The Rev. Brad Sullivan
Lord of the Streets Episcopal Church
August 16, 2023
Proper 10, Year A
Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14
Twelve years before being arrested for sitting in the whites only section of a bus, Rosa Parks was already working for civil rights. After she was arrested, it would then be another nine years before most racial segregation was made illegal with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Another year for the Voting Rights Act, and then three more years before the Fair Housing Act.
For 25 years and more, Rosa Parks was striving for civil rights, and it was over 20 years before she saw large-scale, national results. The same is true for countless civil rights leaders and workers who still continue on to this day. They were and have been committed to the cause, and they changed the world.
Imagine if Rosa parks had given up after 12 years, finally deciding, “To heck with it. Bus driver tells me to move, I’ll move.” The world would not have changed the way it did. She was committed to the cause, and despite setbacks and discouragement along the way, she stayed committed to the cause of civil rights. She didn’t get excited for a while and then quit. She didn’t get distracted or give in because it was difficult. She stayed and changed the world for the better.
That’s the kind of discipleship Jesus is talking about in the parable he told in our Gospel reading today.
Jesus’ parable was about a guy spreading seeds to get plants to grow, and he was just tossing the seed about, and when it landed on good soil, it grew and produced a huge harvest. Jesus said that the seed was the word. If we think of that as the Word of God, then the seed is Jesus. The seed of Jesus has been cast, and when it lands on good soil, it produces a huge harvest.
Now, I’ve often heard and thought of this parable as being about how each individual receives Jesus. If our hearts are in the right condition, meaning the soil is good, then we receive Jesus and we gain great faith in him.
I think there is truth in that understanding, and another understanding is that the growth of the seeds is about our discipleship. When our hearts are in a good place, when the soil is good, then we become committed in our discipleship, and from that discipleship, even more disciples are grown or raised up. As the group of committed disciples grows, then the ways of Jesus grow stronger in the world. As the group of committed disciples grows, the way of healing grows. The way of peace grows. As the group of committed disciples grows, the way of love and compassion grows.
Of course, as Jesus told the parable, a lot of the seed falls on poor soil, or is snatched away, or is choaked out by other things. Think about starting to grow as a disciple of Jesus, and the ways of Jesus start conflicting with ways of life we’re used to. Jesus said bless you enemies, and we’re often used to cursing our enemies and trying to get back at them. Think about when that conflict comes, and we just go with what we’re used to. We strike back at our enemies, and our discipleship of Jesus is diminished. Our commitment to Jesus’ ways starts to fade.
What about when we are following in Jesus’ ways, and things don’t get better all that quickly? Our lives haven’t changed dramatically for the better right away, and the world around us certainly hasn’t gotten miraculously better just because we’ve started following as a disciple of Jesus. Think about when things don’t get noticeably better fast enough, and so we quit. Nothing really changes, there is no great harvest, and even 20 years later, there is still no huge, societal change for the better. That’s like the seed that falls on the rocky path. We get excited about Jesus and the gospel, but that excitement doesn’t last long, and we’re quickly back to just how we were before.
That’s how things would have been for the Civil Rights Movement, if Rosa Parks and others had quit even several years into their work because they just weren’t seeing changes come fast enough. Remember, it was twenty years of work by Mrs. Parks before she saw change on a national scale.
Twenty years of staying the course with only modest gains to show for it. At the same time, those twenty years brought forth a huge harvest of other people who became fully committed to the cause of Civil Rights. If Mrs. Parks had been lukewarm in her commitment and work, the movement wouldn’t have grown. Others would not have joined. There would have been no great harvest.
When Jesus told his parable of the sower and the seeds, he was encouraging his disciples to stay committed to their discipleship, to stay committed to their faith, to stay committed to the ways and teachings of Jesus. He was telling his disciples that if they stayed committed to their discipleship, then they would help grow more disciples, and amazing, world-altering things would happen.
