Christmas Eve

I used to celebrate Christmas in my childhood in South of France, at my grand mother’s. Many traditions around Christmas there, one of them is to have 13 desserts! The tradition that is the most well known is “creche”, nativity scenes. During Christmas time, you visit different churches, they all have their nativity scene, some of them use as much space as the space we have here for the altar! The whole village is represented – with those little characters called “santons”, not only shepherds as in the Gospel, but the postman, the mayor, the baker, the seamstress..even the priest! Coming to adore baby Jesus. I remember spending a lot of time as a child looking at all of them…Maybe you’ve had a chance to visit at the National cathedral? At this time of the year, they display nativity scenes from all over the world.

Amazing to see all those different people surrounding Baby Jesus, all united around Jesus. Sometimes a little bit like that here at Christ Church. We are really a diverse church. Lots of different backgrounds, but we all come here to worship Jesus, especially on this Christmas Eve.

In our world, so many different people and ways of living: What is it that we have in common? What would you say is, in spite of all our differences, the thing we have all in common?

Well, there are different answers to that, but to me, clearly, the thing we all have in common as human beings is that we all want to be happy. Think about it, think about what you really want for your life, or for the life of your children, of those you love. If you had only one wish you could ask for to a fairy, what would you ask for? Probably for happiness. Or maybe you would not ask it like that, maybe you would ask for health or to be loved by this very person, or maybe you would ask to get this amazing job, or to win the lottery – but if the fairy were to tell you: “I will grant you this wish, but it won’t bring you happiness, in fact, it’s going to make you very unhappy” Well, probably you wouldn’t want the thing you asked for anymore, would you? In the end, what we long for is happiness.

Now, what is it that God wants for us? Maybe it’s hard to tell, we barely know who God is, how could we tell what God wants for us? So we turn to the Bible, to try to understand what God has in mind for people. And as we read the Bible, we may come up with different answers. Some people say that, above all, God wants us to obey, to behave. Or to be good people. Or maybe: God wants us to believe. And that’s all right…

But listen closely to what God is telling us in the silence of this quiet night. Tonight God sends his angel, his messenger, to the shepherds and this is what God tells through his angel: “See – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people”.

And this is the beginning. The beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the beginning of the story of God incarnated, God with us in the person of Jesus, and this is how the beginning is: God wants us to rejoice. God wants to share God’s joy with all humankind. God does not want us first thing to obey, to behave or even to be good people. God wants us to rejoice. And so, no wonder we all have a longing for happiness, because this is what the Gospel tells us today: We are made for joy. We are made for joy and not any kind of joy, we are made for the joy that comes down from heaven. We are made for the joy that comes down from heaven. Maybe this is what it means to be human. To be meant to be filled with God’s joy.

Now you would think: If we are meant to be filled with God’s joy, if it is God’s will for us, and if deep down we want to be happy, things should be very straightforward, no? And yet, when we look around, or maybe when we look inside of us, we know that there is often not that much happiness to be found.

How do you explain that? If God really wants us to be filled with joy, and if we want so much to be happy, how comes happiness is so hard to find? Well, maybe we need to listen to the rest of what the angel has to tell the shepherds on that night, what the angel has to tell us tonight. There are two things that the angel does that I think are really, really important. First the angel ask the shepherds not to fear, and then the angel points them in the direction of Mary, Joseph and the child in the simplicity and the humility of their condition.

“Do not fear”. We’ve heard tonight that when Jesus was born, there was no room for him in the inn and so, it’s often an image preachers use, to say that, for us, at Christmas, we need to make room for Jesus in our hearts. We need to make room for Jesus. And as it goes, there is only so much room in a human heart. Not because we love other people or other things too much but what takes the most space in our hearts, it is as the angel tells us: It’s fear. It’s anxiety. I don’t think it’s our fault. We are humans and there is so little we can control. The shepherds had reasons to fear on that night: fear of the wolves, of the thieves. Fear of the oppressors (they were living under Roman occupation), fear of their own people: people didn’t like shepherds because they had what was considered a demeaning job. So, there were a lot of things that were threatening to them – but the angel says that God is not one they need to fear. God is not threatening them. God comes to them, on that night, as a little baby – not as an Emperor or as a judge. So really, God wants us to believe that although we may be afraid of many things, animals or people – sometimes for good reasons – we really don’t need to be afraid of God. We have to trust in God’s goodness, even if God can be scary because God’s glory is so big. The only thing we should be afraid of is to reject God. God wants us to rejoice in God’s presence, and not to run under the bed to hide away.

