Christ the King

– Beginning of the holiday season. Next week is Advent – We start to prepare for Christmas. Music is already everywhere – we don’t even pay attention. I haven’t grown up with those Christmas songs, so sometimes I pay attention. What is it with Christmas and wondering if we’ve been “Naughty or nice”?If we will be “rewarded or punished”? Is it stuff we just say to children or, under the surface, does it say something about our questioning and anxieties about ourselves and also the way we relate to God?

Do you ever wonder if you’re a good person? Have you ever caught yourself at the end of the day thinking about something you have said or done and questioning whether “you’re a bad person”, and then you start to justify yourself, finding good reasons for a behavior you know is not 100% right, or blaming on circumstances your wrongdoings?

– Wondering if we’re good or bad is an anxiety deeply rooted in human nature that the Reformation / Luther tried to solve: There are no good or bad people, only sinners in need of repentance and salvation – salvation that is made possible only b/c of the grace of God – but has nothing to do with our own merits. Of course, long habits die hard, and we ended up dividing the world between those who are saved (the good people) and those who aren’t saved (the bad people) – which creates a new set of anxieties as to guess in which group you belong…and the circle starts all over again.

– This question of being a good / bad person is unavoidable b/c of course we notice a difference between people, good and bad even if the line is often blurry (nobody being 100%). Our everyday experience, a look at our history, our institutions, our culture, our societies, our relationships tell us that – even if we admit we’re all sinners – there is a difference between people. There are people who are horrible or wonderful, mean or generous, hypocrite or sincere…and this not matter if they claim to be “saved” or not.

– I am telling you all of that b/c I think the Gospel we have today is about this difference between people, about what makes the real difference between people. We call it the story of the “good thief” that is unique to Luke. Paradoxical / oxymoron. A thief should be someone who is bad / do something wrong, and yet he is pictured as being the good person. Jesus is surrounded by people who stand by, watching, do nothing, and by people mocking him / attacking him, and it’s like there are all a big crowd and then there is this man who is a robber, maybe a criminal (We don’t know what he did!) who is also crucified – and yet who is going to stand out from everybody else by doing the extraordinary, the “right thing”…. Showing compassion / rebuking the bullies by saying to the other thief: “We have been condemned justly…but this man he had done nothing”.

Luke’s Gospel: Gospel of the poor yes, but because it’s the Gospel of compassion. Song of Zechariah in Chap 1: God has shown mercy. And this is what it is all about. Compassion. God shows compassion in Jesus by sharing our life and suffering (com-passion), made obvious by the fact that Jesus is condemned and put to death, not on his own, but in the midst of all sinners and mortals / condemned to death we all are / and forgive them. What he does in this Gospel as well, promising paradise to a sinner…a sinner who, according to God’s character, showed compassion.

Good thief is like the final and ideal disciple who “got it” in spite of his shortcomings / even crimes. If you remember the story of the good Samaritan (also unique to Luke), Jesus asks at the end: “Who was a neighbor” and the response is: “The one who showed mercy”. And for Luke this is what make all the difference. Between people, between sinners, between the true God and between false gods: mercy / the ability to show compassion.

What is compassion? Basic definition: You see people hurting and you feel sorry for them. That’s what happens when you see a documentary about war on TV, or a homeless on the street, read a story about a lost puppy. Now, is this the compassion Luke is talking about? I wonder… Who likes it when people feel sorry for them? Nobody. Nobody wants people to have pity on them – it’s humiliating, it makes you feel helpless, it makes you feel that the one who is sorry for you does it just to feel better about themselves.

So Luke tells us a story to show us what real compassion is about: Real compassion is (1) about asking for justice, (2) taking someone’s defense and (3) reminding them of their own power and beauty – and I think this is what the good thief, the perfect disciple according to Luke’s heart, is doing today.

What is the good thief doing?

– He says to the bully:‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’Compassion is rooted not in feeling sorry for people (b/c they are weak or helpless). Compassion is rooted in acknowledging the unfairness and even the evil of a situation, and how some people can get hurt because of it. Compassion is also a claim for justice that goes beyond what would be advantageous for us. The good thief does not ask justice for himself, but for Jesus who is innocent.

– The way I imagine him asking for justice, I am pretty sure this man talked in much more colorful language than the elegant words the Gospel put into his mouth as he was dying among haters and criminals. (The quotation, this is the idea of what he told them)… and I think it made Jesus smile that the man would take his defense in this way because of course it was probably useless and a bit pathetic to get mad, and yet it was the right thing to do…In the midst of all those people who did nothing or who mocked Jesus – at last, somebody stood up and it must have been very comforting for Jesus, to have somebody who was willing to protect him – and took chances doing so. Right thing and even godly/holy thing to do: The good thief’s sided with Jesus in the same way that Luke shows us how God always sides with the poor.

