Easter 6

– After Easter, we read from the book of Acts that focuses on what happens for the disciples after the Resurrection. It’s the story of the birth of the church or, as the pastor of my sending parish used to say: “It is the story of the Holy Spirit”. We call it the Acts of Apostles / what the Apostles did but it could be also the “Acts of the Holy Spirit” / How the Holy Spirit acted through the Apostles.

– We can truly see the Spirit at work through Paul in the passage we have today – how Paul was moved by the Spirit. His zeal for the Gospel is amazing. Evangelism literally kept him up at night! Not only it kept him up at night, but it wasn’t a thought he was willing to dismiss when the sun came up. He acted on it, he acted on the intuition / inspiration the Spirit sent him. Paul was willing to cross the sea to go spread the good news. Greece was the other end of the known world!

– I am sure we can all admire Paul’s zeal / have some respect for that but maybe we also wonder what such a story has to say to us today. A lot of us have ambiguous feelings about evangelism, and maybe rightly so. After 2000 years of Christian history, we have to admit the mistakes of the church, and not only its mistakes, but also its sins and sometimes its crimes as we carried on the mission. In the name of bringing the Gospel and making Christians, a lot of abuse of power have been committed. It was not only in the past centuries. I recently read the book “Boy Erased” in which Conley describes how his church sent him to “conversion camp” to “cure” him from his homosexuality and the psychological (as well as the physical) violence he had to endure from his religious mentors.

– And so when we grow more aware that we can be Christians w/o holding universal truths on what to think and what to do, or at least w/o wanting to impose our vision on others, the task of evangelism can be problematic to us. We don’t want to be dismissive of other people’s religious experiences, we don’t want to sound judgmental about their behaviors and most of the time, we simply don’t believe that people will go to hell if they don’t read the Bible and confess their faith in Christ. In our days, its seems that anyone can easily learn about Christianity and we will be happy to answer their questions, but doing what Paul did? Do we really have to go overseas to tell foreigners about Christ, or should we really go and speak to this stranger on the side of the road about our beliefs? We may feel some embarrassment…

– What is interesting though is to realize that actually the disciples wondered about that as well, and were confused about what Jesus expected from them, and how they were to carry the mission after him. The passage we read today from the Gospel is part of this long section in John’s caught between the last supper and the washing of the feet and Jesus’ passion: chapters 13 to 17, also called the Farewell discourses, that summarize Jesus’ teachings. It is Jesus’ legacy if you will. All the things Jesus wanted to say to his disciples and also all the questions they wanted to ask before he leaves them. And what is surprising is that the disciples asked him very concrete and practical questions: In those chapters, Thomas says to Jesus: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?”, Philip says: “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us”, and today, Jude says: “Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” (the question has been cut) – in other terms: Why and how are we to carry the message when you could simply make yourself obvious to everyone?

– Well, to all those questions, Jesus does not respond directly. He asks his disciples to trust, to keep his word, to believe and as of today, he asks them to love him. And to me, this is really a key statement. Jesus, as he prepares himself to leave this world and summarize his teaching and his expectations to his disciples, is simply asking them to love him. There is nothing practical or “results oriented” about that. And it seems to me that when we think about mission or evangelism, we too often think about “The purpose driven life” as Rick Warren put it. Why should we follow Christ, what is it that is going to change, what is the gain for us and how would others benefit from it? To what Jesus responds that it is not about life improvement, it is about being with God through him. Being at home with God and dwelling in God’s love.

– Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to evangelize to tell people what to believe, what to think or how to improve their lives or even to make them better people, he asked them to evangelize so they may have a chance to experience the love of God that was shown through his life. To this, there is no more justification than that. Why do we love our God? For the same reasons that we love our spouses, children and friends. Because it is good to love, because we are made to love and love in itself is the ultimate end. We love because that’s what we are meant to do and even more, love is what we are meant to be. We are not complete on our own. Right? That’s often what we hear from people after they meet someone of have their children: I was not complete without them. And it is true as well with God. In his life, death and Resurrection, Jesus shows us that we cannot be complete, cannot be completely human without God.

