Lent IV

1st remark: Beautiful to have this week Psalm 23rd. We often think of it as the psalm of the “Valley of the shadow of death” / Read at funerals, but it is first of all a psalm of trust – Confidence that God as a shepherd walks with us and can bring us strength, courage, comfort and help on the journey / Guidance.

Once again in the Bible, we are invited to overcome fear. I would like to stop here to explain two points that I think are important:

Overcoming fear does not mean that we don’t have the right to fear. If there is no fear, there is nothing to overcome. It is not about denying our feelings or self persuasion. It is to realize that there is something / someone bigger than us / bigger than our problems and that this someone bigger than us cares and does not abandon us. (Some of you have posted how praying these days made you feel better). There is a promise of life even in the midst of death. This is this promise we remember during Lent.

The invitation not to fear does not mean there is nothing to fear, it is not an invitation to be reckless. Some Christians act like they believe that God is a superhero in the sky pulling all the strings for them and watching their backs, and so nothing bad can happen (to them). But the Psalm tells us that the way God is with us is not by pulling the strings, but by walking with us. God’s power is the power of life and life is resilient.

Some crisis are inevitable, most are made worse b/c of our way of living even if it is not b/c of individual sin (cf John: The blind man is not blind b/c of his sin or of his parents’). We are responsible for the bad and we have to do our best to fix it. But God will work with us. Individually and as a community.

2 – Moreover, God works with those who are willing to work with God – two readings today and also Mary’s Canticle reminds us that God works with those who are humble, the “overlooked” b/c they let God act trough them, knowing they aren’t all powerful themselves. The Bible made of David this great king but also reminds us (first reading) that David was the last and the least in his own family. His own father completely overlooked him: When Samuel said he was looking for a king among Jesse’s sons, Jesse didn’t even remember David. In the Gospel, ironically, the blind man is also the one who is “overlooked” – He does not see, but more deeply, nobody sees him.

Salvation comes in unexpected way, from unexpected people and it is something important to remember when we are afraid. Don’t overlook what could be life giving.

What makes the difference in our lives is when we are humble enough / willing to open up to God. David wrote this beautiful psalm. He was a shepherd, he shares his own experience of feeling lonely, afraid and overlooked. But God saw him and chose him. The blind man also opens up to Jesus’s power instead of trying to identify (as did a lot of religious people) if Jesus was “good enough” to cure him, had all the credentials, obeyed the letter of the law (He cured on a Sabbath). And Jesus turns to those who turn to him. What matters to God is the disposition of our hearts.

Have you noticed that the OT says that God does not look the appearance and then it says that David was very good looking? It’s b/c when the Bible talk about appearance, it is not about physical appearance, it is more about social status. God does not look at social status but sees the hearts (open or close). As for us, generally we don’t care about the hearts, we care more about social status. We don’t look at those who have no power and mostly, we don’t believe their stories – and that’s another important point I want to discuss about our Scriptures today.

3 – We generally read John 4 as this story where “Jesus cures a blind man” and we understand it as a story of a miracle, but if we look closer, it is not so much about a miracle. It is more about somebody telling a story nobody wants to believe. Not the religious leaders and not even the parents of the man.

We know that. There are people in this world whom, no matter what, everybody will believe their stories even if they lie to your face, and others, who tell the truth, are voices that go unheard. Your age, social class, gender or race is often what makes your story believable or not.

This man / blind man was a “sinner” – mostly he was handicapped and poor and had no connections, therefore his story was unbelievable for most. It may cut deep for some of us who experienced that…People don’t believe you b/c you’re too young, or b/c of your skin color…On the other side, doesn’t it happen to us that we don’t believe people based on how they look like / they are and mainly because their story is disturbing to us?

– The real issue is that the religious leaders does not want to believe the blind man because they don’t want to believe in Jesus / Jesus brings disruptions to their lives, questions their power and what they take for granted. The miracle of a “sinner” being healed by a “sinner” on a Sabbath Day does not fit the narrative of the Temple where people used religion / rites to assert their power and where the roles were clearly defined.

4 – Heart of the question: It’s not only that we tend to believe powerful people’s stories but the main problem is that some people use stories to assert their power (religious people, politics), or lie to please others (family, parents) – and not to spare them but to manipulate them. How often do we say what’s expect of us and are not truthful to our experience just b/c it’s more convenient? What happens and what is extraordinary with the blind man is that he clings to his story, to what he witnessed even if he does not understand and cannot explain, and even if he is not rewarded for telling the truth – quite the opposite. The blind man acknowledges that someone / something is bigger than him and he let this power works through him. The truth is more important than what’s advantageous to him.

Some people think they are truthful b/c they cling to their opinions (religious, political etc), but the Gospel shows us that the real truthfulness is to testify of what we have experienced, even if it is disturbing. We are invited to refuse to fit the official narrative that pleases some and gives power to others. We are called to testify about what we have seen, even if we are the only one who saw / who can see.

