Sunday, July 26, 2015

"We Want to Hear More." The Gospel of Jesus (rather than the dangerous, false gospel so often preached)

Brad Sullivan
Proper 12, Year B
July 26, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

I had a wonderful week on our mission trip last week.  We were divided into groups, and my team spent our days digging post holes for fences with Habitat for Humanity through some of the rockiest soil I’ve ever seen.  Hard work, but very gratifying, and the youth were great, working hard, cheerful, and loving being there.

We also spent each night in worship and had time with our work crews to discuss questions that the preacher gave.  Some in my group had other questions about our faith, so we got together after dinner on Thursday along with several other youth, the other adult from our group, and we had this great conversation of faith.

One thing kept coming up during this conversation which I finally addressed to the group.  The kids kept asking about whether this group or that group would be going to hell.  I finally said, “guys, who goes to heaven and who goes to hell”, that’s not really the gospel.

Gospel of Jesus can’t be summed up as, “believe in Jesus or go to hell.” 

If it were that simple, I think Jesus would have stated it that simply.  Having showed his signs, having multiplied food in the sight of 5,000 people, I think Jesus would have simply told the people, “I am the co-eternal Son of God through whom all the world was made.  Believe that fact or go to hell when you die.” 

Jesus didn’t say that, and I don’t think the Gospel is as simple as that. 

“Believe in Jesus or go to hell” is not the Gospel.  These youth were not a part of churches in which such a gospel was taught, and yet that is what they had gleaned from what they had heard, maybe from popular Christianity.  There certainly is a lot of “believe in Jesus or go to hell” out there for people, young and old, to latch onto, but “believe in Jesus or go to hell” is not the Gospel.

Restoration of creation, repentance & forgiveness, reconciliation, love, unity with God – that is the Gospel of Jesus.

Look at the problem Jesus came to fix.  In the beginning of creation, Adam and Eve walked with God.  They were naked and unashamed.  We were made to be in deep, openhearted relationships with one another, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh relationships.  We were made to be fully our true selves with God and with each other, without fear, naked and unashamed, walking together in unity and love.

When we disobeyed God, what was the immediate consequence?  Before even the punishment that God gave, we felt shame, and we hid from each other and we hid from God.  The immediate consequence of our disobeying God was disconnection from God and disconnection from each other. 

That is what Jesus came to restore, our deep open heart to open heart relationships with God and with each other.  When Jesus had the 5000 people sit down together on the grass, he took 5000 disparate people, and he had them eat a meal together.  He had them do what family and friends do together.  He gathered up 12 baskets full of bread from the 5 loaves and 2 fish.  12 baskets for 12 tribes of Israel.  Jesus was showing the people that he came to restore them and make them whole. 

Jesus was God who had become human.  He united humanity and divinity, even closer than they were united in Eden.  That was the restoration Jesus came to bring.  We were made to be united to God, united to the creator of all life, goodness, and love.  Jesus united humanity and divinity so that we may be forever united to God.  Jesus brought us back to our original Edenic state. 

Believe in Jesus or go to hell?  That is a farce, a perversion of the Gospel, and a dangerous one at that.  I know people who have believed in Jesus, but also doubted, and because of their doubts, been told by members of their church that they are going to hell.  As a result, they have stopped believing in Jesus at all.  “Believe in Jesus or go to hell” is what many preachers preach, and what many young people hear.  It is short, easy, simple, and leaves no room for doubt.  Children and youth who are taught this version of the Gospel, therefore, will easily and readily declare who is going to hell based on their doubts or questions, and by doing so, they drive people away from Jesus. 

The young people I spoke to have likely not had preachers tell them, “believe in Jesus or go to hell,” and yet that dangerous perversion of the Gospel is so prevalent that they had still gleaned it as their basic summation of the Gospel. 

The gospel of Jesus cannot and must not be mistakenly summed up as “believe in Jesus or go to hell.”  Doing so breeds fear, shame, and disconnection…everything Jesus came to heal us from.  Think about the evangelism that goes with it…making people feel afraid enough or feel badly enough about themselves that they will turn to Jesus.