What are our hopes and dreams for our lives and for the world around us? How about less violence and theft? How about justice in economic practices so that people aren’t forced out of their housing, just so investors can make some easy money? How about people loving and caring for one another, more than just looking out for self-interest?
I’d say we’ve got a ways to go on those things, those kinds of changes for the better can happen. Our part is to stay committed to the ways of Jesus, to stay committed as his disciples. When we do that, God brings forth growth far more than we can imagine. As we stay fully committed disciples of Jesus, changing our lives to live as he taught, God brings forth growth of even more fully committed disciples, and the changes for the better start to happen.
Like with the Civil Rights Movement, it takes time, decades, even, and lukewarm discipleship or giving up when it is difficult or it isn’t going fast enough isn’t going to make and change or grow any fruit. Changing our lives to follow Jesus’ teachings and way, and then fully committing, with God’s help, God can bring forth God’s kingdom on earth. Fully committing as disciples of Jesus can produce world-altering fruit in our lives and in all of society around us. So, despite hardships, discouragement, temptations all around, we stay the course as Jesus’ disciples, and God brings forth an enormous harvest.
The Rev. Brad Sullivan
Lord of the Streets Episcopal Church
August 9, 2023
Proper 9, Year A
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Both John the Baptist and Jesus had harsh critics who blasted them for their ways of life. Their critics blasted them for the ways of their religion, and their critics blasted them for the way they spoke to the powerful pointing out ways they were oppressing others and being hypocrites. Both John and Jesus were executed by the powerful for all of the above reasons. Of John, his critics said, “He has a demon,” because of his ascetic lifestyle, his religious devotion and self-discipline. Of Jesus, his critics said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” because of how he spent time with the outcast sinners who were receptive to his message of forgiveness, his message of changing their ways and turning to God, his message of love and faith rather than certainty and fear.
John and Jesus’ critics were afraid of them and them and their messages. John and Jesus’ critics felt threatened by them and their messages, and so they condemned John and Jesus. Our Zechariah reading today called on the people of Israel to be prisoners of hope. John and Jesus’ critics were acting instead as prisoners of despair.
I don’t mean they were sad and forlorn. They were afraid. They were judging and condemning John and Jesus, feeling threatened by them. They were judging and condemning others, those they felt were sinning too much, those fellow Israelites whom they felt were on the outs with God. In their judgment and fear, they were unknowingly prisoners of despair. Did they have to condemn others to make themselves feel like they were ok in God’s eyes? Did they condemn others because they were afraid of what “those sinners” might do to their country or because they were afraid of what God might do to their country because of “those sinners”?
Being afraid of “those sinners,” John and Jesus’ critics worked against them, spoke against them, and eventually had them killed. Such is the way of prisoners of despair. Fight against. Let anger and fear rule. Seek the destruction or subjugation of “those sinners,” or “those others” so that they don’t ruin everything.
Now, on the one hand, John and Jesus’ critics had the wrong bad guys labeled as “those sinners.” On the other hand, even if we have the right bad buys labeled as “those sinners,” fighting against them, letting fear and anger rule, subjugating or especially destroying “those others” or “those sinners” isn’t really going to help us. Living as prisoners of despair doesn’t really help anyone.
I think we generally know this, although there are times when we don’t see any other way. How can we not be against people who subjugate others? How can we not be against people who rape and steal? How can we not be against people who work to make life difficult and miserable for others? Our brains and our emotions often tell us we have to be against “those others” who do terrible things, but our brains and our emotions are wrong. They are stuck in hurt and fear. Our brains and our emotions are all too often prisoners of despair.
Who will rescue us from these prisons? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! “Come to me,” Jesus says. “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
“Come to me,” Jesus says, and be prisoners of hope.
In our Zechariah reading today, the prophet says “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.” What is our stronghold? Our stronghold is God. “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble,” says Psalm 9:9. Likewise, Psalm 18:2 says, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, [the Lord is] my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, [the Lord is] my stronghold.”
When Jesus says, “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” Jesus is promising to be our stronghold. Jesus is calling us not to be prisoners of despair, but to be prisoners of hope.
