Monday, November 6, 2017

Here's to the Alsorans: Those Litle-Known Saints In Our Lives

Brad Sullivan
All Saints Sunday, Year A
November 5, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Matthew 5:1-12

Here's to the Alsorans:  Those Little-Known Saints in Our LIves

Who are the saints?  (Icon of St. Joseph - is this a saint?  Picture of my dad - is this a saint?)
Both are saints, even though only a few knew my dad.

The saints are those who love God and love people. 

The saints are also those whom God loves and whom people love. 

In our Gospel reading, the beatitudes, is Jesus describing the saints?  Yes…and…he’s not always describing people who have done particularly saint-worthy things.  He’s also describing those whom he loves.

Did the people whom Jesus described do particularly saintly things? 
Peacemakers - yes.
Merciful and pure in heart - yes, they seem rather saintly.
Hunger and thirst for righteousness - maybe.
The poor in spirit - no…just kind of downtrodden.
The meek and those whom mourn - …also kind of sad, not particularly great.

Let’s look at that.  Thinking of mourning and being poor in spirit, remember being sick as a kid.  Remember feeling puny and just wanting to cuddle up with a blanket and do nothing?  How is that saintly?  Well, I have a secret for you, are you ready to hear it?  Sometimes when our kids were younger and they were sick, it was actually kind of nice.  We weren’t happy that they felt bad, but they were so cuddly when they were sick.  They would come to us and simply want to be held, to be nearer to us.  We couldn’t make the cold go away, but we gave them what they needed, to be nearer to us, to be held and loved.  We got to hold and take care of our cuddly little kiddos.  How blessed were they and we, when we simply go to hold and love them?

Blessed are little kids when they are sick, because they get taken care of by those who love them. 
In his list of those who are blessed, Jesus is describing some who live out God’s kingdom and live out the heart of God, and Jesus is also describing those who are sick and so draw nearer to God to be held by him and loved.  Blessed are people who live out God’s kingdom, and blessed are people who are down and out for they are cared for by God and live near to God through the love they share.

At the heart of the saints is a heart that says, “I love people and I want to live in a way that is loving toward others.”  Also at the heart of the saints is a heart that says, “I have nothing left; I am tired and poor and sick, and I want to rest in Jesus’ arms and receive God’s love.”

So that’s who we’re talking about when we talk about the saints.  We’re talking about those who love:  those who love God and love people, those who are loved by God and loved by people, and those who seek out and receive God love and receive peoples’ love.  Those who love and those who let themselves be loved.  Those are the saints.

Who are the saints in your lives?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Most Powerful Force In the World

Brad Sullivan
Proper 25, Year A
October 29, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

The Most Powerful Force In the World

Becca Stevens is an Episcopal priest and the founder and president of Thistle Farms which she stared 20 years ago with five women who needed healing, survivors of abuse, trafficking, and prostitution.  She started with five women in a house called Magdalene, and there these five women found the healing power of love as they lived together, cared for each other, and loved their way back to wholeness.  After four years, Becca and the women of Magdalene House realized they also needed women to become economically independent to fully get their lives back, and so they stared making candles, oils, and other healing products.  Thistle Farms began, and the women who were survivors of the worst that humanity has to offer began operating this business, Thistle Farms, learning about running a business, while being healed themselves, and while generating revenue so that more women survivors could come and live in one of the houses for the two year program and also be healed. 

In the twenty years that Thistle Farms has been healing women and sustaining itself through the healing products they make and sell, Becca Stevens has found that “Love is the most powerful force for change in the world.”

That sounds a bit like what Jesus taught, doesn’t it.  Love God, and love people.  That is the only religion Jesus is really interested in us having.  When Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God and the close second is to love people, he was talking to the uber religious Pharisees.  They were like the extreme high church people of our day.  If there was a law, a rule, a rubric about their religious practice, they followed it absolutely to the t.  There was nothing particularly wrong about that except for what was in their hearts and the reasons why they were following the law absolutely to the t. 