That’s what advertising agencies do!  Women are bombarded with images of airbrushed women, tacitly being told that if they don’t fit into a similar body-type, that there is something wrong with them.  Women are marketed and sold make up, tacitly being told that their faces are not worthy of being seen, without makeup covering them entirely, all so they can buy stuff from these companies.  How terrible.

Men are made to believe by advertising and marketing that unless they are muscular, chiseled, great smelling and uber-masculine, they are not worthy as human beings.  All so they can buy stuff from the very companies making them feel badly about themselves.  How terrible.

The false gospel of “believe in Jesus or go to hell” evangelizes in the exact same way as companies trying to sell us stuff by making us feel badly about ourselves.  They make us believe we are wicked and worthless sinners, destined only for eternal torment, unless we assent to or believe in the fact of Jesus’ divinity.  How terrible.  There is no good news there. 

We are unquestionably flawed – we make bad decisions which hurt ourselves and others.  We sin.  The gospel of Jesus offers us forgiveness, guidance, new direction, and a new life so that we don’t have to be defined by our bad decisions.  We don’t have to be defined by our sins, but are defined as beloved children of God…children who need guidance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.  Jesus, the good shepherd, offers us those things.  Like the 5000 people, Jesus fed, Jesus knows we are hungry too, for guidance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love, and he would never leave us unfed.

That is the gospel of Jesus.

The God of all the universe united himself perfectly to us by becoming human in the person of Jesus.  Jesus brings us back to Eden where we may be naked and unashamed before God and where we may be naked an unashamed before each other.  Jesus told his disciples when we walked on the water, “do not be afraid.”  “It is I[, the creator of the universe]; do not be afraid.”

What two things do we generally fear more than anything else?  Death, and disconnection.  We fear death, and we fear being disconnected from others.  We fear being rejected by others, being the target of gossip, being on the outside, not worthy of others’ love.  Amidst all this fear, Jesus says, “It is I[, the creator of the universe]; do not be afraid.”

Jesus came to restore our connection to God so that we might also live wholehearted, connected lives with each other, once again being naked and unashamed, living open heart to open heart connection with each other, and seeking repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation in order to do so.  Jesus also came to show us that we needn’t fear death because our lives continue on after we die.  We get to keep on living with God in Christ.  Even after our bodies have died, we get to return to Eden. 

That is the Gospel of Jesus.

When I said this to the young people on that mission trip, their faces seemed to say that their minds were blown, and they sat there saying, “we want to hear more.  Can we skip Eucharist.”  We were about to go have Eucharist, and I said, “no, we can keep the conversation going later, but we’re not going to break communion in order to do that.  We’re going to join with the whole body and have communion together.  That is also the Gospel of Jesus.

Our young people, and people of all ages need to hear the Gospel of Jesus, not a false perversion of it.  We all need to go out there and preach this Gospel.  Preaching in this case, was a conversation, it wasn’t on a street corner.  We need to tell people the good news of Jesus, not the scary, manipulative false advertising that is so often mistaken for the Gospel.

Let us pray.  Almighty God and Father, we pray that Jesus may dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. We pray that we may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God, for that is the Gospel of Jesus.  Amen.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Armor & Sword

Brad Sullivan
Proper 11, Year B
July 19, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The people in Jesus’ day flocked to him.  They went running around a lake to reach him, and thronged to him in the marketplace.  He called them sheep without a shepherd, and we saw last week what their shepherds were like.  Herod had an innocent man killed so he would look powerful in front of his friends.  The Pharisees and other religious leaders demanded perfection regarding religious practice, but they didn’t help regular people connect to God while living their normal, everyday lives.  People flocked to Jesus and fought to be near him.

Why are so many not flocking to Jesus now?  Folks don’t seem to be getting healed of physical infirmities like they once were.  Physical healing is not needed as badly as it once was, we have doctors for much of that healing.  We still need healing from Jesus, however, healing from depression, disconnection, over-stretched lives, unending pull of the next thing.  Perhaps people don’t flock to Jesus nowadays because they aren’t sheep without a shepherd, but sheep with too many shepherds. 