As prisoners of hope, we don’t just rage against “those others,” even if we have the right “others” in mind. As prisoners of hope, we follow the words of Psalm 37:8, “Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; * do not fret yourself; it leads only to evil.” As prisoners of hope, we don’t have to be against “those others” who do wrong. As prisoners of hope, we can, instead, live for those who are hurting, afraid, and oppressed.
If we continually rage against “those others,” we’ll just keep creating a mightier enemy. The more anyone fights someone, the more they tend to fight back. Living for someone, however, we end up building people up, guiding others, living into our truest selves: helpers and companions for one another. Such is life as prisoners of hope.
So, how do we go from being prisoners of despair to being prisoners of hope? We don’t, not by ourselves. We bring our hurt and our fear to Jesus. We bring our anger and our rage to Jesus. We come to him with those heavy burdens, hard to bear, we lay them upon him, and he grants us rest. Jesus heals us from being prisoners of despair and offers his yoke, his ways and teachings, that we may become prisoners of hope.
Then, Jesus offers us help, because as easy and light as his ways and teachings are, they are still often hard for us. Our brains and emotions, our bodies, still want us to be prisoners of despair. So Jesus offers us help in giving over our heavy burdens over and over again. Ask, Jesus says, and I will help you give those burdens to me. Then, freed of those burdens of hurt and fear, freed of those burdens of anger and rage, we can find rest for our souls and live as prisoners of hope.
We return over and over to Jesus, our stronghold, and we find that we don’t have to be against others. We can instead live for one another. We can be against those who would rape and steal; we can be full of anger and hate, or instead, we can live for those who might be victims. It’s harder to steal from and rape groups of people who are joined together, living for one another. It’s harder to hurt people who are prisoners of hope.
It still happens, of course, as it did to John the Baptist and Jesus. Those prisoners of despair who were against them eventually did hurt them, and yet they remained prisoners of hope. Their lives continue to bless us two-thousand years later. Such is the power of prisoners of hope. We return to Jesus our stronghold. We lay down our burdens, find rest for our souls, and get to live for others. We refrain from anger and leave rage alone. We stop living as prisoners of despair. We come to Jesus and live as prisoners of hope.
The Rev. Brad Sullivan
Proper 8, Year A
So, in last week’s Gospel, there was this rather interesting bit where Jesus said that he had come to set family members against each other and, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” At first glance it might look like if we’re going to follow Jesus, we’re supposed to turn against our family? Some might even preach that we should turn against our family or friends if they don’t believe in Jesus.
That is, of course, completely misunderstanding what Jesus was saying. First note the context. Jesus was talking to his disciples in first century Israel, and the religious leaders of the time weren’t over fond of Jesus and his teachings. He was considered by many to be a heretic, and so were his followers. So, Jesus was warning his disciples, saying, “If you follow me, your family might turn against you. Realize that fact, and if your family turns against you, don’t stop being my disciples. Work to accept that your family might not understand, that they may turn against you.”
That was a tough pill to swallow: people’s families turning against them for following Jesus, being exiled from their communities for following Jesus. Jesus referred to it as taking up a cross. Jesus was telling his disciples, that it was likely going to get pretty tough for them, and he was encouraging them to continue to follow and believe in him, despite the difficulties. Never let anyone fool you into thinking God is against you, even if people turn against you.
Never was Jesus’ message, you should turn against anyone who doesn’t believe in me. Nowadays, however, some folks seem to turn Jesus’ message around, saying things like, “If someone in your family isn’t Christian and won’t convert, stay away from them, or if someone in your family is a sinner, stay away from them. Shun them.” Must we hate people or declare others our enemies in order to be Jesus’ disciple?
Nope. Nope, nopey, nope, nope, nope. That’s the exact opposite of what Jesus was saying. Jesus wasn’t saying turn against others. Jesus was saying to his disciples, “People may turn against you for being my disciples, and if they do, accept it, be ok with it, and continue to love them. Realize that God is not against you, even if your family turns against you.”
