal the world, and to be healed in the process.  Go to help reconcile people to each other and to God.  That is what Jesus came to do, to transform the world through reconciliation. 

As Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry said in his sermon to General Convention:
[Jesus] came to show us therefore how to become more than simply the human race – that’s not good enough – came to show us how to be more than a collection of individualized self-interests, came to show us how to become more than a human race.
He came to show us how to become the human family of God. And in that, my friends, is our hope and our salvation, now and unto the day of eternity.
Or to say it another way.
Max Lucado who’s a Christian writer says “God loves you just the way you are, but he [doesn’t intend] to leave you that way.”
Jesus came to change the world and to change us from the nightmare that life can often be to the dream that God has intended from before the earth and world was ever made.
Fooling ourselves into thinking we are self sufficient keeps us in a nightmare of life, leaving us believing we don’t need the grace of God.  Fooling others into thinking we are self sufficient them in a nightmare of life, thinking they are even more damaged than they are, that they only need God’s grace because they aren’t as good as the folks who have it all together.  Thinking that we have it all together, or expecting that we do, keeps us in the nightmare of life in which we cannot be fully reconciled with each other and with God. 

Jesus came to change the world to change us from than nightmare of disconnection to the dream of connection and love that God has intended from before the earth and world was ever made.

So go, as imperfect vessels of God’s grace.  Go as part of this Episcopal Church, this imperfect vessel of God’s grace, into an imperfect world in desperate need of God’s grace.  Go acknowledging your weakness and our weakness.  Go, believing that even as we continue to muddle through, God’s grace is sufficient.  For when we are weak, then God is strong.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Division or Unity Within the Ranks?

With all the hubbub and opinions being posted out there over the last week, I figure it's time for me to jump in too and give my thoughts.  This issue has consumed the hearts and minds, indeed the souls of countless people.  There has been hurt, hope, loss, anger, grace, entrenchment, forgiveness, and love on both sides.  I am of course referring to the ongoing, almost 40 year-long debate over Star Trek vs. Star Wars.  

On the one hand, Trekkies point out that Star Trek was the original, a mainstay of our sci-fi loving society long before Star Wars came on the scene.  Star Trek was intelligent, grounded in science, delving into mysteries of what it is to be human and what our place may be in the universe.  It was also funny, heartwarming, wholesome, and a fine example of the power of friendship and love of others to overcome obstacles.  The crew of the enterprise overcame much through their commitment to one another.

Then came Star Wars.  It was sci-fi, but with so much more fantasy.  Science didn't really come into play.  There was the force, light-sabers, good vs. evil, and hyperspace, which as any Trekkie could tell you, is not nearly as fast as warp.  While a fine story, and fun to watch, Star Wars seemed too surface level for many Trekkies.  The force was cool, but also hippie-dippy nonsense.  The Millennium Falcon was also, rather a neat ship, but nothing, and I mean nothing compared to the Enterprise:  smaller, slower, less firepower and defensive capabilities.  No matter how good a pilot Captain Solo may be, he had nothing on Captain Kirk, and neither did his ship.

On the other side, to Star Wars fans, Star Trek was a boring, outdated look at what sci-fi could be.  Slow pace.  Explore rather than fight.  You want to talk about weapons?  Star Wars had the Death Star - it could destroy the Enterprise in one shot (not to mention the Earth and other planets of the Federation).  One Jedi, beamed to the Enterprise, or better yet, Darth Vader beamed there, could take out Kirk's entire crew.

Plus, two words:  Millennium Falcon.  The Trekkie claims about the Enterprise superiority were just wrong.  Pseudo-science aside, the Falcon is a much cooler ship, and Han would take Kirk down with one shot.

So, for decades the debate raged on.  Arguments and attacks toward the other side became increasingly vitriolic as both became more entrenched in their views.

Some, however, began to see a middle view.  They were afraid at first to admit it, but they eventually had to declare that they liked both Star Trek and Star Wars.  Indeed, the loved both of them, sometimes even equally.  "Heresy!" Cried the far Trek and far Wars sides.  You cannot like both.  You'll just cause division within our ranks.  "You're going to the Dark Side."  "You're just like a Romulan."      

