Lent IV

1st remark: Beautiful to have this week Psalm 23rd. We often think of it as the psalm of the “Valley of the shadow of death” / Read at funerals, but it is first of all a psalm of trust – Confidence that God as a shepherd walks with us and can bring us strength, courage, comfort and help on the journey / Guidance.

Once again in the Bible, we are invited to overcome fear. I would like to stop here to explain two points that I think are important:

Overcoming fear does not mean that we don’t have the right to fear. If there is no fear, there is nothing to overcome. It is not about denying our feelings or self persuasion. It is to realize that there is something / someone bigger than us / bigger than our problems and that this someone bigger than us cares and does not abandon us. (Some of you have posted how praying these days made you feel better). There is a promise of life even in the midst of death. This is this promise we remember during Lent.

The invitation not to fear does not mean there is nothing to fear, it is not an invitation to be reckless. Some Christians act like they believe that God is a superhero in the sky pulling all the strings for them and watching their backs, and so nothing bad can happen (to them). But the Psalm tells us that the way God is with us is not by pulling the strings, but by walking with us. God’s power is the power of life and life is resilient.

Some crisis are inevitable, most are made worse b/c of our way of living even if it is not b/c of individual sin (cf John: The blind man is not blind b/c of his sin or of his parents’). We are responsible for the bad and we have to do our best to fix it. But God will work with us. Individually and as a community.

2 – Moreover, God works with those who are willing to work with God – two readings today and also Mary’s Canticle reminds us that God works with those who are humble, the “overlooked” b/c they let God act trough them, knowing they aren’t all powerful themselves. The Bible made of David this great king but also reminds us (first reading) that David was the last and the least in his own family. His own father completely overlooked him: When Samuel said he was looking for a king among Jesse’s sons, Jesse didn’t even remember David. In the Gospel, ironically, the blind man is also the one who is “overlooked” – He does not see, but more deeply, nobody sees him.

Salvation comes in unexpected way, from unexpected people and it is something important to remember when we are afraid. Don’t overlook what could be life giving.

What makes the difference in our lives is when we are humble enough / willing to open up to God. David wrote this beautiful psalm. He was a shepherd, he shares his own experience of feeling lonely, afraid and overlooked. But God saw him and chose him. The blind man also opens up to Jesus’s power instead of trying to identify (as did a lot of religious people) if Jesus was “good enough” to cure him, had all the credentials, obeyed the letter of the law (He cured on a Sabbath). And Jesus turns to those who turn to him. What matters to God is the disposition of our hearts.

Have you noticed that the OT says that God does not look the appearance and then it says that David was very good looking? It’s b/c when the Bible talk about appearance, it is not about physical appearance, it is more about social status. God does not look at social status but sees the hearts (open or close). As for us, generally we don’t care about the hearts, we care more about social status. We don’t look at those who have no power and mostly, we don’t believe their stories – and that’s another important point I want to discuss about our Scriptures today.

3 – We generally read John 4 as this story where “Jesus cures a blind man” and we understand it as a story of a miracle, but if we look closer, it is not so much about a miracle. It is more about somebody telling a story nobody wants to believe. Not the religious leaders and not even the parents of the man.

We know that. There are people in this world whom, no matter what, everybody will believe their stories even if they lie to your face, and others, who tell the truth, are voices that go unheard. Your age, social class, gender or race is often what makes your story believable or not.

This man / blind man was a “sinner” – mostly he was handicapped and poor and had no connections, therefore his story was unbelievable for most. It may cut deep for some of us who experienced that…People don’t believe you b/c you’re too young, or b/c of your skin color…On the other side, doesn’t it happen to us that we don’t believe people based on how they look like / they are and mainly because their story is disturbing to us?

– The real issue is that the religious leaders does not want to believe the blind man because they don’t want to believe in Jesus / Jesus brings disruptions to their lives, questions their power and what they take for granted. The miracle of a “sinner” being healed by a “sinner” on a Sabbath Day does not fit the narrative of the Temple where people used religion / rites to assert their power and where the roles were clearly defined.

4 – Heart of the question: It’s not only that we tend to believe powerful people’s stories but the main problem is that some people use stories to assert their power (religious people, politics), or lie to please others (family, parents) – and not to spare them but to manipulate them. How often do we say what’s expect of us and are not truthful to our experience just b/c it’s more convenient? What happens and what is extraordinary with the blind man is that he clings to his story, to what he witnessed even if he does not understand and cannot explain, and even if he is not rewarded for telling the truth – quite the opposite. The blind man acknowledges that someone / something is bigger than him and he let this power works through him. The truth is more important than what’s advantageous to him.

Some people think they are truthful b/c they cling to their opinions (religious, political etc), but the Gospel shows us that the real truthfulness is to testify of what we have experienced, even if it is disturbing. We are invited to refuse to fit the official narrative that pleases some and gives power to others. We are called to testify about what we have seen, even if we are the only one who saw / who can see.

These days, I think a lot of scientists and how they can be the prophets of our age when they warn us of impending dangers. But we don’t listen to them b/c they aren’t charismatic enough or b/c what they have to say does not please us, and it disturbs us. On the other way around, a lot of politics, companies will tell lies / tales that reassure us but aren’t for our own good eventually. The Gospel reminds us that we need to be faithful to the truth, not to what is convenient for us.

What about you? What is the story of your life? If you had one story, what would you choose to tell? Where did you see salvation coming to you? Where did you experience rejection? When were you heard?

Lent II

During this Lent we will dive into John’s Gospel…There are not that many “stories” in John – fewer than in the three other Gospels, but each time the story is well developed and an occasion for an extended teaching.

Today we have heard of Jesus meeting at night with Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. We may not know the whole story but there are two points we would recognize quickly even if we have very little knowledge of the Christian faith:

– The invitation to be “born again”

– John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son [so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life]”

We often connect the two. If we want to be “born again” we have to believe that God gave God’s only Son.

I – First of all, I would like to say something about being “born again” b/c it is something we hear so often we don’t think about it so much.

To be “born again” is translated more accurately as being born “from above” – and it does not mean to start again (from scratch, leaving everything behind), it mainly means to be born spiritually, to be awakened to a spiritual way of living.

What is worth noticing is that birth does not happen all at once / suddenly. To a lot of people, being born again means that suddenly you accept Jesus into your life and your life is completely transformed. Well, this experience happens, but generally spiritual birth takes time. It is interesting to have women starting to comment the Scriptures more systematically b/c they understand that birthing does not happen all at once, when the baby is here, rather birthing is a process (biological) but also an emotional and spiritual journey – You become a mother, a parent. It is not simple. There are fears, doubts, hopes, discouragements, pain, meltdowns and inexplicable joys. It is also the case when we need to be born spiritually.

This is helpful to think of all our lives as birth, we are led by God to become spiritual beings. As the unborn child or the parent to be, it is a process to which we are blind most of the time, that is hidden from us, does not depend on us. The only thing the child can do is to let the mother birth him and the mother also expects the child to let her know his needs.

In the same way, when Jesus says that No one can see the KOG without being born from above, maybe he notices that Nicodemus already sees the KOG. N says to Jesus he sees God’s presence in him. Nicodemus is in the process of being born and so are we. Faith as a journey: There are back and forth, long pauses (Abraham). It is not always a yes or no kind of thing.

The Spirit blows where it chooses. You cannot control it / have guarantees. Our spirituality needs emphasis on detachment, letting go and most of all trust. Instead of thinking what you want from life, ask yourself what it is that life wants from you.Let the Spirit blows through our lives, inspire us and lead us even if we don’t know the way yet.

Nicodemus is an example to whom we can relate. He hasn’t it all figured it out – but he is on his way to awakening…He is looking for more than just some kind of religious teaching from Jesus that would keep his life ordered/secure. He can feel God’s presence in Jesus and he wants more of it! As Nicodemus, we may feel attracted / try to come closer to God’s presence. Nicodemus was restless, at night, scared or questioning, wanted to know if God was for real. Desire / longing. Not contented with “exterior religious rites” or even a good teaching.

What about us? Are we curious for God, a little restless, growing in the desire to be in God’s presence? How would it change our spirituality?

