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”.

Christmas Eve

I used to celebrate Christmas in my childhood in South of France, at my grand mother’s. Many traditions around Christmas there, one of them is to have 13 desserts! The tradition that is the most well known is “creche”, nativity scenes. During Christmas time, you visit different churches, they all have their nativity scene, some of them use as much space as the space we have here for the altar! The whole village is represented – with those little characters called “santons”, not only shepherds as in the Gospel, but the postman, the mayor, the baker, the seamstress..even the priest! Coming to adore baby Jesus. I remember spending a lot of time as a child looking at all of them…Maybe you’ve had a chance to visit at the National cathedral? At this time of the year, they display nativity scenes from all over the world.

Amazing to see all those different people surrounding Baby Jesus, all united around Jesus. Sometimes a little bit like that here at Christ Church. We are really a diverse church. Lots of different backgrounds, but we all come here to worship Jesus, especially on this Christmas Eve.

In our world, so many different people and ways of living: What is it that we have in common? What would you say is, in spite of all our differences, the thing we have all in common?

Well, there are different answers to that, but to me, clearly, the thing we all have in common as human beings is that we all want to be happy. Think about it, think about what you really want for your life, or for the life of your children, of those you love. If you had only one wish you could ask for to a fairy, what would you ask for? Probably for happiness. Or maybe you would not ask it like that, maybe you would ask for health or to be loved by this very person, or maybe you would ask to get this amazing job, or to win the lottery – but if the fairy were to tell you: “I will grant you this wish, but it won’t bring you happiness, in fact, it’s going to make you very unhappy” Well, probably you wouldn’t want the thing you asked for anymore, would you? In the end, what we long for is happiness.

Now, what is it that God wants for us? Maybe it’s hard to tell, we barely know who God is, how could we tell what God wants for us? So we turn to the Bible, to try to understand what God has in mind for people. And as we read the Bible, we may come up with different answers. Some people say that, above all, God wants us to obey, to behave. Or to be good people. Or maybe: God wants us to believe. And that’s all right…

But listen closely to what God is telling us in the silence of this quiet night. Tonight God sends his angel, his messenger, to the shepherds and this is what God tells through his angel: “See – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”.

And this is the beginning. The beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the beginning of the story of God incarnated, God with us in the person of Jesus, and this is how the beginning is: God wants us to rejoice. God wants to share God’s joy with all humankind. God does not want us first thing to obey, to behave or even to be good people. God wants us to rejoice. And so, no wonder we all have a longing for happiness, because this is what the Gospel tells us today: We are made for joy. We are made for joy and not any kind of joy, we are made for the joy that comes down from heaven. We are made for the joy that comes down from heaven. Maybe this is what it means to be human. To be meant to be filled with God’s joy.

Now you would think: If we are meant to be filled with God’s joy, if it is God’s will for us, and if deep down we want to be happy, things should be very straightforward, no? And yet, when we look around, or maybe when we look inside of us, we know that there is often not that much happiness to be found.

How do you explain that? If God really wants us to be filled with joy, and if we want so much to be happy, how comes happiness is so hard to find? Well, maybe we need to listen to the rest of what the angel has to tell the shepherds on that night, what the angel has to tell us tonight. There are two things that the angel does that I think are really, really important. First the angel ask the shepherds not to fear, and then the angel points them in the direction of Mary, Joseph and the child in the simplicity and the humility of their condition.

“Do not fear”. We’ve heard tonight that when Jesus was born, there was no room for him in the inn and so, it’s often an image preachers use, to say that, for us, at Christmas, we need to make room for Jesus in our hearts. We need to make room for Jesus. And as it goes, there is only so much room in a human heart. Not because we love other people or other things too much but what takes the most space in our hearts, it is as the angel tells us: It’s fear. It’s anxiety. I don’t think it’s our fault. We are humans and there is so little we can control. The shepherds had reasons to fear on that night: fear of the wolves, of the thieves. Fear of the oppressors (they were living under Roman occupation), fear of their own people: people didn’t like shepherds because they had what was considered a demeaning job. So, there were a lot of things that were threatening to them – but the angel says that God is not one they need to fear. God is not threatening them. God comes to them, on that night, as a little baby – not as an Emperor or as a judge. So really, God wants us to believe that although we may be afraid of many things, animals or people – sometimes for good reasons – we really don’t need to be afraid of God. We have to trust in God’s goodness, even if God can be scary because God’s glory is so big. The only thing we should be afraid of is to reject God. God wants us to rejoice in God’s presence, and not to run under the bed to hide away.

And then the angel does a second thing. The angel points to Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus and the angel says this is where the shepherds need to go, this is where joy is to be found. We could spend a lot of time looking at our nativity scenes to understand what joy is all about, where joy is to be found. According to the angel, joy is to be found among the little ones, the poor, the humble. People like Joseph and Mary and their baby. Joy is not to be found in a palace or even in a Temple, joy is to be found in the heart of those who love, and joy will be found for the shepherds as they go to adore the baby. Think about it. The angel announces “A Savior”, but what could this little baby do for these shepherds? They would probably be very old when the child would finally be of age to “save” them! And yet, the shepherds rejoice, they find joy in adoring him.

The thing is – Joy and happiness aren’t exactly the same. Maybe sometimes, they are quite the opposite. We want to be happy, as I’ve said. Yet, have you heard how we speak about happiness? When we speak about happiness, we think about all the things we need to have to be happy, all the things we need to do, all the goals we need to achieve. How we want to be admired and respected. And so happiness seems always out of reach, there is always something that misses in our lives so we can be truly happy.

But this is what God says to us on this very night: It’s the rich who look for happiness as something they have to find, to achieve or even to deserve, and they exhaust themselves in doing so, and they sometimes make themselves and others very unhappy by doing so. But this is the secret: Joy is for the poor of heart, joy is for the humble – because the poor of heart expect God to give them what they cannot give to themselves. Joy is something that God and only God can give us – not as a reward – but because joy is what God wants to give us from the start, because joy, this what God is. In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear God say the day Jesus is baptized: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is God’s joy, and God wants to give us Jesus, and this is the gift among all gifts.

To receive God’s gift, maybe we need to be more simple. To renounce to try so hard to find, to achieve or to be worthy of happiness, and to rely on God to give us the joy we were made for, receiving God’s gift into our hearts in adoring Jesus. When we love, we stop thinking about everything that’s not going well. When we love we only want to be with the one we love.

Tonight, like in the nativity scene, we are gathered around the one we love, around the one who love us beyond words, so much beyond words he had to become flesh to tell us. Let’s rejoice to be with one another and as we do so, let us learn how to receive God’s love, to (re) discover the wonders of God’s love for “all the people”, for each one of us. That’s what church is for (and not only on Christmas Eve!): to learn how to love and to share this love in a world that longs so much for joy. Amen.