See they were following all of their religious practice rules because they thought doing so made them righteous in God’s eyes.  They really wanted God to be pleased with them and they wanted to look good before God and others.  In other words, their extreme religious observance was mostly selfish and done with a misunderstanding of who God is and what God desires for us.  For a timely example, they’d basically turned God into Jobu. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Jobu, he was a small voodoo idol statue guy who made his cinematic debut in film Major League.  In the movie, the Cleveland Indians baseball team were dead last in Major League Baseball and they had a rather rag tag group of players, plenty of talent, but a little rough around the edges.  Pedro Cerano was their big heavy hitter and could hit a home run off of a fastball just about every time, but he couldn’t hit a curve ball.  So, he kept this little statue named Jobu in his locker, and he prayed to Jobu to help him hit the curve ball.  Not only that, he tried to please Jobu by leaving him offerings of cigars and rum, and as he told his teammates, “It’s very bad to drink Jobu’s rum; it’s very bad.”  Of course Jobu didn’t actually help him hit the curveball and in the end, he decided he would just hit the curveball himself.

The Pharisees had turned God into Jobu.  “Yea for us,” they thought, “We’re offering to God all of our proverbial cigars and rum; we’re following every religious practice, every single one, so that God will be pleased with us.”  They were even instructing others and even scaring them into trying to do the same so that God would not be angry with them.  In other words, “it’s very bad to drink Jobu’s rum.”  The Pharisees had forgotten that the point of the law, the point of all of their religious practices was not to please God, but rather to help heal their own hearts so that they might be better able to love others.

God doesn’t care about our religious practices.  As much as the law of Moses said that people had to sacrifice animals to atone for their sins, the prophets said over and over again, “Would you stop with that animal sacrifice stuff?  God doesn’t want it.  God doesn’t care.  He just wants you to treat each other well, to take care of each other, and to live lives of love.”  That’s like the new ultra-revised standard international version, but that was the message.  “I don’t care about this stuff.  I don’t care about these religious practices.  Just love each other.”

Love God, and love people.  If at any time, obeying a rule of the law forces you to act in a way that is not loving toward God or people, then break the law.  If at any time heeding the words of the prophets forces you to act in a way that is not loving toward God or people, then do not heed the words of the prophets.

So, if God really isn’t all that into religion, why do we have religion?  Why do we have these rituals and routines and ways of life?  Well, again I’ll turn to Becca Stevens with Thistle Farms.  The point of the ritual and the religion is to help us love God and love people.  In her book, Love Heals, Becca writes about the healing power of ritual.  She writes about her morning ritual including prayer which took years to work out what truly helped heal her heart each day.  She wrote that keeping this morning ritual got her ready for the day and helped heal her heart each day so that she could be more loving toward her family and everyone else she saw during the day.  She wrote that “[Keeping these rituals] might mean dinners are simpler, clothes don’t get folded as often, and you miss out on other activities, but for folks like me who can spin out and lose focus, morning rituals are grounding and essential.”  “We need some good old-time religious practices,” she wrote, “to infuse our lives so we can use the most powerful force - love - to heal our communities.”

Personally, I’ve found healing in old time religious practices, particularly in the last month or so by praying morning prayer each morning.  For years, my practice was to pray morning prayer by myself with a cup of coffee, and before having kids, this daily practice worked out pretty well, and there were a couple of years that I found healing every morning through these prayers.  Enter children, and I just couldn’t do it for a while. Still, that was my practice, morning prayer every morning, and I rarely followed that practice. 

Then there was Harvey and praying Compline each night via Facebook life, and those prayers and rituals and the community praying together.  One of our vestry members asked if we could do Morning Prayer as well, so the next morning I began praying Morning Prayer Monday through Saturday at about 6:00 each morning and inviting others to join via Facebook Live.  There has been a change in my life with this newly rediscovered ritual, especially because I’m getting to pray with others, even if they aren’t present at the time and they join in by watching later.  If that particular routine isn’t going to work for you, and it’s not going to be healing for everyone, then find another routine, some other old-time religious practice that does heal your heart.  Time to breathe, time to center in prayer, letting all that is pass by and simply be in the moment.  Look at the beauty of the earth, the trees, the sky, the beauty of the people around, giving thanks, feeling our connectedness, noticing the daily gift of the sunrise and sunset.  Breathe, be still, light a candle to cast out the darkness, pray through scripture and the words of Jesus.  Join with others in prayer.

