Pentecost 2

– This morning we have just heard a famous story from the OT, featuring the prophet Elijah, fleeing from his enemies in the wilderness. We see Elijah afraid and weary, seeking for shelter and help, and finding comfort in unexpected ways: an angel coming to bring him something to eat and to drink so he might be on his way, and then God in person finding Elijah in a cave…a God not met in the wind, earthquake or fire but in a “sound of sheer silence” (Something we want to remember, after all the storms we’ve had recently!) and then God talks with Elijah and sends him back on his mission. And so we have here a story of human discouragement and divine encouragement – a beautiful and touching story we all know well and enjoy. Yet, if we pay attention to the first lines of our text, we may also see a bigger story, a more disturbing story maybe but also a richer story about what’s going on with Elijah. And I would like to unpack that a little bit with you today.

– Elijah, we read at the beginning of our passage, is fleeing from the Queen Jezebel after having killed her prophets, who worshiped the God Baal. In the previous chapter, we learn that the men were about 400, caught by the people of Israel after they offered their sacrifices, it is said that Elijah himself came down in the valley to cut their throats, as a retribution for all the prophets of God who have been killed before. A real bloodbath.

Knowing that, I wonder what’s really happening to Elijah in our story, and if there is not more going on than mere fatigue and discouragement, as we generally assume. I wonder if Elijah is not just seized by the horror of the war, the violence he has witnessed and the violence he has participated in. The text tells us actually that he sat down under a solitary tree and asked that he might die. He says to God: “O Lord, take away my life, for I am not better than my ancestors”. Those words jumped at me because I read recently a book written by David Peters, a priest who is an army chaplain and served in Iraq, and he talks about the trauma of violence and war, and part of the trauma, he says, is to discover that you are not better than other people, not better than those of your friends who have died before you, but, even worse, you may also realize that you are not even better than the people you have just killed. Peters says that we go to war because we see our enemies as a threat, we think of them as violent and dangerous, but on the battlefield we may suddenly discover ourselves as violent and dangerous too. At any rate, some end up feeling so guilty and scared that they feel they don’t deserve to live anymore.

– It seems indeed that Elijah is going through much more than a simple meltdown due to discouragement, he actually presents symptoms of trauma: He seems lost and has depression (he does not want to feed himself and wishes only to sleep and die), he feels utterly lonely and seems to have lost his faith in God, or at least his faith in the God of life. Elijah expects to find God in storm, fire and earthquake – in all things violent – but he’ll have to learn anew how to relate to God coming to visit him in silence and gentleness. Peters’ main claim is that violence, inflicted or endured, as we discover either that we are not safe for others or experience that we have no safety in the world, can destroy our sense of self, our ability to relate to others and also our ability to relate to God. And so to me, the story of Elijah is not a story about how God can cheer us up when we have a bad day, more deeply, it is a story of recovery, healing and a story of resurrection, of finding new life when you “have been to hell and back” as Peter puts it, when you have experienced the depths of terror and despair. As we acknowledge that, we can notice the deep connection of this story to the Gospel we’ve heard today.

– This Gospel is probably not a favorite passage: A man wearing no clothes, wandering in a cemetery, shouting and hurting himself, breaking his chains and shackles. It sounds like a horror movie. What’s going on with this man? Certainly some kind of mental illness, but more precisely, it could also be trauma due to war violence. He calls himself “Legion” which clearly points to the Roman military power, and the geographical area of Gerasenes is known to have been a battlefield. We can’t know for sure of course, but what is obvious is that the man has lost his sense of self, his connection to his community and his faith in God: He is afraid when he sees Jesus and feels inhabited by many demons. He hides in a cemetery probably because he can’t get rid of images of violence and death – or maybe he does not want to live anymore.

– And so the Scriptures confront us to difficult problems, yet those problems are very real for us. Yesterday was Refugees Day, a day dedicated to think about the ways we can welcome those who are going through the traumas of wars, genocides and exile, and so for us as Christians it’s important to learn what the Bible has to say for those who have experienced violence in a way or another, whether physical our psychological. How can God bring healing to those suffering from trauma and how can we be witnesses of the power of God’s grace by being a safe community for those people?