And then the angel does a second thing. The angel points to Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus and the angel says this is where the shepherds need to go, this is where joy is to be found. We could spend a lot of time looking at our nativity scenes to understand what joy is all about, where joy is to be found. According to the angel, joy is to be found among the little ones, the poor, the humble. People like Joseph and Mary and their baby. Joy is not to be found in a palace or even in a Temple, joy is to be found in the heart of those who love, and joy will be found for the shepherds as they go to adore the baby. Think about it. The angel announces “A Savior”, but what could this little baby do for these shepherds? They would probably be very old when the child would finally be of age to “save” them! And yet, the shepherds rejoice, they find joy in adoring him.

The thing is – Joy and happiness aren’t exactly the same. Maybe sometimes, they are quite the opposite. We want to be happy, as I’ve said. Yet, have you heard how we speak about happiness? When we speak about happiness, we think about all the things we need to have to be happy, all the things we need to do, all the goals we need to achieve. How we want to be admired and respected. And so happiness seems always out of reach, there is always something that misses in our lives so we can be truly happy.

But this is what God says to us on this very night: It’s the rich who look for happiness as something they have to find, to achieve or even to deserve, and they exhaust themselves in doing so, and they sometimes make themselves and others very unhappy by doing so. But this is the secret: Joy is for the poor of heart, joy is for the humble – because the poor of heart expect God to give them what they cannot give to themselves. Joy is something that God and only God can give us – not as a reward – but because joy is what God wants to give us from the start, because joy, this what God is. In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear God say the day Jesus is baptized: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is God’s joy, and God wants to give us Jesus, and this is the gift among all gifts.

To receive God’s gift, maybe we need to be more simple. To renounce to try so hard to find, to achieve or to be worthy of happiness, and to rely on God to give us the joy we were made for, receiving God’s gift into our hearts in adoring Jesus. When we love, we stop thinking about everything that’s not going well. When we love we only want to be with the one we love.

Tonight, like in the nativity scene, we are gathered around the one we love, around the one who love us beyond words, so much beyond words he had to become flesh to tell us. Let’s rejoice to be with one another and as we do so, let us learn how to receive God’s love, to (re) discover the wonders of God’s love for “all the people”, for each one of us. That’s what church is for (and not only on Christmas Eve!): to learn how to love and to share this love in a world that longs so much for joy. Amen.

Advent III

From Matt 3 to Matt 11: A complete reversal of situation for JB. On the outside but also on the inside. Last time we saw him he was this wild prophet, free from all powers religious or politics, people were seeking after him…And now JB is in prison, on his own, got arrested by Herod. Inside he is changed too. Not so assertive, he has doubts, has to ask his own disciples for reassurances about who Jesus is. JB starts second guessing himself, not so sure anymore about what he has seen, heard – about what he has said.

Maybe it was nothing but a dream, seeing the Messiah.

– First observation: This passage is very realistic about what it is to live in this world. We all have reversal of situations. For the best and sometimes for the worst. Whether it takes a lot of times or whether it is very sudden, we experience ups and downs / more accurately situations where we think we are all what we can be to situations where there is nothing we can do / limited (JB in prison – it can be also for us sickness, aging, depression, financial problems that consume us). We all at some point come to a dark place. Dark place in our lives, but also dark places in our souls.

It’s not so much the suffering but “suffering the suffering”: When we suffer, we start asking What did I do wrong? Basically what JB is asking is: Did I miss something? Misunderstood? Did I lead people to follow the wrong one? What does it mean about my mission and my life?

Doubts about God are never only intellectual. If there is no God or if God isn’t who I believed God to be, what does it mean about who I am, my purpose in life?

– Jesus breaks the cycle of doubts by reminding the disciples that JB is the greatest of all. Greater than the kings, greater than the prophets. JB’s situation may have changed but he is still a great prophet even if he isn’t preaching / teaching anymore like he used to do. Even if he has questions, doubts. Even if he is in despair.