Now, as we continue on in the 21st century, these middle-minded geeks seem to be taking a hold.  I for one applaud their efforts and hope to see more nerds embrace this middle ground.  Too many relationships have been ruined over this senseless fight.  Both the Star Trek and the Star Wars universes have wonderful things to offer.  We can embrace and love both, while still disagreeing about the Falcon vs. the Enterprise.

If we don't, then we will just have more sad division among the ranks of the dorky and nerdy, a group that can hardly handle division if it wants to continue to thrive.  Besides, what a terrible world would it be if the Enterprise and the Falcon actually did blow each other up?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Hemorrhages, Gossip, & Wholehearted Living

Brad Sullivan
Proper 8, Year B
June 28, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Mark 4:35-41

Jesus healed a woman of her hemorrhage without even meaning to.  She had been suffering from this hemorrhage for 12 years, was made worse by the doctors, and then she heard about Jesus.  As he passed by her in a crowd, she touched Jesus’ garment, and immediately she was healed.  “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus said, “go in peace.”

Peace is, I believe, the key to her healing.  The hemorrhage was obviously not bad enough to kill her.  She had been living with this hemorrhage, bleeding for 12 years.  The hemorrhage wasn’t killing her, but it was keeping her from living.  Because she was bleeding, she was unclean.  Anyone who touched her, or anything on which she sat was also unclean.  She couldn’t enter the temple, and couldn’t live a normal life. 

I don’t know for sure, but it seems like it would be difficult to have quality relationships with people if they could never touch you, if you could never sit in their presence, and if they could never touch anything you touched.  Whether you ended up as a pariah or simply one to be pitied and gossiped about, my guess is this woman’s relationships were rather less than ideal.

Jesus healed her not only of a hemorrhage, but of the isolation and shame that went with it.  He made her whole and gave her peace.  This peace means shalom, wholeness and peace of mind, body, spirit, inside and out.  He restored her to relationship with others so she could have wholehearted relationships with people, rather than forever hiding behind fig leaves.

Ultimately, that is what Jesus did for this woman and what Jesus does for us.  He restores us to proper relationship and helps us remove our shame so we can be naked an unashamed, as Adam and Eve were in the Garden with God and with each other.  At the root of all of our need for healing is that first consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God:  shame and disconnection.  After eating the fruit which God told them not to eat, Adam and Eve immediately hid themselves from God and from each other.  They were ashamed and put up barriers to their once open and wholehearted relationships.  Wholehearted living, BrenĂ© Brown calls it.

Wholehearted living or wholehearted relationships mean that we can be courageous enough to be our true selves with others.  We can let go of our defenses and the armor we put up around ourselves, and we learn to trust other people.  We can be honest about ourselves and accept honesty from others.  Wholehearted living means we can have empathy and compassion toward others, and toward ourselves.  We can care more about people than we care about being right.  We care enough about others to speak the truth to them, and we care enough to speak that truth in love.  Wholehearted living means we’re willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of love, that we’re willing to hurt for the sake of forgiveness, that we’re willing to let go of our self-righteous anger for the sake of seeing another with compassion and empathy. 

The woman whom Jesus healed of her hemorrhage, was healed so that she could live whole heartedly, without shame and disconnection.

At Saint Mark’s, we too have a hemorrhage of which we need to be healed, several probably, like any other community, but today, I’m speaking specifically of the hemorrhage of gossip. 

I raised this issue at our parish meeting back in January, and was asked a few days later if I had raised the issue because of something in particular or if I thought that we were worse about gossip than other parishes.  I said, “no, just the usual kind of gossip that happens everywhere.”  Thinking more about that question, however, I’ve realized that I’m not concerned with comparing us with other parishes.  I wasn’t called to be the rector anywhere else.  I was called to be rector here.  There’s gossip here, and a pretty good amount of it.  Like the woman with the hemorrhage, the gossip isn’t killing us, but it is keeping us from wholehearted relationships with each other.