Advent III

From Matt 3 to Matt 11: A complete reversal of situation for JB. On the outside but also on the inside. Last time we saw him he was this wild prophet, free from all powers religious or politics, people were seeking after him…And now JB is in prison, on his own, got arrested by Herod. Inside he is changed too. Not so assertive, he has doubts, has to ask his own disciples for reassurances about who Jesus is. JB starts second guessing himself, not so sure anymore about what he has seen, heard – about what he has said.

Maybe it was nothing but a dream, seeing the Messiah.

– First observation: This passage is very realistic about what it is to live in this world. We all have reversal of situations. For the best and sometimes for the worst. Whether it takes a lot of times or whether it is very sudden, we experience ups and downs / more accurately situations where we think we are all what we can be to situations where there is nothing we can do / limited (JB in prison – it can be also for us sickness, aging, depression, financial problems that consume us). We all at some point come to a dark place. Dark place in our lives, but also dark places in our souls.

It’s not so much the suffering but “suffering the suffering”: When we suffer, we start asking What did I do wrong? Basically what JB is asking is: Did I miss something? Misunderstood? Did I lead people to follow the wrong one? What does it mean about my mission and my life?

Doubts about God are never only intellectual. If there is no God or if God isn’t who I believed God to be, what does it mean about who I am, my purpose in life?

– Jesus breaks the cycle of doubts by reminding the disciples that JB is the greatest of all. Greater than the kings, greater than the prophets. JB’s situation may have changed but he is still a great prophet even if he isn’t preaching / teaching anymore like he used to do. Even if he has questions, doubts. Even if he is in despair.

Do we believe that this is the way God looks at us? That we are always who we are / who we are meant to be, whatever life throws at us? We can spend so much time eating our own hearts out with guilt, shame, doubts – could Jesus’s words bring us peace? If being in a dark place is something that happens even to the greatest, then why do we so often believe that is we were wise enough, holy enough, good enough, nothing bad would ever happen?

– Second observation: I think I’ve already mentioned that sometimes bad things happen to you not b/c you did something wrong, but b/c you did something right. That’s actually the case with JB. He lived under an unjust political system and as he denounced it, he was bothering those in power (they were actually afraid of him!) and he was arrested to be silenced.

What happened? We learn later that JB condemned Herod for taking his brother’s wife. It’s not a detail, as with other sexual misbehavior, even if sometimes we want to make light of them. But what we often miss is that it’s not the sexual acts that displease God, it is the abuse of power. The big deal with adultery in the Bible is that it is the taking somebody that does not belong to you / no acknowledging that other people’s bodies are not in your control.

JB said to Herod: You have no right to your brother’s wife / it is unlawful. It’s not about respecting the rule for the sake of respecting the rule. It means: Even if you are the more important man in the country or even in the world, they are limits to your power. Even if there is nobody more powerful than you, you still have to respect the law / the law is bigger than you.

Even the kings don’t make the law. They can make rules but there is a law: Other people’s bodies are off limits – which condemn sexual violence and all other forms of violence.

– Third observation: JB condemning Herod’s behavior enables us to understand better something about John’s testimony and about his ministry, something he may not have understood himself at the time (which would have led him to doubt and even despair): His job was to tell the truth and not necessary to make a lot of disciples (These days, it seems that church’s success is only measured by numbers and attendance!).

JB had to say something when he witnessed Herod’s immorality. JB was close to the poor, the crowds of those who came to see him in the wilderness. He couldn’t stand the abuse of power. Now Jesus still acknowledges him as this great prophet. JB did the right thing, even if he lost his job / his ministry / his reputation.

Barbara Brown Taylor: You don’t become a martyr b/c you want to be a martyr. You become a martyr b/c you get so caught in serving God and following Christ that you stop being careful. That you just do what you have to do w/o caring about the consequences for yourself.

What about us? Is truth telling important to us? Doing the right thing that is right in front of you? Have you noticed how often people advise us (and we even tell that to ourselves) that maybe we shouldn’t do/say something for a greater good? Do you think maybe JB should have said nothing about Herod so he could have continued his job baptizing and witnessing to Jesus in the wilderness?

Yes, but what kind of ministry would it have been? Being on the side of the poor, w/o standing up when there is an abuse of power in the land? Again and again, the Gospel calls us to integrity vs hypocrisy.

When in conflict with two possible courses of actions, we often think we should pick the greater good, but maybe we should pick the “nearest good”. The right thing to do right now in the present, instead of the right thing to do in a hypothetical future. That’s where a lot of people who want a career in public life get caught: They accept compromises to be able to apply their program once they have more responsibilities, but often when they get there it’s too late, they are corrupted and they continue to accept what’s immoral for a “greater good” that ends up being always delayed…

JB lost his career for the sake of the truth. How many times at work, with our families, have we been told to not “rock the boat” so we can secure what we have?

– And yet…Fourth observation: With Jesus’s words come reassurance. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed…” It is all happening (The Messianic time), even if it’s happening in a way you cannot understand or control or even appreciate.

It is all happening, even if it’s happening in a way you cannot understand or control or even appreciate. Well, that’s probably words we also need to hear for ourselves when we are in dark places. It does no mean Jesus asks us to feel good when we feel awful. But Jesus asks us to trust. And this is really what following Jesus is about. There is a story of Jesus talking to a Saint (a nun in the 18e century) and what he said to her is that what is the most important in his disciples isn’t for them to be perfect or to do a lot of prayers or even a lot of good deeds. What is necessary is to trust. B/c w/o trust Jesus can do nothing. But also b/c trust is the sure mark of love. If you think you love someone but you don’t trust them, think twice – You may not love them as much as you think.

The disciple needs to grow / be perfected by learning trust.

Jesus says that JB is the greatest of all, and yet the last one in the KOG is greater than he. KOG: this place where God is fully present / perfect state of our lives w/ God / Eternal life. What we call “sanctification”, “being made perfect” still needs to happen for JB, for all of us. As long as we live this life.

It is great to baptize people, to preach, to be a political activist, but there is something even more important: It is to learn to trust God. And so, if this time in prison seemed completely wasted on John, he was actually doing the most important work of his life: Learning to trust God and let sanctification happen. Famous preacher in DC (Rev. Howard-John Wesley) announced this week his Sabbatical: “I feel very far from God”. “The worst thing we can do in ministry is to think that b/c we work for God, we are close to God”. True for pastors but isn’t it true for a lot of us who “work in the church” / give so much of our time and energy to the church? When do we “refill”, when do we let God nourish us?