1 – What we learn from the Scriptures is that the first step is to help people reconnect to self and identity. We see that Jesus understands that it does not work to just restrain the man or to shout at him to get him back to his senses. Jesus engages the conversation. I heard recently a cancer patient saying: We are not problems to be solved, we are people to be loved. That’s true with all those who are suffering. We first need to hear them, to listen to their stories even if the stories are painful to hear. We see that the man is sitting at Jesus’s feet and this assumption is that he is listening to Jesus, but I like to think that Jesus is listening to him too. Jesus asks the man his name. We see that the man can only define himself by his afflictions, he has to go back deeper to remember who he used to be. He is not “Legion”, he is more than the trauma. Jesus reminds us that in God’s sight, we are always more than what we did, more than what was done to us and more than what others made us do. This is what Paul tells us in Galatians. Our identity is to be found in Christ, not in our social status, our gender or our race or what we have experienced. Paul says we have to be “clothed in Christ” and indeed it is said in the Gospel that the man is now “fully clothed” once he is healed by Jesus!

2 – Then the Scriptures tell us that people need to be reconnected to their communities. Jesus is not afraid of the man when all the village rejects him. The demons are made fun of in our Gospel, they end up in pigs and then over the cliff, because the demons aren’t the problem, the problem is that there are people left alone with their suffering. We say that “Jesus spent his life engaging people we spend out lives avoiding”, isn’t it the truth! As a community of faith, we need to make room for all kind of people. That’s why so many Christians go to visit prisoners, engage with homeless or welcome refugees. The people of the village are upset when Jesus heals the man because they have to admit he is one of them and not a demon. In our world, we don’t believe in demons anymore, but we believe there are people who are “monsters” or who deserve the bad things that happen to them and it can be very convenient to believe so! But if we are repentant enough to acknowledge that we are all both hurt and capable of hurting others, then it’s easier to see everyone else as brothers and sisters.

According to Peters, recovery from trauma must happen through reconciliation and it’s only by not losing sight of our common humanity that we can be reconciled. It does not mean we don’t have to seek for justice. But we need to seek for justice from a place of forgiveness. If we do it out of hate, then it’s just revenge and the cycle of violence never ends and there is no healing.

3 – And so finally, when experiencing trauma, we may also need to find reconciliation with God. Either we need to be forgiven for what we did, or we need to forgive God for what happened to us. This is the time when we can experience God not in profound theological conversation, but like Elijah, in simple things: the comfort of a meal offered by the angels God sends us, the bread and the wine at the altar, listening to the Scriptures at the feet of Jesus, praying, like in our psalm, about the heaviness of our own soul. Little by little, we may be able to hear again God’s voice in the “sound of sheer silence”. It can be a long a process and we need time to heal as God puts us back together. Yet in this, as we experience the depths of human suffering, we may become deeper and more soulful people, not just contented with banalities about God and about life, not seeing God as the one who can pat us on the back on a bad day, but knowing a God who visits our deepest wounds and know our darkest thoughts. “One deep calls to another” says the psalm. The depths of our pain can become the depths filled with God.

As a conclusion, I would say that I love it to see that in our stories, the two men aren’t just back to normal. They are sent as prophets. Elijah to anoint the new king and the man in the Gospel to tell the wonders of God to his community. Those who have been “to hell and back” are not people to be pitied, or even just supported, they can also be powerful witnesses, testifying that new life is possible – and that is the center of our faith, faith in Resurrection, faith is the power of God whatever we’re going through. Amen.

Trinity Sunday

I watched a movie this week on the theme “Girl meets boy” and the movie starts with the girl talking to the boy she meets for the first time and she says to him that once a friend musician told her: Don’t ask me to talk about music, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Meaning: There is nothing in common between words and music. Only music has something to say about music. And the girl says to the boy: Well, don’t ask me to talk to you about love, talking about love is like dancing about architecture. Meaning: only love can know what love is, only in loving you will find out what love is all about. You have to be on the journey.