I know this is small town Texas.  I know people gossip. I also know that gossip is not what Jesus intends for our lives.  Gossip puts up barriers to whole Wholehearted living.  Gossip, or generally negative talking about someone else behind their back puts that other person on the outside of a relationship.  The gossipers feel like they are more connected because that other person has been disconnected.  He’s in the out group, so “we’re good.” 

Of course connection through gossip is not true connection.  It’s not wholehearted connection.  It is connection based on shame and fear.  It is connection with the fear that, “once I leave, someone might gossip about me, and then I’ll be on the outside.”  Gossip just keeps us behind fig leaves instead of truly, wholeheartedly loving one another.

If we are ever going to be the church Jesus intends for us to be, we have to stop gossiping, here and everywhere else in our lives.  We need to be a light to others, showing them how to live wholeheartedly, rather than gossip.

This doesn’t mean we don’t ever talk about what’s happened in our lives, or about what happened with another person.

Let’s say you’re talking to a friend about how someone has hurt you.  The friend listens compassionately, empathetic for the pain you’ve been caused.  That’s good venting along with supportive talking and listening.  Then let’s say the friend starts talking about his own problems with the person who hurt you.  Now we’re probably getting into gossip.  “I know, he’s just a jerk, isn’t he.  Let me tell you what he did the other day.”  Gossip. 

Realizing sometimes we need to vent out emotions, that needs to be done with a trusted person, knowing it won’t go any further.  It also needs to be done for the sake of healing not bashing someone else. 

Perhaps when you’re sharing how someone has hurt you, and  your friend decides to share similar negative experiences that he’s had with this other person, but not to have a common enemy, not feel connection by disconnecting the other.  Let’s say your friend starts sharing common negative experiences out of concern for the other person.  “You know, he was kinda mean to me the other day too.  I wonder what’s going on.  I think I’m going to check on him, see if everything is ok.”

 Now we may not be gossiping.  Now we may be caring about someone.  Perhaps you both start looking at this other person with empathy and compassion.  Perhaps through those lenses, you find healing for yourself.  Perhaps through those lenses of empathy and compassion, you find a desire to seek reconciliation with that other person, for his sake as well as for yours.

It’s just that easy, right? 

Speaking the truth in love is not nearly as easy as gossiping, but it is courageous.  Choosing to say, “wait a minute, let’s stop talking bad about this person; let’s instead look at this person with compassion and empathy,” is not easy, but it is courageous.  Forgiving another, rather than gossiping is not easy.  As former dean of our cathedral, Joe Reynolds said, if we’re really going to forgive, something has to die (our hurt, our self-righteousness, our being right, etc.).  Forgiving means letting something die.  So, choosing the pain and grief of forgiveness rather than gossip, and letting die within us that which needs to die in order to forgive is not easy, but it is courageous.  Choosing to seek connection and wholehearted relationships, not by setting someone else up as an outsider through gossip, but seeking wholehearted relationships with others is not easy, but it is the way of Jesus. 

Gossip has no place in Jesus’ kingdom.  It is a hemorrhage from which we and most everyone else needs healing so that we can live wholeheartedly. 

Wholehearted living is the kind of life Jesus offers us.  Wholehearted living is the kind of life God intends for us, so that we can live without shame or fear, but with daring, with empathy, compassion, and love.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Peace. Be Still.

Brad Sullivan
Proper 7, Year B
June 21, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Mark 4:35-41

Jesus and his disciples were in a boat, about to be swamped by the great wind and waves of a storm raging all around them.  Amidst the fear and incredulity of the disciples, Jesus says three words, “Peace!  Be Still!”, and the winds in the sea obeyed Jesus.  The storm calmed.  There was peace. 

On Wednesday night, 9 people were killed at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown, SC.  The gunman, terrorist we could call him, was caught, confessed to the killings, and on Friday, was being arraigned.   I heard on the news, recordings of family members of those who had been killed who were there during the arraignment.  They were forgiving the young man and praying for him.  They obeyed Jesus, the storm calmed, and there was peace. 

The storm in their lives is far from over, and they are, I am sure, far from peace, and yet, they chose to offer peace and forgiveness rather than spread the anger which they are also feeling.  The sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor said she is 'still a work in progress' when it comes for forgiveness.  "I am very angry but one thing Depayne has always taught us that we are the family love built," she said. "We have no room for hate."

