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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

A Mystery Beyond My Comprehension, and That’s Enough For Me

The Rev. Brad Sullivan
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
June 20, 2021
Proper 7, B
Job 38:1-11
2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Mark 4:35-41

A Mystery Beyond My Comprehension, and That’s Enough For Me

I don’t remember the first time I heard the story of Jesus sleeping through a terrible wind storm at sea and then silencing the storm with a word, but I imagine it went something like this.  I heard the story and then went, “Wow, how’d he do that?”  “Well,” I was told, “Jesus is God.”  “Oh, ok.”  See I was never all that amazed by Jesus’ miracles.  Not that his miracles weren’t amazing, but starting from a place of believing Jesus is God, it seemed totally natural that Jesus could control the weather, heal people, multiply food.  Jesus, being God made all of this, everything, “laid the foundation of the earth…when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for  joy,” so of course he could do anything at all.  So, going from that belief about Jesus and then hearing that Jesus could control the weather with a word, I figured, “Well yeah, of course he can.” 

For the disciples, on the other hand, Jesus’ controlling the weather was rather mind blowing.   “Who then is this,” they asked, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Rather than starting from a place of believing Jesus to be God, they were gradually coming to know who Jesus was, and they had barely scratched the surface.  Like Job, when God said of him, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”, the disciples, though they knew Jesus well, were also realizing the enormous depths they had not even begun to plumb.

We’re like this with everyone we know.  My brother, Kevin, and I are identical twins.  We share the same DNA, and we grew up together, so we are very close and know each other very well.  Still, if we plumb the depths long enough, we get to places I don’t know and he doesn’t know.  We begin darkening counsel by words without wisdom.  We can know people our entire lives and still be surprised by them.  There are always greater depths we can plumb, new awareness and understandings of each other to discover.  

Being that that is the case for our knowledge of other human beings, we have to admit our knowledge and understanding of God is greatly limited.  God is known and has been revealed to us, and God is a mystery.  Whenever we try to define God too much, we end up with God’s response to Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”  We think we know God.  We sometimes construct rather tight models of God and have rules around how and who and what God is, and then something happens that we can’t fit into our God understanding box, and our tightly constructed models of God come crashing down.  Far from a disaster, what that means is we get to plumb the depths of God even more fully.  When our understandings of God prove insufficient, we get to be the disciples in the boat with Jesus, wondering, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

As I said at the beginning, as a child simply hearing, “Jesus is God,” was enough for me to say, “Oh, ok,” to the question of how Jesus could control the weather with a word.  Of course he could, he was God.  Through further decades of study and plumbing the depths, I’ve barely scratched the surface of much anything more, though I have brought about a lot of helpful questioning and come to a greater heart knowledge of who Jesus is.  God is still a vast mystery and yet I have come to experience God as goodness and love, healing and freedom. 

I believe we are called to accept and embrace the mystery of God, and to be content with what we can say we know.  God is love.  Sounds simple enough, but what force or action on earth has greater depth and mystery than love?  God is good.  We don’t always know what that means, but we can trust in God’s goodness and give up some of our need for and illusion of control at all times.

Here’s what I know personally:  when I spend time in prayer and meditation, seeking God’s will, and setting aside my efforts at control, I find peace and unity with people and within myself that I don’t otherwise find.  Who is this that brings such peace and unity to life and relationships?  God, whom I don’t fully know, and that’s enough for me.  

Accepting some knowledge of God as well as great mystery of God, I get to see God all around, in the beauty of creation:  in the earth, the skies, the trees, the wind, the water.  Seeing God everywhere in the earth brings greater awe for all that is around me, greater respect, and a desire to honor the earth in how I live.

Seeing God in others helps me to see each person’s beauty and to want to give them respect and to honor them in how I live.  We see in Jesus’ teachings and actions, that such is his desire for us.  

I don’t understand how all of that works, but I accept it as true because it is beautiful and because the fruits of that belief are greater peace, love, and honor towards others and to the earth.  Accepting some of these mysteries of God brings the very love, healing, and freedom which I believe God to be.