I read a great story this week. A woman was telling how she discovered how God’s presence was really what she needed. It happened when she was found w/ a lump. She started to feel very anxious. Supposed to have the results of her biopsy in 48 hours and it took 8 days. She kept praying that everything would be all right, she felt she was going crazy with anxiety. After 7 days though she said she had suddenly a clear sense that God was there and that it would be all right, in a way or another. She said the 8th day she woke up at peace – although she still didn’t have her results (They turned out fine). She discovered that what she needed the most was to realize that God was for real.

What Lent is about: Come closer to God. Do we feel in us this longing to be in God’s presence and to feel that God is “for real”? Is it something we pray about – to experience this spiritual birthing?

II – Second thing we may want to think about is v16: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son [so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”

It is worth noticing is that we often translate or understand that God loved the world “so much” that God gave God’s only Son. Yet, if you read John’s Gospel thoroughly, you will quickly notice that the world is not especially God’s realm, rather the opposite. The disciples “are not from the world” and are invited to part from the “world’s ways.”

The “world” is not a physical place – what’s outside the church, for example. It is more of a dimension: a way of living that do not have spiritual roots, that is not connected to God. So God does not love the world “so much” but God loves the world “so” in the translation of the Greek outos: in this way. God loves the world in this way that God gave God’s only Son.

The verse does not teach us so much about how much God loves, rather than the way in which God chooses to love. And I think it is important for us to think about that, because most of the time, whether in our families, romantic relationships, even with our pets and of course as Christians, we think that what we need to do is to love “very much” without always giving a lot of thoughts about the way we are supposed to love.

But today the Gospel tells us the way God loves and the way we are supposed to imitate: By giving, so that others might have life. By giving so that others might have life.

It’s not the first time the Bible teaches that though. We think the Bible talks a lot about love, and it does, but do you know that it mentions love 300 times, when giving is mentioned 1000 times?

The way to love is by giving, and not only, not mainly by giving your money, but by giving life. Literally sometimes, but mainly spiritually.

It could be something we want to reflect on during Lent: How is our love life giving or not? Because so often the problem with the way we are is not so much that we don’t love enough, it is often that we don’t know how to love. I heard once a pastor saying that we often “love to death” instead of “loving to life” and I find it a very good way of putting things. We love for ourselves, for our own needs, we want to “keep” people or we project our needs on others w/o really seeing them. Or we try very hard to be very nice, when maybe what would be life giving would be to have a difficult conversation. Or maybe it is willing to open up about yourself and your own struggles to help somebody feel better about what they’re going through.

To me, this is the way God loves us and calls us to love from the beginning: By giving life.

If we turn back to the Book of Genesis this morning, I think we have a good sense of what in means in Abraham and Sarah’s call. They are called to be blessed and then to be a blessing. A blessing not only to their own families, but to all the families of the earth.

Well, this call is quite extraordinary. And in the same time very accessible. We may think that this call was for Sarah and Abraham only because they were to be mother and father of all believers. Rather, it is a call we need all to imitate. So this is why it is extraordinary and ordinary in the same time. To be a blessing: This is at the root of the birth of faith and in the same time, we need to do it everyday, every time we meet somebody, or even when we “act in secret” as Jesus asked us to do during Lent – maybe when we write a check to a non-profit, or recycle our trash, give up eating meat…

It is not always easy to know if we have been nice or loving or kind, but to me if I look back at my day, at my week, it is rather easy to know when I have been a blessing and when I haven’t been one. The question is: When is it that we have raised people into new, bigger, better life or limited them in their world as they know it?

If God keeps on birthing us from this world into new life, so we have are invited to do the same for those surrounding us.

Conclusion: Asked this question: Is God for real in our spirituality? God becomes real for us as we make God become real for others, by being a blessing. Yes, we are blessed and the become a blessing but also by being a blessing, we are blessed too. The more we make God real to others, the more God becomes real to us.

Lent I

Sometimes readings gather around a common theme. Readings clearly about temptation this week.

A few observations:

– Throughout the Bible, from Genesis to the Gospel, people struggle with temptation.

From the first couple, Adam and Eve, to our Redeemer, Jesus, whom Paul qualifies in Romans as a “New Adam”.

Throughout the Gospel, we see Jesus struggling with temptation from the beginning of his ministry (Before it even starts, and it is the passage we have today when Jesus meets the devil in the wilderness) to the end of his ministry and his agony in the garden of Gethsemane (Asking God to be spared from the cross).

Temptation happens all the time in the story of God’s people and interestingly, it does not happen only to notorious sinners. Rather the opposite.

Temptation comes to Adam and Eve in their state of innocence, in a perfect place, when they still have a whole relationships together / an untarnished friendship with God.

Temptation comes to Jesus in his state of holiness, after he has been abundantly blessed, after he received the baptism in the Jordan (That happens right before the passage we have read this morning)

So we need to remember that: Temptation happens to people who are innocent / holy / “good people”. It’s important to notice that because when something happens to Xns they identify as temptation, Xns often wonder:

What’s wrong with me? What did I do / where did I fail that I feel tempted?

But I read once in a book of piety something that I found really useful: “The devil does not bother with people who already belong to him”.

The devil does not bother with people who already belong to him.

It is not that I believe there are people who belong to the devil. To me, the sense of this quotation is first than if you’re in a state of sin, you do not identify temptation. You just do what you do without thinking much about your acts and their consequences or what God wants.

But even more deeper, and this is what we read today, innocence and holiness, in a strange way, attracts the devil who tries to destroy the work of God and God’s people.

There is a poem that says that Satan sheds tears of bitterness when he sees the beauty of the world. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, says that there is something in vulnerability, innocence and goodness that is like a magnet to what is evil, something that provokes jealousy, violence, destruction. We see in our world that it is the innocents and the powerless who suffer the most from violence. They get hurt simply b/c it’s easy to hurt them.

If we encounter strong temptation, it’s not necessarily that we have done something wrong, it could be the devil going out of his way to break our relationships with God.

Once we know that, it makes it easier to deal with temptation. Temptation is not so much about wanting things that are “wrong”, it’s when we are faced with risking being led in a way of living or thinking that will ultimately break our relationship with God.

– How does the Devil break our relationship with God?

Well, we first have to remember that the devil will ALWAYS outsmart people, even the holy and innocent, and especially the holy and innocent because they cannot relate to what the devil has in mind, to evil.

Psychologists use this test to know if a patient has evil tendencies:
A woman is attending the funeral of her mother. At this funeral, she meets a man she likes but he leaves before she can find out who he is and how to be in touch with him. One week later, she kills her sister. Why?

Well, according to the psychologists, most people will never find the answer. The answer is: Because she thinks that the man may attend this funeral as well. People can’t find the answer, not because they’re stupid, but because they’re good.

Evil is something the majority of people can’t even think about. In this way, it’s something that will always outsmart them.

– How does the devil outsmart us, especially Xns? By tempting us with what is the most important to us, by tricking us with our own goodness, our faith and our devotion.

It is worrisome that we always identify temptation with greed and sex. It is often the way we interpret this first reading of Genesis. But if you read Genesis though, after he created Adam and Eve, God commands them to “Be fruitful and multiply”, so it’s not sex that is forbidden when they “eat the apple”.

Of course, there is a lot to say about greed (and sex when it becomes greedy), a lot of our problems in our world are happening because of greed (Greed for money and power). The collapse of ecological systems today is the result of centuries of collective greed.

But that’s not the real work of the devil. People walk down the path of greed by themselves most of the time. The real temptation (and the most dangerous) is the one we don’t see coming. It’s when the devil tempts us with our own goodness and our own faith.

To me, this is the story of Eve. You see how the serpent talks to her? The serpent promises Eve that she will be “Like God”. But you want to become like what you really like, what you really think is good. Eve has this perfect relationships with God, and she wants to become as wise as God, probably not out of rivalry, but out of imitation.

And we see that we Jesus as well. The devil does not tempt Jesus by telling him he should better get out of the wilderness to make lots of money and spend it on partying. The Devil tempts Jesus with proving / testing his relationship with God. The devil tempts Jesus with ways Jesus could become “even closer” or “even more beloved” by God, or carry on a more successful mission.

You know how we say that best is sometimes the enemy of good, or The road that goes to Hell is paved with good intentions. There is some wisdom in that.

If you really love your job, maybe Satan is going to tempt you by working so hard you won’t have time for anything else.

If you really love being a Mom, maybe Satan is going to tempt you by exhausting yourself trying to do such a terrific job, at some point you will start resenting your family for not being more grateful.

If you really love God, maybe Satan is going to tempt you by willing so much to do God’s will, as you carry on your mission you will lose track of your community and your own soul.