These days, I think a lot of scientists and how they can be the prophets of our age when they warn us of impending dangers. But we don’t listen to them b/c they aren’t charismatic enough or b/c what they have to say does not please us, and it disturbs us. On the other way around, a lot of politics, companies will tell lies / tales that reassure us but aren’t for our own good eventually. The Gospel reminds us that we need to be faithful to the truth, not to what is convenient for us.

What about you? What is the story of your life? If you had one story, what would you choose to tell? Where did you see salvation coming to you? Where did you experience rejection? When were you heard?

Lent II

During this Lent we will dive into John’s Gospel…There are not that many “stories” in John – fewer than in the three other Gospels, but each time the story is well developed and an occasion for an extended teaching.

Today we have heard of Jesus meeting at night with Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. We may not know the whole story but there are two points we would recognize quickly even if we have very little knowledge of the Christian faith:

– The invitation to be “born again”

– John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son [so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life]”

We often connect the two. If we want to be “born again” we have to believe that God gave God’s only Son.

I – First of all, I would like to say something about being “born again” b/c it is something we hear so often we don’t think about it so much.

To be “born again” is translated more accurately as being born “from above” – and it does not mean to start again (from scratch, leaving everything behind), it mainly means to be born spiritually, to be awakened to a spiritual way of living.

What is worth noticing is that birth does not happen all at once / suddenly. To a lot of people, being born again means that suddenly you accept Jesus into your life and your life is completely transformed. Well, this experience happens, but generally spiritual birth takes time. It is interesting to have women starting to comment the Scriptures more systematically b/c they understand that birthing does not happen all at once, when the baby is here, rather birthing is a process (biological) but also an emotional and spiritual journey – You become a mother, a parent. It is not simple. There are fears, doubts, hopes, discouragements, pain, meltdowns and inexplicable joys. It is also the case when we need to be born spiritually.

This is helpful to think of all our lives as birth, we are led by God to become spiritual beings. As the unborn child or the parent to be, it is a process to which we are blind most of the time, that is hidden from us, does not depend on us. The only thing the child can do is to let the mother birth him and the mother also expects the child to let her know his needs.

In the same way, when Jesus says that No one can see the KOG without being born from above, maybe he notices that Nicodemus already sees the KOG. N says to Jesus he sees God’s presence in him. Nicodemus is in the process of being born and so are we. Faith as a journey: There are back and forth, long pauses (Abraham). It is not always a yes or no kind of thing.

The Spirit blows where it chooses. You cannot control it / have guarantees. Our spirituality needs emphasis on detachment, letting go and most of all trust. Instead of thinking what you want from life, ask yourself what it is that life wants from you.Let the Spirit blows through our lives, inspire us and lead us even if we don’t know the way yet.

Nicodemus is an example to whom we can relate. He hasn’t it all figured it out – but he is on his way to awakening…He is looking for more than just some kind of religious teaching from Jesus that would keep his life ordered/secure. He can feel God’s presence in Jesus and he wants more of it! As Nicodemus, we may feel attracted / try to come closer to God’s presence. Nicodemus was restless, at night, scared or questioning, wanted to know if God was for real. Desire / longing. Not contented with “exterior religious rites” or even a good teaching.

What about us? Are we curious for God, a little restless, growing in the desire to be in God’s presence? How would it change our spirituality?

I read a great story this week. A woman was telling how she discovered how God’s presence was really what she needed. It happened when she was found w/ a lump. She started to feel very anxious. Supposed to have the results of her biopsy in 48 hours and it took 8 days. She kept praying that everything would be all right, she felt she was going crazy with anxiety. After 7 days though she said she had suddenly a clear sense that God was there and that it would be all right, in a way or another. She said the 8th day she woke up at peace – although she still didn’t have her results (They turned out fine). She discovered that what she needed the most was to realize that God was for real.

What Lent is about: Come closer to God. Do we feel in us this longing to be in God’s presence and to feel that God is “for real”? Is it something we pray about – to experience this spiritual birthing?

II – Second thing we may want to think about is v16: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son [so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”

It is worth noticing is that we often translate or understand that God loved the world “so much” that God gave God’s only Son. Yet, if you read John’s Gospel thoroughly, you will quickly notice that the world is not especially God’s realm, rather the opposite. The disciples “are not from the world” and are invited to part from the “world’s ways.”

The “world” is not a physical place – what’s outside the church, for example. It is more of a dimension: a way of living that do not have spiritual roots, that is not connected to God. So God does not love the world “so much” but God loves the world “so” in the translation of the Greek outos: in this way. God loves the world in this way that God gave God’s only Son.

The verse does not teach us so much about how much God loves, rather than the way in which God chooses to love. And I think it is important for us to think about that, because most of the time, whether in our families, romantic relationships, even with our pets and of course as Christians, we think that what we need to do is to love “very much” without always giving a lot of thoughts about the way we are supposed to love.

But today the Gospel tells us the way God loves and the way we are supposed to imitate: By giving, so that others might have life. By giving so that others might have life.

It’s not the first time the Bible teaches that though. We think the Bible talks a lot about love, and it does, but do you know that it mentions love 300 times, when giving is mentioned 1000 times?

The way to love is by giving, and not only, not mainly by giving your money, but by giving life. Literally sometimes, but mainly spiritually.

