The Way of Love: Turn (Exodus 3:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:5-7; Luke 5:1-11)

We’re starting this week exploring the very first step of Bishop Curry’s “Way of love”. There are seven steps: turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go, rest. And so, today, we are invited to start our journey by “Turning” “Pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus”. In this context, I found it very interesting the lectionary picks this passage from Luke’s where Jesus calls the disciples to become “fishers of men” with him. I find this pick interesting because when I am asked to “turn to Jesus”, the images that come to my mind are images of repentance – Turning to Jesus to ask for forgiveness for my sins. This is the beginning of Mark’s Gospel – when John the Baptist calls the people to repentance – a significant part of our readings during Lent and Advent, in these Church seasons when we are asked to draw closer to God. “Conversion” actually means to change directions, to turn back because we realize that we are on the wrong path. This is this understanding we have in our collect today: “Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways and bring them again with penitent hearts”. For all those reasons, as I was thinking about the Gospel we have just heard, I was surprised to discover that turning away from sin is not at the center of Bishop Curry’s call to turn to Jesus. According to Bishop Curry, turning to Jesus is not so much for repentance than it should be doing what flowers do when they turn towards the sun for light and nourishment. We turn towards the source of life. This image speaks to me deeply. I have many plants at home and not enough light, so they often grow in strange ways, bend on one side or the other, depends on where I place them by the windows, and as I keep moving them around, some of those plants become all twisted because they are so thirsty for light. Well now, when I look at them, I wonder if I have this same longing for Jesus that would make me look for him in every directions.

Our lack of longing for Jesus – maybe this is the first thing we need to work on to walk the way of love. I don’t know what you think, but I have a sense that in this world – unless something serious really bothers us – we don’t generally carry a painful awareness of our sins. Most of the time, we are just not that interested in the things related to faith. We have our routine, we’re caught in our everyday lives, distracted. Well, I think this is also the place where the disciples are today. In our text, it is said that the crowd is pressing on Jesus to hear the word of God, and yet, when Jesus sits in the boat to teach, the disciples (who aren’t yet the disciples) are busy wrapping up their day of work, cleaning their nets. They are not listening to Jesus.

They are not listening to Jesus not because they are terrible people busy doing bad things, they are just, like most of us, caught in their everyday business, and probably, their preoccupations and worries. As we learn a little further, they haven’t caught any fish and on that day. They were probably wondering how they were going to feed their families. We can almost picture the scene. Jesus is in the boat teaching, and the “disciples to be” are on the shore, turning their backs, lost in their thoughts as they pack up their material. Well, I have a sense that a lot of us can identify with that. You know, we often hear that the disease of our world is our distraction, because we want to have fun and to be entertained, we spend hours on social medias and so on, and there is something true about that. But I think that, more deeply, we are distracted because we are worried about our own lives. It’s not only bad and superficial things that keep us apart from God, there are also a lot of good and important things that can make us miss the presence of God in our lives: our everyday business, our desire to provide for our family, to plan for the future…All of that is very necessary, but the sad part is that we can spend our whole life going on like this – not realizing that something extraordinary could happen to us, not realizing that Jesus is right there to be found, if we would just turn to him.

Because what the Gospel teaches us is that God is not an invisible and mysterious spirit but a God who is among us and one of us. Jesus is the God who comes to us in the midst of our daily lives. And so, turning is not about looking up to the sky and become all pure and holy. It’s about stopping to be so wrapped on ourselves, on our worries and our struggles. As the disciples today, we are all invited to: “Pause, listen and choose to follow Jesus”. You know, I am wondering if on that day Simon was not just thinking: “Well, this all seems very interesting, I guess I will listen to this Jesus when I have time, when I have less to think about” – It’s often where we are, right? We’ll pray when we have time, we’ll do something for God when we get a chance, yes, at some point, we will make a change…Well, the Gospel reminds us today that the change is for right now.

Yet, if the change is for now, Luke’s version of the call of the disciples is different from Mark’s when the disciples leave everything right away, at their first encounter with Jesus. Here it takes them a little more time and I think it’s more realistic. In Luke’s version, we learn that Simon already knew Jesus, that he is actually staying at his house. And so in this Gospel, it’s not like the disciples stop suddenly caring about the everyday things that are important to them as soon as they meet Jesus. But by the miracle of the fish, Jesus shows the disciples that their daily lives are in God’s hands, and so they are freed to become more than what they believed they were meant to be. From the ordinary life of fishing fish, they are called to God’s mission of fishing men. Well maybe, like the disciples, we need to learn that we can trust God with the things that worry us, instead of holding on to them. Then, reassured, we can raise our heads and turn towards what God wants to give us.