– As we exhaust ourselves to measure up, we start to self destroy. The way Satan works always lead to despair and to self destruction. Because Satan is jealous of the work of God and wants to destroy the work of God, us, humans beings, replicas of Adam and Eve, but even more, the replicas of Christ Christians are supposed to be.

And to me, this is the heart of the problem. Doubt in itself is not the enemy of faith. Quite the opposite, it is reasonable to reflect on the articles of faith, and our tradition in the Anglican Church invites us always to question.

The doubt that the devil introduces is the doubt towards God’s goodness. When we hear this voice that says: “See, God does not care, nobody loves you and your life means nothing” – especially in times of weakness, when we are tired, sick, bullied, or isolated.

We start doubting that God really loves us or desires what is good for us

We start wondering if goodness is God, if goodness is really this ultimate power / has really the ultimate authority or if we should surrender to other powers (= Satan’s) / wondering if goodness is good enough or if we should add a little more to it.

The work of the devil is to convince us that God does not care about us and that there is no use in being good, and that’s the opposite of what Jesus commanded us to do: Love God and love neighbor. Now that’s the path that leads us not only to sin, but even more, that leads to self destruction, nihilism and despair (Spiritual death – the real problem with sin)

This is where Eve fails the test, and where Jesus passes it.

Eve does not believe that goodness, trust in God and confidence in the fact that she is already created in God’s image, will lead her to be God like / make her already God like. She thinks she needs a shortcut to get what she wants, to get even more b/c maybe God does not want what’s best for her.

Jesus is also tempted to look for proofs that he is indeed the Son of God, that God really cares for him, that God will reward him. But he decides to trust and not use tricks. Jesus believes the goodness and love of God will carry on and see him through his trials and questioning.

In the end, Jesus is the one (and according to Paul, the first one) who truly outsmarted the devil.

Isn’t it interesting to notice that the devil quotes the Scriptures? God can be whoever you want God to be, you can make the Bible say a lot of things. The devil can tempt us with our own faith. The bottom line is to hold on to the truth that God is good and that goodness/ love are not only the ultimate end but the only means / the only way – The way of Love: “Love is the only thing that has ever worked” (Bishop Curry)

The response to the devil: It all comes down to trusting ourselves as being enough, already loved by God and led by God / goodness in spite / through of the difficulties (wilderness).

Ash Wednesday

The liturgy had me at hello this year…The service for Ash Wednesday is certainly a beautiful one, but as I was skimming through the bulletin preparing for today, I didn’t expect I would just get caught by the first sentence of the first collect: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made”

You hate nothing that you have made. That’s the opening line for us to enter this time of Lent. And you know, I thought it was in the same time a little bit disturbing and yet so touching and profound. It moved me in a very different way that when I hear that “God loves us”.

God loves us. Isn’t that the truth, and we know that, right? We hear that often enough. Not only at church. On TV, on the radio, we read it on bumper stickers. Maybe we’ve gotten used to it. We don’t really think about what it means anymore.

But God does not hate us. Isn’t that something? It gave me a chill trough my spine.

This line moved me first of all, because it reminds us that although we may keep on rejecting and hating one another, and find good reasons for that, there is nothing like that in God. In a world where we are so often hated for what we look like, how we sound or who we are, God does not discriminate. There is nothing wrong with us in God’s sight. As God created us, so we are, and God upholds us in our being.

And that’s already something.

But there is something that is even more worthy to be noticed: It is that as God does that, as God accepts us as we are, God also accepts who we’ve become and who we’ve let ourselves become. God accepts not only who we are, but also what we did. God does not reject us based on our appearance and God does not reject us based on our deeds. And we mean both when we say that God does not hate us.

God does not hate us. Reading this line reminded me of something I haven’t thought about for a long time. It took me back when I was studying literature in college. There is a very famous classical French play – called “Le Cid” – and it tells the story of a young woman whose lover, to avenge the honor of his father, kills her own father in a duel. And so it’s pretty dramatic, right? But after he kills her father, the young woman has these famous words for her lover:

“See, I hate you not”

I hate you not. It became a famous quotation. I hate you not, meaning I still love you, but even a little more than that. A little stronger than that. It means, even if you do the worst thing to me, it’s not only that I will still love you – that there will be some lingering feelings inside of me – but even if you do the worst thing to me, there is no way I can bring myself to have something against you, there is no room for resentment, no desire for destruction inside my heart.

And I think it’s a little bit of the same idea in our Collect today, when we say that God hates nothing God has made. It does not acknowledge mainly that God has some warm, fuzzy feelings for us we should rejoice about. It acknowledges that although we may have done the worst to God, or although we may have done the worst in God’s sight – and we can think about it as killing God’s Son when Jesus died on the cross, but we can also think about it in terms of wars, genocides, and destruction of the ecosystems – in spite of all this evil, there is no room for resentment in God’s heart, no desire for destruction.

God cannot bring God to have something against us.

God does not hate us: It takes into account the reality of sin, evil and pain and yet, almighty and everlasting is God, and so is God’s love: Almighty and everlasting. It cannot be destroyed.

And so this Collect gave me a chill in the spine because I am afraid that often when people tell us they love us, or maybe appreciate us, or give us a compliment, we wonder if they really know us. We wonder if their love or affection, although genuine, is something that has really taken into account all the aspects of who we are or what we have done or what we could do. We wonder if it isn’t a love that is – without a fault of their own – a little bit superficial.

Maybe they like only what they see, the image they have of us, not our depths.

And people at Jesus’s time were already worried about that, weren’t they? Like most of us, they were trying to look good so they could be, if not loved, be admired or respected, or at least be accepted. They put on all those religious acts maybe because they were worried that there was something so ugly or just so plain ordinary inside of them, that they would be mocked, criticized or rejected if people were to find out. And maybe so.

But God, God does not hate us.

God does not hate us so maybe it’s okay to put down the mask. At any rate, no matter how much we may want to hide, God sees us in secret. God sees us in secret. God sees us in secret. Jesus repeats that six times. And it’s not so much that God observes and keeps tabs on what we do in secret, rather it is that God knows the secrets of our hearts: hurts, anxieties, troubles, shame, regrets and longings– all these things that would make us unlovable, if they knew.

But if God does not hate us – and that’s we are reminded of during Lent – God invites us in a relationship with God. Jesus reminds us in the Gospel today that God asks us to use our religion, our spiritual practices not as a make over, a polish to make us look a little nicer, a little more attractive, a little more acceptable, God asks us to use our spiritual practices, prayer, fasting (the things we “give up”), alms giving (the things we “give away”), as a way to crack open before God and to give our hearts to God – to give not only the bright and shiny, but all the things we work hard on hiding because we feel bad, guilty and ashamed.

Because we should not feel first bad, guilty and ashamed. We should first feel loved, accepted and upheld in our being. Because if God does not hate us, how could we despise ourselves?

If God does not hate us, if God accepts us anyway, then it means that we cannot, that we aren’t authorized to sit around hiding, hating ourselves or the rest of humankind, and we need to move forward and become more loving.

I think that what the Gospel teaches us today is this ridiculously simple thing that to love and be loved, we don’t need to look good, to be good or to do good, the only thing we need to do is to open our hearts. And it is true with God, and it is true in any relationships, if we want to love for real.

You know, our best friends aren’t those who honor us with their friendship because they have it all together, because they stay young and healthy and have those wonderful kids or grand kids and great jobs or retirement places. Our best friends are those we can call at the end of the week and tell them about all the ways we messed up and embarrassed ourselves, and still have a good laugh about it, and feel loved the same and even a little more because we told them.

And we can all be this kind of friends and make others feel loved too.

I think God is this kind of friend.

In God, we discover that we can be loved not because we’re messed up or damaged, but because as we acknowledge the depths of our hearts, we allow ourselves to be known and to be seen. As we do so, we free ourselves to be loved and we will free others to let themselves be known and seen too.

This is the key to give and to receive love and this is called vulnerability. This was called humility in the ancient times. And this is the sign we are going to receive today, the sign of the ashes (humility means humus, dirt). Humility, it does not mean to humiliate oneself, it just means to be simple, to be real, to not take ourselves too seriously, and to be sincere about our shortcomings without being a drama queen, and doing so allowing ourselves to be known and to be seen because if God hates us not, neither should we.