Do we believe that this is the way God looks at us? That we are always who we are / who we are meant to be, whatever life throws at us? We can spend so much time eating our own hearts out with guilt, shame, doubts – could Jesus’s words bring us peace? If being in a dark place is something that happens even to the greatest, then why do we so often believe that is we were wise enough, holy enough, good enough, nothing bad would ever happen?

– Second observation: I think I’ve already mentioned that sometimes bad things happen to you not b/c you did something wrong, but b/c you did something right. That’s actually the case with JB. He lived under an unjust political system and as he denounced it, he was bothering those in power (they were actually afraid of him!) and he was arrested to be silenced.

What happened? We learn later that JB condemned Herod for taking his brother’s wife. It’s not a detail, as with other sexual misbehavior, even if sometimes we want to make light of them. But what we often miss is that it’s not the sexual acts that displease God, it is the abuse of power. The big deal with adultery in the Bible is that it is the taking somebody that does not belong to you / no acknowledging that other people’s bodies are not in your control.

JB said to Herod: You have no right to your brother’s wife / it is unlawful. It’s not about respecting the rule for the sake of respecting the rule. It means: Even if you are the more important man in the country or even in the world, they are limits to your power. Even if there is nobody more powerful than you, you still have to respect the law / the law is bigger than you.

Even the kings don’t make the law. They can make rules but there is a law: Other people’s bodies are off limits – which condemn sexual violence and all other forms of violence.

– Third observation: JB condemning Herod’s behavior enables us to understand better something about John’s testimony and about his ministry, something he may not have understood himself at the time (which would have led him to doubt and even despair): His job was to tell the truth and not necessary to make a lot of disciples (These days, it seems that church’s success is only measured by numbers and attendance!).

JB had to say something when he witnessed Herod’s immorality. JB was close to the poor, the crowds of those who came to see him in the wilderness. He couldn’t stand the abuse of power. Now Jesus still acknowledges him as this great prophet. JB did the right thing, even if he lost his job / his ministry / his reputation.

Barbara Brown Taylor: You don’t become a martyr b/c you want to be a martyr. You become a martyr b/c you get so caught in serving God and following Christ that you stop being careful. That you just do what you have to do w/o caring about the consequences for yourself.

What about us? Is truth telling important to us? Doing the right thing that is right in front of you? Have you noticed how often people advise us (and we even tell that to ourselves) that maybe we shouldn’t do/say something for a greater good? Do you think maybe JB should have said nothing about Herod so he could have continued his job baptizing and witnessing to Jesus in the wilderness?

Yes, but what kind of ministry would it have been? Being on the side of the poor, w/o standing up when there is an abuse of power in the land? Again and again, the Gospel calls us to integrity vs hypocrisy.

When in conflict with two possible courses of actions, we often think we should pick the greater good, but maybe we should pick the “nearest good”. The right thing to do right now in the present, instead of the right thing to do in a hypothetical future. That’s where a lot of people who want a career in public life get caught: They accept compromises to be able to apply their program once they have more responsibilities, but often when they get there it’s too late, they are corrupted and they continue to accept what’s immoral for a “greater good” that ends up being always delayed…

JB lost his career for the sake of the truth. How many times at work, with our families, have we been told to not “rock the boat” so we can secure what we have?

– And yet…Fourth observation: With Jesus’s words come reassurance. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed…” It is all happening (The Messianic time), even if it’s happening in a way you cannot understand or control or even appreciate.

It is all happening, even if it’s happening in a way you cannot understand or control or even appreciate. Well, that’s probably words we also need to hear for ourselves when we are in dark places. It does no mean Jesus asks us to feel good when we feel awful. But Jesus asks us to trust. And this is really what following Jesus is about. There is a story of Jesus talking to a Saint (a nun in the 18e century) and what he said to her is that what is the most important in his disciples isn’t for them to be perfect or to do a lot of prayers or even a lot of good deeds. What is necessary is to trust. B/c w/o trust Jesus can do nothing. But also b/c trust is the sure mark of love. If you think you love someone but you don’t trust them, think twice – You may not love them as much as you think.

The disciple needs to grow / be perfected by learning trust.