“Peace!  Be still!”  Jesus said to the storm, and the storm calmed, and there was peace.  Jesus commanded his disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  (Matthew 5:44)  Again, he said, “Bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:28)   The families of the victims of this shooting have obeyed Jesus’ commands.  They have shown grace upon grace.  They have offered peace to this storm that threatened to swamp their boat.

Anger, fear, resentment:  these are very natural ways to react when we are facing storms in our lives.  The problem is, anger, fear, and resentment don’t bring peace.  They just make the storm worse and swamp our boats that much more quickly.  Nelson Mandela, among others said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies” 

There are so many storms out there, and so many storms in here.  How are we going to obey Jesus in order to bring peace and calm to these storms?  What are we going to do?

Despite all of the political talk and debate that has erupted once again, bringing even more storms, the violent boat sinking storms that our nation faces will not be solved through legislation.  Laws may help, but they won’t calm the storm.  They won’t bring peace.  There are no quick fixes and easy solutions.

So what are we going to do?  How are we going to respond?  A clergy colleague of mine wrote the following prayer. 
Dear Lord, what would you have us do to turn things around?
Maybe start with turning around? Repentance? We (the church) are supposed to know how to do that. Confession?
What would world changing repentance and confession, from an entire denomination (the Episcopal Church- since a bunch of us are getting together next week in Salt Lake) for the sins of racism look like?
What would happen if an entire church got down on her knees and repented?
What would happen if we stayed on our knees and waited for God to moves us?
-  Sara Shisler Goff
Stay on our knees in prayer, and wait for God to move us.  That sounds like a pretty good way forward.  We want the world to change, but we can’t expect it to if we don’t change.  We can’t know how to change if we don’t listen to God first. 

So, I am suggesting and asking that all of us get together weekly with others to pray for peace and calm for the many storms in our lives and in our nation.  Then, when you get guidance from God to act, be daring enough to act, obeying Jesus’ commands to bring peace and calm to the storm.  If our actions aren’t bringing peace and calm, then we don’t need to be taking those actions.

So pray first. Then act.  Regarding praying with others in groups, this could be for 5 minutes with a co-worker.  This could be with a couple of friends with whom you already gather every week.  I’ve printed cards for everyone that you should have right now for you to write down three or four names of people whom you are going to ask to pray with you weekly. 

Additionally, we’ve got people in the back of the church who will write your name down if you need help in finding a group.  Simply give them your name, and we’ll help get you connected to a group. 

You should also have been given  a card with a prayer service for peace.  Use it if it’s helpful.  It is a basic liturgy for a short, small group prayer service adapted from the Book of Common Prayer.

Finally, you should have been given a bookmark with a prayer for the morning and for the night, both prayers asking for God to use us as servants of his peace.

We need peace so that the storms of this nation don’t keep swamping people’s boats.  We need to obey Jesus as the wind and the sea did, as the family of those killed in South Carolina did.  I’m asking you to do this.  I’m asking you to gather with others for prayer.  If you need help in starting this, ask for it.  If you’ve already got a group and are open to a couple of people joining, let us know, and we’ll guide people to you.

Pray nightly by yourself or with your family for peace.  Pray that God will make us servants of his peace.  Pray that we would obey Jesus as readily as the wind and the sea.

I offer and end with these two prayers for morning and night.

Each morning:
-          Lord of all creation, of light and life, the world is not what I wish it were.  Lord, use me as you will to bring about your kingdom of love.  Help transform my heart to let go of fear, pride, self-righteousness, and resentment, and fill me instead with daring, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, and love.  Then use me as you will, and leave me open and alert to your guidance.

Every night:
-          Lord, I have done what we could today.  I regret those actions I did not take which you wanted me to, and what I did which was against your will.  I am also grateful for those times when I did serve you.  This day is now past.  Please take it as my offering to you, and grant me a peaceful night and a perfect end, that I may be refreshed to do your will again tomorrow.