And so this is the opening line, and this is our invitation for Lent. If God hates us not, then we cannot sit around hating ourselves or hating humankind, we have to move forward, and as we open our hearts, do the hard work of acceptance, reconciliation and reparation.

Today is Ash Wednesday and we’re just getting started, but let’s start with the beginning. Let’s move forward and receive the ashes.

Last Sunday of Epiphany – The Transfiguration

Your bulletin mentions today that you will hear a “homily”. In case you don’t know, a homily is a short sermon. I have a friend priest who adds jokingly that if a homily is a short sermon, then a short homily is an omelet. When she’s very busy with church business during during the week, she says: “That’s fine, on Sunday morning, we’ll just have an omelette”.

This week the sermon is shorter than usual because we want to leave time for Lucille who offered to deliver a message for Black History Month. When we had our vestry retreat, I encouraged all vestry members to preach once during their term. It’s important to think of the vestry (and all those involved in church work) as spiritual leaders. They are not only those handling finances, dealing with building issues, but we need to remember that they also decide where the church is heading….

– So first a message about today’s Gospel:

Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany (before we enter Lent on Wed), and it is also the feast of the Transfiguration, we have just heard the story. When I have to preach on a “famous” passage of the Scriptures, I often have a look at what I preached the years before. As I did so this time, I was surprised to realize that I had preached on Mark’s and Luke’s version of the Transfiguration but not Matthew’s.

When there is the same story in different Gospels (which happens quite often), it’s interesting to notice the small details that differ. Those details often give us a quite unique perspective on the author of the Gospel’s theology – his way of understanding God at work in Jesus’s life.

And so what stands out for me when I hear this version of the Transfiguration (compared to the two other ones) is this first sentence: “Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up on a high mountain, by themselves and he was transfigured before them.”

– “Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ”.Very interesting to me b/c it acknowledges that Peter first confessed his faith (If you remember, it is this also famous passage when Jesus asks: Who do you say that I am?” Ch 16, we’re in 17) and THEN Peter sees Jesus’s glory. FIRST he confesses, first he believes and THEN he can see it, and then it is revealed to his eyes.

Quite extraordinary right? We expect the other way around: You see (something) and then you believe (it’s real). I never believed there were something like white squirrels until I saw one!

– And yet, it seems that it makes sense though, if you start to think about it that sometimes we need first to believe to be able to see. You know, we all live in the same world and our eyes work the same, yet we see things in very different ways: We tend to ignore what’s not relevant to us but we notice the things that are useful or important to us. Have you ever noticed for example when people give you directions the landmarks they have? Some people notice churches, or restaurants, or they tell you the number of the highway, or that’s it’s right after the liquor store!

For me, we often have those funny dialogues with Xavier who is always surprised that I haven’t noticed the wireless terminal in the room, the camera at the door or the radar on the road! Yet, I am the one who spots first what’s left in the fridge.

We see the world differently, we notice what is important to us, what is familiar, what we enjoy but also we notice what expect to see, what we are looking for. And I think it is important to remember this is the way our mind works because it works the same when it comes to noticing God.

Like Peter, we will start seeing God’s glory / discerning God’s presence in Jesus if we start believing that God is present and acting in Jesus. True also in our lives: We will see God’s actions and God’s glory in our lives, if we believe it’s real.

– If you expect to find God, you will find God. Peter had opened his heart, mind, soul to see God’s glory in Jesus and THEN he was able to see it in his flesh. Of course, it’s not about auto persuasion either. Like if you believe in martians and you will start seeing them everywhere! But it’s a pattern, a sort of virtuous circle:

You start to be open to something and then you start noticing it and as you see it, then you’re even more open to it etc. You start being familiar with God by readings the Scriptures, serving people, praying and then you notice God. We used to call that a “spiritual practice”. But we need to pause to do that, to start noticing, and that is exactly what the disciples are doing today. They go on Mont Tabor to take a break from their busy lives (They’ve just fed the 5000) and, main, they also take a break from their anxiety and restlessness (Jesus’s just announced his passion) and then they are able to see.

– We’re going to do that in Lent. Take time to be with God, reading the Scriptures, praying…b/c we also are invited to see. We need to learn how to see. March 28th: Artist Peggy Parker is offering a Quiet Day for us. She is an artist but also a teacher, and one of the things she says that I love is that: Seeing is a holy act (Last week, we talked about the sinful act of staring!). We have to learn to see in a holy way – learn to see God’s presence, to see God at work – even and maybe especially when, like the disciples, we feel exhausted or discouraged. When I feel like that, I often do a simple prayer to open the day, to see things in a different way “Let me see your love, your comfort, give me an opportunity to laugh / to feel appreciated” and it happens. Maybe it happens every day but b/c I do the prayer, I notice God’s presence.

We think so much that our job as Christians is to do many things for God…Sometimes it is just to contemplate. It transforms us. When we see beauty, we feel better and we act kinder. Seeing beauty in others, not only people but also in nature, work of Art, and also in us make us more respectful and attentive. We want to take care of what’s beautiful. To honor it. So often, we see the world as tool / we are always on the look what we need (the liquor store) / How we can use the world. But if we pause we are given a chance to see the world for what it is – freely given and filled with God’s glory. Even in difficult times, we can see God at work. I hope you will accept this invitation during Lent towards learning holy seeing.

Epiphany 6

I – We’re in this portion of Matthew’s Gospel called “The sermon on the Mont” Ch 5 to 7. Big chunk of the Gospel where Jesus teaches the crowd. Before we start having a look at the teachings themselves, there are two observations I would like to do:

1 – Matthew always insists on Jesus’s role as a teacher. There are long passages in Matthew’s dedicated to Jesus’s teachings: His sermons, his parables, his dialogues with the people he met. Yet, the sermon on the Mont stands out among Jesus’s teachings b/c Jesus explicitly comments the Law (and the Prophets) = The Scriptures. It was not that extraordinary at the time – that’s what rabbis did: commenting the Scriptures, interpreting the Law, trying to understand how it applied to specific circumstances. It is still true in modern Judaism, but it is also what lawyers do in our court rooms! We agree on the Law (US Constitution, for example), but then we have to analyze how it is relevant to what happens with individuals, or in our society.

It is important for us to remember that, when some of us Christians are accused by others to “pick and choose”, to not behave “by the book”. Once I was told by a leader of another denomination: “It’s fine that you are an Episcopalian, but you have to know that in our Church, we believe what the Bible teaches”. To which I replied: “Okay, then, what does the Bible teach?” Meaning: It’s not that obvious. Let’s talk about it.

Do you know that, for example, there are three slightly different versions of the ten commandments inside the Bible? (Ex 20, 34 and Deut 5). Jesus, right before the passage we have today, reminds us that there is an Eternal Law. Yet, in the Scriptures themselves there are commentaries on the Scriptures, on the Law. It is our job to understand what the Law means for us, how it is at play in our lives, in our cultures, in our societies. Jesus commented the Law, but rabbis before him and after him did just that as well.

2 – And so commenting the Law was an important aspect of Jesus’s teaching – but, as it is with Jesus, he did things in his own way. To me, Jesus’s teaching is unique in the way that he taught surrounded by the crowd. He went to meet the crowd. At the time, rabbis were sought after, you had to “apply” to become their students, there was probably some sort of “tuition”! Not everybody was seen as worthy to study the Law. On the other way around, Jesus was the rabbi who opened the Scriptures for everybody who wanted to learn (Like theologians did during the Reformation!). We still symbolize this unique way Jesus had to teach when we process with the Gospel during the service: Jesus’s words come to us.

And so Jesus came to help us figure things out. Jesus taught with a special kind of authority: Standing on a Mont, surrounded by the crowd, he appeared as a new Moses: “You have heard that it was said” / “But I say to you”. Jesus invited people to examine what they have been taught about the Law, to understand what God called them to do in their humble and daily lives. Jesus didn’t invite people to “make things up”, to “pick and choose”, to try to find “loopholes” (as did some many lawyers!), but he invited people to look deeper, to think deeper, to live according to the Law.

II – And so now we come to the teaching itself. Well, this is really exciting today! Murder, judgments, anger, insult, hell, fire, adultery, lust, auto mutilation, divorce…It could be a new TV show, but it’s the Gospel. B/c the Gospel is about life, real life. Jesus came to the crowd, not only by being physically present with them, but also by talking to them about something real! This is what TV shows do right? They don’t talk about general principles. They capture our attention by dealing with what is on our minds. No doubt that Anger and Sex are two big issues!