– Last and fifth observation: How do we learn how to trust? If I had the answer, I would be greater than JB! But today Jesus points to the Scriptures (Isaiah) to help us discern signs of hope / see the desert blossom. Needs the ability to ponder / pace ourselves to see them. To spend “free” time with God / with the Scriptures / looking around us. At night, remembering the events of the day, the people we have met, things said etc.

James: reminds us three times to be patient. Impatience for God isn’t always wrong, Jesus at some point also confesses he is impatient (to see God’s K on earth). We pray: Your kingdom comes. But JB was so impatient he thought of Jesus as an “obstacle to faith” (“You take offense at me”) b/c Jesus instead of bringing judgment and establishing his kingdom “just” hung out w/ people! Impatience can lead us to despair, to a very dark place when things do not come our way / the way we want them to come to us. This is what Advent is meant for: to learn how to wait. We have to wait 4 weeks when the prophets waited two thousands years. Maybe we can start being patient with little things, so we become able to be patient for God!

Advent II

– Back from vacations! I didn’t go anywhere exotic this past week, one of the things I did was used some of this time at home to make room on my shelves…After all, Advent is a penitential season and as I was looking around I thought: “Maybe I don’t need all that stuff” and I had a look at all the books I have purchased and not read yet. One of the books caught my attention. I started reading a few pages and I thought: No wonder I had left it aside. But this time I carried on and read through it. One of the hardest read of my life. Well written but relate the very tough / traumatizing experience of a boy soldier: Ishmael Beah. Maybe you’ve heard about him?

This is his story: 12 years old boy growing up in a village in Sierra Leone in the early 90’s. One day, he leaves with a few friends to visit his grandmother a few miles away from his home, and while they are away, his village is attacked by the rebels and all his family is killed. Beah flees, starts a long walk on his own and hides in the forest. Later, he meets a few other boys in the same situation and together they wander from deserted places to deserted places as everybody else is trying to escape from the rebels, trying to avoid being killed. As months pass by, the boys end up almost starving. But then one day, they finally arrive in a bigger village defended by government soldiers and they start hoping their lives will be better and safer. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite that happens. The soldier start training them to fight: They are brainwashed and taught how to kill: “We did nothing but fight, watch war movies and do drugs so strong I would not sleep for weeks”. Then the boys are sent on the front lines: “I can’t remember how many people I killed” says Beah, and he describes some of the atrocities he committed, destroying entire villages. It lasted for two years until he finally got “rescued” (even if it didn’t feel like rescue at the time) by the UN and placed in a rehab center with other boys soldiers.

The title of his story: “A long way gone”: I wondered what does it mean. Is he now long gone from the war / finally escaped or was he a long way gone and yet, he came back? Traumatized w/o hope of healing / sinned beyond any hope of redemption. Today, Beah lives a normal life in NYC advocating for peace and children’s rights.

– Reading Beah’s story in a parallel w/ our biblical lessons for today was fascinating for me. In our three first readings (OT, Psalm and Epistle), there is this promise that God will bring peace to the world. A peace that is not just the absence of conflict / escaping from a terrible situation, but reconciliation and harmony – against all odds, even against the laws of nature: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…” etc. The author of the book of Isaiah wasn’t naive. This book was actually written in a time of war as well. In a time of destruction when there was no hope in sight.

This tells us that hope can’t always be seen but it can be found in God. In this time of the year when we await the coming of the Redeemer, we are reminded that Redemption is possible, even against all odds. We can survive, we can heal and we can turn our life around no matter what we have done or what others have done to us. A journey towards peace: This is the story of Beah – and even if we have never known such terrible things – this is our story too, the story of our world, the story God wants to write with us beyond sin, violence and suffering. We hear in the Gospel today John the Baptist calling us to repentance / which means: to return. We too are “a long way gone” but we can come back, by “Preparing the way of the Lord, [making] his path straight”.

How do we do that? JB: Baptizing and confessing are the way to prepare to let God act into our life / into our communities / in our world. Baptism and confession are sacraments / liturgical acts but they express realities we have to live out.

I learned a lot about baptizing and confessing reading Beah’s book, his own experience of Redemption.

Life was very tough in the rehab center. The boys were used to extreme violence and hooked on many drugs. At the beginning, they had a lot of outbursts, fights and were unkind to the staff and nurses taking care of them. Their only thought was to escape and find drugs and go back to the front lines (They missed the violence!). Yet, each time the boys did bad, instead of getting mad, the staff would tell them: “It’s not your fault”. Quiet amazing as you read Beah’s account of his time in rehab to hear these words again and again from the people around him: “It’s not your fault”.

It seems to me that those words hold a huge healing power. It was like balm on the children’s wounds and water on their fronts: It was like they were baptized again in innocence, brought back to their childhood that had been robbed from them. This is what baptism – as it has been brought to us by John on the banks of the Jordan and as it is still present in the church – do to us: It brings us back to our true identity as children of God, children who have been robbed of their divine filiation by the evil that is in the world. To us too, baptism tells us: It’s not your fault. Look at the liturgy in the BCP. It says that evil was there before us and we have been caught in the cycle of selfishness, hate and violence – but it’s not what we are meant to be and in Christ we have a way out.

It does not mean we have done anything or we haven’t done anything wrong. As the children were told: it’s not your fault, they started opening up and confessed what they had done. Removing the shame and the condemnation, showing unconditional love, the words opened up a space for confession and facing reality. For being finally able to look at their stories, to name what happened to them and what the army had them do. Beah’s book is also his confession, acknowledging what he has done, he found his way back to who he was meant to be in the first place.

Repentance is possible. We don’t have to be for ever the victims or the perpetrators of violence. Isaiah: No preys and predators anymore (They go together!). As we become aware of that, we are healed and can start mending the world.

– Advent is a time for hope and peace. To look at ourselves, at our neighbors and at our world with the beliefs that things can change, that we can change: that we can bear fruits worthy of repentance. JB describes the Redeemer as the one who can purify us from evil (fire images). Children at the rehab center were healed b/c the staff looked at them as children, in spite of what they had done. They believed they could change. John the Baptist and then Christ look at us trusting we can change.

Do we believe change is really possible? Do we trust we can change / Others can change?

* Do we feel we are “beyond Redemption” because of what we have done or what has been done to us / even if it’s nothing as bad as Beah. I have a 60 years old friend who was telling me recently that after a lifetime of being abused by her mother, she is now choosing to look the future with optimism and let go of the anxiety her mother had fed her. She said to me: I am not the person my mother designed me to be. (= designed her daughter to meet her own needs). She starts to believe she can live a life that isn’t defined by enduring the pain of not being loved.