Then, in our reading today, Jesus continues assuring his disciples that those who treat them poorly need not be worried about. Those who treat his disciples well, Jesus said, would receive the reward of the righteous. Don’t worry if people turn against you for being my disciple, Jesus was saying. Try not to get too down over it. God’s with you, despite what some may say, and God will be with you always.
So, accept that when we seek to follow in Jesus’ ways, some people may not get it.
Now, by and large, most of us aren’t going to face the same kinds of difficulties for following Jesus as his disciples did in first century Israel. His disciples back then faced excommunication, shunning from their families, sometimes even death.
Nowadays in Houston, Texas, when we decide to follow Jesus, some folks may think it’s lame. Some may think we’re going to become terribly judgmental. Some may be afraid we’re going to start hating them because of who they are, things they do, ways of life which some Christians frown upon. Remember, though, Jesus never taught his disciples to hate or shun others. Rather he taught his disciples to accept that people may hate or shun them. Rather than grow angry or resentful, accept it, and continue to love.
In our reading from Romans, today, Paul talked about being freed from sin. In light of Jesus’ teaching, think about sin as being angry, resentful, or hateful toward non-Christians or folks who may turn away from you for being a Christian. Responding to that with anger, resentment, and hatred is dismissing the freedom of Christ and binding ourselves up in sin again. Folks may hate you…for any number of reasons. You don’t have to hate them back. That is freedom.
There are folks in America nowadays who say Christianity is under attack. I don’t believe it is, but even if Christianity is under attack, Jesus said, “be ok with it.” He didn’t say, “attack them back.” That’s the total opposite of what he said.
There was a gentleman on the Metro up in DC where my wife is right now, and this man got on the Metro and started talking loudly at everyone on the car, telling them about Jesus and how they needed to be saved. That’s not evangelism. That’s just frantic, angry, forcing one’s religion on others. It’s also just socially awkward and weird.
Jesus didn’t say, “force your views on others.” That’s the exact opposite of what he said. Jesus didn’t enslave us to being weird and awkward and hating others. Jesus offered us freedom from fear, freedom from anger, freedom from resentment, and freedom from hatred. Jesus offered us freedom to believe in him, and trust in him, and be ok with the fact that others don’t. Jesus was very clear in his message to his disciples that their faith didn’t require others to share it. Others don’t believe as we do, and our faith doesn’t require them to.
“Bless those who curse you,” Jesus taught. How much more then, does Jesus teach, “Bless those who don’t believe as you do.” Love other people. That’s freedom. We don’t have to get angry or resentful towards others. We are freed from sin, yet somehow the church often seems to be consumed by sin, focusing so much attention on sin…usually someone else’s sin.
“We’re all sinners, we’re forgiven, but you…you had better stop sinning.” Why do we get so wrapped up in sin, especially other people’s sin, when Jesus came to free us from sin? Sin is ways that we harm ourselves and harm others. When we get all bent out of shape over other people’s sin, when we drink that cup of anger and resentment, all we’re doing is poisoning ourselves and then harming others out of our own poisoned souls. Getting so wrapped up in sin just causes us to sin.
As Jesus’ disciples, we don’t offer judgment for others’ sin. Jesus was about forgiving sin, freeing us from sin. We may, in socially normal ways, offer people some of the healing we’ve found in Jesus. We also get to be totally ok if people don’t want it. They don’t have to. Our faith has no need for them to. That’s freedom, freedom which Jesus has given us.
Our way as disciples of Jesus is the way of forgiveness, healing, and love. Anger, resentment, hatred of others has no place in the way of Jesus. Others may not like the fact that we’re Christians. That’s ok. We don’t need to force acceptance on others, to force others to be Christian or even to like Christianity. Jesus didn’t teach us to force our faith on others. Jesus taught us to love. Even if people reject you, love them, Jesus said. In the face of anger and fear, offer the way of love.