The Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost

It’s a pleasure for me to be here with you this morning, thank you Liz for your invitation! I appreciate the opportunity to share the message with you today. I am deeply convinced that reading the Gospel together as a church is really about the willingness to hear different voices and different perspectives on Jesus’s life and teaching. It’s not that some of us have better insights, it is mostly because it deepens our reflections and open our hearts to hear what others have to say. Of course it can help, but nobody needs a degree in theology to react to the Scriptures, what’s needed is life experience. And so as a preacher, I know this is something that I really try to do – to try to listen to how different people respond to the Gospel and it is often a starting point for me in writing my sermons.

This week, a comment a woman sent on line about this passage of the Gospel made me pause. The woman said that she did not really know what to do of the story of Bartimaeus, because his healing seemed unfair to her, and she explained why. She said that a year ago her young son had a bike accident and since then he has been suffering from terrible headaches that force him to spend long hours in the dark when as a kid he should be enjoying sunshine, and school and playing outside with his friends. She said she has been praying for one year for her son and nothing seems to be happening so far when, on the other side, Bartimaeus, the blind man was saved from darkness and healed by Jesus “immediately”.

And so I started thinking about that. “Immediately” you have probably noticed, is a big word in Mark’s Gospel, we find it about 30 times, and most of the time, “immediately” refers to the way miracles happen: Immediately the leprosy leaves the leper, immediately the paralyzed man stood up, immediately the ears of the deaf were opened, and so on…And so I think, this woman is right, you know. The Gospel – this is not the way we experience prayer and healing, most of the time we’re like this woman, we spend months and sometimes years praying to finally get a response, if we experience getting a response at all.

And yet. Yet, “immediately”, as I was thinking about this story, another thought hit me. It hit me that if the man was healed “immediately”, “suddenly”, he probably had been waiting for a very long time too. People knew about him, he was Bartimaeus, this man who had been sitting on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, begging while others went on their way. If you have this experience just driving down the same road each day, you probably know about that, there is always this man or this woman you see all the time at the stoplights, begging for money, and sometimes it is a little familiar and good to see their faces, and sometimes it’s a little annoying because you know they are going to ask you again today, and sometimes it’s a little heart-breaking to think that nothing seems to change for them – ever.

Bartimaeus, sitting on the busy road towards Jerusalem, had been waiting a long time for something to happen to him, for somebody to show up for him. Witnessing life moving on around us and feeling left behind, this is something I guess a lot of us can relate to whether we are aging, experiencing disabilities, unemployment, grief or depression, or simply because we are not happy anymore in our marriages or in our jobs, and we can’t see where it’s leading us – we feel stuck. It’s true in life and it’s true in our spirituality, actually it’s often that our relationship with God seems to be on hold when our lives seem to come to a stop, and this is I think the story of Bartimaeus: Surrounded by all those people who seemed to know their way, in their lives and with God, busy, happy, walking towards the Holy City, but he, Bartimaeus, was left on the side of the road. In those times indeed, it is hard to not let darkness overcome us and lose hope – when it seems that nothing good is going to happen to us… So what can we learn today from the story?

Well, the first thing we can learn about Bartimaeus is that, in spite of being stuck on the road, he remained open and alert. I think this is true of a lot of people with disabilities, and we can learn from them. Not being able to use one of their senses or members, they learn to develop the other ones. Bartimaeus could not see, but he certainly could hear. He knew about this Jesus, the Son of David, the prophet in whom he could find help and salvation, and my guess is that he had been expectantly waiting for him, listening to conversations and rumors from all those people around him who probably talked about this holy man and his whereabouts.

It can be the same for us. In those situations where we are stuck, we can stay alert, and even if we are in darkness, we can learn how to discern God’s presence: by reading the Bible, talking to other Christians, writing about our experience, trying something new. We cannot force God to show up, but we can notice the way in which God comes closer. Bartimaeus prayed what came to be known in the monastic spirituality as the “Jesus prayer”’: “Have mercy on me!”. It is a prayer the monks trained themselves to pray constantly, to pray as they breathe, so they would bathe into God’s presence. Maybe a lot of us don’t feel called to pray like that, but I think even in our darkest times, when it seems like we have lost our way and it’s hard to talk to God, still we can keep a short and simple life of prayer – Crying for help, if it is all we can do.

