Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Babies Crawling On the Ever-Shifting Sands of Time

Brad Sullivan
2 Lent, Year A
March 12, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
John 3:1-17

Babies Crawling On the Ever-Shifting Sands of Time

“They say that these are not the best of times, but they’re the only times I’ve ever known.”  That’s from poet and prophet, Billy Joel, in the song Summer Highland Falls.  That single idea, that these aren’t the best of times, but they are the only times I’ve ever known, that idea holds true for each new generation, doesn’t it?  When we’re first born, the world doesn’t seem crazy and messed up.  It just seems like the world, even if it is crazy and messed up.  Then we get older and the world seems different, and we get older and the world seems even more different.  The world changes more and more, until sometimes folks find themselves living in a world they no longer really recognize or understand. 

New folks move into the neighborhood and the neighborhood changes.  The constant and regular practices of our religion become less constant, not at all regular, and the younger generations don’t do things the way we used to.  Texting replaces written invitations to parties and other events.  The interwebs replace print media.  Star Wars gets taken over by Disney!  Ways of life, unacceptable when we were children are now acceptable decades later.  Whatever the changes, they’re happening all the time, all around us.  We’re often longing for the past, or the good old days, or the way we did things “back in my day,” and into this longing for the past, this longing for some firm footing on the ever shifting sands of time, Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”     

Well, if you are born from above, then what are you, or what is your spirit, but that of a newborn baby?  See babies and children don’t long for the good old days.  They see the world around them, and they can live in it and accept the world as it is.  They can see God in the world all around them.  The Kingdom of God is not hidden from the eyes of infants and children because they aren’t looking for God’s Kingdom in some longed-for and likely over-romanticized past.  Infants and children can simply live into God’s Kingdom in the ever changing present. 

Our ties to the past are not a bad thing in and of themselves.  They give us wisdom and some grounding in the ever-shifting sands of time, but those very ties to the past, when tied too tightly, end up binding us so that we can no longer move, and we see the sands a-shifting, we see the times a-changing, and we become afraid.  That is how Nicodemus felt when he came to Jesus stating, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”  Nicodemus made a statement, declaring that Jesus was from God, but Nicodemus also came to Jesus at night.  He was curious about Jesus, but he was also frightened.  Jesus didn’t mesh with what he thought he knew about God’s Kingdom, and behind Nicodemus’ statement that Jesus had come from God, was a question.  “How can it be that you come from God, when what you say and do, while like what God taught, seems so different from the religion that I know?” 

Something of what Jesus said and did resonated very deeply with Nicodemus.  In Jesus, Nicodemus could see the Kingdom of God, and at the same time, Jesus was different than the religion of Nicodemus’ childhood and training, and the fear that Nicodemus felt at that difference was eclipsing his curiosity.  Be born from above, Jesus said.  Be a baby again, full of curiosity and without fear, trusting not in the past, but in God and God’s Kingdom all around you.

In these first weeks of Lent, Emmanuel has decided to get curious about God and God’s Kingdom all around us.  On Ash Wednesday, we had our regular services here, and we also changed how we’d always done things by bringing ashes and prayers with us out into the surrounding community for “Ashes to Go,” something churches have been doing close to about 10 years now, actually.  We went out into the world, where Jesus already was, and we both offered moments of grace in the ashes and prayer, the holy things of our church, and we received moments of grace from the people we met.  We didn’t bring Jesus to anyone.  Jesus was already there, and we got to encounter Jesus together.  So, we’re going to hear stories from a couple of the folks who went out for “Ashes to Go.”

Good morning, I was one of the Ashes to Go people who went to the park and ride.  There were about six of us gathered near where people get off the bus, and my main job was to hold the sign up that said, “Ashes to Go,” so as many people as possible could see it, but I was a part of some interactions there, and I found the whole thing to be moving to me and to other people also.  There was one young couple there who drove up and asked one of us to go over to them.  One of our members went to them, and they asked us to pray for them because they wanted to have a baby.  So she prayed for them, not only that they would have a baby, but that God would bless them in ways to make their lives full.
Many folks would come by, and some would look at us like “are you serious?”, and others would give us a big smile, some would say, “I went this morning.”  It was a start, a good start, and I hope it will continue.  Thank you.

