Last Sunday of Pentecost – Christ the King

Today is the last Sunday of Pentecost and it’s also known as the feast of Christ the King – which is the reason why I am wearing white, and the reason why we are using white linen on the altar as well. This is the end of our liturgical year, and next Sunday we will start the season of Advent. Not everybody enjoys referring to Christ as a king though, and it’s not only because a lot of people don’t relate to monarchy as a political system. I have a friend who is also a priest who gets very upset with this feast each year because it carries with it an image of God that is, according to her, very “dominant male” oriented. And so, for all those reasons, as we prepared the bulletin, we agreed with Catherine to refer to the feast as the “Reign of Christ” instead of “Christ the King”, the way many churches do now. Yet, if we get nervous when Jesus is referred to as a king, we can see that the Gospel we have just read gives us an understanding of kingship that is very different from the one we have immediately in mind when we generally refer to kingship. In our Gospel, Jesus is standing in front of Pilate after having been arrested and brought to the high priests, his hands are tied and he is waiting to be flogged and condemned to death. We need to know that the feast of Christ the King is actually rather recent and was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to the growing nationalism in Italy and Mussolini’s politics. This passage from the Gospel of John is supposed to embody two different understandings of power: the one claimed by the world, with Pilate, and the one claimed by the church, with Jesus.

This text works indeed as a confrontation, and it is only a short extract of Jesus’s whole interaction with Pilate – an interaction that functions almost like a play. Over the two chapters 18 and 19, Pilate goes back and forth seven times between Jesus held inside the headquarters and the crowd waiting outside with the people and the religious leaders waiting for Jesus’ condemnation. It is very dramatic as we awaits Pilate’s final decision. Sometimes I watch old movies and each time a tragedy happens, I can’t help having a part inside of me kind of hoping that this time, things will turn out differently, although I perfectly know the outcome. You look at the actors and you think; “Don’t do that”, because you know the terrible consequences of their actions. For us Christians, it can be the same feeling when we read the Passion, and maybe you have wondered what would have happened if Pilate had made another decision. If he had decided to release Jesus.

Can you imagine what Christianity would be, if we didn’t have the cross? In John, there is a sense of fate, even if it is divine fate. In his Gospel, John keeps on saying that it was “Jesus’s hour”. Interestingly, I read recently a book by a veteran who explains that on the battle field, soldiers encourage one another by saying their lives are in God’s hands. According to this author, it helps soldiers to cope to believe that the hour of their death is already written. John was very young when Jesus was put to death, and he saw all of it unfold before his eyes, he was at the foot of the cross and saw Jesus’ heart being pierced. It must really have been traumatizing. Maybe there was nothing that could have been done to prevent that, yet we can also wonder: “What if?”. As we see Pilate pacing back and forth from the crowd to Jesus, it his decision that is suspended in the air, and we are all catching our breath. Everything is in Pilate’s hands and he must make up his mind. I can’t help thinking that he could have put Jesus in prison and wait, maybe write to his superiors, ask for advice…But I think that what John wanted to do is to show us Pilate caught with his own conscience. Pilate is lonely and pressured. He seems to believe that Jesus is innocent but he is also very concerned by what people will think of him, by his ability to contain the crowd and to make himself respected. Ironically, he gets so afraid of losing his power that in the end he will cowardly surrender in doing what he does not want to do.

I think we can all recognize ourselves in Pilate. Of course, his experience is one of a kind, but he embodies all our struggles between the loneliness our conscience feels when we must make a decision in spite of the pressure around us, when our desire to please or our desire to stay in control or our desire to preserve our comfort stands in the way of us doing the right thing. We we don’t know what to do and we can’t decide, and like Pilate our mind paces back and forth between possibilities, yet if we are honest with ourselves often we know what to do, it’s just that there is something we don’t want to admit because it bothers us – This is at least my experience. Of course, I was not there the day Jesus was condemned to death but I know that, because I didn’t want to lose my friends at school, I haven’t stood for a few students they used to make fun of. According to Jesus, all we have to do is to witness to the truth but Pilate will ask him: “What’s the truth?”, bringing confusion in a situation that is in fact very clear: the truth is that Jesus is innocent, but it is easier for Pilate to charge him guilty.