Having routine and practices, religious rituals is a wonderful, healing way to live, not because God cares one whit if we pray morning prayer, but because these rituals help to heal our hearts, to reconnect us to the source of all life and love, the God who created all that is.  Then, with our hearts healed, we can live out that love toward others.  God cares about our healing and our love for one another quite a lot.  That’s why God would be pleased with our religious practices, that these rituals may heal us so that we will be better able to love.  

If we don’t follow religious practices, God’s not offended.  God is not Jobu upset that we didn’t offer him rum.  Rather, God offers us religious practices and rituals because God knows we’ll find healing by connecting to him each day, because God is love, and “love is the most powerful force for [healing and] change in the world.”

Monday, October 16, 2017

Wow, That Got Out of Hand Quickly

Brad Sullivan
Proper 23, Year A
October 15, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Isaiah 25:1-9
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Wow, That Got Out of Hand Quickly

So this is everyone’s favorite parable.  In a few sentences, Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast went from a king throwing a wedding feast for his son to the guests not wanting to come, killing the king’s servants, and the king utterly destroying their city and killing all of them.  From “Hey guys, let’s have a party,” to total bloodbath in 4.3 seconds, the hearer of this story is left rather breathless, thinking, “Wow, that really got out of hand quickly.”  We’re left stunned, and a bit scared as we hear this parable, and so we often try to clearly define what groups of people Jesus is talking about.

Christians have long tried to define themselves as the riff raff collected from the streets who accepted the king’s invitation, and Christians have then tried to define the Jews as the initial guests who killed the kings servants and were then killed by the king themselves.  Not so fast crazy Christian.  At the time Jesus told this parable, there weren’t any Christians yet.  Jesus was an itinerant Jewish Rabbi telling a parable to his disciples in the context of the priests and the  Pharisees trying to discredit him and his ministry while at the same time exalting themselves.

So, Jesus tells a parable about God’s judgment and God’s grace, and there is tension there which the Pharisees and the priests wanted to ignore.  Pharisees and priests followed the law of Moses, so much so that they became certain of their own righteousness before God not because of God’s grace, but because of how well they followed the rules.  They felt justified in God’s eyes as if they had earned his good graces.  That’s now how grace works.

In Jesus’ parable, no one earned anything.  People were invited to a party.  The king invited his people to the party, and they didn’t want to come.  In fact, they were so dead set against going to a party, that they would literally rather kill people than go to the party.  How crazy is that?  “I invited you to a party, and you chose to murder people instead?”  The king says.  So, at that point, yeah, the king kills those people and kills ‘em good, burns their town and leaves nothing but ashes.  

Then he invites whoever is left, the riff raff, and all is well.   They come to the party, and being riff raff, being the good and the bad, the whomever the king happened to find out among the streets, these people didn’t have fancy clothes to wear to the wedding.  In fact, it wouldn’t have mattered if they did, because at a wedding like this one, the king would have provided even the initial guests with wedding garments.  They were the kings guests, and they would wear what he provided, rather than showing off their own splendor and mocking those with less. 

So the riff raff is having a great time at the party.  Crazy uncle Earl is making a bit of a spectacle of himself, but that’s ok.  Music is going, the wine is flowing, and then the king sees this one dude without his wedding garment.  Did the kings servants mess up and not give him one?  Did he refuse to take it?  Did he sneak in through an open window and crash the party?  We don’t know, and that’s what the king wants to know, and rather than fess up, the man just stands there not saying anything.  From his initial entry without accepting the wedding garment to his refusal to speak to the king, the man is making one thing very clear.  “Sure, I’ll be here at your stupid party, but I’m going to be here on my terms.”

That’s now how the party works.  That’s not how grace works.  Grace is freely offered, and you just say “yes” and “thanks.”  If the guy in the story had just spoken up, he’d have been ok.  When asked “Why you don’t have a wedding garment?”, just admit that you’re a self righteous prat.  Just admit that you’re still broken and messed up and trying to earn your way or trying to place yourself above others.  If the guy without the wedding garment had just spoken up, the king would have said, “Oh, you misunderstood.  The party is a free gift, you don’t have to earn it.  You don’t have to be better than anybody else.  Here, take this wedding garment, and let me get you a beer.”

