Proper 20

This Sunday, we have another challenging parable from Matthew’s Gospel! It may not be a scary one, as we have almost gotten used to, but this one can certainly leave us with mixed feelings: The parable of the “Generous landowner”:

A landowner hires laborers to work in his vineyard for the usual daily wage. As the day goes by, the landowner returns several times to the market place to hire more laborers, from 9:00am to 5:00pm. When the day is over though, instead of paying each one of the laborers based on the time they have spent working, the landowner asks the workers last hired to come forward and offers them the same daily wage that was agreed on with the first workers. Unsurprisingly, it makes these ones quite unhappy while the landowner declares “having done them no wrong” and praises himself for his generosity.

So as I was reading and re-reading this story, I was torn by two approaches:

– On one hand, I can’t help but agree that indeed, the landowner has done “nothing wrong” and has proven himself fair to the early workers and generous with the latest ones.

– On the other hand, something is really bugging me and I can’t help but feel that I don’t really like this guy, or maybe I don’t really like this story. I can’t really explain why but something inside of me tells me that this is not how things should go / this is not how things should end in a perfect world.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t preaching in a perfect world, was he? Parables aren’t fairy tales or a Hallmark movie, here to make us happy and contented with the way things are. Moreover, at some level, I think that if the parable is in a way annoying, it may prove that it works, that it is doing what it is supposed to do. A famous theologian said that we should read the Bible not so much for the answers it may provide, but for the questions it leads us to ask.

So what questions does this parable invite us to wrestle with?

– On a first level, it certainly invites us to think to very concrete, down to earth problems. Quite evidently, Jesus questions the way our society and economy work, and it’s interesting to realize that things haven’t changed that much in 2000 years: Not only do we assume that only those who work deserve a salary, we also assume that the more you work the more money you deserve.

But Jesus questions this understanding. It looks like first, those who don’t work aren’t necessarily responsible for not working, being lazy. They’re not working because “Nobody has hired them” and it seems that the landowner ends up hiring them not so much because he needs them but out of generosity. As he pays them a daily wage, even for having done so little, he gives them the opportunity to buy dinner for themselves and their families. He does not keep tabs on who’s doing what. He understands that everybody needs the minimum to live. It’s not their fault if they’re poor.

This understanding is disturbing to us, of course. It’s always easier to believe that we have what we have because we deserve it, because we have worked hard for it. But if we look at the reasons why we have what we have, if we “check our privilege” as we say (White privilege, inheritance, education, health, functioning family…), we may realize that our good fortune isn’t all our doing. Certainly the landowner realizes that and it leads him to share his resources.

Second very down to earth assumption this parable puts into question is our belief that we should always make more money. The more we work, the more we should make. By sending back the worker of the first hour with their full daily wage but nothing extra, the landowner claims that this is enough for the day. And indeed, the daily wage is what you need to get you through the day. Of course, it reminds us of the story we have just read in the Old Testament about the manna. God gives us our “daily bread”, gives us each day “enough”- or at least, we should live in a world where there is enough for everybody. We know of course that it isn’t a reality. Our wealth is not necessarily a blessing from God, our wealth can be what hasn’t be shared with others. We don’t deserve to have more resources than others. It just happens because it’s the way our economy works. I don’t know if Jesus was what we would call a socialist, but he certainly asks tough questions to the way we understand capitalism.

Without developing any further on those issues, I think the bottom line is that Jesus resets human economy on divine economy, reminding us that, in the eyes of God, each of God’s children is precious, deserving and valuable. Now how does it lead us to live and to treat others knowing that, as individuals but also as a society?

When we ask this question, I think we come to the heart of the parable and this is really where I would like to dwell on a little today. As I have mentioned earlier, the parable has been graciously named by the editors of this version of the Bible “The parable of the generous landowner” but I don’t think that generosity is what strikes us in this man. I think that what strikes us is that he is disliked: by the workers of the first hour, by the people who were listening to Jesus, by us who read the Gospel. We don’t hate him, as I said, we acknowledge he has done “nothing wrong” and even proven himself generous but he disturbs something inside of us – our sense of fairness, our sense of how things should go – we don’t even know if the workers of the last hour like him – Maybe they think he is a fool for doing what he does. If I had to rename the story, I would call it “The parable of the disliked landowner”, and I would do that not only because I think it is more accurate, but because I think this is the point Jesus is making:

This man has the “courage to be disliked”, as we say, and this is what makes him an exceptional character. He has the “courage to be disliked” not because he just wants to live his life as he pleases or he really wants to do something even if it was bothering or shocking to some people, he has the courage to be disliked for the sake of doing the right thing, for the sake of living according to his conscience, for the sake of reaching out to the less fortunate and to give them an opportunity to thrive. And as I thought about it, I realized: Well, this should indeed be the heart of Christian living, shouldn’t it? This should be what true morality should be?

But what have we done with morality in our world? As I was thinking about it, I realized how often it is that basically our morality is about being liked by others. We want to be nice to people, we want to please them – and there is nothing wrong with that, of course! But there is nothing wrong with that as long as it still leads us to do the right thing. Yet often, as we try so much to please people, to make them happy, we just conform to live in the world as the world is, instead of trying to transform it. If the landowner had paid everyone according to their work, he would have been a good landowner, he would have done what was expected and people would have been happy with him. But as he chooses to pay everybody the same, and to make a statement out of it (asking the workers of the last hour to come forward so everybody see they receive full salary), he challenges our assumptions, he disturbs our sense of fairness that often supports our selfish or at least quiet lives. The disliked landowner puts everything into question and cuts open our hearts, and he can do that because he has supreme freedom having the “courage to be disliked” – Not wanting to be loved as a motivation for his actions.

He is of course, a messianic figure. As he’s headed to Jerusalem, Jesus certainly identifies with this landowner. Jesus came into the world to announce that God loves and treats everybody the same way, to announce that there a no privilege, no good deed or false piety that can save us, and people hated him for that and put him to death.

So this week, I invite us to think about the motives of our actions. Do we do what we do to be loved or do we do what we do because we think it’s the right thing to do? It’s normal to want to be loved, valuated, appreciated, but I think Jesus invites us to look at a higher level: Not acting nice to people so they would like us and we can enjoy this good version of ourselves they send us back in the way they look at us (which is basically seduction), but acting doing what we truly believe is the best interest of others / the best we can do for them given a certain situation. Not to teach them, not to show them, but to give them the best we have to offer.

Christian love isn’t about pleasing people, it’s not about being well considered by those who are going to make us feel good about ourselves, Christian love is about lifting up, raising up our neighbors starting with the most needy. In this understanding indeed, the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Proper 19

– The passage of the Gospel we have just heard is a famous and difficult one, isn’t it?
Peter asking Jesus how many times he is supposed to forgive his brother or sister, should he be as generous as 7 times?, and then Jesus replying Peter will have to forgive “Not seven times (…) but seventy-seven times” (In certain translations: 70 times 7!)

– Now I don’t know what you think, but my guts feeling is that it does not make me happy when I hear that. I think it’s difficult to take in. Forgiving again and again and again and seventy-seven times again…How does it look like in real life?

Do you teach your children or grandchildren to let the bully hit them at recess, because they are not to seek revenge?
Do you think (as I’ve heard so many times) that it is fair that so many clergy ask their female parishioners to forgive again and again their abusive husbands or sons?

