Wednesday, July 27, 2016

You Can Do Better? No. You Are Enough

Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
July 24, 2016 - Proper 12
Luke 11:1-13

You Can Do Better?  No.  You Are Enough

“You can do better.”  That was on the message we saw as we left the weight room gym of San Marcos Academy, where we stayed for our mission trip last week.  The women slept in the guy, and men slept in dorm rooms with beds (thank you, Kathy), and the only place we could get ice for our work days was in the back of the men’s weight room in the gym.  We left there each day with buckets of ice reading the same message that guys from the school saw each day as they left the weight room, exhausted from their workout, “you can do better.” 

I think the coaches or whoever put that message on the wall, probably intended it to be a motivational saying, but all I could think was that it was about the worst motivational saying I’d ever seen.  When you’re completely worn out from lifting weights and your legs are jelly, and even lifting your gym bag takes some effort at this point, and all you hear it, “you can do better (weakling…you’re kinda pathetic).” 

Unfortunately, that’s a message that we often hear in our world today.  “You can do better.”  “You’re not good enough.”  Whether it’s magazine covers or TV, people we know, or even people we hear talking, not even talking about us, but just railing against someone else for something they did, and we’re thinking, “I hope they never find out I did something like that too.”

“You can to better” is a constant message we hear, and so it’s little wonder that we often approach God in prayer as though he is a huge Voltar Machine in the sky.  The Voltar Machine is from the movie, Big, with Tom Hanks in which a 13 year old boy is tired of being the little guy, weaker and smaller than his friends, tired of constantly thinking, “you could do better if you weren’t so small,” so when he’s at a carnival, he sees the Voltar Machine.  It’s a large box like a video game, but isn’t a video game, it’s a glassed in case with head and torso of a guy with a turban, looking like a genie from a lamp, and when you put your quarter in, you make a wish, some lights flash, and a little card comes out saying, “wish granted.” 

So, in a desperate attempt to be better, the boy in the movie says to Voltar, “I want to be bigger,” and he wakes up the next day as a grown man, as Tom Hanks.  Problem solved.  There are a couple little challenges that come along with suddenly being a grown man, but you know, it’s a movie.  It all gets worked out in the end.

Sadly, for many of us, we tend to approach God like he’s a huge Voltar machine in the sky, granting our wishes if we ask in just the right way.  If only I was good enough.  If only I was better.  If only I could do better.  God help me do better.  God help me be better.  Help me be more like…whomever. 

That’s not the message of prayer that Jesus gives us.  Jesus told his disciples to pray a very simple but very deep prayer. 

To start off with, “Father, hallowed be your name.”  Not, “great Voltar machine in the sky,” but Father...not wish granter.  “Father, (one who lives me and will help guide me into all truth, one who sees me as a beloved son or daughter,) hallowed be your name. 

Your kingdom come.  Not I want to be bigger, or I want to be better, or whatever.  The implication here is, you are enough, and we’re praying, “your kingdom come.”  So this is, one, the end of all time “your kingdom come,” the restoration of all things, but we’re also praying, “your kingdom come” right now.  We’re praying that we’ll participate in God’s kingdom.  If the kingdom is coming right now, then we have something to do with that.  We don’t just pray, “Lord make it happen, and I’m going to be hands off, back here, just watching the show.”  No, “your kingdom come,” and I’m asking to be a part of that as your son or daughter, Father.      

Then we pray, “Give us each day our daily bread.”  This is a prayer of trust, of trust in God and of asking just enough for what I need for today.  There is kingdom work to be done today, and so I’m asking God for enough to help in that kingdom work today, not in a few years, not so that once I’m good enough in seventeen and a half years, then I’ll be able to do God’s work for his kingdom.  Rather, today, I am enough for God to do God’s work for his kingdom.  So please, Lord give me what I need to do the work for your kingdom now. 

When we say doing work for God’s kingdom, what are we talking about?  Bringing about the kind of world that Jesus preached about in those parables he told.  For example, the parable of the workers in the vineyard in which some worked all day, and others only worked for an hour at the end of the day because they couldn’t find any work before then, and they all got paid the same, the daily wage.  They got paid their daily bread.  They got paid what they needed for that day, not what they needed for an hour’s worth of that day.  The lived the whole day.  So in God’s kingdom, you get what you need for the full day, even if you didn’t do a full day’s work.  It’s not fair.  God’s not fair, but that’s the kind of kingdom Jesus tells us to strive for, to bring about, to partner with God in bringing about. 