As I heard this dialogue, I thought it might not be a bad place to start a sermon on Trinity Sunday, this day when we are invited to contemplate God’s being. And I want to say: Well, don’t ask me to talk about the Trinity because talking about the Trinity would be like dancing about architecture. It’s not that I would need a more complex vocabulary or more theological knowledge, and then I would be able to talk about the Trinity, as if the concept of God was just a little beyond our grasp but maybe by building words upon words like a grammatical tower of Babel we could finally understand the Trinity. No. Talking about the Trinity would be like dancing about architecture. Because it’s like music. You have to play the music to know what music is all about. Only in loving, you will learn how to love. In the same way, only in being on a journey with God, you will get to know who God is. A famous theologian says: I can say that I am a Trinitarian because that term describes my experience of God. The Father element of the Trinity means the experience of God as anEternal Other that is beyond anything I can imagine. The Spirit means the experience of God as an internal reality that is deep within me and inseparable from my humanity. The Son means the experience of God made manifest in a particular life. The Trinity is not a description of my God then, but of my God experience (…) My experience of God and God aren’t the same. God is not beyond my ability to experience, but the nature of God is beyond my ability to describe.

1- We cannot use words to describe who God is, but maybe we can use words to describe our experience of God and what we discover about God is that God is on a journey with us, and maybe that’s the first meaning of the Trinity: Yes, God is beyond our grasp, yet we can still experience God inside of us as Spirit, and we can recognize God in the person of Jesus. Our belief in the Trinity means that an unknowable God comes to us and communicate with us. I love this reading from the book of Proverbs because it says so much about this God we believe in. We don’t always realize how counter intuitive this is, that wisdom would come to us, that wisdom would be out there at the crossroads, at the gates, seeking us and calling us out almost like an easy woman – if you noticed the irony. Still today, but even more so in ancient times, wisdom was portrayed as a difficult woman you had to conquer and to be worthy of.

Philosophers used to think you had to live a very virtuous and intellectual life to find wisdom and then maybe at some point, when you are very old, you would be able to come closer to God.

Yet, here in the Bible we have this idea that God offers God’s closeness, God literally goes out of God’s way, goes on our ways to bring us closer to God. And we know this is how John’s Gospel understands who Jesus was: In Jesus, God poured all of God’s wisdom, God poured in Jesus all of God’s intelligence, all of God’s love and literally came out there at the crossroads, at the gates, calling us out.

This openness and seeking out is whom we understand God to be. We don’t believe in a God high above in the heavens, although we also believe that God is high above in the heavens, but we believe, as Ste Teresa said once, in a God who is big enough to become incredibly small, the host that fits in the palm of our hands every Sunday morning. We heard Jesus say last week to Philip: If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. They are one, although Jesus said “The Father is greater than I am” they are the same, share exactly the same nature. If you want to see some water, it does not matter if you see the ocean, a pond, or even a drop of rain. The drop of rain is as fully water as the ocean is. If you see Jesus, well, you have seen God – you have seen God because Jesus loves as the Father loves, loves the Father as the Father loves him and this outpouring of love whom we call the Holy Spirit seeks to include each one of us.

2 – And that’s the second point of our experience of the Trinity: God was fully revealed in our humanity, not only showing God out of the mere desire to be seen, but God acted in Jesus whom came on earth not to say hello, but “to die for us”, came to inhabit all the dark places where we lose ourselves in rejection, loneliness, and even despair, so that neither sin or death could ever separate us from God. God comes to us and takes us back into God’s being. Before he leaves this world, in the Gospel we hear today, Jesus promises his disciples that God’s spirit will keep glorifying him, make Jesus known, make the disciples understand his teachings and how God is present. Although Jesus is not present in his physical body, by reading the Gospel, receiving the sacraments and saying Jesus’s name when we’re praying, God continues to come close and make us share in God’s life, we are on the journey. Even if the journey is full of trials and filled with confusion, God will work through it. I think this is what Paul wants to say to us today, that, although we lament our trials, God works well through the adversity we encounter in our lives, God works well through our suffering. That’s when God reveals God to us. We may instinctively back off on hearing that because so much of bad Christian literature has been written about how God wanted us to suffer to teach us something. But I think it’s more about the suffering that is inevitable and maybe what we call suffering is those places God sees first as poverty and vulnerability, when we experience simplicity, honesty, humility and trust. In those places, we are brought closer to God because this is exactly where God is and who God is. Jesus wasn’t like an eccentric billionaire in disguise, a wealthy God pretending to be poor. Jesus was poor because this who God genuinely is: contented with very little and at home everywhere. When we are ourselves with God, God can be more totally with us. And this is very good because actually God delights in humanity.