Pray these prayers with confidence in Jesus who said to the storm, "Peace.  Be still.", and the storm calmed, and there was peace.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


Proper 6, Year B
June 14, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Mark 4:26-34

I’m going to talk today about faith and faithfulness, and how God can take small amounts of each and grow something beautiful.  About 6 years ago, I was going through a period of great doubt, great enough that I was wondering if I could remain a priest or not.  Nothing particular had triggered this, I was just questioning and wondering, and I really didn’t know if I was going to find faith again.  I felt like a had to know for sure, with certainty, and I could never find certainty.

Fortunately, I did remain faithful during this time, kinda had to, and so even amidst personal doubts, I was faithful in my role as a priest, faithful in prayer, preaching, teaching, worshipping, celebrating Eucharist.  Faithfulness to our life and the ways of Jesus sustained me when my faith seemed gone.  Then, about 5 years ago, my faith returned, or rather, I chose to have faith again.  I loved the story of Jesus, and even though I couldn’t have certainty, I didn’t want to give that story up.  I didn’t want to give up God becoming one of us.  I didn’t want to give up Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  I didn’t want to give up the Kingdom of God and all of our lives joined together, with God in Christ.  So, I chose to believe even with all of my doubts and uncertainties.  That small amount of faith and that faithfulness was enough for God to grow even greater faith and within me.  After that period of doubt and believing again, I found a faith greater and deeper than ever I had before.

As most of y’all know, about three weeks ago, my dad died, and in the last three weeks, that faith has not only sustained me, but also given me joy.  When Dad died, I’d been preparing for it for a while, emotionally, so when the time finally came, I was largely joyful for him…no more pneumonia, no more struggling with diabetes, no more strife.  Also, in my view of life with Jesus, he’s not looking down on us.  We’re there with him, already together.  So, for Dad’s sake, I was truly joyful.

Then, not long after that, I started alternating between sadness, shock, joy for Dad, and everywhere in between.  Sometimes I’m joyful for him and talk to him, sometimes, I cry because I want my dad back. 

The sadness and grief is to be expected for anyone who loves and loses their dad.  The joy part?  Not everyone has that.  I didn’t used to have that.  I believed in life with God after death.  Actually, I had been taught it, I was supposed to believe it, but it didn’t hold the meaning and the joy years ago that it does for me now, but years ago, I had a seed of faith, and it has grown such that I truly can be joyful for Dad’s life with God continuing on in Jesus.

Such is life in God’s Kingdom, where God takes our faith and our faithfulness, even if we have just a little, and God grows something great out of them.  Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed which grows into a large plant.  God can take small amounts of faithfulness and grow something wonderful out of them.

Kristin was away over the end of last week with Brenda Harris to the Kids Hope USA director training in Dallas.  The boys were with my mom, and I had Ellie, who had not been away from Kristin overnight until Wednesday and Thursday night last week.  For those who had been following the Ellie with Daddy, no Mommy saga on Facebook, the final score was Ellie 84, Daddy79.  It was a great couple of days to spend with our baby girl. 

But I digress.  Kristin and Brenda were at the Kids Hope USA training to direct our program with Kids Hope USA which partners with churches and schools to facilitate mentoring in elementary schools.  Through Kristin and Brenda, Kids Hope is providing training for members of St. Mark’s so that we can be mentors for kids at Linnie Roberts Elementary School.  We’ve got 8 mentors so far who will be trained and supported by Brenda and Kristin, and then spend an hour a week with one child at Linnie Roberts over the next school year.