Jesus says that JB is the greatest of all, and yet the last one in the KOG is greater than he. KOG: this place where God is fully present / perfect state of our lives w/ God / Eternal life. What we call “sanctification”, “being made perfect” still needs to happen for JB, for all of us. As long as we live this life.

It is great to baptize people, to preach, to be a political activist, but there is something even more important: It is to learn to trust God. And so, if this time in prison seemed completely wasted on John, he was actually doing the most important work of his life: Learning to trust God and let sanctification happen. Famous preacher in DC (Rev. Howard-John Wesley) announced this week his Sabbatical: “I feel very far from God”. “The worst thing we can do in ministry is to think that b/c we work for God, we are close to God”. True for pastors but isn’t it true for a lot of us who “work in the church” / give so much of our time and energy to the church? When do we “refill”, when do we let God nourish us?

– Last and fifth observation: How do we learn how to trust? If I had the answer, I would be greater than JB! But today Jesus points to the Scriptures (Isaiah) to help us discern signs of hope / see the desert blossom. Needs the ability to ponder / pace ourselves to see them. To spend “free” time with God / with the Scriptures / looking around us. At night, remembering the events of the day, the people we have met, things said etc.

James: reminds us three times to be patient. Impatience for God isn’t always wrong, Jesus at some point also confesses he is impatient (to see God’s K on earth). We pray: Your kingdom comes. But JB was so impatient he thought of Jesus as an “obstacle to faith” (“You take offense at me”) b/c Jesus instead of bringing judgment and establishing his kingdom “just” hung out w/ people! Impatience can lead us to despair, to a very dark place when things do not come our way / the way we want them to come to us. This is what Advent is meant for: to learn how to wait. We have to wait 4 weeks when the prophets waited two thousands years. Maybe we can start being patient with little things, so we become able to be patient for God!

Advent II

– Back from vacations! I didn’t go anywhere exotic this past week, one of the things I did was used some of this time at home to make room on my shelves…After all, Advent is a penitential season and as I was looking around I thought: “Maybe I don’t need all that stuff” and I had a look at all the books I have purchased and not read yet. One of the books caught my attention. I started reading a few pages and I thought: No wonder I had left it aside. But this time I carried on and read through it. One of the hardest read of my life. Well written but relate the very tough / traumatizing experience of a boy soldier: Ishmael Beah. Maybe you’ve heard about him?

This is his story: 12 years old boy growing up in a village in Sierra Leone in the early 90’s. One day, he leaves with a few friends to visit his grandmother a few miles away from his home, and while they are away, his village is attacked by the rebels and all his family is killed. Beah flees, starts a long walk on his own and hides in the forest. Later, he meets a few other boys in the same situation and together they wander from deserted places to deserted places as everybody else is trying to escape from the rebels, trying to avoid being killed. As months pass by, the boys end up almost starving. But then one day, they finally arrive in a bigger village defended by government soldiers and they start hoping their lives will be better and safer. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite that happens. The soldier start training them to fight: They are brainwashed and taught how to kill: “We did nothing but fight, watch war movies and do drugs so strong I would not sleep for weeks”. Then the boys are sent on the front lines: “I can’t remember how many people I killed” says Beah, and he describes some of the atrocities he committed, destroying entire villages. It lasted for two years until he finally got “rescued” (even if it didn’t feel like rescue at the time) by the UN and placed in a rehab center with other boys soldiers.

The title of his story: “A long way gone”: I wondered what does it mean. Is he now long gone from the war / finally escaped or was he a long way gone and yet, he came back? Traumatized w/o hope of healing / sinned beyond any hope of redemption. Today, Beah lives a normal life in NYC advocating for peace and children’s rights.

– Reading Beah’s story in a parallel w/ our biblical lessons for today was fascinating for me. In our three first readings (OT, Psalm and Epistle), there is this promise that God will bring peace to the world. A peace that is not just the absence of conflict / escaping from a terrible situation, but reconciliation and harmony – against all odds, even against the laws of nature: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…” etc. The author of the book of Isaiah wasn’t naive. This book was actually written in a time of war as well. In a time of destruction when there was no hope in sight.