So what’s the teaching of this passage? Well, as Jesus asks us to look deeper, he asks us to look not only at the (righteous) actions, but also at the (pure) intentions. Murder (or violence) and adultery can take many forms, and none of these forms are okay for Jesus. Not only your actions have to be righteous, but it is barely a minimum. Your heart has to be pure, your thoughts clean. Jesus does not look only at the letter of the Law, but as the Spirit of the Law. The trick is, as he does so, he seems to make the Law more demanding:

It’s not good enough not to murder, you should never get angry.
It’s not good enough not to commit adultery, you should not even think about sex.

And so, this is what I was thinking when I was preparing the sermon: I am not sure this is very helpful. And I started wondering: Did Jesus really made God’s commandments easier / accessible to everybody or did he make them impossible? Anger and sexual attraction are the emotions that are the most deeply rooted in our two natural instincts: Auto-conservation and reproduction. Survival. How could we just toss them out of our minds?

As I was struggling with these questions, I remembered that the Scriptures themselves are a commentary on the Scriptures. So I decided to wander a bit further in the Gospels, and I found a few things really interesting that shed light on what Jesus is actually doing.

– First about anger. Today Jesus says in v. 22: “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Now if you flip to Matthew 23, you find Jesus getting really mad at the Pharisees, and this is what you read in v16-17, this is what he tells them:“Woe to you, blind guides (…) You blind fools!”.

Wow. Jesus got mad at the Pharisees and he actually called them “fools”. In plain contradiction with his former sermon. So didn’t Jesus practice what he preached?

I think this is something else. Actually, Jesus often got mad at the religious leaders, and he got mad because they used their power and their influence to control and diminish people. To abuse them. When Jesus got angry, it was not on a whim but he used in anger for the sake of justice / to defend the powerless but also to stir some kind of change in those who misbehaved.

So we see that anger is an emotion you can decide what to do with: it can be oriented towards destruction / self destruction, or it can be an energy focused towards building up a true religion and a better society. There is an anger that is without hate – an anger that is righteous indignation. Often our anger comes from a sense of unfairness, in our personal relationships or as we witness what’s going on in our society – now the question is for us: How are we going to use it?

– Then a few things about lust. If you turn to John 8, we have this famous passage of the adulterous woman who “has just been caught in the act”, and you know there are all those religious men who bring the woman to Jesus to ask him if it is right to stone her, as it was required by the Law. And John mentions that, all the while they’re discussing that, Jesus is writing in the sand. There is no explanation for why he did that. But I think Jesus wrote in the sand whereas not to look directly at the woman (probably still half dressed), and he did that out of respect, when all the men were surrounding her, humiliating her with their stares, very likely thinking about all those “sinful things”.

So today, when Jesus asks men not to look at women to “commit adultery with them in their hearts”, I think this is what he means: Don’t look at women to objectify them / to humiliate them. To reduce them to their sexuality. It’s a kind of stare that has nothing to do with genuine affection and authentic physical attraction. It’s actually the perversion of this very desire that God deemed as good from the beginning. (I remind you that actually God’s first commandment in the Bible is asking Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and to multiply”).

– And so, Jesus points to the Eternal Law, the Spirit of the Law, that we have heard about in our first reading, in Deuteronomy. God is the God of life and God’s commandments are meant to be life giving. And so this how we have to interpret the Law: Not using it to scare people, to condemn them, to objectify them, but to lift them up, to affirm their identity and God’s image in them (and in ourselves as we do so).

People are the end and the very reason for the commandments.

Last observation – back to Jesus as a teacher: Like all good teachers, Jesus is an educator. Jesus wants his listeners to understand what the law is really about, being able to make wise choices and be responsible for what they do. Being a disciple is to be called to grow. Paul uses this image (2nd reading) about going from “milk” to “solid food”. There is a time when children need to be given what they need to eat, to be told what to eat, and then comes a times when they can make decisions based on what they know is good and life giving for their bodies. This is also what happens spiritually. We have to keep on studying “God’s Law” (= the Scriptures) to become spiritual adults. We are all an embodiment of God’s word in this world. Our lives, an interpretation of the Law. The Eternal Law is not something behind us, it’s something we’re aiming towards as individuals and communities when we grow in wisdom and strive to live with integrity (Our yes is a yes, a no is a no / the body may be torn apart but the soul remains whole). We won’t need to feel threatened by the judge or the fear of hell to do the right thing, but, as compelling, we’ll do the right thing b/c this what we need to do, for the love of God and the love of neighbor.

The Presentation of Our Lord

I talked several times recently about the Sunday readings shifting to Matthew’s Gospel – we’re now in year A – but today Luke pops up again in our readings. There is a good reason for that. Today, we are 40 days after Christmas, and we celebrate a double event: The Presentation of the Lord and the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and of this double event, we only have an account recorded in Luke’s – who is the author who dwells the longest on Jesus’s childhood.

I am just going to make a few quick remarks since this feast and the Jewish rites they acknowledge aren’t typically well known to Christians, or well understood. The Presentation of the Lord is not to be confounded with the circumcision – that always took place 8 days after the birth of the child. The Presentation is this rite when the first born had to be brought, “presented”, to the Temple as a reminder that every first born (not only human, but cattle and crops) were considered by the Hebrews to belong more specifically to the Lord. A sacrifice had to be offered to “redeem” them, to give something for them in exchange, “a sacrifice”, so you have the right, if you will, to “keep them”. It may seems odd, but not that much if you think about it as an act of Thanksgiving, reminding us that nothing really belongs to us, not even our children, that, in this life, everything and everyone is to be out in the hands of God. It’s also an acknowledgment of the autonomy and freedom of each being: Nobody belongs to anyone, not even their families. Then today, we also talk about Purification. The purification of a young mother is another rite that is part of a set of wider rules in Judaism around the shedding of blood. Blood equal life in the Bible (and we can easily understand why). So if you have lost blood, by disease, menstruation or by giving birth, you have to perform a rite to be purified, to be made whole again once you stop bleeding. You do this rite to re-claim your life as your own.

What I think is worth noticing, in this double rite, is that, as the child is acknowledged to be first God’s possession, and as the mother is made whole again, there is a sense of separation between parents and children. Although a family, each one is called to be his or her own person in front of the Lord. Each one in front of their own destiny.

And to me, among other things, this is what the Gospel is about today: Destiny, fate, facing your own future, your own pain and your own death. They certainly didn’t expect that, correct? Jesus, Mary and Joseph came to worship the Lord, but now they end up with a reading. Simeon shows up and prophetize about the child and his mother and, as if it was not enough, he is followed by Anna, another prophetess, to confirm what he’s just said (In Moses’ law, you needed to have two witnesses to make a story believable). And of course, it’s not just the story of Jesus and Mary, but it’s also about the fate of Simeon himself and of all the people, the Israelites, but also the Gentiles – which meant, at the time, basically: the whole universe.

So what do you think about that? Simeon and Anna’s prophecies? Do you think that what happens in life, from our little dramas to the History of nations, do you think it is all random, it has no reason or no ultimate meaning? You probably wouldn’t be at church if you thought so, right? So what then? Do you think this all written in advance, that God knows exactly what is in store for you, and your life is just the unfolding of a script that has been written in advance? Then, do you also think that all that happen in the world is “part of a plan”? Life, death, sufferings, Mary’s broken heart at the foot of the cross? Mothers losing their children, wars and hate, innocent people being thrown to jail?

Well, as we think about these things, we may want to listen closely to our elders, Simeon and Anna. I think this is great we have them in our readings this week. Because it may be a cliché but yes, even if older people aren’t always prophets, they know something about life that others don’t. They have, as we say, “wisdom”, and it’s very sad to realize that old age is not as much valuated today in our Temples as it was at Jesus’s time. I thought about that recently as a few of us commented on social medias about a church pushing away their older members as they were undergoing renovations to be more “relevant”, to attract younger people and families. Somebody commented: “Is it even a church?”- Because of course, you don’t do that, when you’re a church, you don’t push people away. But it is not only because we should be compassionate to the most vulnerable, it is really because seniors have something unique to offer that actually young families and children need to hear – as it is the case in our Gospel today! And so we need the elders’ “wisdom”…but what does it mean?