The second thing I noticed about Bartimaeus is that if he could listen, he could also shout and everybody heard him. Bartimaeus had a huge disability and yet, he was not just a poor beggar, he refused to be a victim and he had enough self confidence to make himself known to Jesus. One of the ways we can “unstuck ourselves” from difficult situations is to keep the conviction that we are never one hundred percent a victim. Our doubts and fears and sometimes people we know can try to silence us, or make us retreat in our own places of solitude, but we can also choose to take a step forward, even if it seems very difficult and paltry. Among those conflicting voices of “should” and “shouldn’t” we hear around us or inside of us, we need to strive to go towards where there is greater light and life, and leave behind our insecurities and our comfort – and sometimes even the things we are unhappy about have become comfortable, not that we like them but we’ve gotten used to them. It can be scary for a blind man to see again. His whole life is going to be transformed, and yet Jesus’ s question: “What do you want me to do for you?” seems rhetorical: who wouldn’t want the light to come into their lives?

The last thing I noticed is that the story happened in Jericho – and I wondered about that until somebody pointed out to me that the last time people shouted in Jericho, the walls crumbled to dust and it opened the way for the Hebrews to the promised land. Maybe today we are also asked to cry to Jesus so the walls of our inner prisons will crumble so we can find the way, and in the end I think this is what the story is all about: When the time comes for him, Bartimaeus will spring up from his place of darkness and will follow Jesus on the way.

I read recently the story of a woman who was saying that a week before starting chemo for a breast cancer, she went on a silent retreat and she kept looking at Jesus on the cross wondering what all this suffering was all about. And she said that this is what she heard from Jesus: “Yes, there is suffering, but there is a way”. I think this is really what we are called to hang on to as Christians: there is a way (Weren’t we called the people of the way to begin with?). We often hear that we can be or do whatever we want if we have the will, well I am not sure about that and I like it about Bartimaeus that he stays so humble and aware of who he is. Like him, we all have our disabilities, our insecurities and our weaknesses and maybe we can heal from them, or maybe we never will, but still, there is a way for us to the promise land. We find hope, not so much because we convince ourselves that good things will happen for us, but we find hope within ourselves, in the life we have in us, life that pushes forward in spite of everything. In the end of the story, Bartimaeus left his coat behind and it really made me think of a shed of skin, or a butterfly leaving his cocoon. Jesus says it’s his own faith that has saved Bartimaeus. Faith is not about belief. It can be part of it but mainly, faith is about finding life and energy and desire and goodness in us and around us. Yes, sometimes we feel stuck and we can choose to live like that, but we can also consider it as a preparation to go towards something new.

And so in the end, maybe we are called as individuals, but also as a community, in our daily life, in our society, we are called to encourage one another to head towards what brings us life and to head towards the light. I think this is the conclusion of this strange story of Job we have been hearing about for weeks. Job, like the blind man, is made well again. It’s not like nothing bad happened, it’s like God can bring light in any situation. In spite of all the mistakes, pain and heartbreaks, life begins again. Life begins again, yes, there is sufferings, but there is a way. With God, there is always a way. Amen.

The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost

Job 38:1-7; Psalm 104:1-9,25,37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

When I was a child, we were often advised at school to turn our tongue seven times before speaking. It was meant to give us the time to think about what we were going to say and so to prevent us from saying anything stupid. Now certainly, this method can spare you a lot of embarrassment, but of course, it’s far from being the best way to learn. This is typical if you want to learn a foreign language, for example. If you learn a foreign language (trust me) you are going to say a lot of stupid things, but the thing is you actually need to say stupid things – because it’s only in speaking that you’re going to learn how to speak. But, of course, it is hard to put ourselves through such a painful experience. Actually, the main reason why most adults can’t learn foreign languages is not because our brains are slower, it’s because of social anxiety: We are much more afraid than children to embarrass ourselves and so, unless we have to, we never really try to speak. On one hand it’s reasonable because it’s never pleasant to feel like an idiot or to be laughed at, one the other hand of course, if we keep silence, if we never interact, we end up on our own – And so ironically, for fear of looking like an idiot, we may end up being one.