Good morning.  For myself, it was also a very spiritual experience.  Like our sister said, we had a sign that said, “Ashes to Go,” and next year we need three signs so we can spread out a bit more.  The first person who came up to us said, “Is this for real?”  During the hour we were there, so many people came up with different outward expressions of the Holy Spirit that had gone into them.  Some were smiling.  Some weren’t sure.  There were people who’d be coming off the bus, and you could see that they were tired, but when they saw the sign, they got a skip in their step, they were smiling at us, and it was beautiful, it was wonderful.  There was one lady who came up, and she had a lot on her mind; she was very quiet, and we asked if she would like to have ashes.  She said, “no thank you,” and she walked past.  Then she stopped and came back and asked for prayer for her son.  So we prayed together for her son, and then she said, “Now I would like ashes.”  So it was incredible to experience this, and I hope we all have the opportunity to do this again, and I will volunteer for next year.  Thank you very much.

Good day.  I was not part of taking the ashes to the street, but Brad gave my family Ashes to Go, a little take home packet and Ash Wednesday service.  For the past five years, I’ve been to St. Mark’s Episcopal for the 7:00 a.m. service since it fit my schedule, but this year, my schedule didn’t allow me to go to make that service, and my wife and I couldn’t make the evening service here, and Brad knew that, so he gave us Ashes to Go for our home.  I mentioned it to a neighbor, who mentioned it to another neighbor, and we ended up with seven people in our home that evening, and we read through the service together.  I started the service, and our daughter wanted to read the scripture.  After she got through about a paragraph, she wanted to read the second scripture, and then the third scripture, and we had a little bit of a tug of war so my wife and I could read a scripture, and we all got our scripture in.  From that, our neighbors were there and participating, and as Brad said, we didn’t bring Jesus to anyone, but we found him together in our house that night, and it was very moving.  I think if anyone can do that and open up, which we all can, tell someone, and I will be part of next year’s on the street.  I think that’s great, and I’ll make time.  Thank you.

We never know where or in whom we might encounter God, for God’s Spirit blows where it chooses, and we do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  Beyond the Church, God’s Kingdom shows up all the time, in all kinds of different ways, from the mystical to the mundane.  God’s Kingdom isn’t overly concerned with the artifices of any longed-for past because God’s Kingdom has been ever present in through and beyond all of our presents and all of our pasts. 

In ancient Israel, when a foreigner, Naomi, clung to her mother-in-law, Ruth’s, neck and said, “I will not leave you,” God’s Kingdom was present.  When Jesus said, “neither do I condemn you,” and “Father forgive them,” God’s Kingdom was present.  In 15th century England, in the birth of the Anglican Church, God’s Kingdom was present.  During that same time, when Europeans began coming to this land, God’s Kingdom was present.  God’s Kingdom was present in this land, in fact, long before Europeans arrived with Christianity, or was God not here yet?  God’s Kingdom has been present during times of darkness in this land and during times of light.  God’s Kingdom has been ever-present in this and every land throughout all time, showing up whenever and in whomever it would. 

Some, like Nicodemus, would see it and think, “that can’t be God’s Kingdom, it doesn’t fit with what I know.”  Fortunately, God isn’t bound by what we know in our ties to the past.   So it is with those who are born of the Spirit.  They are babies once again, tethered to the past, but also free to live in the world as it is rather than as it was, free to be curious about the world, free to explore as all newborn babies do.  Newborn babies, born not of the flesh, but of the Spirit, is what Jesus has formed us and called us to be, over and over again, to enter back into God’s womb and are then born once again.  Jesus has sent us out to live and proclaim God’s Kingdom,
wherever it happens to be, even in the crazy newness of our constantly changing world, and the ever-shifting sands of time upon which we travel.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Freedom to Fail

