The Rev. Brad Sullivan
St. Mark’s, Bellaire
August 27, 2023
Proper 16, Year A
So, I’ve been a huge Star Wars fan since I was a little kid.
When I moved into my office at Lord of the Streets, I brought my Mandalorian Naboo Starfighter LEGO set and the rest of my LEGO Star Wars sets first. The Darth Vader helmet looking over me on the wall. Then I eventually brought in the crosses for the walls and my ordination certificate.
So, right now is a really good time to be a Star Wars nerd. We've got the new Ahsoka show on right now, the Mandalorian before that. Baby Yoda, or as dorks like me know him, Din Grogu is from the Mandalorian show, and a catch phrase of the show is, “This is the Way.” That means the Way of the Mandalorian, a group of warriors and protectors, and the Way they follow is their code, their Way of life.
So, being a huge Star Wars nerd, I’ve been trying not to use “This is the Way” in a sermon or even in everyday conversations, and until today, I’ve been mostly successful.
Today, however, it just fits as Jesus told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Looking at the ideas of the keys and the binding and loosing, Jesus was talking about how we live out God’s kingdom on Earth. For the people of Israel, living out God’s kingdom was and is tied to how they live out and follow God’s laws. Following God’s laws is often referred to as walking in the way of the law.
Over the centuries, Rabbis have determined how the laws will be binding on people, and even which laws are binding on people’s lives and which are not. For Orthodox Jews, there are more laws that are binding on them than for Reform Jews. Their leaders have determined which laws are binding and how the laws are binding.
In Jesus’ day too, the religious leaders determined how the laws were to be lived out, and we know Jesus often disagreed with them, even saying in Luke that some were locking people out of the Kingdom because of how they were enforcing God’s laws. Think of last week, when the Pharisees insisted that Jesus’ disciples were doing things wrong by not washing their hands before eating, and Jesus was having none of it, saying that the point of the laws was not to follow them for the sake of following arbitrary rules, but the point of the laws was to heal us so that we would live in the way of love, the way of mercy, and the way of justice.
Justice, mercy, love…this is the Way of Jesus.
So, disagreeing with the religious leaders of the time over how and which laws were to be binding on people, Jesus told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In other words, Peter and the apostles were given the authority to determine which laws were to be binding on the people and how they were to be binding. Peter and the apostles were to determine how people were going to walk in the Way of Jesus.
Very early on, in the book of Acts, we see the apostles determine that for the non-Jewish followers of Jesus, the laws of Israel were mostly not binding. Gentiles didn’t have to become Jewish in order to walk in the Way of Jesus.
Over the centuries, we’ve continued to have leaders determine what ways of life are binding on us in order to walk in the way of Jesus. We have our church councils, our prayer book, our church constitution, and our bishops who determine our Way in the Episcopal Church.
Our way is to walk in justice, mercy, and love. Our way is to spend time daily in prayer, to spend time daily in the scriptures. Our way is sacramental, having ordinary things become ways that God is being encountered in our world in countless ways. Our way is to forgive, to serve, to make do with less so that others may have what they need. Justice, mercy, and love.
Of course, for any of us to truly walk in the Way of Jesus, the Way becomes something that is internalized by us. Why do we pray and read scripture every day? “Because the priest said I had to.” No, we pray and read scripture every day because that’s our Way. Sometimes we may be doing it simply because it is our Way and we’re walking in that Way, but we keep daily prayer and scripture reading as our Way because that Way of life brings healing.
The way of Jesus is ultimately the way of healing. Why would any of us do with less so that others may have what they need? Because we see our brothers and sisters working and not making enough to pay rent. We see our sisters and our brothers getting sick for two weeks and then being evicted because those two weeks without wages kept them from being able to pay that month’s rent. These are the folks I minister with every day, and once folks end up on the streets, it is frightfully hard to get back.
When you don’t have daily access to a shower and don’t have a place to launder your clothes, getting a job is almost impossible. If you have any mental illness and don’t have a job that pays enough to have good medical insurance, and then enough for co-pays and prescriptions on top of that, then keeping a job can be frightfully difficult. There is a lot of suffering in our world, in our city, and our Way, the Way of Jesus, is to help soothe that suffering.
When we do, we also find that our own suffering is soothed as well. Times when we don’t quite see it, all we can do is trust. Trust in the Way of Jesus, trust in how Jesus’ way has been handed down to us in the Episcopal Church. Then there are times when we recognize the healing that has been brought by walking in the Way, and it becomes internalized by us. The Way of Jesus becomes our Way, the Way of healing, the Way of justice, mercy, and love.
The Rev. Brad Sullivan
Lord of the Streets
August 13, 2023
Proper 14, Year A
So, when Peter saw Jesus walking on the water toward them, he stepped out of the boat, and he sank. I know he walked on the water for a time, first, but once he noticed the waves and storm all around him, he became distracted by all of that, took his eyes off Jesus, and he sank.