I was thinking about that as I was re-reading this famous passage of Mark, where John and James naively ask Jesus to give them the first places in the kingdom. I don’t really like this passage and as I was wondering why, I realized I don’t like it because I feel embarrassed for the two disciples, because indeed, making this stupid request to Jesus to sit at his right hand at at his left, they look like arrogant idiots. It seems that I am not the only one feeling this way about James and John. The Gospel tells us that when they heard about that, the ten other disciples were shocked and angry, and Matthew felt probably so embarrassed for them that, when he will write down his own Gospel, he will change the story slightly, making the disciples’ mother asking instead of them.

And yet. Yet, I must say I came to feel thankful that such a story would be as it is to be found in the Gospel. Because, as I thought about it, I realized that, personally, throughout my life, I have made a lot of stupid requests in my prayers too, so I find it comforting that it also happened to at least those two who became apostles, martyrs and saints. At any rate, I think it is pretty safe to assume that in front of God, we will always look quite silly and a bit miserable – just because God is God and we are who we are: mortal creatures with very little knowledge and very little power. This is basically how Job must have felt when God had to remind him that he was helpless and did not know a thing: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding (…) Surely, you know!”. Yes, as Jesus points out to the two disciples, most of the time, we don’t even know what we are saying.

The thing is – I hope it does not make us shy. I hope it does not make us shy and prevent us from praying and from talking to God, and if it is not always socially acceptable to say everything that is on our mind, I hope we can do that with God though. Recently, my heart just broke as I was having a conversation with a friend of mine. She told me that one of her best friends had just died, and that she had prayed a lot for God to heal her and now she just felt stupid for having believed that God was going to do just what she asked, for thinking she could get God to go the way she wanted things to turn out. My heart just broke because of course, she was right to pray. Praying for healing is the compassionate and loving thing to do when someone dear to you is very sick, and praying is never stupid even if you pray for something desperate or impossible – what could be too bad would to not pray at all. Learning to talk with God is really like learning a foreign language: you have to talk, you have to pray, in order to learn how to talk and pray and beyond that – even if you never get it totally right: in order to be in relationships.

I guess for most of us, it’s really hard to have this genuineness and vulnerability. We have a book of Prayer, and we’re very proud of it but the thing is we ask the book of Prayer to do just that: to pray for us. In the book are the right words. Ourselves, we don’t know how to pray, and so maybe we think that if we read from the book we will never say something stupid to God – Probably not, but the question is: Will we ever pray? Will we ever reach the bottom of our hearts and open up? Will we ever let God in, so God can work in us and we can learn? The two disciples like Job may have it completely wrong, but at least they are trying to engage from where they are. At least, they’re not like their friends standing in the back saying: Look how silly those look like. And the wonder is that God responds to Job, Jesus engages in the conversation with James and John.

Because of course, prayer is not a monologue. Not only do we need to say what’s on our hearts, to pray with our own words, but actually prayer only becomes prayer if we listen to God’s response, if prayer becomes a dialogue – otherwise it’s just like reciting magical incantations, when what we need is to open up to what God wants to tell us. When I say to some of my friends or family, especially non believers, that I will “pray for them” they often ask if my prayers “work”. Well, not all wishes are granted for sure, and we should not believe that we can force God into doing our will, but I think no prayer goes unanswered – if we listen deeply and long enough. I think it is the same in life as it is in prayer: We are often afraid to look stupid because of what we say but actually, the only time we run the risk to be stupid is when we don’t listen because then we never learn.

And so what do we learn in prayer? Well, as we enter this dialogue with God, not only do we learn who God is, but also, but mainly, we learn who we are in front of God, we learn where our place is. Clearly, we are not the ones in charge, we aren’t the ones who have all the power or the knowledge. Yes, it does not always feel good to be “put into our places”, as God put Job into his place, as Jesus put John and James into their places, yet if we think about it, this is really what we need to learn to accept and to deal with. Our society and our planet are sick because we have forgotten we don’t have the power and we don’t have the knowledge and we don’t know where our place is. We act as if we had all the rights over creation, its resources, its animals, we think of ourselves as having rights over other human beings, or as having more rights than other human beings. Only in our relationship with God can we be reminded of our place in the rank of people and things. It can feel humiliating, it may feel somewhat limited or even dull, but if we open up to the wonder of it all, if we realize that we truly belong to something bigger, to God and to one another, I think it’s mostly comforting and liberating: we realize we are known and loved, and entrusted to serve according to our own gifts and vocations. Power in itself is selfish and, in the end, barren, but service, because it turns us to God and one another, is where we become really fruitful. This what James and John learn in their dialogue with Jesus. It’s important to realize that Jesus does not condemn their desire for greatness – after all, they still want to be close to Jesus – but Jesus teaches them what true greatness is about.

