Epiphany III

– It’s interesting b/c this week I was mindlessly flipping through a women’s magazine, shopping, fashion, advice column, when I came across something that sort of turned upside down my long-time unquestioned perspective on today’s Gospel.

The article was about high achieving women who are bored at work. How those women pushed themselves very hard, studied for many years, confronted a competitive and sexist environment, all of it to finally discover one day that what they got wasn’t really was they were looking for in the first place, that basically they weren’t happy at work. And they weren’t happy not for lack of success or money, but mainly for lack of meaning. They didn’t feel their work made a lot of sense. Most of them started out with studying something they really cared about, but little by little, they felt more remote from doing it, most of their job ending up in supervising, controlling, organizing, but they weren’t in touch with the real thing their hearts longed for.

And it looks like the women in this article aren’t the only ones to feel like that. In our developed countries, statistics have it that at least 50% of people with an office job are unhappy at work b/c they feel their jobs don’t make enough sense.

And so – it got me thinking b/c of course, if you pay attention, this is exactly where and when Jesus decides to show up: On people’s work places. He does it, of course, in our story today – a well-known one, when he called twice in a row two brothers to leave their nets to follow him (an interesting insistence), and we know also that Jesus recruited Matthew himself, who wrote the story of today, when he was sitting at his tax collectors booth.

So, for Jesus, it was like a pattern, right, to ask people to leave what they were doing? We got used to these “call stories” though – I know I did. But the article of the office women unhappy at work changed my perspective b/c those women testified that one day they had to do something to change their lives b/c they could not bear it any more. They decided to do something concrete, something that made them happy but also something that had meaning, that was in accord with their values, something that brought them closer to nature, to people. Like most Christians, I have always assumed that Peter, Andrew, James and John, and others disciples like Matthew, made a huge sacrifice the day they decided to follow Jesus. I assumed that they did something very hard, to leave behind their daily activities, the life they knew, the relative security and the comfort they enjoyed. But now I think: Well, very likely there was some sacrifice, and some risk taking in leaving everything, but maybe, just maybe – Jesus was all they were waiting for. An opportunity to change their routine, to do something new, meet new people, become somebody else, or more likely, become who they were really called to be (as Simon became Peter) – so at last they could be in touch with their spiritual longing – finding sense and purpose in their lives beyond day to day survival.

From fishing fish for daily survival, the disciples go out with Jesus to fish people: teach, heal and bring hope to people for the Eternal and divine life.

Now this probably tells us something too, right?

I don’t assume we are all called to leave our jobs – a lot of us are retired anyway! – or our families, our homes…To me the text says something more simple, and yet deeper: It says that we all long for meaning, that our daily life cannot sustain us if it isn’t filled with deep spirituality, a spirituality that is not only in our heads but mainly in our hearts and hands, in service and connection with others. It also means that our God is not a boring God, a never changing and remote God who only expects us to do our daily duty and be contented with it, but quite the opposite: God wants to take us on an adventure.

– First point: Our daily life cannot sustain us if it isn’t filled with deep spirituality. The disciples are longing for more than their fishing for fish – and we hear in Matthew 4, a few verses before our passage, Jesus telling the devil: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out from the mouth of God” – as if the supreme temptation was not, as we often assume, greed, but believing that all we need in life is a plate on our table and a bed to sleep in.

Have you ever read the beautiful book “Man’s search for meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl? Frankl tells his story about surviving four concentration camps during World War II, and as a psychiatrist, he says that what he observed is that what was killing people, apart from execution, was not so much lack of food, lack of medication, exposure or exhausting jobs, what was first of all killing people in the camps was lack of meaning, lack of connections and lack of hope. Frankl observed that if you could find a way to sustain that, your chances were greatly improved. Because life isn’t only a biological process, life is first of all a spiritual adventure.

– And this is really what Jesus invites his disciples to do today – to follow him on a journey talking about God, meeting people, helping them, bearing their own crosses and finding new life. We often assume that their dropping immediately their nets meant that suddenly they had it all figured out – I don’t think so. We see later that they had much to learn from Jesus, even after the Resurrection, until they receive the Holy Spirit. I think they dropped their nets because they had this longing in them, even if they didn’t really know what it was about.