– We think about that today as we celebrate “Rogation Days”. Honoring the creation, we remember – and we have just heard it in our psalm – that all creatures are made to praise God, to rejoice in God and to be with God. If we are to be made complete, no one is to be excluded. I know this is not always the way we understand things, especially in Revelation, but when we hear today that “Nothing unclean will enter the Holy city, nor anyone who practices abomination and falsehood”, we should consider it’s not about excluding certain types of people, it is about being freed from the evil that prevents us from living a life of love. We think about Revelation as this time of judgment, when the coming down on earth of the city of God is actually the gathering of all people.

– Again and again, and that’s the sense of the book of Acts, we see the Spirit at work to gather all the people. We know now that the universe is perpetually expanding, but so is the love of God. That’s the sense of the book of Acts and of the Christian mission: reaching out, gathering and reconciling what have been divided: creation, people and God. Because we cannot be complete without one another, and maybe, maybe, we also have to consider that God cannot be complete without us. As I was pondering the why of evangelism, mission and the meaning of Paul’s zeal for the Gospel, a quotation from a Saint sent by a friend came in my inbox. This Saint said: “Sometimes it feels like Jesus cannot be really happy without us”.

– “Sometimes it feels like Jesus cannot be really happy without us”, it may be a surprising thought and yet, in those three chapters of the Gospel, as he prepares to go back to his Father, as he keeps comforting and encouraging his disciples, I started wondering at some point if it wasn’t harder for Jesus to leave his disciples than it was for them to be left, not that Jesus needed them, but because of such a great love he had for them.

– What would it change if we’d really believe that God created us because God chose not to be complete without us, not to be fully satisfied / happy w/o each one of God’s creatures? I wonder how we would think about our lives and what we would think about our church, about people around us, and how we would feel about those who are left on the side of the road. Maybe this is how Paul felt too. He came to Macedonia having this big dream of people pleading him to help them, but in the end he just met a small group of women gathered at the river. Yet he reached out to them, maybe because he felt that Christ could not be completely happy without each one of them.

– Yes, this quotation from this Saint seems surprising, but I think it nails it in the sense that, at least, this how we experience love: When we choose to love someone, we cannot be completely happy without them. When we let someone in, we know that we will never be completely happy without them anymore. We make ourselves vulnerable when we open our hearts. Maybe what we are embarrassed about in evangelism is not so much forcing our convictions or sounding judgmental, maybe the hardest part is this vulnerability, reaching out to others, sharing with them what is really meaningful to us, what makes us feel alive. Because in the end, it’s not about sharing our ideas or our certainties, it is about sharing how we experience God’s love, how we see the Spirit at work in Jesus, in the church, in the world, and it’s about showing love in our lives, in the same way that God’s love was shown in Jesus. People won’t learn about God by reading books or even attending services! We get to know God by the love that we share.

– So today, Jesus invites his disciples and invites us to stop being shy. He said to them, as he says to us again today: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” but open your hearts. Because Jesus’ legacy is that he gave us the greatest power of all, the power to love. And we see that it is all that it takes: Paul opened his heart to Lydia, and Lydia opened her heart to God, her house to Christ’s followers, experiencing literally Jesus’ promise that God will come to make a home with her. Thinking about the church as our home is also the sense of Rogation Day. Maybe inviting people to our church, to be part of our community should not be more intimidating than inviting them to come to our home and share a meal with us, because this is really what being a Christian is all about. Nothing more, but nothing less. Amen.

The Baptism of Brianna and Anastasia

How do we know that somebody loves us? What they say and what they do / Words and gestures.

It has to be both! If somebody tells us they love us but acts mean to us, it is going to be hard to believe! If somebody is very nice to us but never say they love us, we might think we’re nothing special to them, maybe they are just nice to everybody…

We really know when people love us by what they say and do but yet what they do is the most important.

Maybe you have heard adults saying that they go to church to hear “God’s word”. And it is true, we’ve already done plenty of reading from the Bible today (4!), yet at church we don’t only listen to what Jesus had to say. We also remember his gestures, what he did.

The bread and the wine he shared with his friends (every Sunday) / washing the feet (Maundy Thursday) / anointing the sick (first Sunday of the month)/ baptism (Today). Jesus did not baptize but was baptized and told his disciples to baptize. Signs of God’s love and God’s presence with us. Something we can touch and see. So we are sure. Today we hear that Jesus took the children up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

We all need proofs that we are loved, no matter how old we are (at some point we all need a hug!)