Somebody posted on tweeter the other day something I think is very accurate. He said:
“Stop using sermons of peace and forgiveness in order to manipulate the oppressed into accepting their oppression”

Indeed the Bible has been used to manipulate people into accepting all sorts of evil in the name of forgiveness, in the name being good Christians, from slavery to clergy abuse, denying women’s rights and so on.

So we really need to think seriously about what Jesus is saying to us today. Is Jesus really saying that it does not matter if we’re hurt, we still have to be good and to accept whatever people do to us because we have to forgive, or is it something else?

I think it’s really hard when you’ve been hurt by somebody and what you hear from good Christians is all you have to do is forgive. Why is it so hard?

– It does not acknowledge the hurt you feel (= makes you feel like you make a fuss out of nothing)

– It also denies your sense of justice

– Even worse, it makes you feel like you’re not a good Christian! You’re unable to forgive, that’s bad!!!

But we see in other parts of the Gospel that Jesus has always acknowledged the hurt people felt and never supported the bullies in the name of forgiveness. Jesus sides with Mary when she is criticized by Judas for spending too much money, he sides also with her when her sister calls her lazy. Jesus didn’t like it when people made fun of Zaccheus and so on.

Besides that, Jesus has always asked for justice as well. He asked repeatedly people to share their bread and their wealth, to be compassionate to one another. He didn’t say to the oppressed they just had to accept being taken advantage of or accept to be neglected just because they had to forgive their oppressors.

Jesus has never enabled bullying and injustices. So when Jesus asks us to forgive again and again, it does not mean that when you are a Christian, you just need to hit the reset button each time somebody does wrong to you, forget it all and let people hurt you seventy seven times again because you need to be such a good person!

So what does it mean then, to forgive again and again?

Well, this week we have commemorated the anniversary of 09/11 and as I was watching a documentary about forgiveness I heard something very powerful about this tragedy coming from the families’ victims, they talked about what was for them: “The journey of forgiveness”.

The journey of forgiveness. Suddenly, it made so much more sense to me. Yes, indeed forgiveness never looks like hitting a reset button again and again and let people do you wrong again and again. Forgiveness is a decision you make that starts a process of healing towards a new life – and that’s exactly what some of these families were describing.

Forgiveness starts the process of healing and healing is a journey – and depends on the hurt, healing can be a long journey, sometimes a life long journey. Thinks about how are it can be to forgive our own parents for things that happened 30 or 50 years ago or even more, and we still carry the hurt! And we’re not even sure we’re really reconciled with them!

Forgiveness is a journey and a struggle. It’s a decision you make, the decision to not take revenge, to not wish evil on those who hurt you, to not “make them pay” as in Jesus’s parable, but instead to seek as much as possible reconciliation or a peaceful release of the relationships through the journey and the struggle.

The documentary I watched talked also about the way Amish do forgiveness / what they did after the tragedy of the shooting at West Nickel Mines School. They made the decision to forgive but then they had to carry one another through community, pray, meet the family of the shooter, had painful conversations, prayed again, tore down the building, commemorated etc. They never said that what happened was okay and justice and restoration shouldn’t be sought!

Forgiveness is a decision we make but then we have to walk the walk and it can be long, with detours and back and forth. Sometimes we think we’re over it and then it hurts again, or we realize we are still angry etc.

And maybe this what Jesus tells us actually: When someone hurts you, you are not going to forgive that one time and then all is good. You’ll have to forgive again and again because the hurt comes back, or the consequences of people’s bad behavior are still impacting your life. Everyday, you will have to decide to forgive them all over again.

And you might feel in your heart: Why is it that I still haven’t forgiven? When in fact you are in the process of forgiving.

Another man who was interviewed in the documentary said: “I can’t live thinking all day long about what white people did to my people all day, I would go crazy, I wouldn’t be able to function”. He said he needed to forgive to go on with his life, to set himself free. It didn’t mean that racism didn’t hurt him anymore or didn’t make him angry. He just realized he could not live in resentment and wishing evil for evil.

But how do we do that? How do we walk this walk of forgiveness – go on with our life in spite of the hurt, and not live in resentment?

Well, I think that there is something about this parable that Jesus tells us right after he talks to Peter, and this parable can really show us the way. A man has a huge debt to the King he cannot reimburse, but then the King has pity on him and let him go. Yet then the man who has just been forgiven meets one of his debtors who had a very small debt compared to the one he owed the King, but he refuses to forgive, “makes his debtor pay” and Jesus says he is terribly punished for doing so.

Now there are two ways of understanding this story. The general assumption about what Jesus means is that we are all such terrible sinners in the eyes of God that we should just quickly forget every wrong that is done to us by other people, because compared to what we have done to God, and to what we need to be forgiven for, it’s really nothing.

Okay – well I don’t like at all this interpretation, because I believe that there are people who are seriously innocent and what happens to them, the hurt they endure, is really not nothing compared to what they have done. They really, truly, deeply don’t deserve it. People having their families murdered, people raped, abused or wronged intentionally – Can we tell them that it’s nothing they need to complain about and should quickly forgive because what they did to God was much more evil? If you are hit by your parents when you are a five years old, what wrong have you done to God that is so much more than that? I would run from such a God, honestly. And I think Jesus would too.

So to me, this passage is really about inviting us to focus on God’s generosity – not only on what God has forgiven us, but everything that God has given us and all of life’s possibilities and new chances. This passage is about how goodness comes to us in surprising / unexpected ways (as this slave probably never expected such goodness coming from the king)

To me, it’s something I’ve always found very healing in the midst of hurt and deceptions. To remind ourselves that this is a big world, that we have a big God and that we need to carry on with a big heart. And ultimately, I think this is what the parable is all about. When we are hurt, we can focus on the hurt, on what our offenders owe us, but it will be the path to destruction / self destruction. On the opposite, we can also choose to make the decision not to look so much at the hurt and nurse it inside of us and instead look towards the goodness that God sends our way and how God will raise us towards healing and new life. That’s the journey of forgiveness to me.

Forgiveness is not about changing the past, it’s about changing the future…Read again this passage of Exodus and how the Hebrews were able to leave behind the hurt and the suffering – God opened the sea for them, freed them from the pain and took them on a pilgrimage towards a new land full of promises.

Proper 18

I am quite excited about the Gospel this week. As I was preparing for this sermon, by doing personal readings and talking with our Bible study group, I had a surprise. I discovered that most people react strongly to this passage from Matthew about dealing with conflicts in the church. Most people (including priests, scholars, theologians) seem to dislike this text very much – would like it removed from the Book – when I absolutely love it.

So today I am hoping to make you change your mind about this text if you don’t like it or find it necessary, and if I can’t make you change your mind (everybody’s entitled to their opinions and feelings!), at least I would like to invite you to think about it a little differently. Matthew was very concerned with the problem of organizing / leading the church – much more than all other evangelists. We have to take seriously what he has to say, so let’s dive in.

Why do most people dislike this passage? Jesus seems to say that if people in the church don’t behave / if they don’t do the right thing, they should be excluded / removed from the community. Seems unfair and unlike Jesus. We have all our struggles, shortcomings, failings – We are all sinners in the church! Church should be a safe place to be who we are.

– 1st important remark: It’s not about lifestyle. The text says: “If another member of the church sins against you”. Greek: “eis sé”. Interestingly, those two words have been removed from a few manuscripts. Yet they make all the difference.

It’s not about lifestyle, people doing what we personally think is right or wrong: Being homosexual, “living in sin”, being “Gentile and tax collectors” and so on.
It’s about people hurting others / harming others by their behaviors. Sinning against.