Brad Sullivan
Last Epiphany, Year A
February 26, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Matthew 17:1-9

The Freedom to Fail

“Man glows on top of mountain, disciples respond stupidly” I think that’s pretty much what the newspaper headline would read for the transfiguration.  The article would follow:
Itinerant preacher and Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, stunned his disciples yesterday when, in a remarkable lack of his characteristic humility, Jesus began glowing on top of a mountain, revealing himself as God, and then asking his Father for a mic drop, as a bright cloud covered the terrified disciples and God’s voice declared Jesus to be his son. 

The article would go on and probably miss a lot of the grace that was going on with the Transfiguration, the newspaper reporter totally transfixed by the majesty and awe.  To be fair, I’ve been transfixed by the majesty and awe of the Transfiguration many times.  Jesus’ full divinity shining in and through his full humanity, it really is pretty darn spectacular, and at the same time, to be honest, having preached about the Transfiguration at least one out of every two Sundays the story comes to us each year for the past eleven years, the excitement and splendor of Jesus glowing on top of the mountain just wasn’t speaking to me this time.  What struck me about the Transfiguration this time around was not the majesty and awe of God, but the grace of God. 

The disciples were terrified, right, face down in the dirt, trembling with fear, and Jesus saw his disciples and with the gentle touch of a mother or father comforting a frightened child, Jesus leaned over them and said, “It’s ok, you can get up now.  You don’t have to be afraid.”

I’d never noticed before this week that Jesus touched his disciples, that gentle, comforting, loving gesture, but there it was, a touch full of compassion and understanding, a touch full of grace.  That touch is how Jesus responded to his disciples when they were overcome by sheer terror at the majesty and awesomeness of God.

Like the disciples, I too have experienced sheer terror, the day after my son was born.  First there was immense love, joy, excitement, majesty, awe, wonder at my son’s birth…all of that followed by sheer terror when the nurses let us know that they weren’t continue to help us with the baby boy, but we actually had to take him home and care for him ourselves.  “Can’t we just make a booth for him here and come visit?” 

My point is that when my first son was born, I had a strong sense of awe at the responsibility of having helped to create a new human person and then the responsibility of caring for, loving, and nurturing that person.  I did not feel ready for it, and amidst the joy, and wonder, and absolute love of holding my baby boy for the first time, I also found myself on my knees, face down in the dirt, feeling completely unworthy of such a task.  So, I think I get some of what the disciples were going through up on the mountain, and then amidst the awe and wonder, excitement and joy, as well as terror and feeling totally inadequate and unworthy, Jesus touched them and me and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  “It’s ok that y’all are terrified.  It’s ok that you’re feeling totally inadequate to the task.  I’m here.  I’m with you.  Keep listening to me, as my dad just said.  Get up, and do not be afraid.”

For all of us in all of those times in our lives when we’re driven to our knees by how inadequate we are, Jesus touches us on the shoulder and says, “Get up, and do not be afraid.  You may well not be up to the task, and that’s ok.”  In that gentle touch, in those words, get up and do not be afraid, Jesus has given us the freedom to fail.  He’s given us the freedom to follow him, to strive, to mess up, and to fail, face down in the dirt, fail. 

I read an article in the most recent New Yorker about children’s author Mo Willems.  His books are some of our family’s favorites, and the article talked about his how his books
reveal a preoccupation with failure, even an alliance with it.  In ‘Elephants Cannot Dance!,’ they can’t; in ‘Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,’ Pigeon, despite all his pleading and cajoling, never does.  Willems told [The New Yorker], ‘At “Sesame Street,” they would give us these workshops about the importance of failure, but then in our skits all the characters had to be great at what they did, everything had to work out.  That drove me crazy.’
The article went on a bit about artists understanding the importance of failure, and I was struck by Willems’ understanding of children needing to learn not only the important lessons that come with failure, but also that it is ok to fail, otherwise our worth is predicated upon our success.  You remember that time in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus told his disciples that they had to succeed in everything they did if they wanted to be worthy of him and his Father?  Yeah, me neither.