* Do we enable others to find their way back to their true selves? To our community? To God?Cf the movie “The Green Book”: The chauffeur says to his boss who is estranged from his brother: “The world is full of lonely people who are too afraid to take the first step”. Maybe Christmas will be an opportunity to seek out those from whom we have been estranged / who are a long way gone. Maybe they are just too ashamed to reach out to us. Do we look at those who hurt us with hope? (Does not mean we should be enablers! But we can call them back to be their true / their best selves, as did JB with the religious leaders). We can all “baptize” one another with words of healing, love / washing in innocence.

Advent: The best is yet to come. “Do we really believe that? Are we just afraid that life will bring us more problems, and in the end sickness and death will have the last word, or do we trust that our life is a path towards God’s kingdom, that there is another horizon / a horizon of peace? Good fruit are to be borne / good things are to be born (Theme of our Quiet day).

Christ the King

– Beginning of the holiday season. Next week is Advent – We start to prepare for Christmas. Music is already everywhere – we don’t even pay attention. I haven’t grown up with those Christmas songs, so sometimes I pay attention. What is it with Christmas and wondering if we’ve been “Naughty or nice”?If we will be “rewarded or punished”? Is it stuff we just say to children or, under the surface, does it say something about our questioning and anxieties about ourselves and also the way we relate to God?

Do you ever wonder if you’re a good person? Have you ever caught yourself at the end of the day thinking about something you have said or done and questioning whether “you’re a bad person”, and then you start to justify yourself, finding good reasons for a behavior you know is not 100% right, or blaming on circumstances your wrongdoings?

– Wondering if we’re good or bad is an anxiety deeply rooted in human nature that the Reformation / Luther tried to solve: There are no good or bad people, only sinners in need of repentance and salvation – salvation that is made possible only b/c of the grace of God – but has nothing to do with our own merits. Of course, long habits die hard, and we ended up dividing the world between those who are saved (the good people) and those who aren’t saved (the bad people) – which creates a new set of anxieties as to guess in which group you belong…and the circle starts all over again.

– This question of being a good / bad person is unavoidable b/c of course we notice a difference between people, good and bad even if the line is often blurry (nobody being 100%). Our everyday experience, a look at our history, our institutions, our culture, our societies, our relationships tell us that – even if we admit we’re all sinners – there is a difference between people. There are people who are horrible or wonderful, mean or generous, hypocrite or sincere…and this not matter if they claim to be “saved” or not.

– I am telling you all of that b/c I think the Gospel we have today is about this difference between people, about what makes the real difference between people. We call it the story of the “good thief” that is unique to Luke. Paradoxical / oxymoron. A thief should be someone who is bad / do something wrong, and yet he is pictured as being the good person. Jesus is surrounded by people who stand by, watching, do nothing, and by people mocking him / attacking him, and it’s like there are all a big crowd and then there is this man who is a robber, maybe a criminal (We don’t know what he did!) who is also crucified – and yet who is going to stand out from everybody else by doing the extraordinary, the “right thing”…. Showing compassion / rebuking the bullies by saying to the other thief: “We have been condemned justly…but this man he had done nothing”.

Luke’s Gospel: Gospel of the poor yes, but because it’s the Gospel of compassion. Song of Zechariah in Chap 1: God has shown mercy. And this is what it is all about. Compassion. God shows compassion in Jesus by sharing our life and suffering (com-passion), made obvious by the fact that Jesus is condemned and put to death, not on his own, but in the midst of all sinners and mortals / condemned to death we all are / and forgive them. What he does in this Gospel as well, promising paradise to a sinner…a sinner who, according to God’s character, showed compassion.

Good thief is like the final and ideal disciple who “got it” in spite of his shortcomings / even crimes. If you remember the story of the good Samaritan (also unique to Luke), Jesus asks at the end: “Who was a neighbor” and the response is: “The one who showed mercy”. And for Luke this is what make all the difference. Between people, between sinners, between the true God and between false gods: mercy / the ability to show compassion.

What is compassion? Basic definition: You see people hurting and you feel sorry for them. That’s what happens when you see a documentary about war on TV, or a homeless on the street, read a story about a lost puppy. Now, is this the compassion Luke is talking about? I wonder… Who likes it when people feel sorry for them? Nobody. Nobody wants people to have pity on them – it’s humiliating, it makes you feel helpless, it makes you feel that the one who is sorry for you does it just to feel better about themselves.

So Luke tells us a story to show us what real compassion is about: Real compassion is (1) about asking for justice, (2) taking someone’s defense and (3) reminding them of their own power and beauty – and I think this is what the good thief, the perfect disciple according to Luke’s heart, is doing today.

What is the good thief doing?

– He says to the bully:‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’Compassion is rooted not in feeling sorry for people (b/c they are weak or helpless). Compassion is rooted in acknowledging the unfairness and even the evil of a situation, and how some people can get hurt because of it. Compassion is also a claim for justice that goes beyond what would be advantageous for us. The good thief does not ask justice for himself, but for Jesus who is innocent.

– The way I imagine him asking for justice, I am pretty sure this man talked in much more colorful language than the elegant words the Gospel put into his mouth as he was dying among haters and criminals. (The quotation, this is the idea of what he told them)… and I think it made Jesus smile that the man would take his defense in this way because of course it was probably useless and a bit pathetic to get mad, and yet it was the right thing to do…In the midst of all those people who did nothing or who mocked Jesus – at last, somebody stood up and it must have been very comforting for Jesus, to have somebody who was willing to protect him – and took chances doing so. Right thing and even godly/holy thing to do: The good thief’s sided with Jesus in the same way that Luke shows us how God always sides with the poor.

Compassion is not sentimentalism in Luke’s Gospel, compassion is always at work. It’s our willingness, starting with God’s willingness, to do something. Not about signing a check b/c we feel bad or telling people we are sorry for them. Taking a risk / taking the risk of being hurt ourselves, discredited – b/c we take side with the powerless. We don’t truly know what it is to be loved until the day somebody takes side / take risks for us, as the good thief does for Jesus. God’s compassion is shown in the way that God comes into our darkness (canticle: “those who dwell in darkness”).

If we are to show compassion, we are also called to go to places where people lay in darkness: hospitals, prisons, streets…It can be as simple as the willingness to sit with somebody who has depression or dementia. Not just sending good thoughts and prayers and hoping they will come back to the light. Com-passion: experiencing something of the suffering of the one who suffers / risk getting hurt to relieve them a bit from their pain.

– A third thing about compassion is that it is never condescending, when pity always is. Compassion is sharing in the suffering, yet it is not about doing for somebody what they can do for themselves. You don’t do for somebody what they can do for themselves, but you remind them of who they are. We often quote the “Jesus, remember me when you come to your kingdom” but we often forget that, the good thief, as he reminds Jesus to remember him, reminds Jesus of who Jesus is: The one who is coming to his kingdom / this kingdom Jesus preached about all his life / center of his preoccupations. The good thief reminded Jesus that he saw beauty and also power in him. If we don’t see the beauty and power in those we have compassion on, then it’s just pity. Compassion in Luke is always meant to make people stand on their feet: “Guide our feet into the way of peace”. I am not 100% sure the good thief saw Jesus as the messiah and the savior, but I am 100% sure that he saw the divine in Jesus: kindness, beauty, majesty.