Looking at another mystery of God, how can Jesus be fully human and fully God?  How is it that Jesus could calm a storm with a word?  Well, on the one hand, what can’t God do?  On the other hand, how exactly does that work, God being everywhere and also that one person?  I don’t know.  I don’t need to fully understand it.  I don’t need to understand how God was specifically there in the human being, Jesus, while also being fully present as the Holy Trinity in the heavenly places, while also being in and through all creation in the known universe and beyond.  

I don’t need to fully understand how we are both here living finite, mortal lives on this earth and we are at the same time alive with God in the heavenly places fully united to one another in Christ.  Paul writes about that in his letter to the Ephesians, and I don’t know how that works.  On this Father’s Day, however, I think about my dad who died six years ago.  I still miss him, and I also have joy because I believe that like Paul wrote, I’m not only waiting here on earth to be with my Dad again; I’m already with him in the heavenly places.  Now that’s a mystery of God beyond my comprehension, but I don’t have to understand it.  I believe it, and that’s enough for me.  

How does connecting with God through prayer and meditation, connecting with God through people, connecting with God through nature, how does any of that bring love, healing, and freedom?  How are we both here and with God in the heavenly places all at the same time?  How does all that work?  How does God make all that happen?  Well, I’ve got the same answer as my parents had for me when I was a kid asking, “How did Jesus calm a storm?”  He’s God.  Then I can figure, “Oh, ok.  Goodness, love, healing, freedom, of course God can do all that.”  

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

"You Can't Fight In Here. This Is the War Room."

The Rev. Brad Sullivan

Emmanuel Episcopal Church

June 6, 2021

Proper 5, B

Genesis 3:8-15

Mark 3:20-35

“You Can’t Fight in Here.  This Is the War Room.”

Strange as it may sound, today’s Gospel reading made me think of a scene from the movie Dr. Strangelove, where The U.S. President, and a Russian Ambassador, and the top U.S. General are all trying to avert nuclear armageddon when the general and the Russian ambassador start fighting, and the President shouts at them, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here!  This is the war room!”  That reminds me of our Gospel story today as I hear the scribes saying to Jesus with similar irony, “Jesus please, you can’t heal people here, we’re doing God’s work!”

How could they think healing people was bad?  How could they think casting out demons was bad? 

Well, healing and casting out demons wasn’t necessarily bad in and of itself, of course, but what if Jesus was turning people to trust in him, rather than in the religious system?  What if, even worse, Jesus was teaching something different about God than they were, and was therefore, of course, teaching something terribly, terribly wrong about God?  

That, we understand.  Think of a new pastor at a new growing congregation.  It’s not a church like the established churches are used to, and even some of those established church’s members are going to that new church.  They are on fire, they are serving within the community in ways the established churches haven’t been doing for decades, and the established churches are all threatened by this new congregation.  They don’t like the pastor.  He’s doing things wrong, the church services are weird, and they feel threatened by them doing really well and doing things differently than what they know to be the right way.  “Oh sure, they’re doing good work there, but “Yeah, you’re right…they still pray weird.”

We get that.  We understand the scribes feeling threatened by Jesus, thinking he was leading the people down a wrong path, in spite of his healing and casting out demons.  So what did they do?  They demonized Jesus, saying he was doing demonic work casting out demons.  It didn’t make much sense then either.

Jesus was fighting a spiritual battle against demons and cosmic powers, against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (I grabbed that from Ephesians).  To be fair, it wasn’t much of a fight against the demons.  Jesus was like One Punch Man, but still, seeing this, the scribes chose to fight with him about it, who was right and who was wrong, and Jesus’ response was basically, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here.  This is the war room.”  Jesus was saying, “I’m fighting a war against demons,” (which was again pretty easy for him “Get out of there, demon!”  “Ok.”) and the scribes were fighting with him about that?  That was the difficult battle, people working against healing and love because they don’t agree with the person who is doing it or the methods they use.  

That is still the difficulty we have today.  We understand how crazy it is for the scribes to fight against Jesus when he was casting out demons and healing people.  We understand how crazy it is for our church or any church to rally against another church when we see them doing good, healing ministry with the community…even if they pray weird, but when that church is ministering with the wrong kinds of people, or letting the wrong kinds of people be ministers, what then?