Today, of course, Jesus invites us to follow him in the same way, so we can live to the full, beyond who we think we are to be whom we are called to be – from being Simon to becoming Peter. Leading spiritual lives you see, it is not only about saying prayers or reading the Bible, it is about coming closer to God by finding deeper understanding about what’s going on in our lives, how God speaks to each one of us individually – the reason why it was so important to Matthew to remind us again and again that Jesus was a teacher. But spirituality is also about making connections, getting closer to people, especially those who are different than us, as Jesus went to be with outcasts and sinners, and with them hearing the good news and finding healing, even through pain and death.

And so, and it is my second point, this really is a journey. We’ve just heard it in the psalm, when the psalmist says to God: “You speak in my heart and say ‘Seek my face’ – Your face, Lord, will I seek”.

Not so much a journey towards God than a journey with God. We often have in mind this representation of a God to be found somewhere, a God that never changes or never does anything new, but we see in the Gospel that really Jesus came to find people where they are, on their work places, to show us that God is working with us, in us and through us. The disciples started following Jesus b/c they had much to learn, to see and to experience – and this is true for us wherever we are in life. God has always something to reveal to us and create with us, even if we find ourselves in very difficult situations. Frankl testifies that he never learned so much about life than when basically all his possessions were down to his bare existence, an existence that was threatened ten times a day.

This means also that we have power – power to respond to life in a meaningful way, as the disciples responded to Jesus on that day. Meaning in our lives is not so much to be found at is to be created by caring for others, keeping faith and having hope. There is no script – we find it as we go. Isaiah promised that the Messiah would carry the light for the people in deep darkness and Matthew reminds us of this passage of the Scriptures in the beginning of the story: The disciples saw light through Jesus’s life, feeling God’s presence in him, they responded to the invitation of letting themselves be transformed and transform the world.

I think this is what this call to repentance is all about: Making up our minds to see life in a new light. Not as something we have to either enjoy, when we’re lucky, or endure, when we’re not lucky, but as a spiritual formative experience in the way we live, suffer and die, realizing life is an adventure with God and for God.

Finally, it also means that we need to help people along the way with their spiritual needs. That we have to be Jesus on the shore of their daily life as well and “fish” for them, even on our work places. I have a friend who prays daily to see the spiritual needs of people and she always ends up having the deepest conversations with them at random places like the dog park, the garage or the supermarket. You don’t have to be very educated to do that – spirituality is about what’s in people lives, in their hearts – And so you only have to listen to them, take them seriously, discern with them how God is at work in their lives. We often think about being Jesus to others by being nice and helpful, but what about trying out to be Jesus to others by drawing their attention to the way God is speaking to them and inviting them to change their lives? Christians often complain that today people don’t believe in God the way they used to, and yet if we pay attention we will see that there is still a deep thirst for meaning, relationships, and renewal in everyone, as the article I read testified about. When Jesus asks us to “fish for people” it is not about trapping them in the net of our convictions, but maybe “fishing” is about helping them to make the connection with God, finding the thread between their deepest longings and Christ who is still today calling them, as he calls each one of us. Amen.

Martin Luther King Jr

– I really love our first reading from the OT / Exodus. Short text that says so much about God. I have a book in my library at home whose title is: “What do we speak about, when we speak about God?”. And indeed, it’s a good question b/c so many things have been said about God since the beginning of times! Everybody (each culture / religion / generation and each individual) has an opinion / speculates about who God is and what God wants and how we are to find God b/c of course…who knows?

Yet if we open the Bible, there are some passages that are so clear! Even if we know they were obviously written by a human hand – it really feels divinely inspired (and that’s what we claim). God tells us who God is. And most of us when we introduce ourselves / we may give a list of qualities (I am like this, like that), but isn’t interesting that, instead, the Bible describes what God does? God says to Moses “I am who I am”, so in order to know who God is, you have to know what God does. If we look at the verbs in our OT lesson, this is what God says about what God does: I have observed / I have heard / I know / I have come down / I will bring (my people) up.

And it tells us a lot right? God observes, hears and knows. Now we learned that when we were children, that God knows everything, yet for most of us it is still a little bit frightening to think about that. God sees and knows when we do something wrong, or shameful. But this is not what the Bible says. The Bible says that first thing God sees and hears, it is the misery of those who suffer. God does not know everything to make people feel bad, to judge and to condemn them, but God – and it is two others verbs the Bible uses about God’s actions – God is going to “come down” in order “to bring (his people) up”.

The Bible does not describe who God is by listing God’s great qualities, even if it could. Rather, it tells us how God feels and what God does. God is touched by the people – and I would argue not only the people, but by suffering in general, the suffering of every living thing – and God acts to relieve this suffering. God comes down to the one who is suffering to bring them up / raise them up.