Compassion is not sentimentalism in Luke’s Gospel, compassion is always at work. It’s our willingness, starting with God’s willingness, to do something. Not about signing a check b/c we feel bad or telling people we are sorry for them. Taking a risk / taking the risk of being hurt ourselves, discredited – b/c we take side with the powerless. We don’t truly know what it is to be loved until the day somebody takes side / take risks for us, as the good thief does for Jesus. God’s compassion is shown in the way that God comes into our darkness (canticle: “those who dwell in darkness”).

If we are to show compassion, we are also called to go to places where people lay in darkness: hospitals, prisons, streets…It can be as simple as the willingness to sit with somebody who has depression or dementia. Not just sending good thoughts and prayers and hoping they will come back to the light. Com-passion: experiencing something of the suffering of the one who suffers / risk getting hurt to relieve them a bit from their pain.

– A third thing about compassion is that it is never condescending, when pity always is. Compassion is sharing in the suffering, yet it is not about doing for somebody what they can do for themselves. You don’t do for somebody what they can do for themselves, but you remind them of who they are. We often quote the “Jesus, remember me when you come to your kingdom” but we often forget that, the good thief, as he reminds Jesus to remember him, reminds Jesus of who Jesus is: The one who is coming to his kingdom / this kingdom Jesus preached about all his life / center of his preoccupations. The good thief reminded Jesus that he saw beauty and also power in him. If we don’t see the beauty and power in those we have compassion on, then it’s just pity. Compassion in Luke is always meant to make people stand on their feet: “Guide our feet into the way of peace”. I am not 100% sure the good thief saw Jesus as the messiah and the savior, but I am 100% sure that he saw the divine in Jesus: kindness, beauty, majesty.

– And this is the irony, right? All those people looking for God and unable to find God, this powerful God who would make a breakthrough to save Jesus / and as they look for this God, they are unable to see the divine. Looking for the king they don’t see the majesty. The majesty only the good thief can see. I think that’s when we understand how compassion saves us. It moves us off center / enables us to escape the circle of wondering if we’re with the good ones or with the bad ones. When we are compassionate, we see goodness not inside of us but we see goodness around us. We are with the ones who are despised because we see their goodness, and that’s the reward / access to Paradise / Reign of Christ even in the midst of hell. Amen.

Pentecost 23

– I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to visit the Newseum downtown DC. Quite a unique museum, dedicated to journalism / hard work of reporting the news. I’ve visited it a few times and one of their permanent exhibitions really stuck with me. It’s about 9/11. There is a video of a journalist and this is what he says. He says: “When there is a disaster, everybody run away as far as they can and running away that’s what everybody was doing on 9/11. Everybody except two types of people: the rescuers and the reporters. Those were running in the opposite direction, coming as close to the disaster as possible”.

– This really made me think. Rescuers, reporters confront disasters and dangers. But what about the priests? What about the Christians? Do we run away or do we stay put, or even try to come closer, and do what we have to do? Of course running away / preserving your life is not wrong! Very good instinct and it can indeed save you. I am not saying to stay inside the house when it’s on fire. But I think the question is: Do we turn our backs? When things go really wrong, when there’s chaos, do we just look the other way or run away or fall into despair, or are we willing to do something about it?

– This could be the question Jesus is asking his disciples today. We are in the last chapters of Luke and indeed, disaster is impending. The unthinkable. Jesus is going to be arrested, condemned and put to death. And so – what are the disciples going to do? Jesus knows that they will be in danger. Because he was hated and rejected, the disciples will be hated and rejected as well. And also arrested and judged.

But this what Jesus tells them: Jesus tells them that it won’t be the end – yet.

– It won’t be the end – yet. Because even when there is a disaster, in the middle of chaos, when we lose everything that make sense, there is still something left, something we can hold on to: And that’s our faithfulness, our testimony. We can still stay faithful to God, to our values, to those we love and we can stay faithful to ourselves. Yes, Jesus is going to be arrested, condemned and put to death – his enemies wanting to erase him completely from the face of the earth, but the disciples will stand and say what they have heard and what they have seen.

And this cannot be taken away from them. And that’s why we still have the Gospels today.

– Jesus tells us today that in the midst of chaos, we can still testify about the truth, stand for the truth, and even more deeply, stand in the truth. A lot of people have a problem with that today…B/c we have made of the notion of “truth either an ideology or a judgment on persons. But Jesus does not ask us to teach general ideas about the world or God, and Jesus does not want us to say who is right or wrong, who is good or bad. But Jesus wants us to tell the truth about ourselves, about our experiences, about our lives.