They’re still doing great works within the community, still healing and working with people to transform their lives, but it’s just the wrong kind of people doing the ministry?  What if it’s staunch conservatives doing the ministry?  What if it’s flaming liberals doing the ministry?  What if the ministers are people whose beliefs and ideologies not only go against my beliefs and ideologies, but go against who I am as a person?  

I don’t have a clear cut answer on this one, however, I will say this about our beliefs and ideologies.  The scribes had beliefs and ideologies which led them to discount some people as unworthy of being a full part of their community, of their world.  The scribes were concerned with purity and people being religiously correct enough to be acceptable for God.

Jesus, not so much.  Jesus was concerned with people causing actual harm to one another.  Are you being clean and pure?  Jesus didn’t seem to ask that.  Are you causing actual harm to someone else?  That’s what Jesus seemed interested in.  Are you excluding people you deem unworthy or impure?  Are you keeping for yourself far more than you need while others struggle just to have enough?    Are you so certain of your own righteousness that you tear others down, condemning them, rather than choosing to love them and take the risk of being wrong as you see God working in their lives too?  That seems the way of Jesus in his spiritual battles, in his war room.  

Yes, there is a war room, even for Jesus, but as Paul wrote in Ephesians 6, “…our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  (Ephesians 6:10-12).  Jesus was certainly against these spiritual forces of darkness, against these spiritual forces of darkness as they manifest in people.  We don’t read too much, however, of Jesus being against people themselves.  He wasn’t out there stirring up hatred and division, shouting about the folks people should be against.  He warned his disciples privately against the teachings against some of those rather less than helpful leaders, but his focus was not to turn people against each other.  

Jesus’ focus was on healing people, bringing people together, showing love, offering grace, living forgiveness.  That was Jesus’ way.  Healing, communion, love, grace, forgiveness, that was Jesus way, even when fighting spiritual battles for and along side folks whom others felt were the wrong sorts of folks. Healing, communion, love, grace, forgiveness, that was how Jesus fought spiritual battles in his war room, and strange as it may sound, there’s no fighting in the war room.  At least there’s no fighting in Jesus’ war room.  There’s striving against spiritual forces of darkness, and those battles are fought with healing and communion, with grace, and love, and forgiveness.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Unity In the Midst of the Gods

The Rev. Brad Sullivan
Emmanuel Episcopal Church

May 23, 2021

Pentecost, B

Acts 2:1-21

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Unity In the Midst of the Gods

About 12 or 13 years ago, I was meeting with Rabbi Annie from Temple Sinai to learn from her about Judaism and especially about first-century Judaism. While I was able to read about first-century Judaism in biblical commentaries and my Bible’s footnotes, those were all written by Christian authors, and I figured, “What do they know?”  So I called Rabbi Annie, and the two of us began to have monthly coffees to learn about each others’ faiths.  That began a great friendship which continued and strengthened when we were worshipping in Temple Sinai for over two years after Harvey flooded our previous building.  

In one of Rabbi Annie’s and my early coffees, Annie was talking about Jewish holy days, one of which was Shavuot, the holy day from which Pentecost came.  Now, Pentecost is the Greek word used for the Jewish Festival of Weeks, the harvest festival described in Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16, as all of us know, being good Episcopalians who read our Bibles. The idea was that the people of Israel would bring the first of their harvest to God to give thanks and dedicate the harvest to God. I know we all know that.

So, when Rabbi Annie started talking about Shavuot, the festival of weeks, as the time when they remembered God giving the Law at Mount Sinai, I was utterly confused, saying, “Wait, no, that’s the harvest festival, the first fruits deal, right?  From Leviticus.  What does God revealing the Law have to do with it?” I was so cute showing off my biblical knowledge.

Rabbi Annie explained that after the destruction of the Temple and of the nation of Israel, the people of Israel were left without a place to bring their harvest offerings, and since much of the society was no longer agrarian, a harvest festival didn’t make an over abundance of sense anymore.  So, the rabbis discussed the idea that as the Festival of Weeks came seven weeks after the Passover feast, so did the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai come about seven weeks later.  The Festival of Weeks made sense to be the time to celebrate the giving of the Law.  