– And this is the irony, right? All those people looking for God and unable to find God, this powerful God who would make a breakthrough to save Jesus / and as they look for this God, they are unable to see the divine. Looking for the king they don’t see the majesty. The majesty only the good thief can see. I think that’s when we understand how compassion saves us. It moves us off center / enables us to escape the circle of wondering if we’re with the good ones or with the bad ones. When we are compassionate, we see goodness not inside of us but we see goodness around us. We are with the ones who are despised because we see their goodness, and that’s the reward / access to Paradise / Reign of Christ even in the midst of hell. Amen.

Pentecost 23

– I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to visit the Newseum downtown DC. Quite a unique museum, dedicated to journalism / hard work of reporting the news. I’ve visited it a few times and one of their permanent exhibitions really stuck with me. It’s about 9/11. There is a video of a journalist and this is what he says. He says: “When there is a disaster, everybody run away as far as they can and running away that’s what everybody was doing on 9/11. Everybody except two types of people: the rescuers and the reporters. Those were running in the opposite direction, coming as close to the disaster as possible”.

– This really made me think. Rescuers, reporters confront disasters and dangers. But what about the priests? What about the Christians? Do we run away or do we stay put, or even try to come closer, and do what we have to do? Of course running away / preserving your life is not wrong! Very good instinct and it can indeed save you. I am not saying to stay inside the house when it’s on fire. But I think the question is: Do we turn our backs? When things go really wrong, when there’s chaos, do we just look the other way or run away or fall into despair, or are we willing to do something about it?

– This could be the question Jesus is asking his disciples today. We are in the last chapters of Luke and indeed, disaster is impending. The unthinkable. Jesus is going to be arrested, condemned and put to death. And so – what are the disciples going to do? Jesus knows that they will be in danger. Because he was hated and rejected, the disciples will be hated and rejected as well. And also arrested and judged.

But this what Jesus tells them: Jesus tells them that it won’t be the end – yet.

– It won’t be the end – yet. Because even when there is a disaster, in the middle of chaos, when we lose everything that make sense, there is still something left, something we can hold on to: And that’s our faithfulness, our testimony. We can still stay faithful to God, to our values, to those we love and we can stay faithful to ourselves. Yes, Jesus is going to be arrested, condemned and put to death – his enemies wanting to erase him completely from the face of the earth, but the disciples will stand and say what they have heard and what they have seen.

And this cannot be taken away from them. And that’s why we still have the Gospels today.

– Jesus tells us today that in the midst of chaos, we can still testify about the truth, stand for the truth, and even more deeply, stand in the truth. A lot of people have a problem with that today…B/c we have made of the notion of “truth either an ideology or a judgment on persons. But Jesus does not ask us to teach general ideas about the world or God, and Jesus does not want us to say who is right or wrong, who is good or bad. But Jesus wants us to tell the truth about ourselves, about our experiences, about our lives.

– You see, we often think that when Jesus asks us to speak in his name / on his behalf, it’s about confessing religious ideas. It’s about saying “Yes, the Bible is 100% the literal word of God and we cannot discuss about that” or “Only if you are baptized you can be saved”. But it’s probably not what Jesus meant when he asks us to speak “in his name”!

When you speak “in the name” of the King or of the State, it means mainly that you speak according to their laws / in faithfulness with their principles. When we speak in the name of Jesus, we speak according to Jesus’s law of love – and – we know that, especially in the Gospel of Luke, it means to take a stand in defense of the poor and the voiceless / and against oppressive powers of this world.

I was reading recently a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor in which she asks this interesting question: What does it mean to be like Christ? It does not necessarily mean to be super nice. If you’re really like Jesus, it means that there are people who are going to want to kill you because they will be so upset because of you, because you will question their power or because you will denounce their injustices!

– That’s when we do that, that our faith really matters. And that’s when we do that, that our faith is going to upset some people. It’s not our confessing we believe in Jesus or in Buddha or whoever that causes problem. What is going to put us into troubles is how our faith guide our actions. First Christians were persecuted not so much b/c they believed in Jesus, but b/c their faith in Jesus caused them to act according to the belief that all people were equals, they believed they had to take care of the poor, to live moral lives and not to worship Roman gods, not to worship the Emperor…And that’s why they were persecuted, as it often happens when we worship a God of love, instead of worshiping human authority.

– This is what I think the image of the Temple is all about. Jesus is not upset that his disciples admire the beauty or the sturdiness of the Temple. It was fine architecture after all. What Jesus seems to be worried about it that the disciples would rely too much on human powers, either religious or political (The Temple was both). We all do that: We want sturdiness, certitudes, people who can protect us, on whom we can rely on, but as we need that we have to be careful not to give away control and power to people who are going to abuse us or to abuse those who cannot defend themselves.

Jesus warns his disciples against false leadership, against those in power who take advantage of those who believe in them, in politics but even in religion! Paul talks today in the Epistle about those spiritual leaders who were taking economic advantage of their communities, who were “feeding on them”.

– And so we have to be smarter than looking for reassurance in those external powers: Genuine spirituality is about finding the truth on the inside, and not on the outside. We have to let ourselves be led by the Holy Spirit. For that, we have to take a good look at ourselves, be honest and live with integrity and not compromising with corrupted powers and people, would it be only by letting them abuse us, or allowing ourselves to turn a blind eye when others are abused. Truth is not an abstract concept, it’s about being true to what is right in front of us, and inside of us! It’s not easy…Throughout the Gospel, the disciples had to admit a lot of hard truths about themselves, their mistakes, their doubts, their brokenness. It takes a lot of courage to speak about your experience, whether you’re in AA, coming out, confessing a crime or when you are experiencing injustices, discrimination…Yet this acknowledgment is the only way to real freedom and genuine power.

We cannot know the universal truth, but we can be true to ourselves, and when we own our stories, we find power. And even more: the real power could be the power of the truth. Today, Jesus seems to be telling us that there is nothing more powerful than the truth / than acknowledging what is. Truth stands for itself (You’ll be given words and wisdom), when the Temple crumble. And so there is an incredible promise in that. When everything falls apart, if we stay true to ourselves, we won’t fall apart. “You will save your soul” says Jesus. Well, saving your soul isn’t about making God very proud by doing a lot of good deeds, and so God will be pleased and reward you in heaven. Saving your own souls means staying true to yourself in spite of threats, dangers and disasters. If you stay true to yourself, you remain whole – you can’t be destroyed (not a hair will perish!). You stay you. People who have come to terms with who they really are all testify of the wonderful power they found in doing so. The power to live as God has intended for them.