Back in Seminary, we loved to joke about Peter because of how often he failed. He kept trying at things. “I’ll do it. Hey, I can do that, Jesus. Ooh, let’s build three booths,” and time and again, Peter kinda just bungled it all up. So, we see Peter failing a lot in the scriptures, and he becomes an easy target for our poking fun.
To be fair to Peter, I wonder if the reason we kept pointing out his flaws in Seminary was because by doing that, we got to ignore our own flaws and pretend that we wouldn’t have failings like he did once we really got into our ministries. Oh, we were so cute.
What’s great about looking at Peter is that as many times as he screwed up, he kept trying. Peter kept getting out of the boat trying to walk on water, like he did in our story today. He kept failing, and Jesus kept picking him up and putting him back in the boat. Despite his failure, he kept striving in his discipleship of Jesus.
He could have just decided to play it safe and stay in the boat. He could have just waited for Jesus to arrive. It would certainly have been easier, less embarrassing, less wet. Instead, he kept trying and often he failed, and then Jesus was there to help him up. That wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t gotten out of the boat.
If you want to sink, you first have to get out of the boat.
A friend of mine, Erin Jean Warde wrote a book called, Sober Spirituality, in which she talks about getting sober and the joys sobriety has brought her. One of the chapters is called, “Reading the Big Book with a Box of Chardonnay.” The Big Book is the book of Alcoholics Anonymous. For years, Erin was wondering about getting sober, trying out some meetings, reading the Big Book, all while continuing to drink, even boxes of Chardonnay.
Some might say that she was failing at sobriety during those years, but that’s not really true. She was taking a page out of Peter’s book and stepping out of the boat. She kept sinking, over and over again, and Jesus kept pulling her back up and setting her back in the boat. Eventually, she didn’t sink. She stayed sober. If she hadn’t sunk all those previous times, however, if she’d stayed in the boat, she might still be drinking today. Instead, Erin got out of the boat and sank.
She gave herself and her readers the freedom to fail.
That’s what Peter did. He gave us the freedom to fail. That’s what Jesus did when he picked Peter up and put him back in the boat. He gave him the freedom to fail. When Jesus picked Peter up, he said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” We’re not told how Jesus said this. Was it a rebuke? Was he scolding Peter? I like to think he was laughing with delight. “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Peter had been so excited, “Hey man, I want to walk on water too, call me out there.” That had to have given Jesus some delight, more than the delight he was probably already feeling walking on the water himself.
I imagine Jesus, having created the Earth and that very sea he was walking on, I imagine him full of delight, walking on the water thinking, “This is so cool!” Then to have Peter want to join him, to actually start walking on the water too, and then when Peter sank, I can see Jesus laughing like a parent whose kid had just ridden their bike for the first time for 20 feet and then fallen over. The kid jumps up, laughing, shouting, “I did it! I did it! Did you see?” The parent, laughing and excited, smiling says, “Wow, that was great, kid, why’d you stop?” Fail. Fall down. Keep riding; you’re doing great.
Jesus gave Peter the freedom to fail, and when Peter sank, Jesus picked him back up, gave him some pointers, and set him back in the boat to try again.
Jesus gives us the freedom to fail too. He’s not Darth Vader, angry and murderous with every failure.
I often hear people say, “I’m not perfect; I’m never gonna be,” and they’re almost lamenting the fact. It’s like they’re saying to God, “I’m sorry, Lord Vader. I know I suck.” To which I figure God replies, “Didn’t you read about Peter?”
We’re not supposed to be perfect. God doesn’t expect us to be. It’s a pretty good bet when we step out of the boat, we’re going to sink. God knows this, and God gives us the freedom and even encourages us to step out of the boat anyway.
In our discipleship of Jesus, we’re going to fail a lot. Jesus delights in our continuing to try, our continuing to sink, and his continuing to pick us back up and put us back in the boat to try again. In our discipleship, as we continue to follow Jesus and live his ways, we get to risk failure.
If you want to sink, you first have to get out of the boat.
The Rev. Brad Sullivan
Lord of the Streets
July 30, 2023
Proper 12, Year A
1 Kings 3:5-12
So, there’s an addendum to the story about Solomon we heard today in which God granted him long life and riches. Solomon didn’t ask for long life and riches, he asked for the wisdom to lead the people of Israel well. So, God was pleased with Solomon, and after agreeing and grant Solomon wisdom, God also granted him the long life and riches that he didn’t ask for.
When I was a kid, reading that story, the sneaky little part of my brain thought, “Well that’s cool. All I need to ask for something unselfish and then maybe God will make me hugely rich as well.”