Then we ask God to forgive our sins (which sounds great), as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us (dang it!).  We really are supposed to forgive which means we really are supposed to see others and not say, “You can do better.  You messed with me and you can do better.”  Instead we are to say, “You messed with me, and I get it.  You’re not perfect, neither am I.  I forgive you.  It’s ok.  You are enough, and I forgive you.”  If we can’t say that we forgive those indebted to us, then that sign above the door, “You can do better,” really should be our motto because that’s what we’re proclaiming to everyone else.  I don’t think any of us want that.

Finally, we pray, do not bring us to the time of trial, this time that we see in scripture where we are brought before God, and the Adversary, the Accuser, is there laying out all of our transgressions before God.  We pray, “Please, Lord don’t make me face that, because I know I’m not going to do so well when all of that is laid out.”  Do not bring us to the time of trial.  What we’re praying is, “Jesus, I believe in you,” because what did Jesus do but say, “I’ve got this covered.”  We’re right there at the time of trial; it’s all being laid out, and Jesus says, “No, no, no, this one’s mine.”  He says that about all of us.  He says that about everyone.  “No, this one’s mine.  I’ve got their sins covered.”  So save us from the time of trial, Jesus.  We’re praying, “Jesus, climb up on the cross, and take our sins upon you.”  To which Jesus says, “Done.”

So Jesus gives us this very short, very simple, very deep prayer whereby he calls us beloved, whereby he tells us that we are enough as we are to work for his kingdom, whereby he reminds us to forgive others as he has forgiven us, whereby he reminds us that we are his eternally, and then he goes into this whole thing about how you’re supposed to pray all the time.  He gives this analogy of a guy who had a friend with really bad travel plans, who showed up at midnight demanding food.  (Wait six hours, dude, you won’t die.)  As the story goes, we’re supposed to go berate our neighbors until they finally say, “Fine, here’s some bread; shut up; leave me alone.” 

That’s how people do it.  I don’t think we’re going to be praying to God until he finally says, “Ok, I hate you, I can’t stand you, but here, take this.”  That’s not how God sees us.  The idea is that if this person whom you have woken in the middle of night and who can’t stand you will give you what you ask just to shut you up, then how much more will God give us what we need since Jesus has already shown us that God loves us?

Does this mean, then, that God is the big Zoltar machine in the sky, that if we ask enough he’s going to make us bigger or better?  No.  Jesus tells us what God is going to give us…the Holy Spirit.  God is going to give you what you need, and he tells us that what we need is the Holy Spirit.  Now, is that because we’re not good enough without the Holy Spirit to do this kingdom work?  No.  It’s because God trusts us enough to work with us. 

Ask for God’s Holy Spirit.  Say, “God I don’t want to do this alone.”  I guess I could.  We say we can’t do anything good alone.  Yes we can.  We can do plenty of great things alone.  It’s just kinda terrible.  It’s so much better to do it with others, to partner in this Kingdom work with God, and God says not, “You can do better.”  God says, “You are enough as you are, and trust you enough and believe in you enough that I will partner with you and grant you my Holy Spirit to do this Kingdom work together.”

So unlike the sign above the gym (we should have painted over that before we left…that would have been great; it would have been vandalism so I’m glad we didn’t), God does not say, “You can do better.”  The sign above our door as we leave out house, as we leave in the morning is, “I am with you, and I am for you, and I will do this Kingdom work with you, because you are enough.”  Amen.            

Don't Do Your Chores, Kids

Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
July 17, 2016 - Proper 11
Amos 8:1-12
Luke 10:38-42

Don’t Do Your Chores, Kids

I looked through several children’s Bibles on a hunch over the last week looking for the Martha and Mary story we just heard, and my hunch was confirmed.  Not a single one contained this story of Martha doing all the chores, Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, and Jesus telling Martha that Mary had it right.  No parent wants their children to hear this story.  “Don’t do your chores kids.  Just sit around and listen to Jesus.”

To be fair to both Mary and Martha, both work and rest are required.  We gotta get our chores done.  We gotta get our work done, and we want to strive for excellence in what we do.  Mary is not the patron saint of laziness.  She could be called the saint of setting aside all distractions and serenely receiving the Word of God.