The story isn’t about being better than anybody else or being prepared, it’s about saying, “Gee whiz, thanks,” to God’s grace.  Often when we hear this parable, however, we make it about something else, and we try to define who has accepted the wedding garment and who hasn’t?  Do we, as the church, worry about our family and friends who reject becoming Christian, reject being a part of the church?  Possibly we do, but whoever said “the Church” are the ones who have accepted the invitation and put on the wedding garment?  Sometimes, in the church, we take our faith in Jesus and turn it into our own clothes, trusting in our faith in Jesus as a rule, rather than simply trusting in Jesus.  We take our faith in Jesus and turn it into our own terms.  We take Jesus and turn him into an institution.

Sometimes folks reject the church as the institution and reject the faith of the church as the faith of that institution.  They’re searching for truth, searching for a way, searching for life.  They are searching for God’s grace, for what we understand Jesus to be, but they aren’t finding what they are searching for in what we proclaim about Jesus nor in how we live out Jesus’ way.  Perhaps those who reject the church are being called to the wedding banquet from the streets, and we have unknowingly rejected the invitation, or accepted the invitation but done so on our own terms?

There is always that tension, that we take Jesus’ invitation and turn it around and accept it, but accept it on our own terms.  “The invitation is free, but I’m accepting it as a good and righteous person,” some may think, or “Now that I’ve been invited, I’ll earn my invitation by being such a good person from now on.”

There is always the tension between following Jesus and his way, the importance of living as Jesus taught, and the free gift of grace, the invitation that continues to be offered regardless of our actions, regardless of how good we are or how bad we are.  There is tension between the free gift of grace and the command to love one another as Jesus loves us, and the man in the parable who tries to go to the wedding feast on his own terms reminds us that we don’t get to resolve the tension. 

“I thought God wanted me to be a kind and decent person, loving others?”  Yes, he does. 
“But doesn’t he want me to show that off at his party?”  Nope.  You didn’t get to the party by being so awesome.  God invited you out of grace.

See God wants to have a party, all the time, and at the end of all time.  In this life, God wants us to love each other.  God wants us to accept his grace and to give his grace.  God looks at us and thinks, “Man, y’all are messed up.  Just admit it, and quit with this silliness of thinking you have to be better than each other.  That ain’t how I work.  Y’all are all messed up, and I want to have a party with all of you.”  That’s how grace works.  The judgment is that we don’t buy it, or rather than we think we have to buy it.  When we think we have to buy it, that’s when things get out of hand really quickly.  The truth is, we don’t have to buy God’s grace or earn God’s grace.  We don’t have to fight with each other to try to get enough of it.  We don’t have to claim ourselves as having it and others as not.  That’s keeping our own clothes on.  God’s grace is God’s grace.  It’s a free gift, and there is plenty to go around.

Monday, September 25, 2017

But Jesus, That's Not Fair!

Brad Sullivan
Proper 20, Year A
September 24, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Matthew 20:1-16

But Jesus, That’s Not Fair!

“But Jesus, that’s not fair!”  That pretty well sums up the response of the laborers at the end of Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard.  They had agreed to work for the day for the usual daily wage.  They negotiated those terms with the landowner.  Then, when they found out that those who worked for only an hour also made the usual daily wage, they felt cheated.  “That’s not fair!”  Well, as a friend of mine was thinking of titling her sermon for today, “Suck it up, Buttercup.” 

Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms once said, “Whenever Jesus told a parable, he lit a stick of dynamite and covered it with a story.”  At first glance many of us, myself included, look at this parable and think, “Well that’s not fair, Jesus.”  Then we look a little deeper into the story, and “boom”.  The dynamite goes off.  Our notions of fairness and deservedness, our shoulds and aught tos get blown up. 

True enough, it isn’t exactly fair to pay those who worked only an hour the same as those who worked all day, but look at the alternative.  If the landowner was being fair it, would seem that the laborers who worked all day would have had the landowner pay for only an hours’ worth of work to those who worked an hour for only.  That would be fair, but that was 1/8th of what they needed each day to get by.  So, ultimately the attitude of the laborers who worked all day was, “in order to be fair, you should let those other people starve.  Ultimately, the laborers who worked all day were saying that those who were only able to work for an hour should die.  “Boom.”  The dynamite goes off.