So maybe, being Christian is not about having it right, to always know what to say or to know what to do. But maybe the most important is to have a curiosity and a desire for God, the only thing we have to do is to take the first step as the two disciples did. Whatever is on our mind, we should not be afraid to open our hearts to Christ, after all there is nothing he can be shocked or upset about, he obviously heard it all before. He won’t reject us or make fun of us. But as our great high priest, he will show us the way, how to pray, how to serve, and he will purify our dreams and desires, as he did for his disciples, giving us the perfect example of how to live a godly life that will fulfill us, heal others and give glory to him. I read recently a book by a nun that said that life is about wrestling with God. And we engage with God not only at church, through the words of prayer and baptism and Eucharist, but as Jesus explains to his disciples, we engage with him through the sacraments of our suffering, of our questioning, of our struggles. In the end, God will be real for us, but only if we are real with God. Amen.

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

I grew up in a conservative church and, as far as I can remember in my childhood, divorce was to me a scary word. I especially remember that I had an uncle who would sit through the service whenever he came to Mass with us. He wasn’t allowed to receive communion because, as my parents explained to me: “By divorcing, he had also broken his communion with God”. I used to wonder if he would go to heaven anyway. I felt sorry for him, but also wondered why he had taken such a risk to be at odds with God. Marriage was such a serious business, you had to make it work no matter what. And I clang to my parents’ belief for a long time.

One day though, without any warning, this conception of things shifted. The phone rang and it was my sister. She was crying. Her husband had been locking himself in his office for three days in a row giving her the silent treatment. He was drinking too, and she said he was smoking so much she could barely breathe in her own apartment. Now, I should have gotten used this, she had been calling and crying for six months. But on that day, suddenly, I just heard myself saying: “You know, I think you should divorce him”. Suddenly, I just could not stand anymore to hear my sister crying, it was too heart breaking. Divorce felt like the only right thing to do.

And so, she did it, eventually, she divorced the abusive man. As for me, it led me to think quite differently about what we are taught to do at home and at church. Mainly, I learned that it is always tricky and sometimes even dangerous, to turn to religion to be taught exactly what to do by clinging to a set of codes, laws and rules, generalities about right or wrong. And this is interesting because looking at the Bible for quick answers, this is, actually, what the Pharisees used to do – this is what they are doing in our Gospel today when they ask Jesus what the rules about marriage and divorce are, and if they should stick to what Moses wrote about them.

We don’t know how the question came up. What we know is that the Pharisees asked because they were trying to test Jesus, a very weak word to say that they were looking for a reason to put him to death, and so I was wondering if they decided to ask him about divorce because it was actually a question about divorce that led John the Baptist to his condemnation – if you remember John accused Herod to have stolen his brother Philip’s wife and they got John arrested and killed for this. Would Jesus accuse Herod as well?

Well, Jesus is going to give another kind of response – a response that can be hard for us to hear, not because the words are harsh, but because, as the Pharisees, we can have a tendency to look for rules and definitive answers, and so we don’t hear what Jesus is really saying. As my family and I when I was a child, we only hear in Jesus’ words a condemnation of divorce. Yet, if we know the Jesus who forgave the woman caught in adultery, who never reduced people to their worst sin, who forgave the thief on the cross, we’ll suspect that this is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not giving the scarlet letter to divorced people, and he is not replacing a law, Moses’ law on divorce, by another law even tougher, the law of no divorce at all. Laws are laws, they frame our living together, but as a famous philosopher put it, basically laws are here because man is a wolf to man. What is legal is just the bare minimum we can expect, it is not a guarantee of morality. This is why we have so many debates on death penalty and euthanasia, or the right corporations have to pollute or how fair it is that traders can speculate with our money.