What is it that older people really have to offer, have to say about life, death and suffering that the youngest generations need so much to hear? What is this wisdom all about? Is it piety, prophecy, the ability to read the future, or is it something much more simple? Well, I had a glimpse of an answer last Sunday, as I was listening to the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry who preached at the revival in Washington DC.

Bishop Curry was telling this story that, after the royal wedding where he preached his famous sermon about the power of love, he was interviewed by a journalist from TMC – and this is what the journalist said to him: “Our audience is mostly Young Adults, they haven’t lived as long as you did, but they heard about what you said about love, about Jesus and they want to believe it is true, that there is really powerful living in love, they want to believe that love can guide you in life, that love can strengthen you for life, they want to believe that when you are pulled down by reality, like the old folks used to say, “Love can lift you up”. But they don’t have lived as long as you have, and they don’t know if it can really work! Preacher, you preached a good sermon but will it work?”. Bishop Curry said that, when he heard that, he had to stop for a while, and then he responded: I have been around long enough to know and believe that love is the only thing that has ever workedAnd he added: “People who made a difference in your life are the ones who cared”.

I have been around long enough to know and believe that love is the only thing that has ever worked”. People who make a difference aren’t those who are brilliant, rich, beautiful or perfect, people who make a difference are the ones who care.

This is to me, what wisdom is about. It’s not so much piety, prophecy, the ability to read the future. It is to have lived a life where you have witnessed love at work, where you have worked for love, and now you can be a witness that love works, that love is the only thing that really works, for our own lives, for our nations and for the whole world. In the words of the Gospel, in the mouth of old Simeon and old Anna: Love has power to redeem and love has the power to save, because love is God, and God showed us how God’s love works in the life of Jesus – in spite of sufferings, heart breaks and even death – love has the last word.

I think this is what Simeon is telling Mary today. It could seem very cruel to say that to a young woman, to a young mother, that “a sword will pierce her own soul”. Why didn’t Simeon stick with the first part about Jesus, that is really amazing? That Jesus is the salvation, the light and the glory? Why does Simeon add the part about Jesus being the cause for the falling of many, a sign of opposition, and that Jesus will eventually break his mother’s heart?

Well, Simeon says about himself that he is at peace. Because Simeon knows about life, sufferings and death and he knows that it is all part of the plan and he wants Mary to know so she won’t fall into despair when Jesus is rejected, hated and crucified. It is part of the plan.

But what does it mean? “It is all part of the plan” is one of the Christian sayings that is the less understood. We often understand it as “God wanted it”, “It had to happen”. And so we make it sound like horrific things needed to happen, that it was even God’s will that there would be suffering and death and even sin, and hate, wars and disasters. But maybe this is not what Simeon means. It is not what Redemption is about. On the other way around, Redemption means that all those terrible things will be assumed and integrated into something bigger, that love will work everything out for the best, even if it is as cruel as to have your own child tortured and executed in front of you. Life is probably not a script written in advance, but in the light of love, everything can and will make sense, even the cross.

Simeon is at peace in front of life, and so he can be at peace in front of death too. The Letter to the Hebrews we have just read tells us that in Christ the power of death has been destroyed, assumed and overcome, and it is also something we need to be reminded today. When most people think about death as the ultimate failure, Simeon welcomes death with a sense of completion, of accomplishment. And it is not so much about what he has been able to do with his life, it is much more about what he knows what God can do. Or maybe because he knows that there is not a single thing that God cannot do, or, in Bishop Curry’s words, that love is the only thing that has ever worked. So let us live in love. Amen.

Epiphany III

– It’s interesting b/c this week I was mindlessly flipping through a women’s magazine, shopping, fashion, advice column, when I came across something that sort of turned upside down my long-time unquestioned perspective on today’s Gospel.

The article was about high achieving women who are bored at work. How those women pushed themselves very hard, studied for many years, confronted a competitive and sexist environment, all of it to finally discover one day that what they got wasn’t really was they were looking for in the first place, that basically they weren’t happy at work. And they weren’t happy not for lack of success or money, but mainly for lack of meaning. They didn’t feel their work made a lot of sense. Most of them started out with studying something they really cared about, but little by little, they felt more remote from doing it, most of their job ending up in supervising, controlling, organizing, but they weren’t in touch with the real thing their hearts longed for.

And it looks like the women in this article aren’t the only ones to feel like that. In our developed countries, statistics have it that at least 50% of people with an office job are unhappy at work b/c they feel their jobs don’t make enough sense.

And so – it got me thinking b/c of course, if you pay attention, this is exactly where and when Jesus decides to show up: On people’s work places. He does it, of course, in our story today – a well-known one, when he called twice in a row two brothers to leave their nets to follow him (an interesting insistence), and we know also that Jesus recruited Matthew himself, who wrote the story of today, when he was sitting at his tax collectors booth.

So, for Jesus, it was like a pattern, right, to ask people to leave what they were doing? We got used to these “call stories” though – I know I did. But the article of the office women unhappy at work changed my perspective b/c those women testified that one day they had to do something to change their lives b/c they could not bear it any more. They decided to do something concrete, something that made them happy but also something that had meaning, that was in accord with their values, something that brought them closer to nature, to people. Like most Christians, I have always assumed that Peter, Andrew, James and John, and others disciples like Matthew, made a huge sacrifice the day they decided to follow Jesus. I assumed that they did something very hard, to leave behind their daily activities, the life they knew, the relative security and the comfort they enjoyed. But now I think: Well, very likely there was some sacrifice, and some risk taking in leaving everything, but maybe, just maybe – Jesus was all they were waiting for. An opportunity to change their routine, to do something new, meet new people, become somebody else, or more likely, become who they were really called to be (as Simon became Peter) – so at last they could be in touch with their spiritual longing – finding sense and purpose in their lives beyond day to day survival.

From fishing fish for daily survival, the disciples go out with Jesus to fish people: teach, heal and bring hope to people for the Eternal and divine life.

Now this probably tells us something too, right?

I don’t assume we are all called to leave our jobs – a lot of us are retired anyway! – or our families, our homes…To me the text says something more simple, and yet deeper: It says that we all long for meaning, that our daily life cannot sustain us if it isn’t filled with deep spirituality, a spirituality that is not only in our heads but mainly in our hearts and hands, in service and connection with others. It also means that our God is not a boring God, a never changing and remote God who only expects us to do our daily duty and be contented with it, but quite the opposite: God wants to take us on an adventure.

– First point: Our daily life cannot sustain us if it isn’t filled with deep spirituality. The disciples are longing for more than their fishing for fish – and we hear in Matthew 4, a few verses before our passage, Jesus telling the devil: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out from the mouth of God” – as if the supreme temptation was not, as we often assume, greed, but believing that all we need in life is a plate on our table and a bed to sleep in.

Have you ever read the beautiful book “Man’s search for meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl? Frankl tells his story about surviving four concentration camps during World War II, and as a psychiatrist, he says that what he observed is that what was killing people, apart from execution, was not so much lack of food, lack of medication, exposure or exhausting jobs, what was first of all killing people in the camps was lack of meaning, lack of connections and lack of hope. Frankl observed that if you could find a way to sustain that, your chances were greatly improved. Because life isn’t only a biological process, life is first of all a spiritual adventure.

– And this is really what Jesus invites his disciples to do today – to follow him on a journey talking about God, meeting people, helping them, bearing their own crosses and finding new life. We often assume that their dropping immediately their nets meant that suddenly they had it all figured out – I don’t think so. We see later that they had much to learn from Jesus, even after the Resurrection, until they receive the Holy Spirit. I think they dropped their nets because they had this longing in them, even if they didn’t really know what it was about.

Today, of course, Jesus invites us to follow him in the same way, so we can live to the full, beyond who we think we are to be whom we are called to be – from being Simon to becoming Peter. Leading spiritual lives you see, it is not only about saying prayers or reading the Bible, it is about coming closer to God by finding deeper understanding about what’s going on in our lives, how God speaks to each one of us individually – the reason why it was so important to Matthew to remind us again and again that Jesus was a teacher. But spirituality is also about making connections, getting closer to people, especially those who are different than us, as Jesus went to be with outcasts and sinners, and with them hearing the good news and finding healing, even through pain and death.

And so, and it is my second point, this really is a journey. We’ve just heard it in the psalm, when the psalmist says to God: “You speak in my heart and say ‘Seek my face’ – Your face, Lord, will I seek”.