Martha, on the other hand, wanted to receive the Word of God.  Indeed, she had invited Jesus into her home, but then she was too busy being a host that she couldn’t just be with Jesus.  She was like the people described in Amos 8:12, scurrying around searching for the Word of God and not finding it.  Martha has become a symbol for our time and our culture, searching frantically for some peace, for some good news, for some way to keep our heads above water.  Many of us even invite Jesus in, but we’re so busy and distracted, that we never actually find the peace, good news, and salvation for which we’re so frantically searching.  Mary found the Word of God in Jesus and knew her search and scurrying were over.  She could rest, and so can we if we will but choose to.

I’m guessing that for many of us, the thought that it’s actually good not to work for a while and just rest at Jesus’ feet is probably kinda nice.  That’s not what our economy would probably say, not what businesses might encourage; we may even feel bad about taking that time to rest, shamed by all the frantically searching Marthas, but looking at God’s plan from the beginning, rest and intentional time taking rest is such an integral part of what it is to be human, that it is even part of the image of God in which we were made.  God rested on the 7th day, just spent time with creation and with God’s self. 

Kristin encouraged me to rest last Monday, not to do a whole lot, just relax, spend time with the kids.  “I don’t relax very well,” was my reply, but she persisted.  So, I relented and spent time resting and being with the kids.  It was a great, grace-filled day.  Jesus was there in that time spent with family, in the rest, in the Sabbath. 

Looking at our traditional way of resting in the Word of God, we gather in our church for worship and communion for an hour each Sunday.  Let’s be honest that for many folks nowadays, coming to a church service isn’t exactly the first and best idea of rest, or something particularly enjoyable.  There are hard benches, old music, stories from an ancient book, sit, stand, kneel - that’s one way to experience worship. 

Here’s another.

We join in prayers and a way of worship going back over a thousand years…joining with Christians from the earliest days of Christianity.  We gather together with a community of faith, and doubt.  We sit at the feet of Jesus, who is unseen, yet ever-present.  We collect our prayers along with the prayers of others, and we set aside the worries of the day for a short respite; bring those worries here to lay down that heavy burden at the altar and take up the yoke of Jesus, his way and teaching, his life and guidance, and to receive his love. 

Taking up Jesus’ yoke and receiving his love means that we have to let our guard down a bit when coming to church.  For one thing, we have to see the cross.  We have to admit that we don’t have it all together.  We have to admit that as good a person as we each are, we’re also not great people, meaning that we all hurt each other.  We’re all broken people who break others out of our brokenness.  By coming to worship at a church, we have to acknowledge that, and we have to acknowledge our need for God to redeem us with himself.

Then, we also have to accept God’s acceptance of us.  God loves and accepts us not because we are good and not in spite of our flaws.  God loves and accepts us completely irrespective of our flaws because of how good God is.  To accept God’s acceptance of us, we have to let go of our shame which keeps telling us we’re not worthy of God’s love, lay that shame down at the foot of the cross, and accept that we are worthy of God’s love and belonging, simply because God loves us and we belong to him.  Period.  We don’t earn God’s love and belonging; on the one hand we can’t earn it, and on the other hand, we don’t need to.  We belong to God because we are beloved of God, because God chooses to love us no matter what. 

Seeing the cross and then accepting God’s acceptance of us is why we come here for worship and communion. These ideas are expanded on more beautifully in John Newton’s book, Falling Into Grace, and I continue to recommend it to you.

With all of the fear and anger and hatred in our world, we need to know that we belong and that we are loved.  Spending time, like Mary did, resting in the Word of God tells us that we belong and that we are loved.  So, for an hour a week, we get to soak that it.  We get to be lazy.  We get to sit…and kneel and stand, and not work, so that we can see the cross and accept God’s acceptance of us.  Let’s face it, we get to be lazy.  In the Episcopal Church, you don’t even have to work that hard at praying.  It’s all in written down in the Book of Common Prayer; you’ve got a script.    

Now I realize having this worship service is work for some.  Our altar guild prepares our space for worship; our ushers greet and guide us; our music leaders help us to pray through music and song; our lectors, acolytes, and Eucharistic Ministers help us to receive the Word of God in scripture and in sacrament, and our vestry members do just about everything on Sunday morning, especially if not primarily make coffee, the eighth sacrament.  So there is work involved in Sunday morning, but that work is geared toward our rest.  We’re both Martha and Mary. 