Love is really the most important thing in the world. Sometimes life is difficult, we can go through disappointments and sorrows, and we hear around us about wars, people who are hungry or lonely. Most of the difficult things that happen in life comes from the fact that we are selfish, we don’t know how to love. We are unfair, we hurt each other. Jesus came to free us from that, so we can be open to others, generous and strong and overcome the bad things that happen to us, that people do to us or the bad things we have done.

Since love is the most important thing in the world, we have to start learning how to love very early.

This is why there is baptism and why we baptize children. Jesus asked people to let children come to him b/c he knew it is the most important moment in life to receive his love so we can learn how to love from him. People around Jesus and even Jesus’s friends thought that God was serious business so it wasn’t for children…But it is the other way around: Because God is serious business, it is for children! All the things super important for life you learn when you are a child: talk, eat, walk, learn to count and to read, you learn to love, be happy…After we get too busy, we don’t pay attention the same way, our heart is already formed. Like now you need to eat healthy food b/c your body is growing. Same with your heart. Now is the time for you to receive Jesus b/c your heart is being formed and this is what’s in our hearts, even more that in our brains, that guide us through life.

We hear in the Scriptures today: A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

So what is going to happen today?

First, we are going to ask you if you want to believe in Jesus’s love and to follow him. Believing in Jesus’s love means that we believe that not only we are loved but also that we believe that only love can really change the world. A lot of people don’t think love is that important, that it is more important to succeed, to be well-known, to have money, or just to not be in trouble and do whatever they want! When we receive the baptism and become christian, we say we turn away from this way of living to start a new one.

It is just the beginning, of course. We have a life to follow Jesus. Baptism is like moving to a new house / God’s house with God’s family. It is very important to move but then we have our whole life to learn how to live with God and God’s family. that’s why we will also ask you if you commit, with your parents and Godparents, to come to church, to read the Bible, to pray, to help other people etc.

Then you will receive the water on your forehead. In the Bible, when they moved from Egypt (the place where they were slaves) to Israel (the land God gave them) the Hebrews had to cross the waters. They had nowhere to go, they were afraid and attacked by the Egyptians but the sea opened up and they could walk towards God’s land. Water of baptism is a symbol, an image of moving, from one life to another. Starting to live and to think about life differently, when we have nowhere to go, God gives us new possibilities. Water washes us: we let go of what is past and start something new. Sometimes we do things that make us feel dirty inside and sad, like when we say something hurtful to somebody, but Jesus promises us that we can be cleansed whatever happens, even if we don’t think we can talk about what we did to anybody. The water of baptism can clean us from everything.

The Bible says: I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you will be cleansed from your uncleanness.
The ceremony of Baptism shows this is what God does to us always.

Then you receive the anointing (=oil)

Important people where anointed. Like kings. Means we are important to God and we receive God’s spirit. God is not just close to us, God is inside of us. We feel God’s presence and we are inspired to do the things that please God. When we love, we are full of energy…to create things, to give, to help people. Love also makes us strong and courageous. It makes us want to be honest and to tell the truth.

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

Sign of belonging. Stain with oil on your clothes? It is very hard to wash away. It stays. I remember when I was a child, my mother always told me that she didn’t care if my clothes were dirty unless it was (Olive) oil! Of course it is easy to wash away on your skin, it won’t stay on your forehead but it is a sign to say that we belong to God. God washes away everything with water but then we receive the oil that does not go away. Sign that whatever we do we still belong. Like in a family. You can get very mad, fight, but you will always be sisters right? Impossible for you two not to be sisters anymore even if you decide to. We cannot break up with God. God will always love us and welcome us. (Sometimes relationships are difficult in a family but not so with God). In my life, I saw a lot of people coming back to church later in life as if they were at home.

All Christians receive the baptism – there is nothing more to do to become a Christian, it is not complicated, just receive the baptism and God will take from here! Means that we are part of a family, the Christian family. Life can be difficult but we don’t have to be alone. We can be there for one another, to share our sorrows and to rejoice.