3 – This, and it will be my last point, is maybe the most important in our experience of the Trinity. Who are we that God would seek us out asks the psalm? We are called to dwell in God but even before we were called to dwell in God, God came to dwell in us, and for this reason there is a dignity to human beings we need to be reminded of when we hear so many negative messages today about how human beings are stupid, cruel and vain. What God has to say about us is that God sees us as so worthy that God decided to dwell in us for eternity in the person of Jesus Christ. It calls us to act with so much respect – respect of others but also self respect. There is something of the divine in each one of us, and actually to be really humane, we may have to be divine. That’s probably what we mean when we say about a behavior that’s it’s “inhumane”. Only humans can be called inhumane, animals don’t behave in inhumane ways. What we mean by that is that as humans we have to do better than just human nature, to be human is defined in the dictionary as the ability to show compassion. Well, compassion this is what God is all about and it may be the meaning of Trinity, of a God who came to suffer with us and bring us back. Muslims also know that who always call God The merciful one. God has so much compassion that God does not just only spare us, but makes room for us, not merely by withdrawing from creation (as we often believe) but much more deeply make room in God’s own being. That’s what you do when you love someone, right? You just don’t make room for them in your life. You make room for them in your own heart, you give something of yourself. The Trinity means that God’s essence is to be self giving, and the wonder is that, like God, we cannot be whole without being self giving, without getting out of our way to be with those who aren’t like us. Only in loving as God loves us can we get to know God – this is our Christian journey. Amen.


– When do you think the church started? At the birth of Jesus? When he was baptized in the Jordan and called the disciples? At the Resurrection? Well, actually, we use to consider Pentecost as the day the church started. When the Apostles were gathered in the house – 50 days after Jesus’ Resurrection – when they received the Holy Spirit and started going out, speaking in different tongues to all kind of people, proclaiming the good news of Jesus-Christ. We sometimes call the feast of the Pentecost the “birthday” of the church. Until this day, the disciples had been following Jesus, trying to gain insights from his teaching, make sense of his life, death and Resurrection, but on that day – as Jesus had promised – the Holy Spirit was sent to them that gave them a clear understanding of what God did in Jesus’ life, and this sudden realization irresistibly led them to testify / to proclaim.

It’s important to look at our History because it helps us understand who we are. A lot of people here in the US try to find their ancestors by making their family trees, looking up archives, sometimes they even have their DNA tested. When we know where we come from, it often helps us figure who we are and who we are called to be. It is the same for us Christians when we look at the History of the church. We are reminded what the church is about, what God wants it to be from the beginning. What is very clear from our passage, and what I would like us to reflect on today, is that the church is not a building, maybe not even a community, but first of all it is a movement outwards. From the house to the streets, the market place and the world. From the disciples to the foreigners and the newcomers and those who have never heard of Jesus. The church is a movement outwards. The church is, paradoxically, not made for believers but for people who are outside the church.

– We have to think about that because it goes so much against our human instincts / aspirations. We generally like it better to keep to ourselves, and we have a clear illustration of that in the famous story of the tower of Babel. We usually don’t understand very well this story so it’s good to hear it again today. We often assume that it is about people who wanted to build this great building to defy God, to make themselves as high above the earth as God, but then what happened was that God was not happy about that and so God confused people’s speech to send them back to the ground. Yet, if we listen closer to the story, we realize that it is much less about competition with God than about people wrapped up on themselves, choosing to defend themselves against the rest of the world, and claiming an identity that has much more to do with uniformity than unity.

– We read that the people in the story: “had one language and the same words”. I think it says a lot about their way of living, because language is indeed much more than just words (You know that probably if you speak a foreign tongue). Language is a culture, a way of seeing the world and understanding things. We don’t see reality in the same way based on where we come from. For this reason, languages are not only tongues. Languages are the way we express ourselves: it can be a form of art for example: Painting, poetry, music. And for each one of these languages, there are multiple dialects: church music, jazz, pop songs and so on. And so what the story of Babel tells us is that the world as God wants it is unbelievable rich, dynamic and creative, but men and women were afraid of this diversity and they just wanted to keep to themselves, to protect themselves and have dominion over the world instead of trying to understand the world and participate in it.