And it is all the story of salvation right? This is not only the story of Exodus. This is also the story of Jesus: Jesus was touched by people’s sufferings, he came to live with the poor, he saw them and heard them, he brought them healing and hope, made them feel loved and accepted. He came to “raise them up from the dead” in many, many ways.

This is what God does and so this is also what we are called to do when we have a living faith / as followers of Jesus – and today, we are reminded of that through MLK’s example. How MLK’s faith in God, being a follower and imitator of Jesus, made him act in very concrete ways: He observed, heard, knew the suffering of African Americain people and he also came to help them and to raise them up. (= be with them, marching and advocating, in order to defend their dignity and obtain for them equal rights). We may think that MLK’s life was so exceptional (and in many ways it was, of course) that it has little to do with us – yet, as Christians, his life is a great example of what it means to follow Jesus.

But how can we do anything like that? It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Quote of MLK I love: Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”

I learned this week reading the newspaper something I didn’t know, that MLK’s Day is “National Day of service”, a day to encourage volunteering. And I love that b/c to me it is the whole idea: To take action, at our own level, to love in acts. Concretely. And it can be small things. The newspaper told stories about those volunteers and they did those little things – like one man described how every week, he took an hour to go read to a student in a poor neighborhood. Yet all the volunteers said they were so proud as they realized they were able to make a difference in the life of others, but also in their own lives. One of the volunteers said: “The reason I am so happy is because I have started to live my life for others”.

To act concretely, to do something for those who suffer, this is what God does and what believers are called to do, because this is the nature of love. I was saying that, since the beginning of the world, people wonder who God is, but isn’t it also true about love? What is love? There are so different many ways to think about love. But this is what the Bible tells us: Love is about seeing, hearing, knowing others, being touched by them, but it is also, and it is mostly, coming down (from where we stand) to be with them and to raise them up / to lift them up. And we can all do that, at our level. Isn’t it wonderful that all of us, wherever we are, we can love as God loves us? We can all decide to start to see and hear and learn more about what’s going on in our world or in our neighborhood, and not just feel sorry or even heart broken, but go and do something about it. We can do it as individuals but also as a community, as a church, no matter if we are small or don’t feel we have much power. We are all called to love this world and to bring more love in this world.

This is also the message of the Gospel today. As Jesus describes love, he uses verbs all the time: “Love” for Jesus is synonymous with “Do good” / “Bless” / “Pray” / “Offer” / “Give”. We often think that this Gospel on the love of the enemies is very idealistic, when to me it is very realistic. It shows love not as a dream or a passive emotion or a mere feeling, it shows what love is supposed to do. What Christians, churches are supposed to do.

You know, I love to celebrate MLK’s Day b/c of that. B/c in the life of MLK, of those who fought for civil rights, we see love in action / transforming a country / changing the world. The Letter from Birmingham Jail we have just read reminds us of that: Love is not supposed to be passive / and so certainly churches aren’t supposed to be passive. In the letter, we can feel MLK’s energy, but also his sadness and disappointment at churches which don’t do what they are supposed to do. Christianity is not mainly a cultural or even a religious identity. Being a Christian is (first and above all) about putting love into motion, letting God work through us, especially as we care for those who suffer – every living creature.

I read something similar this week – written by a pastor (John Pavlovitz): “If you profess to be a follower of Jesus, I’m not concerned with your politics and I don’t care about your doctrine. I’m not interested in the Scriptures you can recite or the prayers you utter out loud. (…) Show me that you actually give a damn about people: not just (…) American people or Christian people or white people—but the disparate parade of human beings in every way you encounter them, in every condition they arrive, with whatever backstory they’ve lived through. If you tell me you’re a Christian, be someone who, like Jesus—looks at the crowds and has a compassion for them that propels them into proximity with their pain.”

The extremism MLK speaks about in his letter is not a politic extremism. It is loving to the extreme – which leads us to take action, concretely, everyday, and not only privately but in the public space when needed. But this is Jesus’s message. When Jesus asks us to love our neighbors, he says that it not about loving only our friends, about being nice to people, it’s about loving those who are different, but also those who hurt us, those who do evil because in the end, being a follower of Jesus is about overcoming a culture of hate. If as Christians we are supposed to bring a culture / an identity, that’s the culture / identity of love we need to bring.

