Epiphany III

The Scriptures today are about…The Scriptures! Reading aloud / Reading in public / as a congregation.
*OT: Ezra brings the book and reads to the people as they gather in Jerusalem after having returned from Exile.
* Gospel: Jesus reads the scroll in the synagogue – He is also coming back home in Nazareth after his experience in the wilderness.

It’s not unlike what we do here every Sunday. We share the Scriptures together, in our “home church”. It is said that the Hebrews were deeply moved, they cried when they heard the Scriptures. In the same way, the people in the synagogue in Nazareth were “amazed” (surprised, troubled, for better of for worse). Scriptures can stir in us many kind of reactions: It can bring comfort or on the other side make us upset.

The Bible should not leave us indifferent because it is about God but it is also about us

Of course, the Bible is about who is God, about God’s love…But the Bible tells a story (The “Law” is actually the 5 books of the Torah/ Five first books our Bible: Story of the covenant and the Story of liberation from Egypt.) The Bible is also the story of Exile with Prophets / Redemption in JC.

It is about what God’s love do for God’s people: Set them free.

In our Gospel today, Isaiah is strangely quoted. Luke puts an emphasis on the liberation part because this is what it is really about. Year of Jubilee: When the slaves were set free.
In Jesus, it’s the continuation of the promise, the fulfillment of the Scriptures – with liberation.

Liberation from what? From very concrete things: Oppression, injustices. Liberation from jail (Joseph, Peter), from being slaves (Exodus) from captivity in a foreign land (Exile)…But all of that is the material, part is like the top of the iceberg, the visible part of a deeper spiritual reality: We are captives. We need liberation from our sins, our pain, our diseases, our addictions and anxieties, our doubts or maybe we need to be liberated from our certainties, our prejudices.

What do we need to be liberated from? What would it change in our lives? In the world?

– Jesus’s statement understood as the church’s statement. Good reminder since this Sunday is for most churches Annual meeting Sunday. When Jesus says he is bringing liberation, it reminds us that Church is not only about the building (and the issues we may have with it!). The church is not only about the (different) ways we worship. This week is the week of prayers for the unity of Christians… Maybe we can agree that what matters the most in church is our love for Christ and how we carry Christ’s mission / what we actually do for others (MLK), how we bring them liberation.

And so reading Scriptures is transformative: They move us “inside” because they try to move us from the places where we are stuck… They should lead us to question, to change, to act.

Jesus reminds us in the Gospel that it is about doing / participating. When Jesus says that the Scriptures have been “Fulfilled in your hearing”, he does not necessarily mean: “I am the Messiah” (Some passages of the Gospel show that Jesus tried to avoid this kind of publicity). Maybe he says that we are invited to get it done, and he saw himself as called to do it, as directly concerned by the Scriptures. (When some of the Jews at Jesus’s time were dreaming of a Messiah to fix things for them)

What about us? Do we think that it is “on us”? That we need to “fulfill the Scriptures”?

So, concretely, how do we receive and bring liberation? Can take many different forms but this is my experience this week: If Jesus asks us to bring liberation, visiting prison is part of the things I try to do…Difficult for me to make abstraction of surroundings: walls / locks / uniforms / guns…It makes me feel very powerless b/c maybe the lawyer bring actual freedom from the cell but what kind of liberation could I bring as a Christian?

This week I just sat as I attended a painting workshop. Coloring and painting together with the inmates, a small group of women, we talked about our every day lives: Children, pets, clothes, celebrities…At some point, I realized I didn’t see the walls anymore and felt no more anxiety at all. I think we “forgot” where we were.

As I thought about this experience, I think we had a sense of liberation because of mutual connection. And I think this what Paul is talking about with the image of the body. Isolation makes us sick (psychologically) in different ways, we cannot “function” being isolated, the same way members cannot “function” when they are not connected to the body. But when we are together, we are made whole. We are set free from anxieties, fears, the prison of our own minds and hearts.