– And the wonder is, it’s actually when we are true to ourselves that we can start saving the world! Or at least bring a real change. Palmer, the author of the book “Let your life speaks” that we’re going to start reading on Tuesday, uses the example of Rosa Parks. He says: As Rosa Parks claimed her dignity and asked for respect by refusing to sit at the back of the bus, she claimed the dignity of the African Americans and ask respect for all of them. Being ourselves is the best gift we can give to the world, we let God shine through us by being true, and it redeems those around us. Truth is about living in the truth. And so it’s not so much about what’s voted at the assembly or preached at the pulpit that matters – or that matters only – it’s really every little thing we do or say in everyday life that matters, when we are honest and true. Only if we are true and honest inside we can bring the real change that’s needed in our society and in the world.

– Faith is not only about having the “endurance to endure”, to find solace in our sufferings. Faith is about finding power for action and for change. Isaiah: God is about to create a new heaven and a new earth! Indeed the message of Advent. During Advent, I would like us to think about that: The power God gives us to change. To change our church, our community, our world. Starting with ourselves. Amen.

All Saints’ – Children’s sermon: Superheroes and Saints

Who are those superheroes?
Can you name them?
What do we love about them?

I like Captain Marvel! She is determined and intuitive and I wish I could be more like her (and look like that)! She is also a bit impulsive…

Some superheroes aren’t that perfect…Yet what we love about them is that they want to fight evil, to help people in need, and they give their lives for a greater cause. They don’t just think about themselves. They give time and energy, and sometimes they risk their lives to save others or even to save the world!

There is more to life for them than what we do /look for in ordinary life: Buying stuff, eating food, being popular (they often have enemies / flee the crowds) or having fun. Superheroes try to help people / save the world and so they do dangerous stuff, they get wounded, they have to leave people they love, their families to fight monsters.

Yet they also are ordinary people, they have a day job (like Superman), or they make a lot of stupid mistakes (Iron man). People generally don’t notice them in everyday life. They are like you and me, and yet they can become very powerful and do extraordinary things.

Have you ever dreamed of becoming a superhero?

Good news! Jesus wants you to become a superhero.

Today in the Gospel that’s what he talks about. About us being called by God to become superheroes. As Christians we talk about “Saints” – special people.

Do you know these Saints? What they did? Saints from the past / more recent Saints.

Saints: Aureole / circle of light around the head. See that in pictures. Like the super heroes. There is something about that in certain people, they shine. They’re beautiful and attractive even if they don’t look like what we expect a beautiful person to look like. We can feel their goodness / aura.
Their goodness and closeness to God reflect on themselves and benefit others.

We look up to them, but we shouldn’t just dream of being like them b/c we can be like them and we can work on making that happens and how? This is what Jesus talks about to his disciples today.

Jesus looked at his friends and told them:

God is with you if you stay simple, and everything that belongs to God will belong to you too.
God is with you if you don’t think only about what you are going to have for dinner
God is with you if you don’t only think about having fun
if sometimes you feel sad and lonely, it’s okay too.

It does not mean you’re a loser if your friends, or even some adults, aren’t nice to you or ignore you
or even hurt you – especially when you try your best to do good.
There are a lot of people who felt like you, who were not popular, or maybe who felt unloved,
yet they were really great in the eyes of God.
So you have a reason to be happy even when you cry.

In fact, those who have plenty of stuff, and spend their time stuffing themselves
with everything they like
and who just want to have fun, especially by making fun of others…
Well, God is not so happy with what they do!
And in the end all those things won’t make them very happy themselves –
especially when they are popular and use their popularity to bully those who try to do their best.

But you, if you want to do great and be a friend of God, don’t do like what they do:

If you want to be God’s friend:
Be a friend when others aren’t friendly and pray for them,
Don’t fight with those who don’t like you and especially don’t try to hurt them back
the way they hurt you
If somebody needs something and you can share what you have with them,
then do it

If you want to have friends, then start by acting like a friend to everybody.

What is important to us maybe is not that important to God:

We spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to buy / buy nice things.
Or what we want to eat / candy, burgers…
We spend a lot of time trying to find new things to do, exciting things to do. We avoid those who aren’t happy. We spend a lot of time trying to be popular with fun people.

Yet Jesus tells us we are not necessarily going to find God in all those places, and so maybe for a while it will feel good – to have nice food, nice stuff, be popular and have fun – but in the end, it won’t feel that great because it won’t bring us any closer to God.

Jesus wants us to be blessed: close to God. Like the superheroes, Jesus wants us to do something that matters so we can be proud of ourselves and help others and save the world with him! In little things and in great things…Each of us is like a drop in the ocean but the ocean is made of drops! We can be together a stream that waters the earth and changes the world. To this together: All Saints.

Jesus today says that to be a superhero / a saint, it starts with simple things – he says:
Share your stuff, don’t bully people or take revenge even if they hurt you, don’t fight (back) / don’t hurt others the way they hurt you, pray for those who aren’t nice. Be a friend.

It looks easy, but it can be hard! Jesus does not want us so much to become superheroes with our muscles, or even with our brains, but with our hearts – to be super powerful with our hearts – even if we’re not perfect! Saints are superheroes of the heart – People like you and me who are able to live their lives in loving very sincerely and very deeply (People we knew who were like that – Pictures on the table). We remember people who loved us and whom we loved.

And the wonder is that we can all love in a special way – God has given us something unique we can share with the world / to make others happy / to help them. It does not matter what we do if we do it for the good reason, to love. In church, everybody has a special gift and instead of using it just for themselves, to make money for example, they use it for others and for God: And you, what are your superpowers? How are you going to use them?

Pentecost 19

So we continue in this section of Luke caught between Peter acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah / the Transfiguration and Jesus arriving in Jerusalem and the recounting of his passion, death and resurrection. In this portion, we have a long list of stories Jesus taught on the road, in the different places where he met with people: Everyday people, but also pharisees, scribes, lawyers…Sometimes, like today, we also find Jesus teaching more specifically to his disciples, those who wanted to follow him more closely, enter into a deeper relationships with God.

And we go back to the topic of prayer – One of the major themes in Luke. We talked this summer about the Lord’s prayer and, if you remember, there was this little story of the man banging on the door of a friend in the middle of the night, begging for bread, and how the friend would finally open, if not because he really wanted to help, b/c of the bother it was, b/c of the other man’s insistence. As a conclusion, Jesus pointed out the fact that if even us, who are evil, are able to give good things to those who ask, how much more God, who is good, would answer our prayers.