The festival of Shavuot changed from the harvest festival to a time of celebrating the revelation of God given to Moses and the people of Israel on Mount Sinai.  Both harvest and revelation.  

For us in the church, the Festival of Weeks, Pentecost, changed as well.  On that first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, Jews had come from all over, both within and beyond Israel, to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Weeks.  Peter and the other apostles were also planning on celebrating the Festival of Weeks, the harvest festival, as they had so many years before, but then, something strange happened.  The Holy Spirit was revealed to them and to those gathered near them as tongues of fire, resting upon them, and those Jews who had come from all over heard the apostles speaking to them in their native languages, not just in the Hebrew language. God was connecting these people from disparate parts of the region into one people, through the Holy Spirit. Both harvest and revelation.  

The harvest was the church.  The revelation was that God was not just the god of one people, but that God truly was the God of the whole earth, indeed of the whole cosmos.  See, as Israel was being formed as a nation, there were near constant struggles with other nations.  Who was going to win?  As they would fight, God would win the victory over other nations' gods.  

So, the God of Israel was the supreme God over all others.   We read in Psalm 82:1, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.”  Whether considered gods or lesser heavenly beings, they were all subservient to the God of Israel, the God of all creation.  Even so, God was often understood as a tribal god.  As with all the other tribal gods, God was seen as the God of Israel, not of all the peoples.  He was God above all, but favored that one nation.  A tribal God.  

Then, the birth of the church at Pentecost, the harvest, and the revelation that God was not the God only of one people, but the God of all peoples, as each heard in their own language the proclamation of the apostles.  Pentecost is both the harvest of the church and a revelation that God desires one people throughout the earth, unity, rather than tribalism.  

This idea had been spoken of through prophets many timed before, and Paul wrote of this idea in his letter to the Ephesians, that God is the God of all peoples and that God’s desire is for all of humanity to be united.  In Ephesians chapters 1-3, Paul writes of the mystery of God that has been revealed, namely that God would gather up all things in Jesus, all things in heaven and on earth.  Paul wrote of Jesus as sitting at the right hand of God in the heavenly places (where these other gods dwelt), and Paul wrote the church as the body of Christ, dwelling as Christ’s body with God in the heavenly places right now, so that we are both here on earth living out our mortal lives and at the same time we are in the heavenly places joined together as Jesus’ body.  

Paul went on to say that we are joined together with Jesus as part of God’s revelation, that we are in the heavenly places revealing even to the gods or heavenly beings, the the unity that God has in mind for all of humanity.  No more tribalism and no more tribal gods.  One people living in unity.  

Now, that does not mean that we are meant to convert all people to Christianity.  We’ve tried doing that for a couple millennia, sometimes even forcing conversions on others.  That’s led to lots of conflict, war, and disunity.  Forcing, coercing, and shaming conversion has not been a quest for unity, but the Church turning God into one more tribal god.  We don’t find unity through tribalism and conflict.  We find unity through love and belief that there is one God over all humanity.  Many of us call God by different names, and that’ ok.  God is big enough for all our names.  

That’s what we found when we worshipped for over two years at Temple Sinai.  While both congregations believe in the God of Israel, we believe such different things about that God, that as far as religion goes, they are very distinct.  As much as our beliefs area different, however, we also get to believe that we worship not two different tribal gods, but the same High God who is God of all the tribes, of all the nations.  Being at Temple Sinai, we found that we don't need to be right in our beliefs or for the other religion to be wrong.  We have unity and love with Temple Sinai while still worshipping with two very different faiths.   

The same is true throughout the earth.  We call God by different names, and God is big enough to answer to all of them.  God’s mission for the church is to strive for unity among the peoples of the earth.  God’s mission for the church is to live and to share God’s great love for all humanity.  God’s mission for the church is for us to be united, both here and in the heavenly places among the gods, the heavenly beings.  Our mission, our way of life, is unity with all people through love and forgiveness, and to share that unity with all of humanity both here and in the heavenly places as God gathers up all things in him, both in heaven and on earth.  