The confusion is easy. We talked with the Bible study group about the Calvinist churches during the Reformation. Because of this passage, the Council of elders would visit people at their place to make sure they lived according to some moral standards and there was a lot of judgment, interference and exclusions. Can you imagine our vestry doing that to you? But once again, the passage is not about that / it’s not what we are invited to do as a church!

We are not invited to judge people but to take into account the sufferings they inflict on others / on us. This passage of the Gospel comes in the context of Jesus asking us not to be a stumbling block for the faith of the “little ones”!

– This passage invites us to take responsibility when we are confronted to evil / sin.

Take responsibility for yourself: If somebody hurts you and you don’t do anything, it will damage you and/or damage your relationships with them and others in the future.

Take responsibility for others: If somebody hurts you, they probably hurt others the same way. You need to try your best to make them stop.

A good commentary I read about that was a man saying that his aging mother was dangerous behind the wheel. He said he had to talk to her, even though it was uncomfortable, to make her stop driving. She was not just a danger to herself but to the whole town. He said he would have felt responsible if she had been involved in an accident and hurt someone.

Every week in our confession, we ask God to forgive us for things done “and left undone”. What about things “left unsaid”?

Take responsibility for the person who sins against you: Jesus says “Regain that one”. Maybe this person just need someone to tell them something. Sinning against others is a way of acting out when the offender deals with personal suffering. It can help them deal with their own problem when we give them attention. If nobody ever says anything, they end up thinking their behavior is okay.

Bonhoeffer: “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.”

Importance of taking responsibility: Sexual, financial, spiritual abuse are not an exception in the church / organized religions. They happen frequently as in all other kind of organizations (including families). The church needs to model a way to deal with abusers. Unfortunately, most churches are “conflicts avoidant”, we do the other way around – pretend everything is okay or not that serious – and a lot of people get hurt. Jesus warns his disciples not to be naive, they will have to deal with problems.

Jesus does not ask us to exclude people and be judgmental and get into conflicts. Jesus warns us that the conflict / the problem is already here and we have to face it to solve it instead of pretending it’s not there.

– My question is: Why is it that so often we don’t deal with conflict? We don’t acknowledge the hurt?

Well, maybe it’s because it’s uncomfortable. More than that, when people sin against us, it makes us feel ashamed. Ashamed for having trusted them / liked them. They make us feel like we have done something wrong or stupid, and we will always feel that it’s too late and we should have spoken earlier.

Most of the time, we pretend nothing is happening because we are ashamed. But shame will result in destructive behaviors: either self loathing / guilt / addictions or desire for vengeance / hatred / becoming passive aggressive.

Talking is hard because talking makes the hurt real, but the only way out it through. We think we’re going to make things worse if we raise the issue, yet it’s the only way to solve it.

Jesus: We have to talk to the offender, have them acknowledge the hurt not in order to judge and exclude them, but ask them to change and see if the relationship can be restored. But we also have to remove from the community those who are a threat to others / not those who threaten the power of others (NOT like we often do in our society, sending people to jail based on racial and economical discrimination) on the other way around, we have to remove those who threaten the powerless!

– Last week, we talked about the power of compassion. Yet, there is a balance here between compassion and honesty, or maybe as Bonhoeffer says, honesty can be the real compassion: For oneself, for others (potential victims), and also for the offender.

This Gospel encourages us to act with compassion and honesty, courage and realism. If someone hurts you, don’t talk behind their backs or post something about them on social medias. Go talk to them. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding, or maybe the person will ask for forgiveness right away or at least think about it. Maybe they don’t know how to talk to you and they would be more than happy to have an opportunity to say they’re sorry and to be restored in a real relationship / not a fake one.

Yet, be careful with people who hurt you. You’re not alone when someone does you wrong. In the church, as in every community, we should look out for each other and especially for those who are unheard and at risk of abuse based on sex / racial / economical discrimination.

Dealing with sin is not about bringing judgment and exclusion it’s always about redemption and restoration. Yet we need to be aware that people exclude themselves first when they decide to hurt others. The first Church acknowledged this exclusion – what did the first Christians. If there was no other way, they would physically exclude people from the community, but they would also reintegrate them based on their good will, desire for change and repentance. I think it’s sometimes good to remember that when people hurt us intentionally and don’t seem to understand or to want to change, it’s okay to let go of them and to remove them from our lives and even from our communities – even if only for a time. Forgiveness and restoration is always the horizon, but we cannot make it happen if the offender “does not listen” as Jesus reminds us three times in a row. The offender also need to take responsibility. Hopefully, the church will make it possible for everybody to change and to grow.

“What should set the church apart is not the absence of conflicts, but the way we deal with conflicts”

Proper 17

– OT: Famous encounter between God and Moses at Mont Horeb / A flame of fire in a bush, “The bush was blazing yet it was not consumed”.

I love it that Moses, the author of the Law, the recipient of the Torah meets God in such a fabulous, disturbing, epic way. It says a lot. Moses does not encounter a God who tells people what to do / wants them to behave and obey. Moses encounters God as fire.

If you have watched the news this past week, you probably have a lot of images of fire in your mind that aren’t that positive: Fire bringing devastation, distress and destruction.

The image we have in the OT is very different though, a fire that keeps burning but that does not consume / destroy.

A lot of theologians have associated this image of fire with the love of God / the love God has for God’s people. There are also many images (especially in the catholic tradition) of Jesus showing his heart to his saints, telling them that his heart is consumed with love / burning with love for his people.

Fire is associated with desire, passion – inability to be contained (Actually Jesus is believed to have said to one Saint: “My heart is unable to contain the flames of my love”)

This love though is not a mere feeling. God does not just look at God’s people and loves them from afar. Quite the opposite, with Moses in the book of Exodus, it’s actually the first time that God decides to intervene in History. God takes action. God’s love is sensitive: God says that God “has observed” (the misery of God’s people), God “has heard” (their cry), but God defines also God’s love by taking action: God “has come down to deliver” (…) “to bring the people up” and finally is sending Moses.

God gives God’s name to Moses and in the meantime refuses to give God’s name: “I am who I am”. We say here at Christ Church that we can’t put God into a box. This is true. God does not want to define who God is by giving a list of qualities, God defines Godself and we learn who God is by seeing how God’s love act in God’s people’s lives. Maybe even by living our lives. There is a saying that goes: God comes to you disguised as your own life.

God is always acting / always at work. There is not a place where you cannot find God. You find God by living and living in witnessing the work of God is your life and in the world:

“Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, all embarrassment into laughter”

Now the question for most of us (at least for me!) is: Why is it that so often it does not work better?

If God is always at work, how come that we may encounter so many difficulties, struggles, opposition? Why is it so hard to understand God’s will and to do it?

Well, we may have the beginning of an answer with today’s Gospel. Jesus rebukes Peter harshly, it can be shocking to us. Yet Jesus rebukes him for a very specific reason: Peter is a “stumbling block” / “setting his mind on human things and not divine things”

Peter, by telling Jesus how things are supposed to happen for him, how it will all work out, by trying to second guess God’s will, is standing in Jesus’s way. And it makes Jesus really mad because by doing so Peter prevents God from doing God’s work.

Well when I was reading that I thought: How often is it that we do the same thing? Standing in God’s way, being a stumbling block for the God who “turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, all embarrassment into laughter”

Christians – we are so preoccupied with doing God’s will / thinking about what God wants us to do. And like Peter, it often all comes from good intentions / generosity of our heart. But as Jesus reminds him today calling Peter a Satan: The road to Hell is also paved with “good intentions”. We have to do more than being well meaning / for Jesus: We have to let God do God’s work.