Receive the Bread and the wine: share the meal. When you are members of a family you don’t stay in your room while others have dinner. You share the meal. Happy occasion. Jesus is especially present when we share the bread and the wine. It is a great moment to talk to him…

Happy are they who dwell in your house!

Invitation to rejoice today and we rejoice with you, for you and for ourselves and one another, remembering our own baptism…

Good Shepherd Sunday

– Psalm 23. Heard it a lot recently / often picked at funerals and we had a few. Brings consolation and comfort. But it’s good to hear it in another context b/c it is not only for funerals (although the TM for this Sunday is widely about Resurrection). The psalm is also about the way God is with us in everyday life / sense of Providence. We may think about Providence when something very unexpected happens / money appears from nowhere (we had a few of those miracles here) but Providence is also about the goodness that is right in front of us. We often miss it. I typically had this experience this week. I was for a few days at clergy conference in Adamstown and although we had sessions of work, we also had some time off. And I thought: I need to use my time off to do something /write my sermon. Started thinking about the psalm: “enjoying green pastures and still waters” and wondering what could be the deep meaning of these images, suddenly I realized there were just there: green pastures, still waters. I was in the middle of the countryside and God just wanted me to enjoy goodness, not instead of working I guess, but being able to receive God’s goodness so I could do the work.

– God does the work / helps us do the work – We keep busy busy to please God / to do God’s work and we forget to let God please us and to do good to us. Yet, if we don’t let God fill us with good things, we end up tired and feeling empty and in the worst cases burnt out, bitter, addicted. But often we just need to pause and see what’s right in front of us. Green pastures, still waters, a table set before us. That’s what Sunday should be about too. We come to church and even if church business keeps us busy all week and early Sunday morning, when the service starts we need to sit and relax, to take in the beauty and the peace, receive the word and the music, the bread and the wine, enjoy companionship / conversation around a table with coffee and cookies. Listen to some kind of teaching about the Scriptures or practice a spiritual activity…We often think we do something for God at church, we forget God also wants to do something for us. Jesus said he came to serve us…

– And so we need to learn to rest / to receive from God. Rest for us is often collapsing in front of the TV after a busy day or when we find some ways to treat ourselves / reward ourselves with indulging a little bit (or a lot!). But the rest the psalm talks about is the reviving of the soul. It is rest for the soul. It is not about collapsing or getting busy doing something else than work, it is about slowing down and taking the time to find the goodness in front of us, around us, here and now, knowing that God is in charge.

– Which means of course that the psalm and this image of Jesus as the shepherd is not only about rest / not only about comfort if it’s about reviving the soul. Rest is part of it, yet the shepherd does much more than providing / comforting. His job is to guide us / guide us even through dark times. Not only does he provide, comfort, protect but he does so as as he leads us somewhere. I don’t know a lot about shepherding, but I recently learned something interesting: the shepherd’s staff has two ends, there is a crook for drawing the sheep away from danger but there is also a blunt end for prodding them towards places they would not want to go. God’s job is not always about comforting us…sometimes God let us also experience some discomfort b/c God leads us somewhere, towards unfamiliar places. It is not always about grazing, it is about getting somewhere. Nudging us when we get stuck or complacent or a bit lazy. Often crisis happen in our lives when it’s time for us to move to another level. God wants us to grow.

– Yet as God leads us / is in charge, God does not lord it over us – something that can be hard for us to understand. What today’s Gospel may clarify.

– Today, once again, we have a discussion about the true understanding of who the Messiah is / how he saves us and how religious people at Jesus’ time thought about it. And I don’t know what you think but sometimes we may find the Pharisees a bit stupid when they say something, but sometimes it is much easier to relate to them. When they say: “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” – I think we have all been there. Asking Jesus to make himself clear: “Tell me what you want / plan”(and I’ll do it). “If you are the Messiah…certainly you can help me…” The Pharisees wanted to know who was the boss / what God had to say to them. They were looking for authority. At some point, we have to acknowledge that we look for that as well. We want God or somebody sent by God to tell us what to do / who is in charge so we will obey them and won’t be in trouble. But the paradox is that it’s often when we look for authority that we put ourselves in trouble.