The image of the body for the Christian community is a very strong image. An eye cannot be an eye without a body / just a piece of flesh with no function and no life. But it’s not only about function, what we are able to do, the work, it is also about sensitivity: we feel deeply when we are connected. Share pain and joy together. When we don’t share the pain and the joy, life loses all its meaning.

God really created us for one another, as God created each member for the body.

Paul reminds us of our inter-dependence on one another: we rediscover that with ecology / example of Yellowstone: When the wolves were reintroduced in the National Park, it changed the whole ecosystem and even the physical geography. Each one of us has a role and a function for the benefit and the enjoyment of all.

Paradox / Mystery: As we participate in our community, we become better, more fulfilled individuals. We become truly who we are. Each one of us must have something to do and empowered to do it well. Each one of us has a unique place according to their gifts. In the EC, we are “welcome” but more than welcome, we need to be “needed” / to have a part to play. We “liberate” our gifts / our skills / discover and give the best of who we are in serving our community. In the church, there is not one person to “do it all” or one the other side one person to “sit down and enjoy the show”.

Think about the ways we can serve / be connected to each other in ways that “liberate” bring joy and fulfillment to each members and to the whole community…

Martin Luther King

Once in a while, we find ourselves confronted with difficult readings on a Sunday. This is certainly the case today, as we have just heard this Gospel where Jesus commands his disciples, and therefore commands us, to: “Love [our] enemies, do good to those who hate [us], bless those who curse [us], pray for those who abuse [us]”.

It is a difficult Gospel for two main reasons:

– First of all, it’s not natural. As Jesus notices, we love our friends and those who do good to us. Love thrives in a circle of giving and receiving that increases mutual affection on both ends.

– But thinking about it, it is not the first time Jesus asks something “supernatural” of us so we might be able to fully grow into disciples: Leave your family, sell your possessions, be ready for persecutions

– What makes this Gospel very difficult is that we know that love for the enemies can be dangerous, individually and as a nation: Should we leave the criminals unpunished? Not respond in case of military aggression? Let people hit us / hurt us?

Is this Gospel an invitation to maintain abusive relationships?

We know about cases of love for the enemies / for those who harm us that exist in human relationships, especially true for women and children (does not mean it does not happen to grown men as well): By a sort of a complicated coping strategy, we can get attached sentimentally or even romantically to those who hurt us: Family members, lovers, friends. Because they hurt us, we think we have done something wrong and so we try to “repair” by pleasing/ loving them even more, but of course the only thing that happens is that we only get hurt again and again. Ever been in that kind of dynamic?

So for all those reasons, when we have a text that promotes the “love for the enemies” and moreover a text understood as the word of God, we really need to be careful because it can lead to dangerous conclusions.

So how can we understand it?

Well, I was taught in school that when confronted to a difficult text there are different ways to deal with that: You can try to understand the culture of the time, you can try to look at the circumstances in which those words have been spoken, you can look up different translations, you can try to find other passages that would bring some perspective to the difficult one and so on…All of those tools to help us to make sense of the difficulties. I used to do flash cards about them, until I had a teacher who told us that the first thing we have to do to understand the Gospel is to understand how Jesus interpreted his words in his own life.

First thing we have to do is to understand how Jesus interpreted what he said with his own life / because when he calls us to be disciples he also calls us to play out, to interpret the Gospel with our own lives and so it can also be helpful to see how all those who have followed Jesus throughout the ages have themselves played out the Gospel with their own lives and, for this reason, I could not be more thankful that today we are invited to understand how MLK interpreted this Gospel with his own life.

The love for the enemies was a central Gospel in the life of MLK. He said he tried to preach this Gospel at least once a year and he would go back to his sermon over and over to bring more depths and perspective based on what he lived personally and in his ministry. And when we look at MLK we certainly don’t see somebody who was shy or weak or who thought you should not stand up for yourself and accept abusive situations! Quite the opposite, MLK is actually well known and beloved because he consecrated all his life fighting for civil rights, end racism and discrimination and bring social justice! Like Jesus, MLK was not afraid of anybody, he was never resigned, he resisted and he said exactly what he had to say to whomever he had to say it! And still, MLK told us over and over in his sermon that he did all of this in the love of his enemies and even more, out of love for his enemies, to redeem his enemies – which is a great mystery.