We hear today this great saying of Jesus: to turn the other cheek. But it’s not about letting people hit you. Slapping the cheek in many cultures is a provocation. And so what Jesus asks us when he asks us to turn the other cheek, is to not respond to provocation. To not enter the vicious circle of hate. To resist the hate / not become hateful whatever the reason / to turn the hate around by responding with love to all situations. We have to confess that most of us Christians think it’s okay to hate at some point to hate, whether it’s criminals, immigrants, terrorists, gay people, abortionists, white supremacists…you name it. But to all of us Jesus says: It’s never okay to hate. Jesus knew what he was talking about. Jesus had many people who hated him – so much they put him to death. Yet even on the cross Jesus loved them and showed compassion. As Christians we are supposed to embody love. Not just pity or compassion for victims or criminals, but a love in action that seeks to relieve suffering, bring justice, raise people up – all people. The nature of love is ultimately that it brings Redemption.

How do we do that? Maybe we have to start by confessing our inability to love / how hard it can be to love in a world full of hate and provocation and ask Jesus, as MLK kept on doing, ask Jesus to give us his strength, the strength he showed on the cross / the strength to love to the extreme and to the end. Amen.

The Baptism of the Lord

– Some of you know that I live very close by the seminary in Alexandria where I studied to become a priest. They have Eucharists everyday at their chapel and it’s not unusual that they ask their alumni, once ordained, to come to lead a service and to preach. I did that for them several times over the years, but one day, a request a little bit unusual came to me. I was asked to lead a liturgy in Spanish because the students wanted to learn. Now, I know a little bit of Spanish. I studied it in high school – that was a long time ago but I thought, why not? I am not great at that but what is the worst that can happen? It’s just a small service with students like I used to be, they’re not going to judge me if it’s not perfect.

The thing I didn’t know is that on that particular day, they had on campus a guest who came to give a lecture, and they wished to honor during the celebration. For that reason, I was told 10mn before the start of the service, a few faculty members were going to attend so they can do the acknowledgment of the guest during the offertory. And so, this is what happened: As I entered the chapel, all vested and ready as much I could be to celebrate and to preach, I realized that in the two first rows in the Chapel were actually seated, not just a small group of friendly students, but most of my former teachers, and, among them – Former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori – who is, by the way, completely fluent in Spanish.

No to tell you that I felt it would be a “humbling experience” would not even begin to cover it. It was already something to have to preach to my former teachers and to the Presiding Bishop, but on top of that, in my broken Spanish? With my French accent? I started to break in cold sweats – but there was nothing I could do right? I could not run away, although, trust me, I wished I could have crawled under a rock.

So, of course, when I read about John in the wilderness seeing Jesus coming from afar and then Jesus telling him he’s not there to teach him, to give him instructions, or even to have a random conversation, but he is actually asking John to minister to him, to baptize him, well…although (let me be clear) I don’t identify with John at all, I can certainly relate to what he was feeling: “Me? Baptizing you? It is I who need to be baptized by you”. Because of course, having John baptizing Jesus, it didn’t make any sense – it’s a little like me preaching to a bunch of people with a Phd in theology and fluent in a language I just have basic notions of. You don’t feel honored or even humbled when something like that happens to you, what you feel is embarrassment and even maybe shame and fear.

And yet – this is the way it all started. John had to baptize Jesus so “all righteousness would be fulfilled”.

What does it mean? The question is not even “why did Jesus need to be baptized” but why did Jesus ask John? Embarrassed him this way? Why did Jesus asked of John to do something so unexpected / counter-intuitive?

As I thought about it for today, I found 4 levels of explanation

First part: 2 first points. We covered last week during our forum that Matthew is the Gospel “of the church”. Matthew is writing “foundational text” to build up a community. I think it meant something for the early Christian community that John whould baptize Jesus…and I love to have that before Annual Meeting and election of new vestry members next week…It says how leaderships looks like in the church.

1 – Good leadership comes from people who are not interested in power. And it’s hard for us to think about that when of course in the corporate world and politics it’s almost every time greedy or at least ambitious people who lead. In the church, good leaders are those who, like John, are aware of their limitations, don’t cling to their ministry when somebody they think is more able than them show up, feel and express the need to be fed / ministered to as well. Know they are also in need of healing, attention, help. Yet, they are also willing to fulfill their duties as needed, when asked to.