We have to let God do God’s work and maybe that’s the hardest part for us. Because of our insecurities, feelings of unworthiness, fear of suffering / being hurt or disappointed, we stand in the way of God’s grace. We pretend we know how things are supposed to happen and what is supposed to happen. We struggle a lot, and gain next to nothing.

Jesus = We have to let God do God’s work. Sometimes it’s not so much about all we need to do, sometimes it’s more about doing what seems like just doing nothing. And I think it can be very hard / frustrating for us. It was probably very hard and frustrating for Peter who had just acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, has been told by Jesus that he was the “Rock of the church” (cf last week’s readings) and so now he wants to do the work, of course! But Jesus tells him he has no idea what he is talking about. Peter has to let God do the work of salvation through the cross, even is he really wants things to happen a different way.

So how do we do that? Letting God do God’s work? How can we avoid being a stumbling block?

I’ve been struggling with that for many years: Between running in every direction trying to make things happen or staying at home doing nothing hoping God will make something happen?

Yet, we have a response in our readings today and I think this is what Paul is writing about in the Letter to the Romans. This is how it looks like, I think, to let God do God’s work:

“Let love be genuine” and “Hate what is evil, hold on fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection” and so on.

The only work God ask us to do / or better the way we can collaborate / enable God’s work in the world is doing the work of love.

Now this is a broad term right? There are many kinds of love. The love Paul is talking about is a love that is “genuine”, it is a love that does not pretend to be something it is not, it is a love that acts, do the best for others, it is a love of compassion. Compassion is the characteristic of God’s love. What happens in our first reading, in OT, is God having compassion on God’s people’s suffering and to help God, Moses is invited to have compassion at his turn, compassion not only in his heart, but a compassion that leads him to act to deliver the people. Moses found refuge in the desert because he killed an Egyptian – he did that because he was very angry at the way the Egyptians treated the Hebrews – but this killing led him to nowhere. It is not his anger towards the Egyptians that can bring God’s healing, it will be his love / his compassion for God’s people that will lead him to go back to Egypt and deliver them.

We can let God’s work happen only in basking in God’s love. Peter does not get it yet. He does not show compassion for Jesus, denying the possibility that Jesus could suffer. He wants his friend – and his God – to be strong because that’s more reassuring for him. On the other way around, Jesus is ready to do the work of compassion, he wants to be with his people to the end, embracing the suffering of the least of his people. After a life spent doing good to the ones suffering, Jesus decides he wants to share the suffering, to be there with them. How many billions of people throughout the ages have found comfort, healing and hope by looking at the cross – knowing that there was nothing they went through that could not be redeemed and sanctified.

We have to let ourselves be transformed by God’s love / by the way God wants to love the world, wants to love us and wants us to love. This is hard work / real work, because indeed we have to be transformed, but it’s not a work that should be exhausting or distressing. God’s fire does not consume.

“Just assume the answer to every question is compassion” – this includes compassion for yourself. Peter had to be saved before he could save others. But that will be a discussion point for another sermon!

Proper 16

This Sunday, we’ve heard a very well known passage of the Gospel: Peter’s confession of faith – acknowledgment that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in return, Jesus gives Peter authority on the church and the keys to the KOG.

Like all those passages, when we know them so well, it can be tricky. We just assume what it’s about (and sometimes it is!) but it’s harder to hear them anew.

A few points I would like to reflect on with you:

– Jesus asks this central question to his disciples: Who do you say that I am?

It’s not only a central question metaphorically speaking, but literally. Scholars have observed that this passage is the climax in two folded Matthew’s Gospel: first part is about the ministry of healing and teaching / second part is the suffering and the cross.

The question, of course, is redirected to us: Who do we think Jesus is?

I asked this question to our Bible study group this past Tuesday and I loved what I heard:

Jesus is a friend / my best friend” (said spontaneously) and then adding “…but he is more than a friend” (said more hesitantly, but more reflexively)

And I really like that because I think it really reflects the familiarity and the mystery of Jesus, the way the disciples experienced him at the time: He was their friend, they ate and talked and traveled with him, but he was more than a friend, he knew them in a way no friend can know you, he helped them / healed them / transformed them.

Matthew insists in the first part of his Gospel that Jesus is God among us (He is called “Emmanuel”, God among us) – especially in the nativity story. God comes close to his people. But then, and that the second part of the story, he is taken away from his friends and this world (suffering and cross), not because he is vanishing, but because he draws all to God.

To me, this is really what the structure of the Gospel is about, and who Jesus is and how salvation works:

Jesus comes to be with us and then he takes us to be with God

He makes himself close to us so we can come close to God.

He is a friend, and he is more than a friend. He is a friend that can save, heal and redeem.

– So what does it mean in the way we relate to Jesus? I heard once this joke that gave me a lot to think about:

If one person has an imaginary friend, we call them crazy
If several persons have the same imaginary friend, we call it a religion.

How do I know that Jesus is not my imaginary friend? A lot of us have talked about the way it’s easy to talk to Jesus during the day (especially in these times of loneliness and isolation) and the feeling that came of being helped, comforted and supported.

And I think this is true – I experience it for myself everyday.

The thing is that it’s often where we are tempted to stop: Jesus is with me and I can talk to him. Now to go deeper into Jesus’ identity we understand from the Gospel today that Jesus comes to us to lead us to be with God.

We miss the mystery and Jesus’s real identity if we only relate to his “humanity” (his ability to be with us, to be compassionate) while missing his “divinity” (how Jesus redeems us and leads us to God)

As Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God, he is changed.

His name changes (from Simon to Peter), his role is changed (He is in charge of the church), his character is changed (He is a rock), his authority is changed / Power is given to him (He can bind and loose).

Jesus comes into our life to bring transformation, liberation – to bring us power (not power over other people, but power to act) Jesus does not come into our lives just to help us cope (even if often it’s where we are to start)

It’s very clear in our first reading. Exodus of course, it’s like the most important story in the OT. It means something very simple: God does not want God’s people to be slaves. God wants God’s people to be God’s children. To be fully who they are / who they are meant to be. To flourish, not just to cope. As Simon, in becoming Peter, becomes the one he has always been deep inside, the one who he is meant to be.

– Now what is our way to relate to Jesus? Most of the time, we ask to help us cope, to let us be okay. And that’s what he wants to be here for! But that’s only the beginning. We have to ask him to let him change us – not that we would become somebody else, but become who we truly are – children of God. We have to ask Jesus to bring divine life inside of us, to let him bring us closer to God.

How do you pray? I know I often pray for things to change in my life, or for people to change, but I don’t often pray to be able to change. Yet if we really believe that we are in charge of our lives, if we change, our lives will truly be transformed.

Jesus wasn’t well received as the Messiah because people expected a Messiah who would come to change the world, to undo political power, to restore the Kingdom of Israel. But Jesus started in this world with making friends and then talk to them / lead them to God. Jesus knew that the most important thing is to start changing hearts before we can change anything in the world. By doing that, he gave power and authority to his disciples.