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

You Are Still Beloved

The Rev. Brad Sullivan
April 1, 2021
Maundy Thursday, B
Jesus Predicts Peter’s Denial

You Are Still Beloved

Most of us have absolutely no idea what we would do in a crisis situation.  If our lives were suddenly in eminent danger, how would we respond?  We may know what we would plan to do, just as Peter and the disciples had all planned to stay by Jesus’ side even if it meant their death.  Like Peter and the other disciples, however, our plans may not match up with reality, simply because in that life or death, high stress situation, our thinking brains tend to shut down and Lizard Brain takes over.  Any plans we made go out the window, and whatever wiring we’ve got down there tells our bodies, “Nice idea, Sparky, but here’s what you’re going to do now.”  That’s what happened with Peter, when he truly planned to die with Jesus if need be, but the fight or flight part of his brain, over which he had virtually no control, wasn’t gonna have it.  

Jesus knew this instinctual nature within his disciples was going to take over.  He knew them better than they knew themselves.  So, perhaps in Jesus’ prediction of their denial and abandonment of him, he wasn’t trying to frighten, shame, or even warn them.  Perhaps instead, Jesus was letting his disciples know ahead of time that he knew them, he knew their failures and their faults, and he sill loved them and was with them to the end.  

Perhaps Jesus was telling them of their actions ahead of time so that afterwards, as they felt guilty and apologized, Jesus could remind them, “I already knew. You were afraid and you did the best your minds would allow you to do.  I knew.  I understood.  I understand, and you are still beloved.  So peace be upon you and let your failure go.”  Peace be upon you, and let your failures go.  God already knows.  God already knew, and you are still beloved.

Broken and beaten, God has joined with the Judas dwelling in us all

The Rev. Brad Sullivan
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
April 4, 2021

Palm Sunday, B

The Fourth Chapter:  The Plot Against Jesus

Matthew - The plot against Jesus

Broken and beaten, God has joined with the Judas dwelling in us all

A man brought a gun into a store in Colorado and killed 10 people.  A police officer crushed a man’s neck with his knee, slowly killing him over nine minutes.  Judas betrayed his friend and Rabbi to be arrested and killed.

When we hear of such atrocities, we often say, “Who in their right mind would do such a thing?”  Well, no one.  No one in their right mind would commit such atrocities.  Fear, anger, hurt, mental illness, stress to the point of fracture are all at play in the minds of those who kill and betray.  

We like to think that given the same circumstances, we wouldn’t commit such atrocities.  Maybe not, but that may only be because of the wiring and chemical makeup in our brains…things over which we have no control.  

All are betrayers.  All are innocent.  

All perpetrate violence.  All are victims.  

Telling the story of Judas’ betrayal as simplistically as Judas (the bad guy) betrayed Jesus (the good guy) is not what Jesus taught.  “Neither do I condemn you,” is what Jesus taught.  Come, sit and eat with me, you who have been broken and beaten by others, is how Jesus lived.  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” is what Jesus prayed on the cross.  Rather than hate, Jesus saw people as broken and beaten.

Broken and beaten, Judas betrayed his friend.  Broken and beaten, a gunman and police officer killed the people they killed.  All are broken and beaten by all the hurt in their lives.  Broken and beaten by the harmful lessons they learned.  Broken and beaten by the wiring within their minds.  Broken and beaten even by traumatic versions of Christianity in which most people are damned and only a select few are saved.  

Broken and beaten, Judas dwells within us all.  That’s why God took those acts of betrayal and murder unto Godself.  The fear, anger, hurt, mental illness, stress to the point of fracture.  God joined with the worst of us so that even as the Judas kiss comes from our lips, we are understood, loved, and have an advocate saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

A Serpent to Kill the Lizard Brain

The Rev. Brad Sullivan
March 14, 2021
4 Lent, B
Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

A Serpent to Kill the Lizard Brain

So, imagine you are in a desert, the wilderness, with a few hundred thousand of your closest family and friends, and you get to spend most of your day not hunting or growing crops, not worried about what you’re going to have to eat each day because food from Heaven comes down each morning and settles on the ground like dew.  You’ve worked on some housing and shelter, but otherwise, if you want to spend the day playing the lute or pipe and singing and dancing, you pretty much can because God has taken care of your needs.  