Well, it seems today that we have a variation on the same theme. A teaching about prayer using another story about boldness and persistence in asking – and about how people end up granting some requests, not necessarily b/c they’re good, but b/c they’re tired. And then Jesus compares those people who finally grant requests to God.

We’ve just heard the story of a widow seeking justice against her opponent, and having to go again and again to an unjust judge who refuses to help her b/c he has no respect for people and does not fear God. We know that widows were vulnerable at Jesus’s time, having no man to provide for their needs and to protect them. They were ignored. Unexpectedly though, in the story, this powerless woman wins over the judge b/c she carries on, she is persistent when the man is probably just lazy and self centered. He finally grants her request b/c he is tired. And so, Jesus asks, if the unjust judge finally helps the widow, why would not God, who is just, answer those who ask for justice?

Well, first of all we can notice that this is a good story b/c it sounds very real, even in the world we live in. I think a lot of us, like this widow, have to fight from time to time and get up early in the morning to obtain justice. And you know how hard it can be, if you’ve ever had to fight with the DMV, the immigration, social security or health insurance…A few years ago, I had to see a specialist, and although my treatment should have been covered, I had to make countless phone calls and send forms again and again to my health insurance b/c obviously there was always something missing that would prevent them from sending me my check. And speaking about administrative errands, I can’t even begging to tell you what it took to obtain a green card b/c I don’t have an hour to preach!

The idea is that in life, we find ourselves needing to be perseverent if we want to obtain what we need. We have to stand for ourselves, to trust that our cause is worth it, that we’re worth it, to trust that we’re right, even when we feel crushed, or just ignored, by the system. Sometimes, to obtain that we need, it feels like going to war. Even if there are no weapons, it can be a psychological war to not give up against those who deny our rights, to wear them out with our insistence. These are times when we need to be to be tough like the widow of the story.

And so, using this example taken from daily life, Jesus goes on to prayer life. Making a parallel between the widow’s interaction with the judge / and prayer – when we also try to obtain what we need from God. And it seems that Jesus says that indeed, we also need to be perseverent with God in order to be answered.

Well, actually there are a lot of expressions around prayer that use terms that incite us to think that prayer is a spiritual combat, that we have to fight, to become prayer warriors. Maybe you have seen this movie about prayer life called: “The war room” as a reference to this place inside her house where this woman goes to ask God to save her marriage and engage in a prayer crusade.

I think we can all relate to that when we have crisis in our lives. A serious illness, loss of a job, a divorce, a child in troubles…Those times all we can do is to cling to God, and to beg God to help us. It can really feel like going war when we really, really need to obtain something from God. And I guess it’s natural for us to go on this “fighting mode”, arguing and supplicating, trying to wear God out. Because that’s what we have to do in our world in order to obtain something, correct?

And yet. And yet the more I read this story Jesus tells us today, the more I wonder if Jesus is really asking us to do in prayer what we do for everything else in life. Yes, the widow has to fight very hard to gain her cause, as we sometimes do as well. But Jesus tells us also that God is not unjust. God is not like the judge in the story. The judge has no fear of God, no respect for others, when God – the holy one – hears day and night the cry of his chosen ones. God is not indifferent or inflexible. God does not ignore us. God listens to us. God sees us.

Which means: if God is not like the judge, maybe we don’t necessarily have to be like the widow with God. If God is not unfair, maybe we don’t have to fight with God. If God loves us, maybe prayer should feel better than going to the mattresses. Maybe when Jesus asks us if there will still be faith on earth when he returns, maybe he is not asking if people will still be willing to fight, rather maybe he is asking if there will still be people willing to trust, to trust that God sees and hears and responds, to trust that God is not our enemy. God is not our enemy. We don’t have to win God over. On the other way around, God will help us when we meet adversity. If there is a fight, we can be sure God fights with us.

And so if you pay attention, Jesus does not exactly ask his disciples to be “perseverent”, more specifically, what Jesus asks is to “not lose heart”. And it can be very discouraging when we try to “wear God out” by our prayers. I know that when I tried to “wear God out”, that’s the times in my life where I started to lose heart, b/c the more I begged, the more I wondered if God was listening. But I “found my heart” again, when I just decided to trust that God was with me.

To me, that’s what the Gospel is about today. Jesus tells us that God is not like unfair or indifferent people. We have to trust that our prayers are in God’s hands, that we are in God’s hands. And that God will act, and “grant us justice” – and doing that, I think, would enable us to feel a little more happy when we pray, a little more grateful, a little more loved.

Of course, prayer is about asking. Jesus reminds us many times to ask God for what we need. But at some point, prayer is also about how we have to trust that God has heard us, and we need to stop “talking at” God to be able to see how God is answering our prayers, not always giving us all we asked for but, as Jesus puts it, granting us justice, granting us justice by offering us forgiveness, healing of the heart, peace – a sense of self worth, a sense of belonging, a sense of belovedness.

But at some point, prayer is finding a way to let go and let God.

I read recently the story of a woman with stage IV cancer. After 5 years of battling the disease, she was exhausted. And she says she was also exhausted to hear people telling her to keep fighting on. She was wondering if it’d be okay for her to stop the treatment, to enjoy the rest of her life with her close ones, trusting God to give her a new life when she reaches the other side.

Well, maybe that’s where Jesus was when he told this parable today.

As I said, Jesus was heading to Jerusalem. At this point, he did all he had to do. He fought a lot in his life. He was like the persistent widow! He healed, he taught, he argued. But he had many opponents. He was hated by a lot of people. They wanted him dead. And at some point, he could not avoid them anymore. But Jesus trusted that God knew, that God saw him, and that God would grant him justice, even if Judas’s betrayal was the shattering of all his dreams, even if the cross was the loss of all his hopes. Jesus needed to continue to trust that God was good.

And this is the same for us when life is hard – even if our circumstances aren’t that dramatic! We carry our crosses with persistence but at some point, we just have to trust that God is good. That’s the ground of our prayer. That’s also the aim of it: To realize that God is good.

So maybe this week we could do that as we pray. Remember that indeed God is good, that we have to trust even more than we have to fight and argue, we have to believe that God has seen our difficulties, heard our supplications, and we have to trust that God will answer, grant us justice, and is already doing so in many ways, looking around and see how our lives are already being transformed – because we do not lose heart. We do not lose our hearts in the process. On the other way around, we may find them anew. Amen.

The anniversary of Paul and Holly

We’re gathered today to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Paul and Holly. As we were preparing for this day, Holly told me that, before the wedding, her mother told her – as a kind of encouragement: “If you two do 10 years, that would already be something…” So I guess you two made it!