– This is really what the passage from the Epistle to the Romans is about today: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”

And Paul says two important things:

The first one is that we have to offer ourselves to God. Do we do that? In Jesus, God offers who God is constantly – In Scriptures, in Sacraments, in the way we relate to God is prayer. Do we offer our hearts to God / ask God to let God’s will be done in our lives? (“So that you may discern what is the will of God in your lives”)

Second thing is that God has a special purpose for us. In this life, we look for support, comfort, love, for friend…but we also look for “more than a friend” / we look for something or somebody to live for, maybe even something to die for. We have special gifts to bring to the world – it’s does not have to be church related (Paul names prophecy and teaching, but also generosity, compassion, cheerfulness).

Peter today finds meaning to his life / understands his role – and God wants that for all of us. No matter our age, life situation.

– Jesus saves us, yes, but he does not rescue us like we rescue a puppy. Jesus rescues / saves us as his friends / his equals, somehow. In the Gospel, Jesus always, always, empowers people / his friends. Show them who they truly are / show them their own strength and their beauty and their abilities.

Do we let Jesus does that for us or is it to hard to truly believe in whom we can become with him / is it too hard to let Jesus love us, and change us?

Do we do that for others? Are we to others a “friend and yet more than a friend”? I think we all want to have friends, because it’s nice to hang out, to talk about everything, to have fun together, to feel supported and comforted if needed. But in the Antiquity, people had a very different understanding of friendship. Friendship was meant to make life happier, but for many Greek philosophers, friendship was about spiritual growth. Friends will support each other so they become wiser, more mature and grow into divine life.

That’s also what the church is about. Our church is not about fellowship as a happy get together or support / cope group. It’s about getting to know God together / growing in the knowledge of God.

In this passage of the Gospel, we see that when Jesus talks about building the church, he is not thinking about building a building, than about building up people as he builds up his disciples / Peter. Do we build up each other? Do we stir up the best in each other / become our best selves / help one another to find our place in the world? That should be our role as the church.

A message for Proper 15

Hi friends,

I have prepared a sermon this week and, as usual, it has been posted on line on Friday. I am not going to talk about it today though, but you’re of course invited to read it if you want to explore a bit more the Scriptures we have just heard.

I sat Saturday afternoon at home with a heavy heart after having received a phone call and an email both bearers of very sad news for two families of our community. These sad news came piling up on other sad news we have had this past week and in the past months at Christ Church. And so Saturday, I could do nothing but sense the grief and the pain a lot of you are going through right now, who had lost a close and beloved one, brother, sister, cousin or even a child. Or maybe you haven’t lost a beloved one, but a lot of us – if not all of us! – have experienced recently a fair amount of anxieties and isolation, worrying about our health, jobs, finances and our families.

For all these reasons, I don’t think teaching or sharing my deep thoughts about the Gospel with you today would be a great help – I know it wasn’t helpful even for me! – But maybe we can just approach the readings as we are, with our heavy hearts, and try to get a hold of what God wants to tell us.

To me, the first lines of the Old Testament today are just remarkable, if you pay a little attention. It reads: “Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out ‘Send everyone away’ (…) He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it”

Well, I find this remarkable and touching that the Bible shows us that it’s really okay to express your grief and your hurt. The story of Joseph is such a long and amazing adventure: From the dreams of his youth, to his being sold in slavery to the Egyptians, becoming Potiphar’s intendant, then being sent in prison because of false accusations, and then leaving prison again, becoming Pharaoh’s counselor and then something like his prime minister. Yet, as much as it is of a “success story”, it’s hard to imagine how utterly heart broken Joseph must have been throughout all of this, having been betrayed and rejected by his brothers, living away in a foreign country, not even knowing if his parents were alive or dead. Throughout all of what happened to him, Joseph had remained strong, courageous and faithful to God, but today in our reading, Joseph sees his brothers again and it’s like his heart finally melt, or at least, he has a meltdown – and everybody in the palace knows about it, hear him cry, servants and royalties, including probably Pharaoh himself.

And what is remarkable is that the author of the Bible does not seem to be embarrassed to say this, about this great man Joseph, that he had a meltdown. Quite the opposite, it looks like Joseph’s ability to be touched, to cry and to mourn is part of his greatness, of what makes him a strong and powerful man, and moreover – a man of God.

I was talking recently with a friend who is from Middle East and who is also an artist – he lives now in US – and he was telling me that, in his country, he has never felt it was okay for him to be who he was, emotional and sensitive, because that’s not how men are supposed to be like in his culture. But then he asked this very insightful question: “Isn’t it our feelings that make us human? How can you be a man, if you are not human to start with?”

How can you be a man, if you are not human to start with?

Joseph shows us the way. To be a man, and even more to be a man of God, he has to be able to be in touch with his pain, and as he does so, he is also in touch with his own heart, the love he has for his brothers and for his own, and instead of burying him deeper down into depression and isolation, expressing his grief enables him to be brought back together with his brothers and to be reconciled with his family.

It didn’t matter, you see, if he was the more powerful man in the country after Pharaoh, it didn’t even matter if he could know the will of God or interpret dreams. What he needed was to have his heart comforted and healed and be surrounded by people he loved and who would love him.

As so I think, this is really how it looks like to be powerful in God’s realm, it is to have the power to be touched, to mourn – not because we would be good at being sad – but because we are able to love, and also to have compassion. God makes us strong in a way that does not look like “strong” according to the world – we are often schooled to not put on display our feelings, or at least to not show any weakness – but in the Bible, to those who express their pain, God gives them the strength to overcome their pain by a greater love and a deep compassion.

And I think this is also how it goes with this strange story of the Canaanite woman seeking after Jesus.

Not unlike Joseph, this woman does not behave according to her gender’s standards. Women – yesterday and always – are expected to be “good girls”, discreet and reserved – but this woman, she is loud, rude and disruptive, she cries out after Jesus, she begs him to help her. She asks for help and for compassion, she expresses the despair she has over her daughter’s disease and in all of this, far from being weak or a victim, she shows herself strong, bold and courageous – and not only she will win over Jesus who will have compassion on her, she is also shown to the disciples as an example of “great faith”.

Jesus today asks his disciples to be fully engaged with their faith. He’s just told the Pharisees that true religion isn’t about looking good on the outside, doing the right thing, keeping it together not matter what. Faith is about engaging our hearts in what we do, with the ones around us, and it is to trust God to give us the best, to restore us beyond our heartbreaks and to bring new life to us. Jesus tells his disciple that they are “without understanding”, which is also translated by “dull”, “dumb” or “numb”. To them, he shows as an example this woman who expects everything from God’s mercy.

I hope today that, with the example of the Canaanite woman begging for the crumbs of the meal, we would feel encouraged in persevering in prayer, trusting that at God’s feast, there is a place for all of us. Joseph tells his brothers that all these hardships he had in his life, God intended them for good. I don’t think it means – as we usually assume – that God had planned everything that happened to Joseph, even the bad and the terrible – because it was the best way to make something good happen to his family (being rescued from the famine). I think it means that Joseph had enough love in his heart to see goodness coming even from terrible places, to see that there was no situation, no trial and no pain that love could not redeem.

We are invited to trust that in the end, everything will be okay, well and meaningful, not because there is so hidden justification to evil and pain, but because in the end we will be able to experience fully God’s power and God’s goodness in the reuniting all God’s people, in the same way that Joseph was reunited to his family in the end – because indeed it was all Joseph longed for. You know how sometimes we look back on the difficult times and we think it was all good and okay because those circumstances brought us this friend, this partner, this child in our lives? It does not mean the difficult times were okay or good or even necessary. It means that it was still worth it, because the love that is to receive is stronger than the pain we have to endure. I think, it is the same for all our lives, it will be all worth it, because it will bring us, all of us, into God’s arms of mercy.