So with that work and that rest, what about when we mess up?  We say the prayers wrong, or sing out of tune, or spill the red wine all over someone’s beautiful white silk dress?  As far as I know that last one hasn’t happened, and honestly, I’d just advise against wearing a white silk dress to communion, but if someone messes up…cool.  This is a place of prayer and grace, of mercy, forgiveness, and love.  What if the kids are too loud or rambunctious?  Ok.  They’re kids.  Jesus said let ‘em come.  Out there we’re constantly struggling to keep up our appearances of perfection or of having it all together; it’s exhausting.

In here, when we gather for worship or anytime we gather as a community, we get to be imperfect.  We get to acknowledge the fact that we don’t have it all together, that we mess up, that our kids are loud.  We get to be our true, authentic, flawed selves, and we get to be loved for being those true, authentic, flawed selves. 

That’s what seeing the cross and accepting acceptance is all about.  Getting to be our true, authentic, flawed selves, and getting to be loved for being those true, authentic, flawed selves is  what sitting at the feet of Jesus allows us to do.  Rather than striving for perfection, we can just be.  We strive for excellence in our worship and in our preparation of this space, just like we strive for excellence in our lives.  Then when we inevitably fall short of that excellence, we can laugh and smile, and give thanks both for the striving and for the falling short.  After all, we don’t come here for our excellence.  We come here for Jesus. 

Jesus doesn’t come here because we are excellent or perfect.  Jesus comes here because we are his and we are beloved.  Amen. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Prejudice & Segregation Have No Place In God's Kingdom

Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bay City
July 10, 2016 - Proper 10
Luke 10:25-37

Prejudice & Segregation Have No Place In God’ Kingdom

Jesus blew some minds and likely ruffled some feathers with his response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?”  As understood in Leviticus 19, an Israelite’s neighbor was one of his own kin, a fellow Israelite.  Neighbor was therefore narrowly interpreted so that loving others outside of Israel was not required.  Certainly loving a Samaritan was not required.  In fact, Samaritans were so hated and vilified by Israel, that being loving toward one of them may have even been seen as the wrong thing to do, or at least something that brought scandal and gossip. 

“I heard Joe was being friendly with a Samaritan the other day.”   
“Ewe!  Do you think he ate with one of them?  They’re not friends, are they?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think we should be seen with Joe anymore.”
“No.  Not if he’s going to consort with those types of people.”

Into this insular nature and narrow definition of neighbor, Jesus told the parable of the Samaritan who helped the Israelite.  The people hearing Jesus’ story couldn’t have wanted to identify with the priest or the Levite who saw an Israelite beaten half to death and went on by, leaving the man dying by the side of the road.  They would have had to identify either with the Samaritan or with the beaten man who received help from the Samaritan.  Either way, they were rather uncomfortable, their minds blown, wondering “how could a Samaritan be good?”, and also struggling with the point of Jesus’ parable.  Their narrow definition of neighbor didn’t fit with God’s kingdom.  They were segregated into Israelites and everyone else, and that segregation didn’t fit into God’s kingdom.  Their prejudice and feeling that all Samaritans were bad didn’t fit into God’s kingdom.

Jesus showed them that there were bad Israelites and good Israelites, just like there were bad Samaritans and good Samaritans.  Some were willing to hear and accept Jesus’ teaching, and others were not.  The problems of prejudice and stereotypes still assault us today and often erupt into acts of violence, like the shooting of the police officers in Dallas last week.  Such violence can lead us to double down on prejudice and stereotypes, to double down on fear and mistrust of others.  I think Jesus was pretty clear that such doubling down on fear, mistrust, and stereotypes has no place in God’s kingdom.

Such was the conclusion of one man who attended the rally in Dallas and was leaving just before the sniper’s bullets began to fly.  I read in the Huffington Post about this man, Kellon Nixon who had taken his son to the rally and left towards the end of the rally as some bad actors, not associated with the rally, began shouting negative things.  Mr. Nixon is a 34 year old black man, a pastor at a church in Dallas, a husband and father, and in reflecting on the killing of the police, and running for his life and his son’s life, he said:

You start to think it’s me against the world. And with that type of mentality, we’ll implode as a people…We’re all one race at the end of the day. If we get a ‘me against the world’ mentality ― last night I was thinking, maybe it’s not black lives matter or all lives matter, maybe it’s just my life matters. Maybe it’s just my family’s life matters. I had to recover from that spiritually.
I had to be reminded that love conquers all.