This tells us that hope can’t always be seen but it can be found in God. In this time of the year when we await the coming of the Redeemer, we are reminded that Redemption is possible, even against all odds. We can survive, we can heal and we can turn our life around no matter what we have done or what others have done to us. A journey towards peace: This is the story of Beah – and even if we have never known such terrible things – this is our story too, the story of our world, the story God wants to write with us beyond sin, violence and suffering. We hear in the Gospel today John the Baptist calling us to repentance / which means: to return. We too are “a long way gone” but we can come back, by “Preparing the way of the Lord, [making] his path straight”.

How do we do that? JB: Baptizing and confessing are the way to prepare to let God act into our life / into our communities / in our world. Baptism and confession are sacraments / liturgical acts but they express realities we have to live out.

I learned a lot about baptizing and confessing reading Beah’s book, his own experience of Redemption.

Life was very tough in the rehab center. The boys were used to extreme violence and hooked on many drugs. At the beginning, they had a lot of outbursts, fights and were unkind to the staff and nurses taking care of them. Their only thought was to escape and find drugs and go back to the front lines (They missed the violence!). Yet, each time the boys did bad, instead of getting mad, the staff would tell them: “It’s not your fault”. Quiet amazing as you read Beah’s account of his time in rehab to hear these words again and again from the people around him: “It’s not your fault”.

It seems to me that those words hold a huge healing power. It was like balm on the children’s wounds and water on their fronts: It was like they were baptized again in innocence, brought back to their childhood that had been robbed from them. This is what baptism – as it has been brought to us by John on the banks of the Jordan and as it is still present in the church – do to us: It brings us back to our true identity as children of God, children who have been robbed of their divine filiation by the evil that is in the world. To us too, baptism tells us: It’s not your fault. Look at the liturgy in the BCP. It says that evil was there before us and we have been caught in the cycle of selfishness, hate and violence – but it’s not what we are meant to be and in Christ we have a way out.

It does not mean we have done anything or we haven’t done anything wrong. As the children were told: it’s not your fault, they started opening up and confessed what they had done. Removing the shame and the condemnation, showing unconditional love, the words opened up a space for confession and facing reality. For being finally able to look at their stories, to name what happened to them and what the army had them do. Beah’s book is also his confession, acknowledging what he has done, he found his way back to who he was meant to be in the first place.

Repentance is possible. We don’t have to be for ever the victims or the perpetrators of violence. Isaiah: No preys and predators anymore (They go together!). As we become aware of that, we are healed and can start mending the world.

– Advent is a time for hope and peace. To look at ourselves, at our neighbors and at our world with the beliefs that things can change, that we can change: that we can bear fruits worthy of repentance. JB describes the Redeemer as the one who can purify us from evil (fire images). Children at the rehab center were healed b/c the staff looked at them as children, in spite of what they had done. They believed they could change. John the Baptist and then Christ look at us trusting we can change.

Do we believe change is really possible? Do we trust we can change / Others can change?

* Do we feel we are “beyond Redemption” because of what we have done or what has been done to us / even if it’s nothing as bad as Beah. I have a 60 years old friend who was telling me recently that after a lifetime of being abused by her mother, she is now choosing to look the future with optimism and let go of the anxiety her mother had fed her. She said to me: I am not the person my mother designed me to be. (= designed her daughter to meet her own needs). She starts to believe she can live a life that isn’t defined by enduring the pain of not being loved.

* Do we enable others to find their way back to their true selves? To our community? To God?Cf the movie “The Green Book”: The chauffeur says to his boss who is estranged from his brother: “The world is full of lonely people who are too afraid to take the first step”. Maybe Christmas will be an opportunity to seek out those from whom we have been estranged / who are a long way gone. Maybe they are just too ashamed to reach out to us. Do we look at those who hurt us with hope? (Does not mean we should be enablers! But we can call them back to be their true / their best selves, as did JB with the religious leaders). We can all “baptize” one another with words of healing, love / washing in innocence.

Advent: The best is yet to come. “Do we really believe that? Are we just afraid that life will bring us more problems, and in the end sickness and death will have the last word, or do we trust that our life is a path towards God’s kingdom, that there is another horizon / a horizon of peace? Good fruit are to be borne / good things are to be born (Theme of our Quiet day).