God is really in our pain and our sorrows, right here and right now and look at us with compassion. And all what God expects from us is that we would open our hearts to God. To release us from our pain, and to find a way with God through our suffering towards the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Proper 15

The Gospel we have heard today is obviously two folded with a very clear structure:

– Jesus has a conversation with the Pharisees (taking it further in front of the crowd listening to them) about the respect of religious laws and what matters ultimately

– Then Jesus has this famous conversation with the Canaanite woman about whether it is acceptable for her (and her people, the Gentiles, the historical enemies of God’s people) to have access to the Kingdom and to receive the crumbs falling under the table.

We had quite of a discussion with our Bible study group about this text this past Tuesday, and one of the problems we raised was the difficulty to make a connection between the two stories – what is it that make them all come together in the end.

The themes, though important, are not new. Especially in Matthew’s. Matthew liked to identify Jesus as a new Moses (with yet an even more important role than Moses). In Matthew’s, Jesus is constantly revisiting the law given to the Jews, not to transform it radically, but to underscore what is really at stake in it and you could summarize it up this way:

It’s not about the rules or about the rites, it’s about what the law and the rites point to. The summary of the law for Jesus being contained each time (and comes back in the Gospel like a chorus) in this short sentence: Love God, love your neighbor.

Today again, Jesus, with heated energy, redirects the Pharisees, and the crowds, not towards what they need to do with themselves around religion, how they might protect themselves from being defiled by the bad things and the bad people around in this world, but Jesus redirects them towards their own hearts, have them think about how they may defile themselves by not being pure in their hearts and how they might be hurting themselves while hurting other people by their evil thoughts, words or actions.

Although it sounds very ironic today in our context of pandemic to hear Jesus saying that’s it’s not important to wash your hands, I think his sayings on cleanness and uncleanliness are right on target with what’s going on right now. Have you noticed that, with the virus, most of us are always worried about being contaminated by others, but we don’t think a lot about ourselves being the source of contamination? That we may not so much need to wear a mask to protect ourselves, but to protect others? It’s not that often that it occurs to us: Maybe I am the one who is sick, after all?

It says a lot about the way we think about ourselves, does not it? We so often see the world, what’s going on outside, people we don’t know (strangers, like the Canaanite woman) as the source of evil, or maybe at least as the source of danger, but we barely think of ourselves as being the danger and the source of evil. Yet today Jesus raises this important question: Maybe you are the one who is sick, after all. Maybe the source of contamination is inside of you, good and religious people.

And it certainly can give us a lot to think about, invite us to turn our attention inwards and see how our polluted and twisted thoughts, our toxic and auto centered feelings, our impulsive or self righteous reactions contribute to the brokenness of the world we see and lament all around us. Because maybe, just maybe, everywhere we go seems to us dangerous and polluted because really, we carry the danger and pollution everywhere with us, because the danger is inside of us, inside our own hearts.

And so while we are here, then comes the other part of the story today. The encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman. I love each and single one of Jesus’ encounters with women in the Gospel. They are so refreshing! The women Jesus liked, they are not the kind of well behaved women: Martha, Mary, the hemorrhagic, the woman at the well (look them up!) and today the Canaanite. These women, they don’t fit the description on how women are supposed to behave in society, around men and those in authority, how women were – and are still – schooled to be: Don’t be a pain, don’t be angry, don’t be needy, don’t ask questions, don’t tell them what they need to do – and of course the golden rule: don’t be a smart ass. Be a good girl, keep it light and easy.

But the Canaanite woman – she has it all wrong, hasn’t she? She is loud, demanding, rude, she talks back to Jesus and challenges him.

And yet, that’s when the miracle occurs – at the very moment when she did what’s absolutely the last thing her culture wants her to do – outsmarting the Master with her wit – that’s when her daughter is healed. But unlike the well behaved Pharisees and maybe a lot of goody two shoes of her time, she does not have to hide herself behind moral codes and religious laws, she can give her heart out because her heart is pure. It’s all about the great love she has inside of her. Not only the great love for her daughter, but the assurance of being a beloved and beautiful daughter of God who deserves her part in the kingdom, who deserves, if not a seat at the table, at least the crumbs that fall underneath.

In her assurance of being worthy of love, and yet in her great humility, not only does she give her heart out but she also conquers Jesus’s. Because this woman is real, fully engaged and alive.

And I think that maybe, it’s all what it comes down to in the end. Maybe that’s all what Jesus expect from us and maybe that’s the connection between the “two sides of the story”. It’s funny isn’t it to realize how often – without even meaning it – we skip the things that really bother us? It took me hours of rereading the Gospel to finally notice the center of our text today:

Jesus accusing his disciples to be “Asunetos”: Without understanding but literally in Greek “without intelligence” also translated in English with the words “dull” “numb”, which means: the disciples didn’t lack neuronal transmissions in their brain but Jesus’s regular crew was to him tasteless, without wit, without curiosity and without reaction and then comes the encounter with this salty woman who is everything but boring. And not only the miracle occurs for her (the healing), but the real miracle for Jesus is her herself, with what he calls her “great faith” of her and with who she is.

What does it take for us, to have a great faith in this liturgical season we call the season of discipleship?

Well, maybe it does not take more than not being numb and dumb and asleep (an expression that comes back many, many times in Matthew’s parables) in our relationship with God. Maybe it means we need to be more engaged, strive to understand, but also react and ask questions, maybe we need to be a little more curious about God intellectually, and concretely in our lives, ask for what we need, be ready to do what it takes to gain God’s favor. God wants us to be whole and to be real. To be exactly who we are and who we are meant to be – not resting on or hiding behind our good deeds or on our rites but be ready to open ourselves and open our hearts to God in great confidence and in great humility .

To get there, maybe we need a bit of the faith of the Caannite woman. To become aware of our belovedness, aware that God will meet us exactly where we are. It’s not about our personality, or even about how we behave or what we do. God does not want to change our personality. God just wants to give us a clean, a pure heart – a heart that is alive, a heart that knows it is loved and can love in return and put love in everything it does – whatever we do. Bishop Curry reminded us a few months ago that love is contagious too. What bigger call for us as disciples than being the source of love in a broken and hurting world?

Proper 12

It’s probably not unfamiliar to you that children have sometimes, and often, great insights about life and about God. I remember a year ago, when we were celebrating at church the baptism of Brianna and Anastasia, I asked the kids this question during my sermon: “How do you know when somebody loves you?”

“How do you know that somebody loves you, how do you know that your parents love you?”

And one of the children looked at me a bit puzzled and then cried out, like it was the most obvious thing in the world: “They do everything for you!”

That was not exactly the answer I was waiting for, I was expecting something like: “They’re being nice to you”, but what the child said really made me pause and, you know, I thought “This is it, this is such a great definition of love”: When you love somebody, you do everything for them. You don’t just act nice, hang around being charming or pleasant, what you do is that you really put in the effort – whatever it takes. You do things for them. You do nice things and helpful things of course, but you also do difficult and unpleasant things, things you know they may even not notice or not notice they come from you. And sometimes you also do silly things, right?