– You see, we often think that when Jesus asks us to speak in his name / on his behalf, it’s about confessing religious ideas. It’s about saying “Yes, the Bible is 100% the literal word of God and we cannot discuss about that” or “Only if you are baptized you can be saved”. But it’s probably not what Jesus meant when he asks us to speak “in his name”!

When you speak “in the name” of the King or of the State, it means mainly that you speak according to their laws / in faithfulness with their principles. When we speak in the name of Jesus, we speak according to Jesus’s law of love – and – we know that, especially in the Gospel of Luke, it means to take a stand in defense of the poor and the voiceless / and against oppressive powers of this world.

I was reading recently a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor in which she asks this interesting question: What does it mean to be like Christ? It does not necessarily mean to be super nice. If you’re really like Jesus, it means that there are people who are going to want to kill you because they will be so upset because of you, because you will question their power or because you will denounce their injustices!

– That’s when we do that, that our faith really matters. And that’s when we do that, that our faith is going to upset some people. It’s not our confessing we believe in Jesus or in Buddha or whoever that causes problem. What is going to put us into troubles is how our faith guide our actions. First Christians were persecuted not so much b/c they believed in Jesus, but b/c their faith in Jesus caused them to act according to the belief that all people were equals, they believed they had to take care of the poor, to live moral lives and not to worship Roman gods, not to worship the Emperor…And that’s why they were persecuted, as it often happens when we worship a God of love, instead of worshiping human authority.

– This is what I think the image of the Temple is all about. Jesus is not upset that his disciples admire the beauty or the sturdiness of the Temple. It was fine architecture after all. What Jesus seems to be worried about it that the disciples would rely too much on human powers, either religious or political (The Temple was both). We all do that: We want sturdiness, certitudes, people who can protect us, on whom we can rely on, but as we need that we have to be careful not to give away control and power to people who are going to abuse us or to abuse those who cannot defend themselves.

Jesus warns his disciples against false leadership, against those in power who take advantage of those who believe in them, in politics but even in religion! Paul talks today in the Epistle about those spiritual leaders who were taking economic advantage of their communities, who were “feeding on them”.

– And so we have to be smarter than looking for reassurance in those external powers: Genuine spirituality is about finding the truth on the inside, and not on the outside. We have to let ourselves be led by the Holy Spirit. For that, we have to take a good look at ourselves, be honest and live with integrity and not compromising with corrupted powers and people, would it be only by letting them abuse us, or allowing ourselves to turn a blind eye when others are abused. Truth is not an abstract concept, it’s about being true to what is right in front of us, and inside of us! It’s not easy…Throughout the Gospel, the disciples had to admit a lot of hard truths about themselves, their mistakes, their doubts, their brokenness. It takes a lot of courage to speak about your experience, whether you’re in AA, coming out, confessing a crime or when you are experiencing injustices, discrimination…Yet this acknowledgment is the only way to real freedom and genuine power.

We cannot know the universal truth, but we can be true to ourselves, and when we own our stories, we find power. And even more: the real power could be the power of the truth. Today, Jesus seems to be telling us that there is nothing more powerful than the truth / than acknowledging what is. Truth stands for itself (You’ll be given words and wisdom), when the Temple crumble. And so there is an incredible promise in that. When everything falls apart, if we stay true to ourselves, we won’t fall apart. “You will save your soul” says Jesus. Well, saving your soul isn’t about making God very proud by doing a lot of good deeds, and so God will be pleased and reward you in heaven. Saving your own souls means staying true to yourself in spite of threats, dangers and disasters. If you stay true to yourself, you remain whole – you can’t be destroyed (not a hair will perish!). You stay you. People who have come to terms with who they really are all testify of the wonderful power they found in doing so. The power to live as God has intended for them.

– And the wonder is, it’s actually when we are true to ourselves that we can start saving the world! Or at least bring a real change. Palmer, the author of the book “Let your life speaks” that we’re going to start reading on Tuesday, uses the example of Rosa Parks. He says: As Rosa Parks claimed her dignity and asked for respect by refusing to sit at the back of the bus, she claimed the dignity of the African Americans and ask respect for all of them. Being ourselves is the best gift we can give to the world, we let God shine through us by being true, and it redeems those around us. Truth is about living in the truth. And so it’s not so much about what’s voted at the assembly or preached at the pulpit that matters – or that matters only – it’s really every little thing we do or say in everyday life that matters, when we are honest and true. Only if we are true and honest inside we can bring the real change that’s needed in our society and in the world.

– Faith is not only about having the “endurance to endure”, to find solace in our sufferings. Faith is about finding power for action and for change. Isaiah: God is about to create a new heaven and a new earth! Indeed the message of Advent. During Advent, I would like us to think about that: The power God gives us to change. To change our church, our community, our world. Starting with ourselves. Amen.