Then, you start to cry.  “We don’t like this food!  We’re gonna die!”  That’s what was going on with the people of Israel in our story from Numbers today.  “We don’t like this food (that you give us every day, God)!  We’re gonna die!”

I think of children on a long car ride, kinda hungry, pretty bored, rather uncomfortable.  They probably don’t actually think they are going to die of hunger, boredom, thirst, etc. if they were to think long and hard enough about how they’re really doing.  They might even admit that really, they’re just uncomfortable.  Listening to the anguished cries of those moderately hungry, bored, and uncomfortable children, however, it sounds like they are indeed in the last throws of starvation and death.  

To be fair, I’ve heard plenty of adults make similar anguished cries of, “This is terrible; we’re gonna die,” when really they were just uncomfortable or not overly happy with how things were going.  

So how did the people of Israel, and how do we go from the point of uncomfortable and bored to “We don’t like this food!  We’re going to die!”? 

Well, it has to do with the way our brains work.  There’s the thinking part, the frontal part of our brain, which realizes, “Yeah, no I guess I’m really not about to die; I just need a snack; I’m good.”  There’s also a lower part of our brain, which I call the lizard brain which has your basic fight or flight function.  Lizard Brain sees a threat or a perceived threat, and it starts getting us a little more anxious, a little more agitated.  It doesn’t know that the hunger we feel isn’t actually life threatening.  Lizard Brain just knows “hunger bad!”  As we go, if Lizard Brain starts to get really scared, it initiates lockdown, a fight or flight response to the real or perceived threat.  The thinking part of our brains is actually shut down, and we begin acting and even making decisions based on this lowest lizard part of our brain which simply says, “There’s a threat:  Eliminate or Run?”

We see this all the time with road rage, with people screaming at a cashier, with family members shouting at each other.  When people say something in the heat of an argument that they instantly regret and don’t really mean, or when they’re in an argument and start making stupid arguments that they later realize they don’t even believe, that’s when Lizard Brain has taken over.  

That’s the condition of our brains.  We really don’t like being uncomfortable, we’re not overly fond of anxiety, and we absolutely abhor uncertainty.  Our brains want resolutions to problems quickly; our brains want to collate information and get it tucked away in the appropriate place so our world makes sense and we feel safe. 

When situations or things register in our brains as uncomfortable or possibly threatening, Lizard Brain starts to raise its little lizard head.  For the children, uncomfortable in the car on the long drive, the lack of comfort brings Lizard Brain to the fore, the fight or flight response kicks in, and you get the anguished cries of children who have just had a snack and yet are starving…to death.  

So, we have the situation in Numbers in which the people of Israel were railing against God for bringing them out of Egypt just to die of hunger in the wilderness.  They were in the desert, they were nomadic, and they were really tired of the miserable food God kept giving them every day…they were dying of hunger because they were tired of the food.  Israel was not afraid of dying, even though they claimed they were.  Israel was on a long car ride:  uncomfortable, anxious, and full of uncertainty about the future:  three things which Lizard Brain abhors.  

As a response, God sent serpents among the people.  That seems a bit much as a response to complaining, and certainly not something I would recommend parents do on the car ride.  So, other than God being angry and wanting to hurt the people who had slandered him with lies about his mistreatment of them and them being near the point of death, what might be going on with this serpent attack?

I had this idea that what if the serpents were a little less literally poisoning and killing people and a little more poisoning the people as the serpent did in the garden of Eden?  With that idea in mind, I checked with my favorite Rabbi, and one of the coolest people I know, Annie Belford.  She pointed me to commentary by 11th century Rabbi Rashi who wrote about this passage from Numbers: 

God said, as it were: Let the serpent which was punished for slanderous statements come and exact punishment from those who utter slander. — Let the serpent to which all kinds of food have one taste (that of earth; cf. Genesis 3:14 and Yoma 75a) come and exact punishment from these ingrates to whom one thing (the manna) had the taste of many different dainties (see Rashi 11:8) (Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 19).  