And so, that’s what I thought about this week when I opened the Old Testament lesson. There is a huge story going on about deception, manipulation and jealousy, and there is certainly a lot to preach about that, but in the midst of that the only thing that really catches my eye is where it reads that Jacob served seven years for Rachel. Seven years! Seven years being Laban handy man, not shying away from doing chores and enduring the heat of the day, accepting to be bossed around by this old man who does not look like the nicest person in the world – as a father in law he was actually very deceptive – and yet, after he tricked Jacob, Jacob still did not lose heart and worked another seven years to be able to marry the woman he loved.

Now that’s something, isn’t it? Jacob was far from being a perfect man, as you probably know. He was also cunning and deceptive and jealous and tough, and yet, he had the child’s wisdom, he had the parents’ generosity, he knew from the bottom of his heart how a true, deep, real love looks like: When you love somebody, you do everything for them.

I read an insightful commentary that made a connection between this Old Testament lesson and one of the parable Jesus tells to the crowd today. The commentary said that to Jacob “had found his pearl”. Rachel was the pearl of high value he was willing to give up everything for – and so did he. I really like that the Scriptures mentions that “Seven years seemed to Jacob a few days because of the love he had for Rachel” – because that’s exactly how it feels when you love someone, right? You don’t check your phone when you’re with them! It’s true also when you love to do something, correct? I know I completely lose track of time when I am reading or writing and I can’t stand to be interrupted, I won’t even stop to eat something. When you love someone or something, you can just drop everything else and it does not feel like a sacrifice, quite the opposite: you find joy in doing so. And to me this is what Jacob did when he accepted to work all these years to marry Rachel. He worked hard indeed, but he did it willingly, from the bottom of his heart.

Now I think it’s worth spending a little time on Jacob’s story not just because I can be a hopeless romantic but mainly because it tells us a lot of what it means when Jesus asks us to give everything up for the Kingdom of God. The way we often react to that is that Jesus is going to ask us to do terrible, painful sacrifices, to endure many hardships and to have a difficult life – and well, sometimes, it can be true – but we also forget what it’s really about. The call to follow Christ is not a call to deprive yourself of plenty of pleasant and fun things in this life so you’ll have a crown in heaven and you’ll be rewarded as a good person, the call to follow Christ is about leaving behind all that is not that important to find true, deep and real love.

It’s about giving your everything to find God’s everything. And it starts right now. And like it did for Jacob, this love you find keeps you going through all your work, and all the hardships, all the tricks, all the lies and all the deceptions in the world. It reminded me of the story Viktor Frankl tells in his book about surviving the concentration camps. He said that what kept him going during these awful years was thinking about his wife. He didn’t know if she was still alive, but just knowing that a love like that could exist for him, had existed for him, made him stronger and always more resilient. The hate, the scorn and the humiliations he endured everyday from the nazis, no matter how terrible, were not enough to destroy this memory of having been truly loved and knowing he was a man worthy of love.

Now I think it also helps us to think a bit differently about the Letter to the Romans we have just heard this morning. This is a very famous passage, isn’t it?

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”

The way we often understand this passage is that God loves us in Jesus no matter what – and that’s the truth of course. But now I think about the story of Jacob, and Frankl, and looking for a pearl of great price, I realize that it also means that truly love can keep us going – that love is not just only this charming, pleasing feeling, but with love in our hearts we are more powerful than armed soldiers and nothing in the world can defeat us. Not even death.

Now we don’t love out of our own strength, but God gives us the strength, God gives God to us and God gives us the ability to be loving whatever the circumstances and beyond everything that we could ever imagine: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness (…) that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words”.

That is something that is important to remember, that God is always ready to give us the strength to love. Not only to love people in the midst of difficulties, or to love people who are difficult to us. God gives us also the strength to love ourselves in spite of not being loved in the way we would like to be.

It does not make us invincible, but it carries us through.

Sometimes love keeps us going because it gives us energy and purpose, like it did for Jacob and Frankl. But sometimes also love carries us through just when we let ourselves being loved by God, by our parents, by our friends – being accepted and nurtured and taken care of. Sometimes we may find ourselves, especially when old, sick or depressed, in situations where we have to let others “do everything for us”, and it may not be easy to accept. Sometimes we need to be able to ask for help, for compassion or for respect. Sometimes we may need to tell people we need them to love us, or we need to tell them the way we would like them to love us. But in the end I think, it all comes down to what Jesus tells us today in the Gospel: that the kingdom of heaven, the reign of love, is worth giving the best, asking for the best, because love is worth everything.

Love can do and give everything because love is everything. A Saint said one day that unfortunately in our world “Love isn’t loved”, and certainly a lot of people value many things above love: Money, comfort, good reputation or just not looking like an idiot and valuing their own interests. But it also means that to be a saint, there is maybe nothing else to do than to value love above all things.

Proper 11

If you remember from a few months ago, we talked about the parable of the rich fool – this man making big plans for his retirement only to be waken up in the middle of the night by the voice of God telling him how he’s about to die and be faced with his judge this very day, all his goods lost and all his plans for the future doomed. Remember? That’s when I told you there was something really unique about Matthew’s Gospel and you have to leave it or take it, love it or hate it (and I know more than a few people for whom Matthew is their “least favorite Gospel” to put it mildly). But this is how it is: Matthew’s is spooky and eerie and disturbing and frightening and in Matthew’s Jesus tells you stories you find nowhere else, stories that just send you chills right down the spine – and I think this is exactly what we have today with the parable of the wheat and the weeds and the return of the Son of man.

As I was reading this story (over and over) I was wondering if Jesus was re-using already well known symbols and images or actually creating them: Death as a “reaping angel”, hell as the “furnace of fire”, pain and regrets as “weeping and gnashing of teeth” – One thing is sure, those expressions are strongly embedded in our imagination and so if you pay a little attention, the story of the wheat and the weed is really, really a scary story. Now as I was considering this, I wondered though: Who does not like a really good scary story? Who does not like a scary story? I know I do. Not a violent story, not a horror story, not a despair story – just a good story that sends you chill down the spine, the kind of story you really enjoyed hearing and telling when you were a child, at sleepovers and at camps, even if it kept you up all night after that.

And so I thought – well, maybe that’s the way we can reconcile ourselves to these difficult passages in Matthew’s,imagining a Jesus who loved to make up scary stories for a crowd who actually loved to be terrified by them – as we ourselves enjoy a good fright from time to time. It’s not a joke though, and Jesus was not an entertainer but Jesus told stories to help people think about their lives – and to do that, he had to capture their imagination by using powerful images. Jesus is not entertaining, but he is not threatening either – and I think this is what we have to keep in mind to be reconciled with the stories in Matthew’s. We’re often worried Jesus is threatening us with those stories when he is just trying to capture our attention to help us see things in a different way. When we threaten people, we scare them with something they should not have to be afraid of – that’s not what Jesus is doing. But when we tell scary stories, we awaken a fear that’s already there – and I think this is exactly what Jesus is doing. Jesus is talking to a fear that is deep inside of us, and doing so, as with any kind of literature since the birth of Greek tragedy, he helps us explore what it means to be human, what it is to be in the world, and what it means to be mortal.

And so this is how it goes. Jesus compares our world to a field and our lives to a mix of wheat and weed (we don’t know exactly if it is different kind of people, or different kind of things we have in our own hearts), and those weed and wheat grow together until one day the reapers come to get rid of the plants that haven’t given any fruit and burn them, while they only save the good crop. And so this is the point: either you grow into wheat and you’ll be saved and “shine like the sun” for eternity, either you’re a meaningless weed that will be taken by the angels of death and burnt to the bone, destroyed entirely although their will still be room for your soul to be tormented.