“Well wait, no, Jesus didn’t mean it like that.”  “I thought it was unfair, but I didn’t want the other laborers to die.”  We hear Jesus’ parables, the dynamite goes off, and then while the dust is still settling, we often try to rebuild our world just like it was before Jesus’ pesky meddling.  “No, he didn’t mean it like that.”  “Sure Jesus is the messiah, but he didn’t really mean what he said in this parable.”  “Something in this story got lost in translation.”  It’s easy to try to rebuild too quickly, wanting the security of our previous notions of what is right, without first looking at what Jesus has revealed in his pesky parable dynamite demolition thing.

We often want this parable not to be about money, and it isn’t only about money.  This parable may not be Jesus’ instruction manual for economists, may not be, but the response is often to see the economic flaws in Jesus’ notion of generosity over deservedness.  “This wouldn’t work as an economic system.  You know what people are like.  No one would work more than an hour a day.”  Probably true, and that’s a fair point, but before we rebuild what Jesus demolished over that one security keeping argument, what lessons might there be for us as we consider this parable?

Looking at how people tend to get compensated for their work, we tend to look at averages.  What do others make on average for this same type of work?  That seems fair enough, but in the light of Jesus’ parable, a more appropriate question would be “Is this compensation enough?  While others might make “X” for this job, I know that “X” isn’t really enough in today’s world.  It may be fair in comparison with what others make, but it isn’t really enough.”

For a modern example of choosing to pay what is enough, rather than seems fair by comparison, Dan Price, the CEO of Gravity Payments cut his own salary by 90% back in 2015 so that all of his employees could earn $70,000.  I don’t know that Mr. Price was inspired by Jesus; I’ve read nothing to indicate that he was, but his example shows the possibility of living into the kingdom way that Jesus taught, even in our modern economy.  The company is still going strong, or was as of January of this year when the article I read about it was written.  There were some negative consequences.  Some clients pulled out of the company, fearing their fees would increase.  They didn’t.  Other clients liked what the CEO had done and began giving him their business.  Some of the employees didn’t like the new arrangement and quit because they didn’t think it was fair for those who had been earning less than they to receive the same as they.  These employees felt diminished by their boss’ generosity.  I tend to go with the title of my friend’s sermon on that one.  “Suck it up, buttercup.” 

Like the laborers in the vineyard who worked all day, they felt it wasn’t fair to earn the same as those whom they felt didn’t deserve as much.  Jesus again takes dynamite to our notions of fairness and to the comparisons we so often draw.  “Am I making as much as compared to others?”  “Should those people earn as much as I do when I compare the amount or kind of work I do with the work they do?”  “Do they really deserve to have enough for the work they do?”  “Don’t I deserve more than enough for the work I do?”  Boom.

Such comparison is something else Jesus dynamites in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, along with our notions of fairness and deservedness.  When the dust settles, we might just learn from Jesus that comparison may seem like wisdom, but it doesn’t tend to lead to a good place.  Comparison leads to jealousy and envy.  Comparison leads to being bitter about what someone else has rather than being happy about what I have.  Comparison leads to always wanting more.  Comparison leads to feelings of inadequacy and never being good enough.  Comparison leads to us being deaf to Jesus’ teaching not to worry; his teaching that we are enough as we have been made to be; his teaching not to put our faith in stuff, but to put our faith in him, to trust in our beloved-ness, and to love others as we are loved. 

Theodore Roosevelt, BrenĂ© Brown, and others have said variations of the following concerning the supposed wisdom of comparison.  “Comparison is the thief of happiness, and jealousy is usually it’s partner in crime.”  The laborers in the vineyard and the employees of Gravity Payments were happy with what they had, until they started comparing what they had to others.  Then comparison and jealousy stole their happiness away and did absolutely nothing to help them or anyone else.

To the cry that this story isn’t fair, I’d simply say, God isn’t fair, and thank God for that.  God’s Kingdom doesn’t deal all that much in fairness and deservedness.  God’s kingdom doesn’t deal in our jealous comparisons.  God isn’t interested in our hierarchies.  He’s not interested in us raising ourselves up above others because we feel that our greater efforts make us deserving of greater benefits.  In God’s Kingdom, Jesus dynamites or concepts of deservedness, fairness, and comparison.  Then in the crater and debris that is left, Jesus teaches us, and God builds up in us his love, his selflessness, and his generosity toward others.