Their quest for uniformity is really something we can see at work in every totalitarianism. Each dictatorship teaches that people have to be the same (Based on race, social class…) when God wants all people to be different and enjoy different gifts. At Babel, people wanted to stop the movement of life, set it in stone, but by ignoring what life was really about, they were actually building a prison for themselves. Don’t we see that sometimes around us – People building their own prisons? Contractors tear down perfectly nice little housing to build big houses that forever belong to the banks because those who try to buy them never manage to pay off their loans and spend their lives working like crazy, while their houses remain empty because they end up not having enough money to buy furniture and not enough time to invite their friends? Sometimes we do the same with our churches as well. Buildings take up all our finances, our attention, our worries…and there is not so much energy left for God and our neighbors.

– Of course, it’s not only about physical buildings, there are plenty of other prisons we build in our minds: The way we cling to some beliefs, traditions, way of doing things…our obsession with self-preservation and survival. In this context, the “punishment” from God we hear about in the story of Babel looks more like salvation than actual punishment. God frees us from the prisons we build for ourselves, and God scatters us over the face of the earth.

– And indeed, this is the story of the church. The story of the church does not start with the ground breaking of the first cathedral! The church starts with the breaking in of the Holy Spirit, this wind that rushes by the windows inside the house and scatters the Apostles outside on the streets! The first thing the Apostles do to build the church is to go out to talk with other people, all sorts of people! The story of Acts tells us something really fundamental about the church: Building the church and being the church is an outward movement because the church does not exist to make the Apostles and the believers happy, the church exists for the people who are outside the church! We say here at Christ Church that we “don’t put God in a box”….We don’t put God in a building either. The first (and only) mission of the church is to go out to bear witness of the risen Christ and help people come closer to God by engaging in a relationship with Christ. Not because – as I have mentioned in my last sermon – because we’d believe that people “outside” are not good enough, or wrong, or because they may go to hell if they don’t convert, but we want to bring them the good news of the love of God shown in Jesus because it is for us a deep transformative experience, because it brings us joy, hope and purpose and because ideally, as the Apostles, our hearts are so full that we cannot not share the news!

– We cannot not share the news…Yet, looking at our own hearts, we may realize we are not there yet. Maybe we too would be tempted to believe that the Apostles were drunk on that day of Pentecost because we don’t always recognize ourselves in their enthusiasm. Most of us, we keep our faith much more private and quiet, a little locked inside of us. And I think it does not mean that our hearts are not in the right place, maybe they are just not oriented in the right direction. We keep looking inside when we should look outside. I was reading a book about church growth this week, and I came upon those lines I really needed to hear and I would like to share them with you as we are reminded on this Pentecost feast of who we are supposed to be.

The author said:

The church’s heart must change (…) the leaders and the people of the church need to experience a spiritual transformation that shifts their focus from playing church to reaching people for Jesus. For the church to return to sustained health, a growing core of people need to realize that the church isn’t about me. My preferences aren’t as important as the people we are trying to reach. My needs aren’t as important as those outside the church. My faith is meaningless if it isn’t backed by actions to carry out God’s mission.

– How do we do that? Not a natural tendency indeed! We are turned inwards, towards self-preservation / survival. We see that at Babel, but even the Apostles were like that to start with. They were gathered together in the house. The opening, scattering, witnessing comes from God, when God fills us with the Holy Spirit. So we can pray. Pray that God turns our hearts towards God’s mission field / set our hearts on fire for God. Does not mean that we are going to be jumping all over the place! Maybe at our age we can’t do that, but there will be so much love, and passion when we speak about God that people will want to check this Christian thing out…

Next step for us: Learn their language. How do we speak about our faith? We are starting conversations about faith today, revisiting the basics of Christian beliefs. What the church teaches, how we think about it, how we can articulate it today…Because as the Apostles we should not expect people to speak our language, but we have to find a way to talk about God today that can touch unchurched people’s hearts and bring them closer to Christ. I invite you to join us after the service – because, once again, it’s not about us, it is for this world that needs God so much. In this world, each one of our testimonies matters. Amen.