That’s really scary, isn’t it? With this story, Jesus is touching our deepest and most intimate fears and so it’s terrifying but it’s also a good way to actually release those fears, have a good look at them and move on to what God is inviting us to do about them – and I would like to explore that a little with you today.

What is it that we fear the most? I think our parable today bring answers to that question and takes us a little deeper than what common sense would agree on.

What is it that we fear the most? Death would be the immediate answer, correct? But it you think about that, death might not be the ultimate answer. In our story, both wheat and weed are taken from the field, only the weeds are meant to be burnt and destroyed when the wheat is collected to become bread, food for the world – which leads me to think that our deepest fear might not be death, our deepest fear might be rejection, meaninglessness and destruction.

What the story tells us is that we are meant to grow and being given away like wheat instead of perishing like useless weed. Our deepest fear is not (or should not be) the fear of death, it’s the fear of nothingness – of not being able to bear any fruit.

And you know, it makes sense to me, because I’ve met a lot of people in my life who weren’t that afraid of dying actually, and they weren’t that afraid of dying – not necessarily because they were “good people” having done everything “right”, patiently waiting for their “reward”. They weren’t that afraid of dying because they’ve had a full life – maybe not a life of great accomplishments – but a life that has been filled with love, creativity and generosity – a life that already shone like the sun – a life that has been lived for the sake of others and for something greater than just mere survival and selfish gain. Wheat, instead of weed.

To me, this is what the Gospel calls us to do and calls us to be. More than doing good, or being nice or right or pious: Bearing fruit.

And if you think about it, it’s maybe what the whole Bible is about. Being fruitful is the first commandment God gives to Adam and Eve, long before “Thou shalt not kill nor commit adultery” and in these past weeks we have been through many, many of those stories in Genesis and it’s always about people being called from barrenness to having an offspring. We can take it very literally – as did the Hebrews – it’s about birthing babies – but we can also see it in a more spiritual light: It’s about bringing forth life.

Our life is about bringing forth life and make all the choices that are life giving, life affirming, life sustaining. God revealed Godself as the God of the living – as Jacob encounters God in our text today: The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac.

So yes, of course, our deepest fear is nothingness but not because we are meant to be nothing, quite the opposite: because we are meant to be everything – to shine like the sun – to be part of a life that is so much larger than us, to be part of a life that is still to be revealed. Choosing everyday what is life giving, life affirming, life sustaining against destruction, status quo and morbidity. The world is maybe not so much the theater of the war between good and evil, maybe it’s more about being pushing against nothingness. Our world is the theater of being pushing against nothingness like the wheat growing among the weeds.

It’s scary, yes. Today, Jesus is telling us a scary story and it’s the story of our lives, but in the midst of that, we find God’s faithfulness and infinite patience, a God who isn’t willing to uproot anything that hasn’t matured yet, anything that hasn’t been given a chance to become what it’s meant to be. We meet a God who has all the time in the world when our time is short, a God who knows exactly when we are ready or not and what to do with us.

In a time when so many of our fears are being released, may we know that this is how it goes with God. May we leave behind our selfish and barren ways. May we find a God who is life giving, life affirming, life sustaining and not a judge. And may we dare to trust this God to sustain our growth and to lead us to bear fruit, and not be afraid.

Proper 10

The good news is that I am not going to talk very long this Sunday because we have two members of the congregation who are going to share messages with us as well…A little later during the service we are going to commission Holly who’s just completed a training to start a lay pastoral ministry and she will tell us a little a bit more about that. And during the announcements, Art will present and read Bishop Marian’s recent address to the congress.

So I don’t want to overwhelm you with too many words – a sense I had recently, doing worship on conference call and Zoom…It has worked as well as possible so far, but it is true that we are left with a lot of words when a service in person at church nourishes our soul and our senses in many different ways: with colors, images and gestures, the breaking of the bread, the anointing, the singing, the hugging, the blessing and of course a lot of standing up and sitting down because we are Episcopalians!

But for all of these reasons, I am also happy that today in our Gospel we have such a striking parable – not just words – but a powerful visual of this “sower who went out to sow”. Jesus liked images too, and we could just take time to picture in our minds this sower throwing generously his seeds in rocky and dark places, on a barren and dry land, on the path and at the crossroads, seeds lost in the cracks, trampled upon, stolen by the birds and suddenly landing in good, rich soil, taking deep roots and bringing forth grain “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” – a fortune.

And so there is a lot that can be said about that but since I’ve said I’ll keep it short, this is the one thing that I would like to say about it:

We often think that Jesus talks about people in this parable, dividing the people between those who receive what Jesus had to say – the good soil – and those who don’t receive the word – the bad soil. The disciples on one side, the scribes and the pharisees on the other side. And maybe there is some truth in this understanding but to me, when Jesus speaks about different types of soils, I think he is not so much talking about different types of people, rather he is talking about different dispositions of the heart, the heart that is able to understand and the heart that cannot do it.

Jesus is talking about the disposition of our hearts, of all our hearts and you know in my experience there are is not really such a thing as people who have no heart at all and people who have a whole heart, and mostly there is no heart without wounds or sorrow, no heart that is not burdened or hiding somewhere, somehow. And if we all look at our own hearts, it can be everything really – some days it’s sad and barren, some days it’s thorny and defensive, some days it’s rocky and heavy, some days it’s rich, fertile, generous and open – and if you’re like me, it may also vary from one hour to the next!

And yet, yet the parable tells us today that it is in this heart that God plants the seed, it is in this heart that we have to receive the word of God and to understand it, and you know the word of God it’s not only about reading the Bible, although it can be involved in the process. Receiving the word of God is to receive something that brings us comfort in our pain and hope in the future, the strength to love and the desire to live, something that raises us from something bad to something better and make us willing to do something new – for us and for those around us.

Salvation will happen in our hearts or it won’t. As Paul explains in his Epistle to the Romans today, Salvation is in the Spirit, not in the flesh. It means that Salvation does not happen in our heads, or in our bodies, it’s not to be sought in the world outside, not to be seen with Jesus landing from a cloud. Salvation will happen deep inside of us or it won’t.

So today I would just like to remind us to do the tending because as heavy, broken, fearful, sad or bitter our hearts can be, this is the only place where we will ever get to receive God. So in the same way as we tend to the soil to bring life into the world, we need to tend to our hearts to bring divine life in us. Tend to your hearts. I have heard so many people telling me they worked on their garden during this quarantine, but what about the garden inside of us? What about the rock and thorns and dryness inside of us? And you know it’s not only about our sins, the “bad stuff” we have inside of us we need to remove: pride, blindness, selfishness…it’s also about our wounds that need to be healed, it’s about our defensiveness and our insecurities that prevent us from receiving the word of God, from being fully alive and from bringing love in this world and from receiving it. The sower sows generously, abundantly: God gives God’s love to the world, it’s only between us and our own heart that the problem is.

So how do we do that, how do we tend to our own heart and how do we make it a fertile ground?

Well, I wish I had a magic formula to give you and I don’t but I heard once that the best spiritual practice was to talk to our own heart. Talk to your heart. I am still trying to figure what it means but I can guess it’s about having a little bit of acceptance for ourselves, a little bit of attentiveness, a little bit of compassion, and even little bit of tenderness if it’s possible for who we truly are, knowing how deeply loved we have been in Jesus?

Paul reminds us today that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, but do we truly believe that, and do we act as if? How would it be like for us to start living a life without condemning ourselves, and just begin to be open to receive the best God has to give us?