Not so much a journey towards God than a journey with God. We often have in mind this representation of a God to be found somewhere, a God that never changes or never does anything new, but we see in the Gospel that really Jesus came to find people where they are, on their work places, to show us that God is working with us, in us and through us. The disciples started following Jesus b/c they had much to learn, to see and to experience – and this is true for us wherever we are in life. God has always something to reveal to us and create with us, even if we find ourselves in very difficult situations. Frankl testifies that he never learned so much about life than when basically all his possessions were down to his bare existence, an existence that was threatened ten times a day.

This means also that we have power – power to respond to life in a meaningful way, as the disciples responded to Jesus on that day. Meaning in our lives is not so much to be found at is to be created by caring for others, keeping faith and having hope. There is no script – we find it as we go. Isaiah promised that the Messiah would carry the light for the people in deep darkness and Matthew reminds us of this passage of the Scriptures in the beginning of the story: The disciples saw light through Jesus’s life, feeling God’s presence in him, they responded to the invitation of letting themselves be transformed and transform the world.

I think this is what this call to repentance is all about: Making up our minds to see life in a new light. Not as something we have to either enjoy, when we’re lucky, or endure, when we’re not lucky, but as a spiritual formative experience in the way we live, suffer and die, realizing life is an adventure with God and for God.

Finally, it also means that we need to help people along the way with their spiritual needs. That we have to be Jesus on the shore of their daily life as well and “fish” for them, even on our work places. I have a friend who prays daily to see the spiritual needs of people and she always ends up having the deepest conversations with them at random places like the dog park, the garage or the supermarket. You don’t have to be very educated to do that – spirituality is about what’s in people lives, in their hearts – And so you only have to listen to them, take them seriously, discern with them how God is at work in their lives. We often think about being Jesus to others by being nice and helpful, but what about trying out to be Jesus to others by drawing their attention to the way God is speaking to them and inviting them to change their lives? Christians often complain that today people don’t believe in God the way they used to, and yet if we pay attention we will see that there is still a deep thirst for meaning, relationships, and renewal in everyone, as the article I read testified about. When Jesus asks us to “fish for people” it is not about trapping them in the net of our convictions, but maybe “fishing” is about helping them to make the connection with God, finding the thread between their deepest longings and Christ who is still today calling them, as he calls each one of us. Amen.

Martin Luther King Jr

– I really love our first reading from the OT / Exodus. Short text that says so much about God. I have a book in my library at home whose title is: “What do we speak about, when we speak about God?”. And indeed, it’s a good question b/c so many things have been said about God since the beginning of times! Everybody (each culture / religion / generation and each individual) has an opinion / speculates about who God is and what God wants and how we are to find God b/c of course…who knows?

Yet if we open the Bible, there are some passages that are so clear! Even if we know they were obviously written by a human hand – it really feels divinely inspired (and that’s what we claim). God tells us who God is. And most of us when we introduce ourselves / we may give a list of qualities (I am like this, like that), but isn’t interesting that, instead, the Bible describes what God does? God says to Moses “I am who I am”, so in order to know who God is, you have to know what God does. If we look at the verbs in our OT lesson, this is what God says about what God does: I have observed / I have heard / I know / I have come down / I will bring (my people) up.

And it tells us a lot right? God observes, hears and knows. Now we learned that when we were children, that God knows everything, yet for most of us it is still a little bit frightening to think about that. God sees and knows when we do something wrong, or shameful. But this is not what the Bible says. The Bible says that first thing God sees and hears, it is the misery of those who suffer. God does not know everything to make people feel bad, to judge and to condemn them, but God – and it is two others verbs the Bible uses about God’s actions – God is going to “come down” in order “to bring (his people) up”.

The Bible does not describe who God is by listing God’s great qualities, even if it could. Rather, it tells us how God feels and what God does. God is touched by the people – and I would argue not only the people, but by suffering in general, the suffering of every living thing – and God acts to relieve this suffering. God comes down to the one who is suffering to bring them up / raise them up.

And it is all the story of salvation right? This is not only the story of Exodus. This is also the story of Jesus: Jesus was touched by people’s sufferings, he came to live with the poor, he saw them and heard them, he brought them healing and hope, made them feel loved and accepted. He came to “raise them up from the dead” in many, many ways.

This is what God does and so this is also what we are called to do when we have a living faith / as followers of Jesus – and today, we are reminded of that through MLK’s example. How MLK’s faith in God, being a follower and imitator of Jesus, made him act in very concrete ways: He observed, heard, knew the suffering of African Americain people and he also came to help them and to raise them up. (= be with them, marching and advocating, in order to defend their dignity and obtain for them equal rights). We may think that MLK’s life was so exceptional (and in many ways it was, of course) that it has little to do with us – yet, as Christians, his life is a great example of what it means to follow Jesus.

But how can we do anything like that? It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Quote of MLK I love: Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

I learned this week reading the newspaper something I didn’t know, that MLK’s Day is “National Day of service”, a day to encourage volunteering. And I love that b/c to me it is the whole idea: To take action, at our own level, to love in acts. Concretely. And it can be small things. The newspaper told stories about those volunteers and they did those little things – like one man described how every week, he took an hour to go read to a student in a poor neighborhood. Yet all the volunteers said they were so proud as they realized they were able to make a difference in the life of others, but also in their own lives. One of the volunteers said: “The reason I am so happy is because I have started to live my life for others”.

To act concretely, to do something for those who suffer, this is what God does and what believers are called to do, because this is the nature of love. I was saying that, since the beginning of the world, people wonder who God is, but isn’t it also true about love? What is love? There are so different many ways to think about love. But this is what the Bible tells us: Love is about seeing, hearing, knowing others, being touched by them, but it is also, and it is mostly, coming down (from where we stand) to be with them and to raise them up / to lift them up. And we can all do that, at our level. Isn’t it wonderful that all of us, wherever we are, we can love as God loves us? We can all decide to start to see and hear and learn more about what’s going on in our world or in our neighborhood, and not just feel sorry or even heart broken, but go and do something about it. We can do it as individuals but also as a community, as a church, no matter if we are small or don’t feel we have much power. We are all called to love this world and to bring more love in this world.

This is also the message of the Gospel today. As Jesus describes love, he uses verbs all the time: “Love” for Jesus is synonymous with “Do good” / “Bless” / “Pray” / “Offer” / “Give”. We often think that this Gospel on the love of the enemies is very idealistic, when to me it is very realistic. It shows love not as a dream or a passive emotion or a mere feeling, it shows what love is supposed to do. What Christians, churches are supposed to do.

You know, I love to celebrate MLK’s Day b/c of that. B/c in the life of MLK, of those who fought for civil rights, we see love in action / transforming a country / changing the world. The Letter from Birmingham Jail we have just read reminds us of that: Love is not supposed to be passive / and so certainly churches aren’t supposed to be passive. In the letter, we can feel MLK’s energy, but also his sadness and disappointment at churches which don’t do what they are supposed to do. Christianity is not mainly a cultural or even a religious identity. Being a Christian is (first and above all) about putting love into motion, letting God work through us, especially as we care for those who suffer – every living creature.

I read something similar this week – written by a pastor (John Pavlovitz): “If you profess to be a follower of Jesus, I’m not concerned with your politics and I don’t care about your doctrine. I’m not interested in the Scriptures you can recite or the prayers you utter out loud. (…) Show me that you actually give a damn about people: not just (…) American people or Christian people or white people—but the disparate parade of human beings in every way you encounter them, in every condition they arrive, with whatever backstory they’ve lived through. If you tell me you’re a Christian, be someone who, like Jesus—looks at the crowds and has a compassion for them that propels them into proximity with their pain.”

The extremism MLK speaks about in his letter is not a politic extremism. It is loving to the extreme – which leads us to take action, concretely, everyday, and not only privately but in the public space when needed. But this is Jesus’s message. When Jesus asks us to love our neighbors, he says that it not about loving only our friends, about being nice to people, it’s about loving those who are different, but also those who hurt us, those who do evil because in the end, being a follower of Jesus is about overcoming a culture of hate. If as Christians we are supposed to bring a culture / an identity, that’s the culture / identity of love we need to bring.