Making moral choices is not about getting up early in the morning to go to work or to exercise, sticking to our diet or even to our prayers or not using our neighbor’s parking spot. All those things, this is what nice, healthy or disciplined people do. But this is not what it is about to live as a Christian. Being a Christian is all about the way we treat people, and not so much our friends or family or even people at the other end of the world, it is about how we treat the ones we have in front of us in their powerlessness. Moral life is about how we renounce to our own power to make room for others or how we cling to our power in a destructive way treating others as if they were less than us. I remember this comment I heard once from a woman who was abused by her husband. She said: “When we’re at home, he makes me feel like I am another piece of furniture”. We are not only violent in our acts or in our words, we can be violent in our indifference and in our lack of concern. We have to look at the one standing in front of us, and let our hearts be touched and act according to the truth we believe in that we are all children of the same God and all deserve to be treated well. Kant, who is known as a major philosopher in Ethics, used to summarize all moral rules like this: “Never using another person as a means to an end”. Violence is not about using physical force, sometimes we have to, violence is about using people, diminishing or destroying someone so we can assert our own power. But Jesus shows us another kingdom, another realm than the realm of this world where we try to have dominion over one another: Jesus’ kingship is to renounce all forms of violence once for all. It is in fact interesting that in our Gospel Jesus mentions that his followers won’t fight for him, when in fact he stopped Peter from using his sword towards one of the soldiers who came to arrest him. Jesus does not need any form of coercion, he only invites Pilate to acknowledge what he already knows to be true and to do the right thing he knows he needs to do. But of course, we know what happened. Could Pilate have made another choice, or was everything written from the beginning? We don’t know about that, nobody can tell if Jesus indeed had to die in this terrible way. One thing is sure, is that there can be another end to Pilate’s story, to our stories, because of the forgiveness that is always offered to us. So even if our conscience feel trapped, if we are pressured to do something wrong and if we end up caught in our own mistakes, Jesus’s kingdom is a place where there is always a possibility left to do the right thing whatever bad choices we have previously made. I had fun recently re-reading a book imagining Pilate’s later conversion to Christ. But who knows?

So today is the last Sunday of Pentecost and it’s also known as the feast of Christ the King – which is the reason why I am wearing white, and the reason why we are using white linen on the altar as well. This is the end of our liturgical year, and next Sunday we will start the season of Advent. Not everybody enjoys referring to Christ as a king though, but for me I don’t think of Jesus as carrying any image of God as a dominant and powerful male who rules an army, I think about the king with his hand tied, I think about Jesus’ majesty revealed as he stands in front of Pilate, I think of Jesus’ dignity he kept to the end, in suffering and death – even death on the cross. In a strange reversal of situations, as he clings to power, Pilate becomes powerless, yields to pressure and loses his ability to make decisions, when Jesus as he shows himself so vulnerable seems to be indeed the one in charge of his fate. Even in the worst circumstances, Jesus remains unafraid and free. And that’s why he is the king. May we also, in participating in his kingdom, become unafraid and free. Amen.

Thanksgiving Day

Well, thank you for being with us this morning, especially if you are visiting! I am visiting, actually: I am supplying for Rev Strand as he went out of town for the holiday, so thank you for having me. It’s hard to make time on Thanksgiving Day to go to church, isn’t it? We have just heard in our reading not to worry about food and drink and clothing, and yet, sometimes this is exactly, out of our best intentions, where we can get trapped on this day: we worry making sure that we are ready for our guests and family, that we look good, that there will be enough on the table for everybody, that we have made everything right…The Gospel reminds us not to worry because we are not really in charge of all those things, because every good gift comes from God and we know that’s the very spirit of Thanksgiving: to turn to God to thank God for everything God has given us. And yet, ironically, this part of the holiday can get neglected as we try so much to do our best to make things happen. But this is what worry does: worry can spoil everything and makes us oblivious of what matters most.

Now I don’t think the problem is that God is going to be upset if we miss church or if we forget to say thanks. Jesus shows us God working in the silent process of nature. God gives abundantly and generously, no question asked, no condition given. God is present in everything that has life: if we turn around, if we consider the birds of the air or the lilies of the field, we’ll see God at work everywhere. But the thing is, if we start to worry too much, we take the risk of not being able to see that and to enjoy it. I think that’s why Jesus today asks us not to worry, because what worry can do is to rob us of our joy. It is not only about what can happen when we start overthinking a holiday. Worry can rob us of our joy in many other circumstances: When we start a new relationship, when we get promoted, when we expect a child. First of all, we experience with awe this abundance of new life given to us, but then suddenly we start to worry and the joy is gone. We wonder: Will it be enough? Will I be enough? Do I deserve it? Can I control it? It is hard to give, but it is also hard to receive. And sometimes it’s true, it can be tricky with some people, there can be strings attached. But not so in our relationship with God. Jesus wants us to learn to receive from God with undisturbed hearts. Each time in our lives we experience love, reconciliation, hope, each time we see beauty, each time our plates are full, we experience something of God’s will for us and God’s goodness towards us, and we can turn to God without second thoughts to say thanks and let go of the worry.