And so I think that Jesus agrees that we need laws to frame our society, but as people of God we have to look beyond what is legal to find what is truly moral, loving and life-giving, because, as Jesus reminds the Pharisees, laws are only there because of our toughness of heart, because man is wolf to man, when Jesus points to another dimension, how it all started when the world was created, how God intended relationships for partnership and joy. At Jesus’s time, divorce was used as an easy way to get rid of your wife when you did not want her anymore – whatever the reason – condemning her to a life of isolation, poverty, sometimes prostitution. This is still true in many parts of the world: a divorced woman has no status and no resources. But as people of God, we have to take care of one another. Basically, what Jesus is saying is: You can’t just get rid of people – this is true for men and women, and not only for marriages, but all kind of relationships, and still today. I heard a new expression recently: “Ghosting people”. It is used to describe the way now people ditch you on line, putting an end to a relationship simply by ignoring your messages, not responding to you anymore – with no warning and no explanation. Well, Jesus tells us: you can’t do that. You can’t ditch people. People are precious and unique. And fragile too.

And I think this is the reason why Jesus puts a little child in the midst of the disciples, to illustrate this truth: You have to take care of the vulnerable ones. It can be a child, it can be a woman who depends on you, it can be the disabled, the poor, the prisoner. You know we live here in DC in a society where a lot of people would define themselves by their relationships meaning: the important people they know. Well, it’s interesting to realize that for Jesus, it’s exactly the other way around: the vulnerable people you’re friends with, that’s the ones who define what’s in your heart and who you are. Do we have friends among the little ones, people with no money, people in jail, people of another race or sexual orientation? Then we may be far from the kingdoms of this world, but we’re not far from the Kingdom of God. We are not defined by our most important relationships, we are defined by the least of these – the most vulnerable our friends, the closer we are to God’s heart.

And so I think this Gospel is much more than Jesus’s teaching about marriage. Using the context of a legal, concrete and precise matter, Jesus gives a lesson to all of us. Not a lesson to shame and condemn, but a lesson to open up and let our hearts be touched. Jesus reminds us that relationships are not first made to be framed and controlled, but to reveal God’s glory.

Now we know that some marriages, as some other kind of relationships, are so broken, they can’t reveal God’s glory anymore, and it’s probably not God’s will we stay in them. I can’t help thinking how I felt for my sister, and since Jesus calls God “our father”, I believe God feels the same way for us when we are caught in abusive relationships. If you have ever married your son, or walked your daughter down the aisle, you probably have wished with all your heart that their marriage would last for ever, not because you wanted your family to have a good reputation, but only because you wanted your children to be happy, you wanted things to work out so your children would not go through all the pain of failed relationships. Well, it is the same for God. God’s intention is for our marriages to succeed, not because God wants us to play by the rules, but because God wants us to be happy, to mirror his glory, to live our relationships to the deepest and to the full. God wanted things to be good from the beginning of creation. Unfortunately, because of our brokenness, things can take a turn for the worst.

This is why I think that when Jesus says that the Pharisees’ understanding of relationships is adulterous, he talks about much more than the technical act of sleeping with somebody, he talks about all the ways we spoil God’s first intent for humankind. In the Bible, adultery is about all the ways in which we are unfaithful to God’s desire, when we use religion, law and people to meet our own needs, to serve our selfish interests. Adultery is not so much about sex than it is about disrespect, violence and abuse of power – exactly what Herod’s was doing when he took the wife of his brother Philip. We talk a lot these days about sexual assault, and it is immoral not so much because of the sexual part, but because it’s violent and an abuse of power too.

Today we will be praying for the healing for bodies, minds and hearts, and as the prayer puts it, the mending of broken relationships. We often hear that marriage is hard work, I don’t know about that, I am not sure anymore we have to make things work no matter what, but for sure, our all our relationships need care and nurturing, a plant cannot bloom if you don’t water it, so we can’t be surprised our relationships get bad if we don’t take care of them before it’s too late. And so today we should ask God to help us to do just that, to pour God’s love in our marriages, families and friendships, in the way we treat each other in our society, because indeed God has intended relationships for our own happiness and to his glory. May we reflect God’s glory as individuals and as a country too. Amen.