We hear today this great saying of Jesus: to turn the other cheek. But it’s not about letting people hit you. Slapping the cheek in many cultures is a provocation. And so what Jesus asks us when he asks us to turn the other cheek, is to not respond to provocation. To not enter the vicious circle of hate. To resist the hate / not become hateful whatever the reason / to turn the hate around by responding with love to all situations. We have to confess that most of us Christians think it’s okay to hate at some point to hate, whether it’s criminals, immigrants, terrorists, gay people, abortionists, white supremacists…you name it. But to all of us Jesus says: It’s never okay to hate. Jesus knew what he was talking about. Jesus had many people who hated him – so much they put him to death. Yet even on the cross Jesus loved them and showed compassion. As Christians we are supposed to embody love. Not just pity or compassion for victims or criminals, but a love in action that seeks to relieve suffering, bring justice, raise people up – all people. The nature of love is ultimately that it brings Redemption.

How do we do that? Maybe we have to start by confessing our inability to love / how hard it can be to love in a world full of hate and provocation and ask Jesus, as MLK kept on doing, ask Jesus to give us his strength, the strength he showed on the cross / the strength to love to the extreme and to the end. Amen.

The Baptism of the Lord

– Some of you know that I live very close by the seminary in Alexandria where I studied to become a priest. They have Eucharists everyday at their chapel and it’s not unusual that they ask their alumni, once ordained, to come to lead a service and to preach. I did that for them several times over the years, but one day, a request a little bit unusual came to me. I was asked to lead a liturgy in Spanish because the students wanted to learn. Now, I know a little bit of Spanish. I studied it in high school – that was a long time ago but I thought, why not? I am not great at that but what is the worst that can happen? It’s just a small service with students like I used to be, they’re not going to judge me if it’s not perfect.

The thing I didn’t know is that on that particular day, they had on campus a guest who came to give a lecture, and they wished to honor during the celebration. For that reason, I was told 10mn before the start of the service, a few faculty members were going to attend so they can do the acknowledgment of the guest during the offertory. And so, this is what happened: As I entered the chapel, all vested and ready as much I could be to celebrate and to preach, I realized that in the two first rows in the Chapel were actually seated, not just a small group of friendly students, but most of my former teachers, and, among them – Former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori – who is, by the way, completely fluent in Spanish.

No to tell you that I felt it would be a “humbling experience” would not even begin to cover it. It was already something to have to preach to my former teachers and to the Presiding Bishop, but on top of that, in my broken Spanish? With my French accent? I started to break in cold sweats – but there was nothing I could do right? I could not run away, although, trust me, I wished I could have crawled under a rock.

So, of course, when I read about John in the wilderness seeing Jesus coming from afar and then Jesus telling him he’s not there to teach him, to give him instructions, or even to have a random conversation, but he is actually asking John to minister to him, to baptize him, well…although (let me be clear) I don’t identify with John at all, I can certainly relate to what he was feeling: “Me? Baptizing you? It is I who need to be baptized by you”. Because of course, having John baptizing Jesus, it didn’t make any sense – it’s a little like me preaching to a bunch of people with a Phd in theology and fluent in a language I just have basic notions of. You don’t feel honored or even humbled when something like that happens to you, what you feel is embarrassment and even maybe shame and fear.

And yet – this is the way it all started. John had to baptize Jesus so “all righteousness would be fulfilled”.

What does it mean? The question is not even “why did Jesus need to be baptized” but why did Jesus ask John? Embarrassed him this way? Why did Jesus asked of John to do something so unexpected / counter-intuitive?

As I thought about it for today, I found 4 levels of explanation

First part: 2 first points. We covered last week during our forum that Matthew is the Gospel “of the church”. Matthew is writing “foundational text” to build up a community. I think it meant something for the early Christian community that John whould baptize Jesus…and I love to have that before Annual Meeting and election of new vestry members next week…It says how leaderships looks like in the church.

1 – Good leadership comes from people who are not interested in power. And it’s hard for us to think about that when of course in the corporate world and politics it’s almost every time greedy or at least ambitious people who lead. In the church, good leaders are those who, like John, are aware of their limitations, don’t cling to their ministry when somebody they think is more able than them show up, feel and express the need to be fed / ministered to as well. Know they are also in need of healing, attention, help. Yet, they are also willing to fulfill their duties as needed, when asked to.

But then, leadership in the church looks also like Jesus: Let others be in charge so they can experience serving, even if there would be a faster or more efficient way to act, empowers disciples to do new things or to carry on their ministry, step back when needed.

In both case, neither John nor Jesus are interested in power or control. Don’t feel the need to be right or to be the center of attention. What they do, they do it to serve, and to make God known (and in the story, God shows up!). I was joking this week that often in the church it’s the one who doesn’t want to do it who is the more qualified to do it: They acknowledge their limitations, are aware of the responsibilities and are not interested in being the center of attention. They do what they are called to do to serve – with great humility.

Isn’t it interesting to realize that both John – who serves, ministers – and Jesus – the one who is ministered to – both do that out of a great humility? Isn’t it what “all righteousness” is all about? Humility is ministering and in being ministered to.

2 – As it turns out, this Gospel is probably more about ministering to one another than about leadership. What it tells you is that in the church, ministering is mutual. We minister to one another. The minister (=priest) is not the one in charge of ministering to everyone, the minister (=priest) reminds us that as baptized people, we all share in Jesus’s priesthood (BCP p.308), and we are called to minister to one another – to be to one another a witness of Christ’s love. I remind you that, in case of emergency, any baptized Christian can baptize someone (BCP p.313). More generally,we pray for one another, we help each other, sometimes it’s not more complicated than showing up, giving a phone call.

We all need help, we all need to be strengthen in our faith, prayed for, talk about the things we deal with. We are not strong by relying on ourselves, we are made strong and firm in our faith by our community but also by those around us: family, friends, but also counselors, doctors, teachers…John baptized in the desert b/c he believed that God wasn’t necessarily stuck in the Temple. God was among people and in the wild. People can minister to us in countless ways, even non believers. Nature can minister to us too. Julian of Norwich: “God is in everything that is good” (I would add: “and right and joyful” as in our Eucharistic Prayer A).

We need to show up for one another as of course Jesus showed up for people and as John showed up for Jesus – even if he didn’t feel that qualified. We all need each other. God became flesh to learn what it is to be human. As long as we are in this life, nobody has it all figured out.

2nd part: 2 last points / explanation why JB “had” to baptize Jesus less about the church and more “spiritual” (Tell us something about God)…Bear with me.

3 – Why did Jesus ask John to baptize him? Did he want to make a point / show an example / say something about the church – as we may believe when we read Matthew? Maybe. It says something about leadership and about ministry, which we have just covered. But more deeply, I think the reason why Jesus ask John to baptize him it’s b/c Jesus could not help himself. That’s just who he is.

I recently watched on Netflix the movie “The two Popes” about Pope Benedictus and Pope Francis and we see the rising of Francis in the Vatican, and a lot of the comical aspect of the movie is to show how Pope Francis is humble, humble in a way that embarrass the rest of the clergy. For example, we see taht Francis (when still an archbishop) does not want the fancy car to visit Rome, he just rides the bus. But he does not do it to make a statement, he is just happy to see people and to chat with the bus driver. Well, I think it’s a little bit the same with Jesus. He goes where the crowd is, he goes meet his cousin, he let him do his thing – even if John starts to be embarrassed. Jesus does not think twice about what he is doing, he is not making a well rehearsed statement, even if it says something. Jesus asks John to baptize him b/c he is so humble. It’s just natural for him to behave that way.

To come close to God, we have to be very humble, not because God wants to humiliate us, to make us feel little, but b/c God is very humble too. In the very simple things. And that’s where God reveals God’s glory. The language of the psalm is not so much a language of conquest and power, strength, it is the language of awe. God broke into the world in humility. A baby and now a young man coming without armor / naked in a river to be cleansed.

Isaiah describes the gentleness of the Messiah. God is not here to break us. Trials in life may break us, but Jesus came literally to raise us up.

4 – Last, something to chew on: Maybe Jesus asks John to minister to him b/c, in a mysterious way, we are called to “minister to God” and maybe that’s what Christian life is all about. We often think of baptism as this day we accept God into our life, and God becomes part of our story. Baptism is this day when we become part of God’s story, when we receive God into our heart, when God receives us into God’s heart. If we are made in God’s image, God wants as much as anyone of us to be loved – even more than us, since there is only perfect love in God.

How do we show love to God in our everyday lives? How do we give back to God by being our best selves? Living a life of service full of goodness, generosity and joy? That’s our life as baptized people: circle back the love we receive from God. That’s what Jesus calls “all righteousness”.