The freedom to fail means the freedom to risk, the freedom to strive, the freedom to dare greatly, and to end up face down in the dirt, to be met by Jesus’ gentle touch saying, “It’s ok.  Get up, and do not be afraid.”

The freedom to fail that Jesus has given us also means Jesus has given us the freedom to follow him as his disciples and to join our lives with his, continuing his movement in the world, living and bringing about his Kingdom of love.  Following in Jesus’ way, the heart of Jesus that begins to grow in us saying, “I want to offer that love and freedom to fail to others.  I want to offer that healing, gentle touch to others.  I see people down on their knees - some in fear, some having been beaten down there by life, some with heavy burdens on their backs so they can no longer stand.  I want to offer them that gentle touch of Jesus so they too can be healed, live without that fear or anything else driving them to their knees so that they can stand and be not afraid and know the love of being loved.

Sometimes this is in big work, offering food and shelter to folks in need.  Folks come by here fairly regularly asking for help with money or food, sometimes the same people come fairly regularly.  One instinct we can have is to wonder, “What’s going on?  Why aren’t you getting things together that you keep having to come back here?”  That’s an instinct I have, an instinct that I wrestle with.  Jesus’ freedom to fail, however, says something very different.  Jesus’ freedom to fail sees someone face down in the dirt and offers them neither judgment nor ridicule, but a gentle touch and the words, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

We don’t always know the right thing to do, but following Jesus, when we see people face down in the dirt, we offer them grace and love, rather than judgment and criticism.  This can also come in really simple ways.  I was in a doctors’ office several months ago with, I don’t know, one of our kids, and I struck up a conversation with a mother in the waiting room.  We quickly began talking about the challenges of parenting and the stresses of our children, and about five minutes in, you’d have thought raising kids was the worst thing in the world.  Apparently we needed to get that off of our chests. 

Then I thought, “where’s the grace of Jesus in all this?”  Where’s that gentle touch saying, “get up and do not be afraid.”  So during a lull in the conversation, I asked, “tell me about a recent moment of grace with your kids.”  The whole conversation shifted.  We began talking about how fantastic our little buggers are, how much we love our kids, even though they often are little buggers, and we even began talking about our mutual faith in Jesus.  Realize, we had just met, but that one simple question, “tell me about a recent moment of grace with your kids,” that question was the gentle touch of Jesus, lifting our heads out of the dirt and allowing us not to be hidden by our failures as parents, but engaged with one another such that we could even risk sharing our faith, in a doctors’ office.  It was a small moment, but it was the Kingdom of God being lived out, two people recognizing their mutual brokenness, connecting through the grace and gentle touch of Jesus, and then being healed even in that moment, being reconciled within themselves and with another person.  With that small moment of Jesus touching us and saying “get up and do not be afraid,” we each got to be a little bit more fully human, a little bit more reconciled to God, to the other, and to ourselves. 

That is life in the Kingdom of God.  That’s life in the Jesus movement, where Jesus has given us the freedom to fail, the freedom to risk for the sake of reconciliation and love.  Jesus has given us the freedom to receive his gentle touch and to offer that gentle touch of Jesus to others, saying, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

Monday, February 13, 2017

Setting the Bar Kinda Low

Brad Sullivan
6 Epiphany, Year A
February 12, 2017
Emmanuel, Houston
Sirach 15:15-20
Matthew 5:21-37

Setting the Bar Kinda Low

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  That’s where we left off last week in Jesus’ sermon in Matthew chapter 5.  At a first hearing, it sounds like Jesus is giving a major, “you’ve got to be good enough for God” kind of statement.  “You’ve got to be righteous enough in God’s eyes in order to be good enough for God.”  That’s certainly where my teenage brain took this passage when I read it back in high school.  “Man, I’ve got to be even better that the religious leaders in order to be good enough for God?”  Yikes!