That shouldn’t really make much of a difference, should it?  One hour a week.  Then again, the Kingdom of God is like a tiny seek which grows into a huge plant; it sprouts and grows, we don’t know how.
The following is a story from Kids Hope about a child for whom this one hour with a mentor who believed in him grew into something great.
Only a few weeks into his first year of school, and already Tommy had a reputation. His unruly behavior had cleared the classroom, more than once. His teacher was at a loss. His mom was worried. School leaders had already given up on the Kindergartener.
But then hope... a gift named Rhonda.
When Rhonda, Tommy's KIDS HOPE mentor, went to meet him for the first time, school staff hesitated: "Are you sure you're ready for this?" Rhonda was. She met Tommy's wide eyes with a smile, and began pouring herself into the little boy's life. Together they played, learned and listened. They created an incentive chart, helping Tommy and his teacher begin to recognize the good in the five year old.
Soon, the angry outbursts stopped. Tommy's behavior changed so drastically, it changed the minds of those around him. Where they once saw only a disciplinary problem, they now saw a delightful boy with a brilliant mind, a soft heart and a bright future.
Tommy, once on a fast track to an alternative school is now thriving in his traditional classroom. Once labeled as "trouble" is now valued as a child... all because he found hope in someone who believed in him. (
Again, an hour a week, doesn’t seem like it would work, but  Kingdom of God is like a tiny seek which grows into a huge plant; it sprouts and grows, we don’t know how.  God can take what faithfulness we have, and grow it into something wonderful.

God can take what faith we have and grow it into something wonderful.

If you’re struggling with doubt, then remain faithful, and let your faith be enough for now, and ask God to make it to grow.  God can take the seed of faith and grow it into something great, more joyful, and more life-giving than we may imagine. 

Look at what work you can do for the Kingdom of God, and let what work you can do for God’s Kingdom be enough for now, and expect it to bear fruit.  If all you can give for the growth of God’s Kingdom is an hour / week, that’s enough for God.  God can use that seed to grow a lot more in your life and in the lives of those for whom you give that hour.

Kingdom of God does not happen all at once.  It grows from a tiny seed into a great plant.  Whatever faith and faithfulness we have is enough for now.  Ask for God to make it grow.  Amen.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Faith Is A Daring Way

Proper 5, Year B
June 7, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
2 Corinthians 4:13 - 5:1
Mark 3:20-35

The obvious part of our Gospel story today is that Jesus is telling the scribes that no, he is not using the power of the prince of demons to cast out demons.  “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”  Satan would not be stupid enough to be here casting out demons; he would not be working against himself.  Jesus is making clear that he is casting out demons with the power of God, not the power of the enemy.

Less clear is that Jesus is warning the Scribes not to turn the house of Israel against itself, lest Israel not be able to stand.  Jesus spoke about not being able to plunder a strong man’s house until you first bind the strong man.  On the one hand, he is saying that he has bound Satan, otherwise he wouldn’t be casting out demons. 

On the other hand, Jesus is warning the Scribes against binding the Holy Spirit.  Don’t blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.  Don’t ascribe the works of the Holy Spirit to Satan.  Don’t lead the people of God away from their belief in God such that they only believe in you.  If you do, you’ll be binding the Holy Spirit. 

Now, we can’t exactly bind the Holy Spirit.  We are not more powerful than God, but look at what happened in Nazareth.  The scribes claimed Jesus was healing and casting out demons with the power of Satan, rather than the power of the Holy Spirit.  Then, the next time Jesus returned to Nazareth, he could do no great deed of power there because of the people’s unbelief. 

It seems that the Holy Spirit had been bound in that place because the people had been led astray. 

The scribes, like the Pharisees seemed to be so bound by the rules of their religion, that they couldn’t leave room for God’s Holy Spirit.

We need rules and people who love them.  We also need openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and people who are attuned to those promptings.  We need doubters and those strong in their faith.  We need the nuts and bolts type folks and the crazy dreamers.  We need those just seeking and exploring Christianity and those who have been Christians as long as they can remember.  We need the possible heretics and the sound theologians.  Those deeply rooted in prayer and faith, and those who are so busy they are hanging on by a thread.  The sinners and well, the sinners.  Those sinners who are committed to the way of Jesus while still messing us, and those sinners in strong need of repentance so that they can start on the way of Jesus.  Those whose faith and works in Jesus challenge us and those whose faith and way seem very much like ours. 

We need all of us together.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Darkness of Unknowing

Trinity Sunday, Year B
May 31, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

I thought for Trinity Sunday I’d preach about God as a frosted Do-nut, with God as the dough part, Jesus as the frosting, and the Holy Spirit as the hole, where you’re thinking, “what is it; it’s hard to define, but it isn’t a do-nut without it.”  Then I thought that would be a terrible idea, and decided against it.