He then talked about showing mercy, and like in our story today, that mercy did not come from where he expected it to come.  He said

At a point in my life, I sold drugs, and the honest truth is that the mercy that was extended to me wasn’t by other drug dealers, it wasn’t by African-American men. But it was by two Anglo-American officers that found me with drugs and they extended me mercy. And from there I was able to be a husband. I was able to be a father. I’m a pastor and a preacher now. And at the same time, when I’m in a three-piece suit, from the police I’m treated worse than when I was a thug.

So it proves to me that everybody’s not bad,” he continued. “That everybody wearing a badge is not bad. That every African-American is not bad. But we have to change our concepts. We have to change our ideology in this country. We’re so segregated in everything. We’re segregated in our schools still. We’re segregated in our religion. We’re segregated in churches. And it destroys us.

Segregation, prejudice, doubling down on fear and insularity does destroy us.  It was destroying Israel in Jesus’ day.  Israel was meant to be a light to the nations, and yet in Jesus’ day they had turned insular, segregated from the rest of the world, and prejudiced against others.  Their insular nature and disdain for others was hiding the light they were meant to share and destroying them as a people.  It is hard to have a heart that is prejudiced and segregated only against a few without that heart eventually turning prejudiced and segregated against many, or even most.  Indeed, there were factions and prejudices within Israel, various groups fighting among themselves for who was following God’s laws the right way and who was anathema. 

Their prejudice and segregation was a cancer, and Jesus said, “No more.  Love one another.  Show mercy.  Stop being so self-righteous than you constantly notice other people’s sins and shortcomings while ignoring your own.  Stop thinking you’re better than anyone else just because you are an Israelite or just because you are this particular brand of Israelite.  Be united in loving one another and showing mercy.  That is the way to eternal life.”

Those same words could be said by Jesus to the church today.  “No more.  Love one another.  Show mercy.  Stop being so self-righteous than you constantly notice other people’s sins and shortcomings while ignoring your own.  Stop thinking you’re better than anyone else just because you are a Christian or just because you are this particular brand of Christian.  Be united in loving one another and showing mercy.  That is the way to eternal life.”

I know that we in the Episcopal Church think that we’ve got the best possible way of being a Christian and following Jesus, and that is true, except of course that it isn’t true.  Being an Episcopalian is absolutely the best way of being a Christian for me, but not for everyone.  There are plenty of ways of being a Christian, plenty of denominations that just wouldn’t work for me, but they work great for other people.  That’s part of the beauty of the Body of Christ.  We get to be very different in many of our practices and ways of life, but we are still united in Jesus.

I like to think that being a Christian is the best way for everyone, and yet there are so many wonderful people out there who aren’t Christian.  They love people and show mercy, and they are therefore our neighbors and brothers and sisters. 

There are bad actors within any group, within any ethnicity, race, religion, etc., and we tend to want to classify whole groups based on those bad actors.  It is a way of self preservation based on fear.  Jesus tells us, however, that doing so does not preserve our lives, it actually destroys them.  In Luke 17:33, Jesus says, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.”  Trying to keep our lives secure through fear, segregation, and prejudice ends up destroying our lives.  Embracing others and taking the risk to love those whom we fear brings us eternal life in God’s Kingdom, not only in the next life, but in this life as well.  It’s risky, but that’s life in God’s kingdom, and risking life together is the only way forward, the only way that doesn’t lead to destruction.

We are the Body of Christ, broken on the cross, sealed in the tomb, and resurrected to life everlasting.  We carry the light of Christ, and we have been charged by Jesus to risk our lives for the sake of others.  We have been charged to love others, to show mercy, to call everyone neighbor.  And so I leave us with the words of a rock band called Rush from their song, Everyday Glory.

If the future's looking dark
We're the ones who have to shine
If there's no one in control
We're the ones who draw the line
Though we live in trying times
We're the ones who have to try
Though we know that time has wings
We're the ones who have to fly

We follow Jesus into the uncertainty of love, denying our fear, prejudice, segregation, in order to show mercy to all, living his kingdom of love and light.  Amen.