Well, I’ve got a few critiques to that particular understanding of Jesus and the Gospel.  The first is, let’s face it, if Jesus wants us to be better people than the scribes and the Pharisees, he’s setting the bar kinda low.  Just about any time Jesus mentions the scribes and the Pharisees, he’s saying not to be like them, calling them hypocrites.  So, not too much of a high standard of perfection there.  The second critique of the “You’ve got to be good enough for God” understanding of Jesus’ sermon is this:  “You don’t have to be good enough for God.”  Striving to be good enough for God, striving to be righteous for one’s own sake is missing the point of Jesus entirely.  Jesus is much more concerned with people’s well being than he is with people’s righteousness.  That’s the lesson I get from our story in Matthew’s Gospel today, not reward and punishment, but Jesus’ genuine concern and care for the well-being of people. 

Several years ago, I was gently pushing our then three year old son, Rhys, on a tire swing in the front yard of our house.  We were having a lovely time, and then our neighbor’s granddaughter came over.  She was about six, and she asked if she could push Rhys.  To be honest, I had some trepidation about the prudence of allowing such a young girl to push my son, but not wanting to be an overly protective helicopter parent, I decided to just let them play.  That worked really well for a about 20 seconds, after which time, she spun the tire swing too hard, and Rhys fell off the swing, breaking his collar bone.  Way to go, Dad.

Amidst Rhys’ crying and my checking to see if he was as hurt as I feared, the little girl began apologizing profusely, the fear in her voice and face communicating two things:  “I’m sad I hurt Rhys,” eclipsed almost totally by “It was an accident; I’m so afraid that I’m in serious trouble.”  For my part, I had almost forgotten that our neighbor’s granddaughter was still even there, focused exclusively on Rhys and what appeared even by looking at it to be a broken collar bone.  I was certainly not interested at all in my neighbor’s granddaughter being in trouble.  I knew it was an accident, and my only concern was for my son’s well being, not the girl’s being in trouble or not.  Assuring her that it was ok, I quickly scooped Rhys up and took him to the hospital. 

What strikes me about that story is or neighbor’s granddaughter’s concern about being in trouble eclipsing her concern for Rhys’ well-being.  Now, to be fair, she was a little kid.  Of course that’s how she felt.  She didn’t know what else to do or how else to deal with the situation, so no chastisement of her intended in any way.

But, now imagine that the little girl was an adult who had just accidentally hurt someone, and imagine this adult is more concerned with being in trouble or even worse, being righteous in God’s eyes, than this person is concerned with the well-being of the other person.  That is the situation I find when we hear Jesus critiquing the religion and way of life of the scribes, Pharisees, and other religious leaders of his day.  Be it the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the religious leaders pass by on the other side of the road when they see someone hurt, or be it the actual practices of the religious leaders in which they are shown to take money from poor widows in order to pay a temple tax, or pray about how wonderful they are compared to those around them, we see a group of religious leaders concerned with their own righteousness before God, worrying about being in trouble, while having almost no concern for the well-being of the people around them.

Jesus, in his constant healing of people; in his care for the orphan, the widow, the downtrodden, and the outcast; and in his preaching, including the sermon of his that we hear today, Jesus showed how much he cared for people’s well being, and how interested he wasn’t in people being righteous before God for their own sake.  Our being righteous before God, being good enough to please God, Jesus took care of that on the cross.  Jesus’ desire for us was then not that we would continue to be worried about being righteous or good enough before God, but rather that we would love God and love people.  From a place of fear about our own righteousness before God, Jesus sent us on a quest to love God and love people without fear.  That quest of love is what we hear Jesus teaching about in his words that we heard today, a far more complicated, rewarding, and beautiful understanding of life than simple reward and punishment.