All Saints’ – Children’s sermon: Superheroes and Saints

Who are those superheroes?
Can you name them?
What do we love about them?

I like Captain Marvel! She is determined and intuitive and I wish I could be more like her (and look like that)! She is also a bit impulsive…

Some superheroes aren’t that perfect…Yet what we love about them is that they want to fight evil, to help people in need, and they give their lives for a greater cause. They don’t just think about themselves. They give time and energy, and sometimes they risk their lives to save others or even to save the world!

There is more to life for them than what we do /look for in ordinary life: Buying stuff, eating food, being popular (they often have enemies / flee the crowds) or having fun. Superheroes try to help people / save the world and so they do dangerous stuff, they get wounded, they have to leave people they love, their families to fight monsters.

Yet they also are ordinary people, they have a day job (like Superman), or they make a lot of stupid mistakes (Iron man). People generally don’t notice them in everyday life. They are like you and me, and yet they can become very powerful and do extraordinary things.

Have you ever dreamed of becoming a superhero?

Good news! Jesus wants you to become a superhero.

Today in the Gospel that’s what he talks about. About us being called by God to become superheroes. As Christians we talk about “Saints” – special people.

Do you know these Saints? What they did? Saints from the past / more recent Saints.

Saints: Aureole / circle of light around the head. See that in pictures. Like the super heroes. There is something about that in certain people, they shine. They’re beautiful and attractive even if they don’t look like what we expect a beautiful person to look like. We can feel their goodness / aura.
Their goodness and closeness to God reflect on themselves and benefit others.

We look up to them, but we shouldn’t just dream of being like them b/c we can be like them and we can work on making that happens and how? This is what Jesus talks about to his disciples today.

Jesus looked at his friends and told them:

God is with you if you stay simple, and everything that belongs to God will belong to you too.
God is with you if you don’t think only about what you are going to have for dinner
God is with you if you don’t only think about having fun
if sometimes you feel sad and lonely, it’s okay too.

It does not mean you’re a loser if your friends, or even some adults, aren’t nice to you or ignore you
or even hurt you – especially when you try your best to do good.
There are a lot of people who felt like you, who were not popular, or maybe who felt unloved,
yet they were really great in the eyes of God.
So you have a reason to be happy even when you cry.

In fact, those who have plenty of stuff, and spend their time stuffing themselves
with everything they like
and who just want to have fun, especially by making fun of others…
Well, God is not so happy with what they do!
And in the end all those things won’t make them very happy themselves –
especially when they are popular and use their popularity to bully those who try to do their best.

But you, if you want to do great and be a friend of God, don’t do like what they do:

If you want to be God’s friend:
Be a friend when others aren’t friendly and pray for them,
Don’t fight with those who don’t like you and especially don’t try to hurt them back
the way they hurt you
If somebody needs something and you can share what you have with them,
then do it

If you want to have friends, then start by acting like a friend to everybody.

What is important to us maybe is not that important to God:

We spend a lot of time thinking about what we want to buy / buy nice things.
Or what we want to eat / candy, burgers…
We spend a lot of time trying to find new things to do, exciting things to do. We avoid those who aren’t happy. We spend a lot of time trying to be popular with fun people.

Yet Jesus tells us we are not necessarily going to find God in all those places, and so maybe for a while it will feel good – to have nice food, nice stuff, be popular and have fun – but in the end, it won’t feel that great because it won’t bring us any closer to God.

Jesus wants us to be blessed: close to God. Like the superheroes, Jesus wants us to do something that matters so we can be proud of ourselves and help others and save the world with him! In little things and in great things…Each of us is like a drop in the ocean but the ocean is made of drops! We can be together a stream that waters the earth and changes the world. To this together: All Saints.

Jesus today says that to be a superhero / a saint, it starts with simple things – he says:
Share your stuff, don’t bully people or take revenge even if they hurt you, don’t fight (back) / don’t hurt others the way they hurt you, pray for those who aren’t nice. Be a friend.

It looks easy, but it can be hard! Jesus does not want us so much to become superheroes with our muscles, or even with our brains, but with our hearts – to be super powerful with our hearts – even if we’re not perfect! Saints are superheroes of the heart – People like you and me who are able to live their lives in loving very sincerely and very deeply (People we knew who were like that – Pictures on the table). We remember people who loved us and whom we loved.

And the wonder is that we can all love in a special way – God has given us something unique we can share with the world / to make others happy / to help them. It does not matter what we do if we do it for the good reason, to love. In church, everybody has a special gift and instead of using it just for themselves, to make money for example, they use it for others and for God: And you, what are your superpowers? How are you going to use them?