Now does it mean that our lives should be lived without a single preoccupation? I don’t think so. The Greek translation of Jesus’ injunction “Not to worry” is actually: “Do not care with anxiety” or “Be not anxiously careful”. So we should not worry, but we still have to care. All of us, we still have something to do. To become beautiful the lilies still have to grow and to be fed the birds still have to look for the seeds. If you have squirrels in your backyard you know how it goes. They don’t seem particularly anxious about their lives, but they are always on the look. Nature is always up to something, even the smallest creatures have to work in a way or another to find their food and to be safe: Spiders make webs and birds build nests. Our God is the God of life and of generosity, but not everything falls from the sky. God is present in the process of nature, in the process of life, freely given and abundant. It’s here, but we are also part of the process when we work, and look for all things necessary to our lives. And so we have to care, but we do not need to be anxious. The promise is that we should not have to fight for those things, we don’t have to become obsessed with providing for our own needs.

So why are we anxious then? Well, it seems pretty obvious. We are anxious because everywhere we see people in need. It’s not only in remote places. It is all around us. And it’s not only because we see that some people cannot buy the fancy things we enjoy, we also see people who don’t have anything to eat or who cannot put clothes on their backs. There are actually plenty of people who lack those things Jesus has promised to us. So maybe we can blame those people for not having enough – if they lack something when Jesus promised us that there is plenty for all, well maybe they aren’t in God’s favor, maybe they have done something wrong. Yet if we think deeper about it the thing is: Jesus does not say first that God will provide in the future if we are good people. Jesus says first that God is already providing, we just have to turn around to look for God and we will see God at work– look at the lilies, look at the birds. There is plenty everywhere for everybody. This is at least how things were intended to be, this is how things are meant to be in nature. Now of course, and this is what we experience, things can be very different in our societies, in the world we build as human beings and in the way we have transformed nature around us – Nature, in those times of climate change, is not always very trustworthy. So what’s going on in the world as we know it?

In all this chapter 6 from Matthew, Jesus denounces the power money has over our lives and how we are concerned with stocking up, accumulating, having more than what we truly need. Jesus does not accuse so much people to worship money, but Jesus notices that we are overly concerned with money, and I think it is helpful to realize that because, indeed, most of us aren’t exceedingly greedy but we are worried, and so we cling to money and we cling to stuff – not so much because we love them, but because we are afraid to lack of something. We are afraid because we don’t see the world from a place of abundance but from a place of scarcity, and for this very reason, we stock up and pile up, but the irony is that as we do that we create the scarcity around us, this scarcity we are so worried about. And so it’s like a vicious circle, you see. The more worried we are, the more we need to make savings, to buy the big house, to fill our closets with food and clothes, and in the process not only do we convince ourselves we never have enough to be safe, but we also fail to share natural resources with others and we push needy people away. This is the saddest thing of all, that we create misery being afraid of misery. Anxiety can be very powerful and powerful for the worst. When Jesus asks us not to worry, it is not only so we ourselves can rejoice, but I think it is also so that all can rejoice and enjoy what God is providing for them, without us getting in their way.

So maybe this is what Thanksgiving is all: it’s not only about us giving our thanks and praise but it’s about creating conditions where all people and creatures can give their thanks and praise. By striving for the kingdom of God and its righteousness (or its justice, as some translations go) maybe we can find again what we have lost in our societies and reach this place of abundance originally found in nature. Today more than ever, we need to learn how to share and to get a better sense of what we truly need day by day. It’s not that we need more stuff, it’s that we need to worry less for our lives. If we stop worrying, Jesus promises us there will be plenty because we’ll be more free and generous. Now, it’s hard to convince ourselves to worry less. Each time somebody asks me if I am not worried about something, I start thinking that maybe I should worry about it! Yet perhaps all we need to do is to increase our ability for joy, a joy that tells us that we have enough, that we are enough. That’s the reason we are here at church: To make room for joy so we can also wish to pass on the joy around us and live together the life God has intended for all of us since the beginning. Amen.

The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

The readings we have heard today remind me of one of the famous tales by Jean de Lafontaine’s…Well, maybe those tales are famous only if you’re French! But Lafontaine used to tell stories where animals and / or elements of the natural world were in conversation, and it seems quite innocent at first, and maybe a little childish, but there is always a moral lesson a bit cleaver to finish with. The story I am thinking about today is a conversation between an oak and a reed, where an oak is boasting about its strength and observes that it can resist the effort of a tempest, when the feeble reed has to bow to the slightest wind. Yet in the end, when the storm arises for good, it’s the oak that is uprooted – we have seen so many of those in the summer, I am sure you can picture that easily – but the reed survives because, as Lafontaine puts it, it “bends and does not break”. So as I was reading those stories of the Bible today, those stories that seem to respond to one another, I thought about this oak and this reed, the sturdy and impressive Temple being the oak, and the sensitive and humble Hannah being the reed. And I thought about strength and what the Bible could teach us about standing firm in the storm, and what it could be for us to “bend and not to break”.