For some, money and defining success and self worth through money is their shepherd.  Some find leisure activities to be their shepherd, with such a strong need to unwind and relax.  Self improvement can be a shepherd, “be your best self now.”  There are a huge variety of activities which promise the world to those who participate.  A lot of them offer good morals and to build good character.  In popular Christianity the church offers a kind of one and done baptism.  Once you’re baptized, you’re kinda done.  You get to go to heaven, so you don’t need to worry about anything else.  What else then, does the church offer in popular Christianity?  It offers good morals and good character. We’ll, if folks think they can get that playing soccer, then what’s the point of church?   

We have too many shepherds, and we’ve ended up with a lot of people who have forgotten the point of our life together in the church.  If all it is, is good morals and character, then people can get that elsewhere from all the other shepherds. 

These activities needn’t be in competition with the church, but it is a struggle.  It is a struggle to come to Jesus.  It is hard to break the hold of our other shepherds.  We have commitments which we don’t want to break.  We don’t want to break our word.  It’s tough. 

We also have our baptismal covenant, the commitment we made to live together as disciples of Jesus, to raise each other up, to teach our children to follow Jesus, to live as disciples of Jesus, to raise each other up, to teach and follow the ways of Jesus, our ways as Episcopalians, to be here for worship and Eucharist.

Many of the other activities and things we follow (other shepherds) are good things in and of themselves.  They seem like armor protecting us from boredom, disconnection, getting into trouble, allowing us to unwind, enjoy life, etc.  Many, when they end up excluding our communal faith and connection to God, however, become swords which leave us even more exhausted.  Our other shepherds, the armor we carry, become swords which harm us.

Music: Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson
Lyrics: Neil Peart

The snakes and arrows a child is heir to, Are enough to leave a thousand cuts
We build our defenses, a place of safety, And leave the darker places unexplored

Sometimes the fortress is too strong Or the love is too weak
What should have been our armor Becomes a sharp and angry sword
Our better natures seek elevation, A refuge for the coming night
No one gets to their heaven without a fight

We hold beliefs as a consolation, A way to take us out of ourselves
Meditation, or medication, A comfort, or a promised reward

Sometimes that spirit is too strong Or the flesh is too weak
Sometimes the need is just too great For the solace we seek
The suit of shining armor Becomes a keen and bloody sword

No one gets to their heaven without a fight, A refuge for the coming night
A future of eternal light.  No one gets to their heaven without a fight

Confused alarms of struggle and flight, Blood is drained of color
By the flashes of artillery light.  No one gets to their heaven without a fight
The battle flags are flown At the feet of a god unknown
No one gets to their heaven without a fight.

Sometimes the damage is too great. Or the will is too weak
What should have been our armor Becomes a sharp and burning sword

If we want to keep this life we have, then we have to fight for it.  Mostly, we need to fight within ourselves to not to be pulled by the voices of the many shepherds around us, and listen to the voice of Jesus, our one true shepherd.

As we heard from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (from Ephesians 2:11-22)

We are the Body of Christ.  We are connected to God and each other through Jesus.  We have God’s very eternal life abiding among and within us.  It is given as a gift, and yet we must fight to keep it.  We don’t fight others.  The fight is within ourselves, a war within us, as Paul says, between our spirit and our flesh, and we have many shepherds often clamoring for our attention.  We want to keep our life in Jesus.  We want to follow our one true shepherd, and we want to keep, strengthen, and grow our life together in Jesus, and we can’t do so without a fight.  Amen. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sufficient Grace for Our Foolishness

Brad Sullivan
Proper 10, Year B
July 12, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Mark 6:14-29