To explore that, maybe we need to have a look at the OT, and this passage where God calls Moses to deliver the people who are enslaved in Egypt. If you know the book of Exodus, you know that Moses, although a Hebrew, was raised in the house of Pharaoh and so he comes to discover later in life what’s going on with his people and how they are treated. It enrages him so much, that he kills the first taskmaster he sees mistreating one of his people. But then he gets afraid and flees to Midian, where he starts to live a simple life and it is much, much later that God calls him to go back to Egypt to set the people free.

Well, I think this lapse of time is about Moses’ transformation from the natural way of revenge / reciprocated violence to the love for the enemies, when he is finally able to let go of violence and instead talk with Pharaoh and stand firm in front of him. We are able to hear God and we are good leaders for the people when we renounce the cycle of violence. [Violence is not using force (to protect) it is using force to hurt and destroy] MLK said violence does not solve anything. “Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate.”

The non violent person, far from being weak, is actually the strongest one. More than that, when you renounce violence, it makes you a man or a woman of God. You cannot do nothing for God out of hate. We can be angry. Jesus was angry sometimes. MLK was angry. But they were not hateful.

We are called to persevere in the way of love – Turn the other cheek – it’s not about letting people hit us, it is about not responding to an insult by another insult. Basically what Jesus tells us about our enemies: Do not imitate them, do not let their ways be your ways, do not let them turn you into someone else. We talked these past weeks of Jesus being a child of God (Christmas) and then us becoming children (baptism) now it’s about persevering in being a child of God by keeping on loving. Besides, as bad as people can be, MLK reminds us that they too are children of God and we have to love them for that.

The good news is that this love Jesus talks about is about doing, not about how we feel, whether we genuinely can’t stand our enemies or whether we are unhealthily attached to them. Maybe we think: Well, I can’t help feeling what I feel. Maybe we can’t, but the kind of love Jesus is talking about is not about feelings, it is about what we do and we can control what we do. MLK tells us that Jesus does not ask us to like our enemies, to be attached to them, but loving is to do what is right. And it is not only by not hitting back, but it is also by positive actions, like in showing/ telling our enemies how they wrong us. How they need to change.

And it is only when we renounce violence that we can communicate that. In doing so, we can redeem bad people. I was amazed to discover that MLK said that his ministry was as much about defending African American’s rights than it was about converting white people. He loved his people so much that he wanted freedom for them but he also loved white people so much he wanted them to turn back to God. True freedom is about social justice and equal rights, but more deeply it is about freedom from sin and finding or maintaining the ability to love.

Love for the enemies: Hardest love but maybe the deepest. Love that points out to another dimension. I visited MLK museum in Memphis and it was very touching to enter his room in the Motel where he was assassinated. And I thought when I left: this is tragic but strangely it does not bring you down. As Jesus’s death. It does not give you a sense that MLK’s enemies won in the end. Even if MLK was killed, his enemies were defeated by the beauty and meaningfulness of his life and by all the hope he brought to the people. I love it that we remember MLK during the Epiphany season / the season of the light because his life was about bringing light to the people. It makes us want to have a life as rich and meaningful. It points towards something that is more important than death/ beyond death.

This week: Not trying to have positive feelings for those who hurt us but how could we do good / bless / pray for them in the way Jesus and MLK showed us?

Read MLK’s sermon: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church

The Baptism of our Lord

Today is the Baptism of the Lord: One of those very few passages of the Gospel (with the multiplication of the bread and the passion) that we find in each Gospel: Mark, Matthew, John and today’s version, Luke. So we know that it’s very important. Important when the Gospel was written/ to the early church: Eucharist, baptism and the cross.
But what is it that is really central?
I like Luke’s version because we have very few details so it’s more focused.

The only thing we know is, as Jesus was praying, recollecting the event of the baptism / the heavens opens up and he hears this voice: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”. And so, this is the center, you see.