Like the serpent in Eden, the people of Israel in the wilderness were telling slanderous lies against God, that he was killing them, making them starve to death.  In fact, God had cared for them and sheltered them and kept them safe and well fed, but Lizard Brain was taking over in the people and so they made their anguished cry of, “We’re gonna die.”

Then, whether God sent serpents which actually killed them with literal venom, or if the serpents were killing them with more deceit and lies, God had Moses set up a bronze serpent for the people who were bitten to look upon and be healed.  

Now, this bronze serpent was not like Medusa in reverse.  It wasn’t magic, as though if it happened to cross into someone’s line of sight, suddenly they were all better.  It wasn’t an idol or a god to bring healing.  The bronze serpent worked as people looked upon it and realized, “That’s what I’ve become.  I’ve become as the father of lies, trusting my own anxiety and Lizard Brain rather that trusting in God who has freed us and kept us safe.”  They would look upon the bronze serpent with true repentance, let Lizard Brain quiet down for a few moments, and the serpent would kill the lizard.

That’s a big part of religion and religious practices, to help us silence Lizard Brain and return to trust in God and peace in our hearts.  See when we’re fully freaked out, thinking, “We don’t like this food; we’re going to die,” and Lizard Brain is in control, our thoughts and beliefs aren’t usually enough to bring us back to trust and peace because the thinking parts of our brains are shut down when Lizard Brain is in control.  

We need more than thoughts and belief when Lizard Brain takes over, we need actions, we need habits, we need a bronze serpent, so to speak, to kill the lizard.  Thus we have habits and practices of prayer and meditation, of scripture reading, of silence and breathing, of daily turning our lives and wills over to God, and daily taking stock to see how we did and where we might need to seek correction or reconciliation.  

Thats the idea of Lent.  That’s the idea of practicing daily habits of our religion, learning over and over to trust God and then, when Lizard Brain does take over, to use our well established practices as a bronze serpent to kill the lizard.

So parents, when your children make slanderous cries of how wicked you are for bringing about their immanent death after a few hours in the car with snacks and water ready at hand, I suggest again not releasing a box of serpents on your kids.  Rather, I suggest instilling in them or suggesting to them over time a habit of religious practices to help them return to God with trust and peace so they’ll have some bronze serpents with them on the long car rides.

For adults who also have times of Lizard Brain hijack, I recommend the same thing.  Develop habits over time of religious practices: prayer, meditation, breathing, walking, reading scripture, creating, noticing beauty.  Develop these habits so that they can serve as bronze serpents to kill the lizard when it rears its little lizard head, and then return to God with trust and peace.  

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Freedom and the Prisons We Carry With Us

The Rev. Brad Sullivan
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
February 21, 2021
5 Epiphany, B
Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22

Mark 1:9-15

Freedom and the Prisons We Carry With Us

So last year, during Lent in the middle of early pandemic lockdown, someone wrote, “This is the lentiest Lent I have ever lented.”  I think we might could say “ditto” at this point.  In all sincerity, we’re still in a pandemic, and we’ve just been through a winter storm that has left us without power, without water, with broken pipes, and during which some have died in their homes from hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning.

There’s a lot of work to be done to fix broken pipes and homes, and there’s work to be done with continued pandemic response, distancing, juggling school and work, juggling work and safety.  With everything going on, now we have the season of Lent?

You bet we do.  The problem with calling this “the lentiest Lent I have ever lented,” is that, while funny, it kinda misses the point of Lent and mischaracterizes Lent as a season of hum drum darkness and sadness.

Lent is a season of joy.  Joy is often thought of as happiness or merriment, a temporary reprieve from the challenges of life, and while there is joy in happiness and merriment, joy is more than that. Joy is also being set free from that which binds us.  Joy is being released from prison, and joy is the work that accompanies that freedom and release.  Joy is gratitude for that freedom, and joy is walking through the challenging times and the happy times with that freedom, freedom from whatever bind us, freedom from whatever prisons we find ourselves in. 