This does not go without disruptions of course. Turning to God is never simple. It breaks with our comfort, our habits, the world as we know it. I like it that the Gospel mentions that the nets were about to break, and that it felt like the boat was sinking. Sometimes good news are hard to bear, and the good news of the Gospel is not always easy to carry out. When God breaks in, everything can be put into question in our lives and in the way we understand ourselves. God changes the image we have of ourselves, of the person we think we are: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”. As he understands who Jesus really is, not only a wise teacher but a man inhabited by the presence of God who can change his life – Simon is tempted to look back, to cling to the one he has always been: “A sinful man”. This expression does not necessarily describes somebody who does bad things, it’s more about a social status: People who do not belong to the aristocracy of the religious ones, ordinary men, blue collars, those who had no specific skills or insights. How often, like Simon, we are deep down convinced that we are not called to anything greater than our routine? It can be humility, but it can also be a way of hiding from God. We need to move beyond our feelings of unworthiness to be able to turn from ourselves, from our daily occupations, from being caught in our own nets, to turn to Jesus and open up to God’s plans.

Because it’s not about who we are – yes, of course, we are unworthy and sinners, Paul reminds us today we are only clay jars– but we have to trust that God is bigger than that, it’s not about who we are, it’s about what Jesus can do of us, can do with us. Jesus calls the disciples to become “fisher of men”, and it is an image that should really speak to us those days we hear about so many flooding. Because when you fish fish, take them out of the waters, it kills them and you eat them or sell them for your benefit. But when you take a man out of the waters, you save his life. Jesus calls us to be, with him, life givers in a world where death is the ultimate horizon. We are freed not only for ourselves, we are freed to bring the message of love, hope and liberation of Jesus. We are not meant to be slaves of every day life, we meant to be the sons and daughters of eternal life.

Turn. Not so such because there are so many bad things to leave behind, but because there are so many good things to be found in God and shared in community.

I love Moses’ example of turning. Moses was busy doing his business, because you know, he also had a family to feed and he had the humble responsibility of taking care of his father in law’s sheep, but in the meantime he opened his eyes, he was curious, he wanted to know more and to understand, and so he came close to the burning bush. And because he came closer to God, his life – not only his life but the life of all the Hebrew people – were changed in such a dramatic and unbelievable way. Starting this week, maybe we can work on taking our first step on the way of love by looking around, working on our curiosity for God, see what catches us into God’s net, what catches out attention and catches our hearts. Maybe starting this week, we can work on our thirst, our longing for God, as plants thirst for light. Maybe starting this week, we can work on our open-mindedness in everyday life, in the midst of our routine, believing that God is up to something, that God is there to be found in the midst of it all. Amen.

Fifteen Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17

After six weeks reading about the “Bread of life” in John’s, we are back today in Mark’s Gospel. I don’t know how you feel about it, but when I had a look at this text, I had a sense I had already almost forgotten about Mark’s style. It is indeed very different from John: John is very meditative, giving us long discourses, sometimes it’s even a little hard to know exactly what he is talking about. Mark, on the other side, is always telling concrete stories, very detail oriented. And our Gospel today is indeed detail oriented and at first glance, it could seem almost trivial. After all, it’s about washing hands and, our lectionary cut off the more down to earth verses, actually it’s about “what enters the stomach and goes out in the sewer”. So maybe we can be tempted to think that there is not much theology in that.

Yet, when it comes down to the word of God, we should know we need to beware of what may seem deceivingly simple. Mark’s Gospel, even if in a different way than John’s, also invites us to meditation, and I was actually surprised to realize how, studying this text, from one level of understanding to another, I was taken deeper and deeper into ethical reflection – and this is some of those reflections I would like to share with you today.

The first level of understanding of this Gospel is quite obvious. It is about the difference between true and false religion. Though quite obvious, this is not a level of understanding that should be overlooked. I felt quite concerned this week, even troubled and shocked, hearing about another scandal in the church with the terrible child abuses committed by priests. When we hear about that I guess a lot of us wonder, as I did: “How is it possible that religious people would do that?”. It is so ugly and immoral, some Christians may be tempted to walk away from the church. Indeed, they are right to feel offended. Jesus points out to religious people that rites are only rites and do not mean much if they are not followed by actions of justice and goodness. James reminds us that being religious is not only about hearing the word of God, but it is about doing God’s will. James refers specifically to the care of “orphans and widows”, who were the most vulnerable people in his society. If we don’t act in a way that honors the most powerless, then our religion is vain.