Hooray for getting to talk about beheading this morning.  I know it’s my personal favorite topic first thing on a Sunday morning.  Earlier in the week, Kristin asked me about mock enthusiasm if I was looking forward to preaching about the beheading of John the Baptist.  “Is that the Gospel for this Sunday?”  I asked.  “Yup, it’s great, isn’t it?”  She replied.  “Oy,” I think was my response.  There is grace in this story, however.  We just have to find it.  So here we go.
Herod was basically a puppet king.  Rome was the true ruler over Israel, even though Israel had some amount of self-rule beneath the umbrella of Rome.  Herod was king of Israel, but only because Rome didn’t want to devote the resources to rule them directly.  I can imagine Herod feeling rather powerless as this puppet king.  He felt powerless and so he stared being reckless and dangerous.  He promised up to half of his kingdom to his step daughter, but half of kingdom was not really his to give.  Rome had the authority, not Herod. 
Despite this fact, despite being a puppet king, Herod did have the ability to rule his people well.  He had the influence in Rome to bring about some good.  While we don’t know exactly how he ruled, it seems that instead of ruling for his people, he generally sought more and more power for himself.  He wanted to be great and mighty in the eyes of others.  Feared.  Admired for his wealth and influence.  He wanted his ego stroked.    
So, in his powerless desire for power, he started being reckless.  He gave himself a birthday party and began feeling powerful like he wanted.  Surrounded by the powerful people beneath him, his courtiers, officers, and rulers of Galilee, he began to feel great and mighty in their eyes.  His step daughter danced, and they were all pleased.  He looked like a great king, or at least he thought he looked like a great king in their eyes.
Drunk on his supposed power, he got brazen and did something stupid.  He offered his step daughter more than he either could or wanted to give.  Expecting a relatively small request from the young girl, he makes a grand gesture, again looking powerful.  The plan was to look mighty and beneficent through his grandiosity in offering and generosity in giving. 
            Then, of course, he got caught in his rash offer and was left with a choice.  Have a good man killed, a man whom he feared and respected, or give up his ruse of power and do the right thing.  Herod could have backed down from his rash oath he made to give his step daughter half of his kingdom. 
He could have said, “I’m sorry, but the power and authority of my kingship went to my head.  I cannot give half of the kingdom.  Without Rome, it is not mine to give.  I am not powerful as I want to be as king.  We will talk later about what gift I can give, but the head of this man, I cannot give.  As for you, my courtiers, officers, and leaders of Galilee, we know we don’t have the power of a sovereign nation, but let us work together to be the best rulers we can be for the sake of our people.”
That might be a little too 21st century to have actually come out of Herod’s mouth, but he could have admitted that he messed up, admitted that even the party he threw was a bit of a farce, and then sought to take the power that he and his officers did have and use it for the good of the people.
I don’t know that any of them really had the character to do that, I do believe Herod regretted his decision and would like to have learned from it.  The point, however, is not what could have been, but what could yet be based on the decisions we make. 
We all have power, even in small amounts.  We all have some way to effect change in our lives or in the lives of those around us.  Sometimes we also feel powerless to effect the change we would like to.  I’m guessing in those times when we’ve felt powerless, we, like Herod have sometimes done the wrong thing, maybe not full on beheading, but the wrong thing nonetheless.  We’ve likely regretted it.
            Here’s where graced comes in.  Last week, we heard Paul talking about weakness, and God being strong when we are week.  We heard about God’s grace being sufficient for us when we are weak.  When we are weak and feel powerless, God’s grace is sufficient for us.  We find with God’s grace that we don’t need the power we wished we had.  With God’s grace, we find that what power we do have is sufficient.  We may need to change our goals or recognize our area of influence to affect the world is smaller than we would like, but with God’s grace, we realize it isn’t our world, and what power we have to affect change is sufficient.
            When we mess up and regret it, we find God’s grace is sufficient for our forgiveness.  God’s grace is sufficient for us to make amends.  God’s grace is sufficient for us to admit that we’ve done wrong, talk openheartedly to those around us, and seek together to live God’s kingdom. 
Herod was a fool in offering his step daughter half of his kingdom.  I’m guessing we’ve all been fools as one point or another.  God’s grace was sufficient for him to get out of that by admitting that he acted rashly and repenting of it, like King David did.  God’s grace is sufficient for us to admit when we acted as fools, repent, feel kinda dumb, and then accept the love and forgiveness of God and others. 
We’re God’s children, Paul reminds us.  We are beloved of God.  We’ve got a lot of darkness within us, enough even to do the stupid things Herod did.  We’d be fools to think otherwise.  Even with that darkness within us, we are still God’s children, beloved of God.  We mess up, regret it, and there is God’s grace, unexpected, undeserved, offering us love, forgiveness, and guidance to start life anew.  Amen.

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.