We just heard about Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night to question him, not like the Pharisees who questioned him during the day, trying to prove him wrong and make him look bad in front of everybody.  Nicodemus came to Jesus and questioned him because he was genuinely curious and drawn to Jesus.  Something about Jesus challenged or inspired Nicodemus, and he was led, I believe by the Holy Spirit to seek Jesus out and learn about him and from him.   So he went under the cover of darkness to question Jesus.

Nicodemus was a man who was very secure in his religion.  He had all the right knowledge about God, all the right answers, and all the right religious practices.  I would say he was over-familiar with his faith, and so when he heard Jesus speak, he began to feel something was missing.  What he had would no longer hold or sustain him.  So he walked toward the light of Jesus, but into the darkness of unknowing. 

That’s what happens when we follow the Holy Spirit.  We move from the light of what we know and into the darkness of unknowing and uncertainty, trusting only in the light of Jesus.

In the Episcopal Church today, like in all denominations, a lot of people are not moving toward the light of Jesus.  When checking a religious preference box on a survey, they no longer check “Christian,” and instead check “none.” 

Some check the “none” box because they’ve grown contemptuous of the Christian faith.  Dallas Willard described this problem as coming from over-familiarity, people who think they know all there is to know about Christianity, find it lacking, and turn away from the faith.  Over-familiarity breeds unfamiliarity, which leads to contempt.  Folks in this camp tend to feel that the Christian faith is about little more than avoiding a place called “Hell” when you die and that the Christian life is nothing more than spending an hour a week at worship in a church building. 

It is easy cast stones at those who feel this way and are leaving the church, but if folks really believe that those two things are all Christianity is, avoiding a place called hell and spending an hour a week in worship, I can understand them not finding that faith fulfilling and sustaining.  Over-familiarity led to unfamiliarity, which led to contempt.

I should also note that many of the folks who are leaving the church also say that they are very spiritual, just not religious.  Folks are seeking God, seeking the mystery of God, and they sometimes find that they aren’t allowed that mystery in the church that they have known.  Like Nicodemus, they are searching for something more. 

We were called together by Jesus and anointed by the Holy Spirit not to avoid a place called “Hell” or to spend an hour a week in worship.  We were called to believe in and follow Jesus and live as his disciples.  We were anointed to live out God’s kingdom here on earth and to spread God’s kingdom to others.  We were called by Jesus to show people the way of Jesus by how we live.  We were called to teach people the way of Jesus by how we live and by what we say.  We were commissioned by Jesus to lead others to be Jesus’ disciples as well, that they too might live out God’s kingdom here on earth. 

Our time here in worship is not a minimum requirement to avoid a place called hell.  Indeed, our entire way of life in following and believing in Jesus is not done to avoid a place called hell.  We believe in and follow Jesus in order to know God, to love God and love other people as fully as possible. 

We are called today to reverse this trend of people turning away from Jesus and leaving the church.  There are a couple of things we must do in order to reverse this trend.  The first is that we need to live our faith deeply and intentionally.  We gather for worship to join together with God and one another sustain and guide us as we live our faith the rest of the week.  We need to live and take seriously the practices of our faith:  corporate worship and our sacramental life, daily prayer, reading scripture, loving our neighbors, seeing and treating others with dignity, practicing forgiveness and reconciliation. 

The other thing we need to do in order to reverse the trend of people leaving the church is to live into the mystery of the Holy Spirit.  Sustained by our faith and the practices of our faith, we need to have the courage of Nicodemus to be led into the darkness of unknowing.  This means while keeping and cherishing our worship together, we also need to explore new ways of worship in order to reach those whose experience of church has led them away from Jesus rather than into an ever deeper relationship with him. 

We must have courage as the church to proclaim our faith and way of life, and we must have courage as the church to listen deeply to the stories of those who don’t share our faith and way of life.  We must be willing to step out into the darkness of unknowing in order to reach those who are there, and guide them to the light of Jesus. 

We need to live into the hole of the do-nut, the indefinable, hard to grasp, Holy Spirit, which leads us places we’re not always comfortable going , but without which we cannot truly live the life of God, the life of the Trinity, the life of Jesus.  Amen.