  • In politics. When we look for someone to tell us what to do and who will solve all our problems. Happened many times in History – but those leaders are tyrants when they don’t acknowledge the complexity of our issues and the need to debate, they just give orders, they make us feel we’re not smart enough to solve our problems, they work on our fears. Fear of lacking / fear of others / welcoming others and sharing with others (Psalm 23 insists we will lack nothing!). It’s not new! There are a lot of stories about “bad shepherds” in the Prophets.
  • In the same way, we may also look for spiritual authority. Somebody who tells us who God is and what God wants. We trust blindly religious authorities. I am reading the story of Karen Amstrong, a former nun, and how she was broken by her superiors as they kept pretending obeying them was obeying God (Maybe they truly believed it!) Abuse is the abusers’ fault of course, but it also happens when the church and its members close their eyes and ears and surrender their responsibilities.

– And so Jesus will refuse to play that role of being the boss, the one who is right and give orders. Instead, Jesus says he is the companion on our path, helping us, nudging us, comforting us – it’s very different.

To me, it has two main implications:

– First of all: we have to accept to be free. It can seem evident but it is not. Freedom is very desirable but it is also scary: we can make mistakes, fail, hurt ourselves, we have to accept doubts and uncertainties and also responsibility for our choices. Museum of the Bible presents the Bible as a user guide to life “That tells us what to do to become a good person” but the Bible is mostly about people struggling with God, trying to find their way and how God shepherds them. Leads them from a basic / sinful / mortal kind of life to life abundant, joyful and fruitful. Jesus’s resurrection models ours (Cf Acts / Resurrection is given to the disciples) Jesus is the shepherd leading us to life…through our life! Their is no ready made model to apply to that, we figure it out with him as we go!

Jesus helps us change our hearts and we can become the best version of ourselves. Worst things in life: not so much what happens to us but the way we react to it (fear, anguish) we have to go through our broken selves and it can be very dark…God cannot spare that, but walks with us towards our healed and whole selves so we can receive God’s love!

– 2nd point (and consequence): God comes to us not through obedience to authority but through trust. Belonging. We first have to trust not b/c we are compelled but b/c we love, we experience God’s goodness and God’s companionship, God’s humility: Jesus is the shepherd but he is also the lamb (cf Revelation) as he is our companion, he does not fake it – He knows exactly what it is to be us b/c he has been there, he has been powerless on the cross and also at many times during his life. He understands what it is to be one of us / with us. The problem with the Pharisees, those who ask for proofs is that they don’t love Jesus. (It doesn’t mean we cannot question, but we need to do it from a place of trust, not like a trial (what actually religious people will end up doing)). I think that what Jesus tells them is: “You can’t understand who I am b/c you don’t love me” and isn’t it true that we don’t understand people when we don’t love them? We don’t see who they are, what they mean, we are just defensive – The Pharisees are so afraid Jesus is going to lead them in a dangerous place.

– Back to our first point. We can rest / need to rest / rest our souls b/c our first job is to love God or maybe even more: to let ourselves be loved by God: guided, comforted and nudged. As the shepherd, God gathers us together as a community / we walk together to discern his voice. If we let God love us, we’ll love God and then we’ll understand. Do we come at church thinking the most important thing we can do is to let God love us?

Easter Children’s sermon

Resurrection Play Set – The story

Easter morning. After the crucifixion, Jesus was laid in a tomb. Different from the tombs we have here at the cemetery. It was more like a cave, with a big stone in front of the entrance. Mary sees the stone has been removed and so she called the other disciples, Peter and John and they go with her and they look inside the tomb see there is nobody in the tomb! John believes that Jesus rose from the dead as he said he would and they leave…But Mary stays there and she cries, and she cannot stop crying. The angels come to comfort her but she still cries. In the end, Jesus appears to her but she cries so much she cannot see him through her tears. At last he calls her name and she realizes it’s him, and she stops crying right away, she is overjoyed and Jesus tells her he had to go again but this time to be with God who is also her God. And Mary knows that Jesus is alive for ever!