Now, I knew God wasn’t stupid. Having just read that story about Solomon, I couldn’t just say, “God make me wise,” and expect to become rich. No, I had to try to fool God into thinking I really meant it. So my prayer was something more like, “God just make me wise. I’m not going for riches, just the wisdom part, so please help me out with that. Oh, and if you do make me rich, I’ll use like the hugely vast majority to give away to others.”
I’m not sure God said “yes” to either part of that prayer, but I’ve since realized what I pretty well expected back then, which is that God doesn’t work like that, at least not for me.
Far from the almighty golden gumball machine of a young boy’s fantasy, God seems more concerned with teaching us God’s ways of love and living out God’s kingdom here on earth than with granting the get rich quick prayer scheme of a teenage boy.
In one of Jesus’ parables that we heard today, the kingdom of God was kind of compared to a get rich scheme involving a merchant and a really big pearl. In the story, the merchant finds a huge pearl and sells everything in order to acquire it. Going back again to my teenage boy self, I didn’t find this story of God’s kingdom all that compelling. I mean, I got that the story was a metaphor, but the thought of a big pearl just didn’t interest me. What would I do with it, put it on a shelf and not really look at it all that much? If it was a life-size, working Millennium Falcon, then I could see the appeal, but the pearl just wasn’t doing it for me.
I wonder if sometimes my teenage take on the story rings true for many of us, meaning that I wonder if we hear about living God’s kingdom here on earth and find that it’s just not that appealing, like hearing about Solomon and thinking, “Yeah, yeah, wisdom’s great, but what about the money?” I wonder if we hear about God’s kingdom and think, “Yeah, that sounds lovely, but like a big pearl, I think I’m just going to put it on a shelf and not look at it all that often.”
God’s kingdom often sounds like a pretty good idea in church, and then it’s back to the rest of life. Fears and stresses of life hit us, and we take that pearl and put it back up on the shelf. The challenges of life make Jesus’ kingdom seem less appealing than the protection and numbing that often comes with just getting through the day. Even in those times when we really do want to live God’s kingdom, we really do want the pearl, but what the heck are we supposed to do with it? It’s pretty, and a lovely idea. Now what?
Well, what’d the merchant do? He sold all that he had to get it. For us, that means seeking God’s help to live out God’s kingdom here on earth. That means changing our lives to follow the ways of Jesus and giving up anything that gets in the way of us living Jesus’ way. The merchant sold all that he had to get the pearl, because living God’s kingdom was absolutely worth the price.
Following the ways of Jesus, we’re supposed to love our enemies. There’s a cost there, and a giving up of some of who and how we are. Letting go our fear, our anger, our desires to force our way in the world. We’re going to risk ourselves for the sake of others. We’re going to spend large amounts of time in prayer and seek peace with others. We’re going to give up selfish ways, and we’re going to join with others in helping to make the lives of those around us a little bit brighter.
That’s a lot. The merchant sold everything he had. Jesus said that we should lose our lives for his sake and the sake of the kingdom of God. Of course, Jesus also said that if we lose our lives for his sake, we would find our lives. Think about this not just as physical death, but also as losing the lives we have, giving up all of the ways which keep us from God’s kingdom. The merchant selling everything.
Then realize, the guy was a merchant. He didn’t sell everything and buy the pearl to put it on a shelf. He was buying the pearl to sell it again. He was going to make back all that he had given up for the pearl and then some. Jesus said, “those who lose their lives…will find them.”
When we give up all of the ways which keep us from living God’s kingdom, we aren’t left empty, with nothing. We gain back so much more. Now, I don’t mean wealth. Unlike my teenage boy self, we’re not trying to trick God into a get rich quick scheme. Also, giving up all that we have is not a simple, one-time prayer or declaration. Giving up all that we have is an ongoing process as we, over time, bit by bit, realize the parts of ourselves that aren’t living God’s kingdom, and we, over time, bit by bit, give those ways over to God. We let those parts of us die, and we begin to see what’s being reborn.
As we are reborn over time, bit by bit, here are some things that we gain as we give up all that we have. We gain peace, no longer struggling with everything and everyone around us. We gain acceptance that life is not all as we wish it was, and we find beauty in the life we have. We gain community, joining with others in living God’s kingdom and offering it to others.
The merchant didn’t force the pearl on anyone, telling them angrily or at knife point, “You have to take this pearl or else.” He offered the pearl to those who were willing to buy it. As we live into God’s kingdom, we can offer it to others, not with threats, not because they have to. We offer what we’ve found in God’s kingdom because we have been healed by it. As we are healed in God’s kingdom, we offer that healing to others, and joining with others, we see the healing of God’s kingdom grow. We see the lives of the people around us change for the better.
This isn’t a sudden get rich quick scheme. It happens over time, bit by bit. God’s kingdom grows, and the world is healed.