So Lent is a season joy because Lent is a season of repentance, a season of work, and here’s the work:  to accept the freedom Jesus proclaims and to let Jesus release us from prison.  In that freedom and release is the joy of Lent.

Peter said that “[Jesus] was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison…”  What did Jesus say?  What proclamation did he give?  I suppose we don’t exactly know what Jesus said to those spirits in prison, but my assumption is this, that Jesus’ proclamation to those spirits in prison was was the same as his proclamation to the people on Earth:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  To those who had died, Jesus proclamation was, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Be released from your prison, even you who have died.  That, my friends, is joy.

So Lent is a season of joy.  Lent is a time to repent and believe in the good news.  Lent is a time to listen for Jesus’ proclamation coming to us in whatever prison we are in, and to let Jesus release us from that prison.  

Perhaps some of us have given something up for Lent, a 40 day fast from something in our lives which we enjoy.  What we’re doing there is creating a tiny sorrow, a tiny longing, a tiny prison from which we want release.  We then seek Jesus’ help in this to overcome that longing.  We seek Jesus help to release us in this tiny way so we keep developing our trust and reliance on Jesus.  Giving something up for Lent is one way to practice the joy of accepting Jesus’ freedom, of accepting Jesus’ release.  

Lent is spring training for the upcoming regular season which happens…every day of our lives, ok, so bad analogy.

Another way to live Jesus’ freedom every day is to serve others.  Doing so takes us out of ourselves and our own needs, our own longings and prisons.  In serving others, we often find our problems diminished, that we are doing far better that a we thought we were.  Serving others as we turn to Jesus for guidance and strength helps to release us and give us new freedom.  

So as we have this season of joy to seek further release from our various prisons, in
what prison do you find yourself?  Fear?  Anger?  Scarcity?  Jealousy?  Feelings of discontent and raging against aspect of society that you just can’t abide?  All of these and more are the prisons we find ourselves in, and with Jesus’ help, we can be freed from all of them.  Turning to Jesus every morning in prayer, specifically asking Jesus to free us from our particular prisons.  Spending time each day in meditation to calm our minds and bodies and to give those things which imprison us over to God.  Spending time talking with others, trusted friends or small groups within our church about our prisons and the release we need and the release we have experienced.  Spending time each day with scripture, trusting and getting to know Jesus ever more fully as the one who frees us from our prisons, the one who proclaimed that the kingdom of God has come near.

Remember then also that Jesus’ message of freedom and release from prison is not only an individual message.

In what prisons do we find ourselves in our society?  Prisons of injustice, the wealthy and seemingly important given passes for crimes while many of the poor and marginalized are given heavy sentences.  Prisons of poverty which trap people who work full time for low wages in order to live in poverty.  Prisons of political discourse so  heated and polemical that people are losing their minds.  People are becoming so enraged with political discourse that they will fight, with words, with fists, with guns, even to the death in order to stop those on the other side of the political discourse.  

We have prisons of isolation, prisons in which whole communities don’t know one another, don’t care for one another, and don’t particularly want to…not out of malice, just out of fatigue and fear.  We have prisons of greed, people with so much more than they could ever need finding that it still isn’t enough to sate their desire for more, or that it still isn’t enough to calm their fears of not having enough.

We have prisons of racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and discrimination.  All of these prisons and more, we have in our society, and these are all prisons which we can work with Jesus to dismantle and set ourselves and our society free.  

We can advocate with our lawmakers for greater justice in sentencing.  We can advocate for better wages for essential workers and spend our money at organizations where we know they are paying their workers well.  We can disengage from angry political discourse and seek more civil discourse.  We can get to know our neighbors and check on them during times of winter storms and freezing pipes…many of us were doing just that last week.  We can work with organizations which strive against racism, discrimination, poverty, and injustice.  

Doing any of that work will bring us into a holy Lent and help to free us from our own prisons, as well as to help free society from it’s prisons.  Such is the joy of Lent.  Such is the joy of Jesus who came to free people from their prisons, to free societies from their prisons, to free the world from it’s prison.  Such is the joy of Jesus who came proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”