But then, leadership in the church looks also like Jesus: Let others be in charge so they can experience serving, even if there would be a faster or more efficient way to act, empowers disciples to do new things or to carry on their ministry, step back when needed.

In both case, neither John nor Jesus are interested in power or control. Don’t feel the need to be right or to be the center of attention. What they do, they do it to serve, and to make God known (and in the story, God shows up!). I was joking this week that often in the church it’s the one who doesn’t want to do it who is the more qualified to do it: They acknowledge their limitations, are aware of the responsibilities and are not interested in being the center of attention. They do what they are called to do to serve – with great humility.

Isn’t it interesting to realize that both John – who serves, ministers – and Jesus – the one who is ministered to – both do that out of a great humility? Isn’t it what “all righteousness” is all about? Humility is ministering and in being ministered to.

2 – As it turns out, this Gospel is probably more about ministering to one another than about leadership. What it tells you is that in the church, ministering is mutual. We minister to one another. The minister (=priest) is not the one in charge of ministering to everyone, the minister (=priest) reminds us that as baptized people, we all share in Jesus’s priesthood (BCP p.308), and we are called to minister to one another – to be to one another a witness of Christ’s love. I remind you that, in case of emergency, any baptized Christian can baptize someone (BCP p.313). More generally,we pray for one another, we help each other, sometimes it’s not more complicated than showing up, giving a phone call.

We all need help, we all need to be strengthen in our faith, prayed for, talk about the things we deal with. We are not strong by relying on ourselves, we are made strong and firm in our faith by our community but also by those around us: family, friends, but also counselors, doctors, teachers…John baptized in the desert b/c he believed that God wasn’t necessarily stuck in the Temple. God was among people and in the wild. People can minister to us in countless ways, even non believers. Nature can minister to us too. Julian of Norwich: “God is in everything that is good” (I would add: “and right and joyful” as in our Eucharistic Prayer A).

We need to show up for one another as of course Jesus showed up for people and as John showed up for Jesus – even if he didn’t feel that qualified. We all need each other. God became flesh to learn what it is to be human. As long as we are in this life, nobody has it all figured out.

2nd part: 2 last points / explanation why JB “had” to baptize Jesus less about the church and more “spiritual” (Tell us something about God)…Bear with me.

3 – Why did Jesus ask John to baptize him? Did he want to make a point / show an example / say something about the church – as we may believe when we read Matthew? Maybe. It says something about leadership and about ministry, which we have just covered. But more deeply, I think the reason why Jesus ask John to baptize him it’s b/c Jesus could not help himself. That’s just who he is.

I recently watched on Netflix the movie “The two Popes” about Pope Benedictus and Pope Francis and we see the rising of Francis in the Vatican, and a lot of the comical aspect of the movie is to show how Pope Francis is humble, humble in a way that embarrass the rest of the clergy. For example, we see taht Francis (when still an archbishop) does not want the fancy car to visit Rome, he just rides the bus. But he does not do it to make a statement, he is just happy to see people and to chat with the bus driver. Well, I think it’s a little bit the same with Jesus. He goes where the crowd is, he goes meet his cousin, he let him do his thing – even if John starts to be embarrassed. Jesus does not think twice about what he is doing, he is not making a well rehearsed statement, even if it says something. Jesus asks John to baptize him b/c he is so humble. It’s just natural for him to behave that way.

To come close to God, we have to be very humble, not because God wants to humiliate us, to make us feel little, but b/c God is very humble too. In the very simple things. And that’s where God reveals God’s glory. The language of the psalm is not so much a language of conquest and power, strength, it is the language of awe. God broke into the world in humility. A baby and now a young man coming without armor / naked in a river to be cleansed.

Isaiah describes the gentleness of the Messiah. God is not here to break us. Trials in life may break us, but Jesus came literally to raise us up.

4 – Last, something to chew on: Maybe Jesus asks John to minister to him b/c, in a mysterious way, we are called to “minister to God” and maybe that’s what Christian life is all about. We often think of baptism as this day we accept God into our life, and God becomes part of our story. Baptism is this day when we become part of God’s story, when we receive God into our heart, when God receives us into God’s heart. If we are made in God’s image, God wants as much as anyone of us to be loved – even more than us, since there is only perfect love in God.

How do we show love to God in our everyday lives? How do we give back to God by being our best selves? Living a life of service full of goodness, generosity and joy? That’s our life as baptized people: circle back the love we receive from God. That’s what Jesus calls “all righteousness”.