But we’re not here to celebrate some kind of record breaking. It’s not about personal accomplishment or endurance, the ability to “have made it” (last). When we celebrate at church, it’s always to give thanks. Today we celebrate, rejoice and give thanks for each one of you and more specifically we give thanks for you as a couple, we give thanks for the life you build together, the life you brought into the world, the joy and the hope you incarnate for all of us, your children, your grand children, siblings, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ.

So on this occasion, we celebrate and give thanks not only for the love you have for each other, but also for the love you spread around you, this love that, as people of faith, we believe to be the ultimate reality, the most important thing in the world – this love we believe to be God. When I told a friend I was preaching for a marriage anniversary this Sunday, she told me: Oh good, you’re going to preach about love. But the truth, you know, is that we should preach about love every Sunday, because it is what it’s all about.

This is the reason this passage we have read from John is so important. It reminds us that all of Jesus’s teaching is actually about asking people to love each other. This passage is often chosen for weddings, but interestingly, put back into context, we find out that this is one of the last things Jesus said before dying: Those verses are part of the “Farewell discourse”. And you know, when you’re about to die, you don’t spend time with details and subtleties, you go right to the heart of things: And so this is what Jesus told us: in the end, it all comes down to love.

We may forget how disturbing, and even revolutionary, it was when Jesus said that his only commandment was to love. In the religion of the time, there were more than 400 rules to follow. So it was really hard I guess to have a sense of having it right with God. There was always something that could go wrong! Jesus came to tell people that they only had to love to know who God was and to please God. “Commandment”: Not so much a “rule”, in Hebrew it’s a “word”, a word that brings life and joy. Jesus speaks about a way of “doing life” that will bring us (true) fulfillment and happiness.

In this sense, this is still revolutionary. Many people have wrong ideas about God and religion, and often religious people themselves have wrong ideas! Having faith, it’s not so much about being very pious or obeying a moral code, rather it’s about loving and being loved, and diving always deeper in this love. What Jesus reminds us, is that we are are first invited to receive God’s love – the reason why he asks his disciples to “abide” in love – and then, as we are being filled with this love, we are made able at our turn to love others: open our hearts, welcome, share, give and forgive and doing so – finding our joy and our purpose.

That’s the bottom line: Because we are made by love and made for love, it’s in loving and in being loved that we find joy and purpose – as you Paul and Holly have found fulfillment and happiness in your commitment to one another.

Now the question for all of us I guess is this: Well, how do we do that? How do we find true and deep love, the love God wants to give us, a love that brings joy and fulfillment?

Well, I really like it that you chose a passage from the book of Tobit for your first reading. The story of a marriage – and a strange and fascinating story – such a strange story that it has been removed from some protestant versions of the Bible. Yet it’s a beautiful story – filled with wise old people, and angels, and children (there’s even a puppy)…and it’s also a very necessary story because it says a lot about how we experience love and become able to receive it.

So this is the story, if you don’t know it: Holly – if your mother hoped your marriage could last ten years, it was nothing compared to what Sarah’s mother was feeling! Actually she was hoping the marriage would at least last 24 hours. Because that’s what was going on with Sarah: She had married several times, but each time the groom had died suddenly on the wedding night, “before the wedding was consummated”. This was very depressing and as the story goes, it is said that Sarah’s father was so sure Tobias was also going to die during the wedding night, he started digging a grave for him in the garden while the couple were headed to their bedroom! Yet this time things went differently: Tobias survived the night and enjoyed a long marriage with Sarah.

And so this is kind of a crazy story, but for all its strangeness it’s a very necessary story because it teaches us a lot about love:

First, it looks like that the death of the grooms and the curse Sarah seems to be under tells us about the way we apprehend love, and most of the time it’s with fear. We fear that we will never find love, that love will pass us by or that we will die before knowing it – or maybe we are afraid that we will destroy the love that is given to us. To become able to love, it’s important to acknowledge these feelings. Made to love, we all long deeply to find love, to love and to be loved in return, and it’s scary because it makes us feel vulnerable. Yet, we cannot find love if we don’t show a little bit of this vulnerability, if we don’t acknowledge that we need to receive love and to be able to learn how to love. In our culture, we often hear that love is not that important – an illusion. Better a good career, a nice house, exotic travels, having fun. But as Christians, we believe otherwise. We believe that only love can make us really happy. It does not mean necessary marriage. But love must be at the center our lives.

Second thing the story teaches us is that to love, we have to surrender our desire to have power on others. Tobias says that he does not take Sarah “out of lust”. It does not mean that he does not like her! “Lust” is considered as a sin but it’s not about having a physical attraction for somebody, there’s nothing wrong with that. The Bible reminds us several times that sexuality was created by God. But lust needs to be renounced because it prevents us from loving truly, lust is when we consider others as our possessions, as a thing we can take or leave, as if people were only there to make us feel good. And we are tempted to behave like that not only with romantic partners! We can very well use our friends or other family members to fulfill our own needs – but then we can never know what true love is about: caring for one another, sharing life together and supporting one another, as the passage from Mark reminds us.

Third thing that the story teaches us about love is that all our relationships rest in God’s love. Tobias prays with Sarah and they offer their love to God, acknowledging that their love is like a small drop in the ocean of God’s love. This is important to remind us that we are not in charge of love, rather love is in charge of us. To love, we need first to receive love: to know we are worthy of love. Then we can enjoy relationships made of respect, intimacy and complicity. Jesus reminds us that love should bring us joy! It does not mean that we don’t meet difficulties, but God will give us the strength to love when it’s necessary – the strength to forgive for example – or the strength to love ourselves enough to leave a loveless relationship. If love is meant to bring us joy, it also means that if we have to try too hard to make it happen or to make it last, maybe it’s not really about love. To love, we don’t have to try too hard all the time, but we have to make the effort to be present and attentive to those around us. What children needs the most is to have their parents spending time with them, not looking at their phones! Love is here, given, present, but we are often absent and we don’t see the people God sends us everyday to love us, or in need of being loved!

Last thing the story teaches us about love is that love is resilient. I admire Sarah who is still ready to get married with yet another man! Love takes risks and chances and carries on. I’ve just read a book about a woman who says that her closer experience of faith was the way she kept looking for the right partner even after having suffered terrible breakups. She says that although each time she kept telling herself it was the last time she fell in love because it hurt so much to be left, each time love kept being reborn in her heart. She was willing to put her out heart out there until she found the man who truly loved her. Well, I think she’s right to say it’s a kind of faith, it’s faith actually: to believe that love is real and can be found and that is the meaning of life.

That’s what we do at church actually – we don’t go to church to become Bible nerds or very pious or very moral people, we come to church to receive love and to learn how to love and to grow in love – as we do when we get married. And we do this because it’s our joy and fulfillment. So today let’s celebrate and let us be thankful with Paul and Holly! Amen.