It does not mean that religion is vain in itself, though. Religion is important, as it is the vehicle of God’s words and sacraments, the place where by tradition and Scriptures we come closer to know God. Yet, religion is a body of things: hearing and doing. Rites and behavior. Prayer and Justice. This is what our collect today underscores, asking God to: “Increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness AND bring forth in us the fruit of good works”. Religion calls us to wholeness. Indeed, there is nothing more terrible than somebody who pretends to be religious but does not behave with righteousness, it can bear false testimony against the church, faith and even against God! How many victims of abuse by priests say they have lost their faiths! We may not commit that kind of offenses, yet it is a serious warning for all of us as Christians: We need to be very careful about the kind of testimony we bring into the world by our actions.

The second level of understanding of our Gospel goes deeper into the ethical reflection in the sense that it does not only describe what religion should be ideally, but it reveals some of the flaws of our behaviors as religious people. The Pharisees today are put into question by Jesus because they look at the outside, instead of looking on the inside. It means two things:

First of all, the Pharisees focus on physical appearance instead of looking at the heart. It may happen to a lot of us that we judge somebody on their looks, and indeed if somebody looks dirty, as did the disciples who apparently did not wash their hands, we can easily act defiant towards them, thinking there is something wrong with them. To be honest, it is the reason why we often hesitate to engage with the homeless. Because of lack of commodities, most of them look dirty and so we assume that they are dangerous or, at least, cannot be trusted. Like the Pharisees, we make judgments based on what we see, and then we generalize and make assumptions. The Pharisees say of the disciples that: “They do not live according to the tradition of the elders”. Well, I don’t know what you think, but it seems to me a huge stretch when what happened is that the Pharisees just did not see the disciples wash their hands! But how often do we do that as well? Making assumptions and generalizations about others, based on their sex, social class or race. We are often very prompt to judge.

Yet, looking at the outside instead of looking on the inside, is not only about making quick judgments about others based on their appearances. What Jesus also notices is that the Pharisees look at others – to criticize – instead of looking at themselves – to correct their behaviors. James reminds us that true religion is about being able to look at ourselves in a mirror, even if it does not please us. You know, we live in a society not that different than the society in which Jesus lived: There is always this fear to be contaminated by what comes from outside. We have many hygiene rules to protect our assumed integrity from diseases coming from the outside. Yet, Jesus reminds us that, in the case of sin, it starts in our own hearts, on the inside. What we really need to work on is ourselves, instead of trying to change others. It can be easy to forget when a lot of wrong things happen in the world. We can be tempted to waste a lot of time criticizing or just feeling very discouraged. Yet there is something we can always change, it’s ourselves. We can “Be the change we want to see in the world”, as the famous saying by Gandhi goes. So, maybe next time we feel like we want to criticize someone, we could look inside of us to see what it actually says about us. For example, maybe, like the Pharisees, we don’t like careless people only because we are too rigid?

The third level of understanding of our Gospel is harder to see, and I think I would probably not have paid attention to it, if it hadn’t been because of the news. Because what I think this story is ultimately about is about people who want to assert their power by making others feel inadequate and dirty. And this is what sexual abuse and sex offenders do to their victims: they make them feel “dirty”: shameful and guilty. Sexual aggression is not so much about sex, it’s about having power over people, making them feel less than they are, humiliating them. It does not only happen in case of sexual abuse, it is a very painful realization to see how, throughout history, we have made one another feel dirty: Dirty because of race or religion or social class, dirty because of sexual orientation. Well, Jesus’s consistent teaching is that it is nothing on the outside that can make us dirty. Not who we are, and not what people do to us. In a verse that our lectionary skips, Mark says that “Jesus declares all food clean”, but more than that I think, as Jesus refers to the process of digestion, I think what he does is to declare human bodies and bodily functions clean. Jesus touched even the lepers. Sickness does not make us dirty, as surely as being a victim of abuse, rape or rejection does not make us dirty in God’s eyes.

So what does make us clean or unclean?

Well, clearly it’s sin that makes us unclean. Jesus today gives us a list of those sins: “fornication, theft, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly”. All those sins describe a variation on what sin is: a breaking of relationships with other people by judging them, attacking them, abusing them. The uncleanliness we see in others starts often in our own heart, when we fail to see their real beauty, to respect their sacredness as persons, when we treat them as objects, and deny life in them. There was this poster in the Metro at some point of a victim of abuse saying: “I am not the one who should be ashamed”. Well, I think this is very true. Uncleanliness is about the wrong we do to others, not about the wrong done to us.

And so in the end, I think that what our Gospel tells us today is that we don’t sin so much when we break a rule or a tradition, we sin when we break people. We don’t sin when we break a rule or a tradition, we sin when we break people. Jesus often reminded people that God’s commandments (the ones we hear about in our first reading) are not so much a list of things to obey, the commandment is a commandment to love. If love “commands”, it means that love should come first, in all we say, do and in the way we look at the world and at one another. It means love is also the way we need to look at those who offend us and sin against us, by not limiting them and denying in them the possibility of new life and redemption – but that would be for another sermon. Amen.