In the teaching that we heard today, Jesus was basically going through the 10 Commandments, saying that on the quest of love, a basic rule based keeping of the 10 Commandments is not sufficient.  Some probably hear his words and are rather disheartened.  “Not only can we not kill people, we’re not even supposed to hate them?  No fair, that’s way too hard!  Not only can we not cheat on our wives and our husbands, we’re not even supposed to fantasize about it?”  From a trying to be good enough standpoint, no we can’t live up to that.  We’re not perfect.  We’re not going to be.  Jesus is teaching that the point of the commandments is not to be perfect, not to be righteous before God for one’s own sake.  Rather, the point of the 10 Commandments is to live in such a way that your life is a quest of love, a quest of loving God and loving people without fear. 

See, the 10 Commandments are a pretty good start to things, but you can keep all 10 of them and still be a pretty terrible person.  Imagine talking to someone who makes sure to keep the Commandments.  This person worships God, has no idols, goes to church on Sunday and does no other work, has never committed perjury or lied about someone to get them in trouble; he doesn’t talk back to his parents; and he’s basically content with what he’s got and doesn’t steal from others.  He sounds like a pretty good guy.  Now let’s say he then starts talking about how righteous he is, and you call him on it because you’ve noticed some rather less than wonderful habits of this person. 

“So, I hear you saying how righteous you are, but you’re also kind of a bully.  You routinely beat people up when they anger you, and are constantly insulting and verbally abusing others.”
“Well, yeah, that’s true, but hey, at least I haven’t killed anybody!”  Check, commandment kept. 

“Uh huh.  Ok, well how can you be so righteous, considering how terribly you treat your wife?”
“Hey, I don’t have to treat her well, I just have to not commit adultery.  I haven’t.”  Check, commandment kept.

See, there are all kinds of ways we can be really terrible to each other and still keep the Commandments.  Even in following Jesus’ more stringent code, we can find ways to hurt each other.  “Ok, Jesus, I got it.  No adultery, no ogling other women, and no divorce.  Beyond that, I can be as big of a prat to my wife as I want.”  Far from giving us a more stringent set of rules for us to follow in order to be righteous before God for our own sake, Jesus is showing us that the whole point of the commandments, is to care about the well being of others as God does. 

Now, there’s still this part where Jesus says that if we treat people terribly, we should be thrown into the hell of fire.  He’s saying we should be thrown into Gehenna, the burning garbage dump outside of Jerusalem.  Have you ever known someone who was such a horrible louse that they seemed like human garbage?  That’s what Jesus is talking about.  People matter so much to Jesus, and so he taught that if you treat people terribly, you’ve turned yourself into human garbage, good for nothing but the burning garbage dump, metaphorically speaking.  Far from actually wanting us to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes, Jesus is teaching that even small practices of treating others terribly can lead to an entire life of treating others terribly, so stop with the seemingly insignificant practices in which you treat others without love so that you don’t end up living your entire life treating others without love.

Jesus is showing us the heart of God, a heart not interested in keeping rules for one’s own sake, a heart not interested in fear and  punishment, but a heart interested in using the rules to show us how better to love people and to care for their well being.  Jesus really is far more concerned with people’s well being, fare more concerned with love than he is with people’s self-serving righteousness. 

Jesus is inviting us to follow him in a life that is a quest of love, a quest to give and receive love.  In this quest, we have our eyes and our hearts open to check in with ourselves and ask, “am I really living as a loving person?  Am I full of anger and resentment?  Maybe I’m generally ok, but need some help with loving right now.  Maybe I should seek that help.”  In this quest of love that Jesus has given us, we don’t go it alone.  Love cannot be a solitary venture. 

We’re on this quest with each other, we have our eyes and our hearts open to the people around us.  Are they doing ok?  Do they have enough?  Do I have enough?  Do I have more than I need?  Is the path that my life is on serving only myself, or is the path that my life is on also being a light of love for others?  Is the path that our lives are on serving as a light of love for others.  That is the path of the quest Jesus has set us on, a quest in which we care not about our own righteousness before God for our own sake, a quest not of reward and punishment.  Jesus has set us on the quest of genuine concern for the care and well-being of others, the quest in which we love God and love and serve people without fear, the quest of love. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.