My grand father’s death

Have you ever been to a cemetery? Of course, because we have a cemetery right here! But have you ever been to a funeral? The first time it happened to me, I was 12 years old. My granddad died, he was very old – 69 years old. He died at his home, he had a big house, he had 7 children and 14 grandchildren! When they brought down the casket in the stairs, everybody was crying – not only the children but also adults like in the story. Everybody loved him very much, he was so nice he used to make toasts for his puppy for breakfast and it drove my grandmother crazy. But as I was feeling very sad on the day of the funeral, my Dad told me something I’ll never forget. My dad told me: It would be very sad if we did not have faith, but we have faith and we know that now Granddad is happy. And my Dad said: Think about all the people he is going to see in heavens. How many time has it been since he last saw his Dad, and his Mom? And his own grandparents? And his friends from school? And his son? (My grandparents had lost an adult son)? And all the puppy dogs?

Resurrection: Seeing again the ones we love

I think my Dad taught me something very important about Resurrection on that day – what we hear in the story of the Gospel today. The Resurrection, it is not about scary stories, zombies or ghosts stories of people coming back from the dead, the Resurrection, it is about being reunited to all those we love. Do you hear how adults sometimes speak about death? They say that this person is in heavens now and so she does not suffer any more or she is at rest. And we know there is peace and no suffering even for very sick people after they die, but that’s not the most important. The most important is that in heavens we are all reunited with God and with one another. Jesus says to Mary: I am going to see my God who is also your God. To describe what heavens look like, Jesus used to tell stories all the time about banquets, big family meals. Aren’t you happy when all your family shows up for Christmas or Easter and you all have fun together? Well, that’s what it is to be with God and it is the greatest joy we can imagine, it is the joy we are created for.

There is sadness when we are separated…

But since we are meant to be together, we can also be very sad when we are separated…Have you ever been so sad, so sad that you could not stop crying and it doesn’t matter what people tell you to comfort you, you still can’t help crying? This is what happens to Mary today. She is so sad Jesus has gone she can’t stop crying. It does not matter what the disciples and the angels tell her, she has to see Jesus. We can feel very sad when we lose someone we love, and you know that if you have already lost a grandparent, or a friend or maybe a pet…even a teddy bear you really loved! I lost a cuddly bunny when I was little and my parents wanted to buy me a new one, but I didn’t want a new one, I wanted the one I had lost!! It does not matter what people tell you, when you cry because you miss someone you just want to see this person you miss, right? Well, as Christians we can still be sad when we lose someone, but we also know we are separated only for a little while and we will be reunited again and we can live with hope. Even if life is difficult, we know that Jesus has made things right again and people who are meant to be united are not separated for ever, even if they were very old or if they have done what they had to do on earth and so they’re gone and we don’t see them anymore for now.

Sometimes we lose people not because they’re dead but because we are not friends anymore and it can makes us very unhappy too. Sometimes we cry because people are mean to us and we hurt, or sometimes we have a fight and we don’t speak anymore…Ever happen to you? It happens all the time, even for adults. But when we believe that we are meant to be together and to be reunited, it’s not only with the ones it’s easy to be friends with. It’s with everybody, even the one at school who’s mean to you.

So we try to live now as “Resurrected people”

So as Christians, we try to make a special effort to get along with others, it does not mean we can be friends with everybody like that, but we know that we are all on our way to God so we really try to listen each other, to understand each other, to share our stuff, to ask for forgiveness… We do it not only because it is the “right” thing to do, but because we know that in the end that’s what will make us truly happy, when we can be all together. God’s great meal, it’s not just sitting next to one another not talking because God will make us sit together like students at school who must obey, it’s like sitting at a happy family meal when you see your cousins and you’re so excited you get to do all the things you love with them. That’s what happen when we receive communion: we all have a meal together to remember that’s what is going to happen in heavens with Jesus. Communion is a meal but it is also about being together reconciled.

Now I know you all want to know about the eggs and the bunnies right? For centuries, people have offered to one another chocolate and candy on Easter Day to remember the feast, the delicious meal of God. But the egg is also an image to say that we live a new life. Not only a life that will start in heavens, but a life that can start right now, when we choose to love God instead of rejecting God as some people rejected Jesus, when we choose to be friends like Jesus taught us instead of hurting each other. So now we’re going to have communion and after we’ll go egg hunting!