It’s kind of funny and thought-provoking to realize that Jesus is not impressed by the Temple. For all of us to whom religion is important, our buildings are part of our pride, they witness to our history and to our common effort to create something beautiful for our worship. As I work as a supply priest, I almost visit a new church every Sunday, and there is always a story about the building…Jesus, though, reminds his disciples that the most important is elsewhere. As solid as it seems, the Temple they are admiring won’t last for ever – and the reader understands the irony of the situation knowing that indeed the Temple will be destroyed 40 years later. There was this movie I loved when I was teenager – “Working Girl” with Melanie Griffith. A young woman of humble origin works hard to be promoted from secretary to executive, and in the end she succeeds and it’s the last shot of the movie when she gets the corner office in a big firm in Manhattan, yet her office happens to be in one the twin towers, so when you watch the movie now it seems ironic and it tells a completely different story. You think maybe it would have been better if she hadn’t gotten the job…And so yes, when catastrophes happen, we are reminded that all our human edifices can crumble to dust and of course it’s only an image for our dreams and our achievements that get shattered in the process as well.

Jesus reminds his disciples about the unsteadiness of the world, its violence or maybe only its messiness, that makes it hard to rely on any certainty. Like the oak, the Temple is impressive, but it can only go as far as its own sturdiness to resist adversity: when it meets a stronger storm, it’s over. And so, I was thinking, maybe the Gospel tries to tell us that if we don’t want to crumble to the ground, we need to find another way than “hanging in there” and “toughening up” in the midst of difficulties.

This is this other way that the reading from Old Testament seems to open up for us today with the story of Hannah, a story that offers us another perspective on being strong. The story of Hannah is used a lot to do women Bible study because many women who cannot get pregnant can relate to Hannah’s grief. Yet the thing is, the story is about much more than wanting a child. In Hannah’s time, having a child was all a woman’s life was about, so the idea here is also that Hannah felt like her life had no purpose, that she was less than other people. It’s a feeling a lot of us, men and women of all ages, can experience as well. On top of that, we see that Hannah was bullied and misunderstood and that also happens a lot in our own time of doubts and troubles too, we may not be made fun of or persecuted but we also often have to cope with the incomprehension around us when we fail or go through a crisis: People pointing out our shortcomings, like the other wife does in Hannah’s story, people treating us with a tenderness that is a little patronizing, like Hannah’s husband, people telling us to pull ourselves together, like the priest. Yet, with Hannah it’s maybe not so much that she is weak, as most people seem to assume, than it is about her having another kind of strength than the strength of the oak, of the Temple, the strength we are expected to display in this world: sturdiness and impassibility. Instead of opposing and resisting the circumstances, Hannah acknowledges the hardship and her raw emotions, but she accepts the struggle and bring it to God and this is in this process that she finds hope and, in the end, deliverance. She makes me think about the reed that “bend and does not break”.

So what can we learn from Hannah that we could apply to our own difficult times?

Well, first thing I guess we could see Hannah not so much as a weak woman as much as someone who is sensitive and allows sorrow in her heart instead of becoming bitter or tough, and it seems to me a healthy example of Christian life. When there is a storm in our lives, acknowledging the grief and the loss is better than pretending it’s not there and closing our hearts both to pain and to love. My father died when I was fairly young and I was trying hard to keep functioning after his death but I had a lot of anxieties. It helped a lot that one day a friend told me I was not going to break if I allowed myself to feel the pain, and actually that would help me to feel better in the end. She taught me that sorrow does not always defeat us, accepting it is like “bending with the storm” instead of fighting exhausting fights against our feelings. With humility, accepting our limitations, our deceptions, our shames, our traumas, our mistakes is hard but important work because it keeps us real. When we keep pretending everything is okay, we may “power through” difficulties, but we can become distant and empty in the process. The story of Hannah shows us that with God it’s okay not to feel okay.

The second thing we could learn from Hannah is her sense of dignity. To her husband who thinks he can tell her how she is supposed to feel, and to the priest who tells her how she is supposed to behave, she responds by claiming her right to be who she is. Mourning in front of God, she owns her feelings, having a sense of her own value and of what she deserves. With humble courage and persistence, she does not let anyone bring her down. She knows her voice is important. She is neither bitter nor angry, she does not seek revenge, but she wants justice for herself, she wants something that gives sense to her life – and I think we deserve that too. Not because God owes us something but because God created us for fruitfulness, and that’s when we are fruitful that we feel really fulfilled and can fulfill our vocation to others. It’s probably not about building a Temple or getting the corner office, it’s about becoming who we are and expressing it with our skills and sharing our gifts to serve. Bringing a child into the world can have several meanings. Hannah understands fruitfulness – she does not want the child for herself, holding on to it, she offers the child back to God and we know Samuel will become this great prophet who will lead the king and the people. Hannah prefigures the Virgin Mary in the song she sings,