If you open your BCP on p.304/305, you’ll find what we call the “Baptismal Covenant” – Our commitments or “What baptism is about”:

  • To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
  • To persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
  • To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
  • To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
  • To strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

The first time I did a baptism the Rector had to explain to me that it was actually what the ministries of the church were about, I had never realized that before:
Worship, Christian education, Evangelism, Pastoral care and Outreach.

All of that is true and important yet, for Luke this is not the center. There is no baptismal covenant in the Gospel or better, there is only one: “You are my child, you are beloved, with you I am well pleased / I rejoice” or my favorite translation: “In you I put all my love”.

And this it you know. Before breaking the bread, or resisting evil, or proclaiming the word or striving for justice, we are called to live the life of the Beloved. Jesus was baptized with all other people, and so the message is for every one of us. Christmas’ season has just ended. God’s child came into the world and what we learn now is that we are called to be children too / to let ourselves be adopted by God: That’s what baptism is all about. Saying yes to God and letting God come into our lives. Letting ourselves be loved by God.

What does it mean? I don’t know but…my experience reading this beautiful poem of Isaiah is that it’s almost overwhelming to hear those words of love, almost embarrassing. How difficult to make it our own, to accept being loved this way by God. It is difficult to let ourselves loved by God because it is difficult to love ourselves / to accept ourselves. We have those voices inside putting us down. Yes, we all want to be loved, we often try very hard to be accepted but we feel in our hearts that we are not so lovable.

It could be the entire task of our Christian lives to accept to be loved. We hear a lot about being able to “love oneself” today, but being Christian is more about accepting to be loved because most of the time, we don’t like what we see in us and we’re afraid God or people would see it. Curtis/Eldredge: “Most people live with the subtle dread that one day they will be discovered for who they are and the world will be appalled”.

Henri J. M. Nouwen: “As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” My dark side says, “I am no good, I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned”. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” It prevents us from living a life of love. Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

Baptism is about connecting with our true identity. True identity is not sinners. God does not want us in spite of our sinfulness or because he loves sinners. God wants us because we are beautiful and desirable. Our true identity is our beauty and bounty. Sin is our inability to see who we truly are. But God sees who we truly are. Maybe when you know that if you love somebody not so lovable by other people. You love your child in prison, the parent who abandoned you, the spouse who cheats because you still see their true beauty, you see who they used to be or who they could become.

Michelangelo said: “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” God sees us as Michelangelo saw the marble. He sees the sculpture in the marble and so do we when we really love somebody. We see people as they are from and for all eternity: Beautiful, desirable and good. As were the “ordinary people” lining up on that day being baptized with Jesus. That’s when the heavens open and we let God come close to do God’s work inside of us.

And so God does the chiseling. The sacrament makes baptism very “domesticated”. But it’s more than pouring water on your head, it’s nearly drowning and being raised from the waters. What John says about baptism expands the sacrament from what we do at church to our whole life. Life as Christian is a baptism.

We are being created, becoming who we truly are. Isaiah: “I have created you” and God creates us as we cross the waters and the fire (Symbols of the baptism). It takes our whole life to be baptized, life is the actual baptism and God does the chiseling. Jesus calls his own passion, suffering and death “his baptism”. On the cross from Jesus of Nazareth, the rabbi, the prophet, the teacher, he is revealed as the Christ. Maybe it would help us through our trials to remember with Isaiah that God is with us and works on us. God is redeeming us / Giving a ransom for us / bringing us back from the pain and brokenness of the world. God will do something beautiful.

Being the beloved is experienced by Jesus in prayer: We need to be connected to the source of love. That’s what we do on Sunday. We plug our phones at night to have enough battery during the day / on Sunday we plug our hearts to the heart of God and get energy to go through the week. Water of baptism: God as the source of life and love. We are called to become the source too. From us can flow the love of God and the different ministries of the church: evangelism, pastoral care etc. “In you I have put all my love”: It means: We have the love of God inside of us. The love that created the world, the stars, the volcanoes , the seas! (Cf Psalm and all what the voice of God can do…)

What do we do with this love God poured inside of us?