It could be something we want to reflect on during Lent: How is our love life giving or not? Because so often the problem with the way we are is not so much that we don’t love enough, it is often that we don’t know how to love. I heard once a pastor saying that we often “love to death” instead of “loving to life” and I find it a very good way of putting things. We love for ourselves, for our own needs, we want to “keep” people or we project our needs on others w/o really seeing them. Or we try very hard to be very nice, when maybe what would be life giving would be to have a difficult conversation. Or maybe it is willing to open up about yourself and your own struggles to help somebody feel better about what they’re going through.

To me, this is the way God loves us and calls us to love from the beginning: By giving life.

If we turn back to the Book of Genesis this morning, I think we have a good sense of what in means in Abraham and Sarah’s call. They are called to be blessed and then to be a blessing. A blessing not only to their own families, but to all the families of the earth.

Well, this call is quite extraordinary. And in the same time very accessible. We may think that this call was for Sarah and Abraham only because they were to be mother and father of all believers. Rather, it is a call we need all to imitate. So this is why it is extraordinary and ordinary in the same time. To be a blessing: This is at the root of the birth of faith and in the same time, we need to do it everyday, every time we meet somebody, or even when we “act in secret” as Jesus asked us to do during Lent – maybe when we write a check to a non-profit, or recycle our trash, give up eating meat…

It is not always easy to know if we have been nice or loving or kind, but to me if I look back at my day, at my week, it is rather easy to know when I have been a blessing and when I haven’t been one. The question is: When is it that we have raised people into new, bigger, better life or limited them in their world as they know it?

If God keeps on birthing us from this world into new life, so we have are invited to do the same for those surrounding us.

Conclusion: Asked this question: Is God for real in our spirituality? God becomes real for us as we make God become real for others, by being a blessing. Yes, we are blessed and the become a blessing but also by being a blessing, we are blessed too. The more we make God real to others, the more God becomes real to us.

Lent I

Sometimes readings gather around a common theme. Readings clearly about temptation this week.

A few observations:

– Throughout the Bible, from Genesis to the Gospel, people struggle with temptation.

From the first couple, Adam and Eve, to our Redeemer, Jesus, whom Paul qualifies in Romans as a “New Adam”.

Throughout the Gospel, we see Jesus struggling with temptation from the beginning of his ministry (Before it even starts, and it is the passage we have today when Jesus meets the devil in the wilderness) to the end of his ministry and his agony in the garden of Gethsemane (Asking God to be spared from the cross).

Temptation happens all the time in the story of God’s people and interestingly, it does not happen only to notorious sinners. Rather the opposite.

Temptation comes to Adam and Eve in their state of innocence, in a perfect place, when they still have a whole relationships together / an untarnished friendship with God.

Temptation comes to Jesus in his state of holiness, after he has been abundantly blessed, after he received the baptism in the Jordan (That happens right before the passage we have read this morning)

So we need to remember that: Temptation happens to people who are innocent / holy / “good people”. It’s important to notice that because when something happens to Xns they identify as temptation, Xns often wonder:

What’s wrong with me? What did I do / where did I fail that I feel tempted?

But I read once in a book of piety something that I found really useful: “The devil does not bother with people who already belong to him”.

The devil does not bother with people who already belong to him.

It is not that I believe there are people who belong to the devil. To me, the sense of this quotation is first than if you’re in a state of sin, you do not identify temptation. You just do what you do without thinking much about your acts and their consequences or what God wants.

But even more deeper, and this is what we read today, innocence and holiness, in a strange way, attracts the devil who tries to destroy the work of God and God’s people.

There is a poem that says that Satan sheds tears of bitterness when he sees the beauty of the world. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, says that there is something in vulnerability, innocence and goodness that is like a magnet to what is evil, something that provokes jealousy, violence, destruction. We see in our world that it is the innocents and the powerless who suffer the most from violence. They get hurt simply b/c it’s easy to hurt them.

If we encounter strong temptation, it’s not necessarily that we have done something wrong, it could be the devil going out of his way to break our relationships with God.

Once we know that, it makes it easier to deal with temptation. Temptation is not so much about wanting things that are “wrong”, it’s when we are faced with risking being led in a way of living or thinking that will ultimately break our relationship with God.

– How does the Devil break our relationship with God?

Well, we first have to remember that the devil will ALWAYS outsmart people, even the holy and innocent, and especially the holy and innocent because they cannot relate to what the devil has in mind, to evil.

Psychologists use this test to know if a patient has evil tendencies:
A woman is attending the funeral of her mother. At this funeral, she meets a man she likes but he leaves before she can find out who he is and how to be in touch with him. One week later, she kills her sister. Why?

Well, according to the psychologists, most people will never find the answer. The answer is: Because she thinks that the man may attend this funeral as well. People can’t find the answer, not because they’re stupid, but because they’re good.

Evil is something the majority of people can’t even think about. In this way, it’s something that will always outsmart them.

– How does the devil outsmart us, especially Xns? By tempting us with what is the most important to us, by tricking us with our own goodness, our faith and our devotion.

It is worrisome that we always identify temptation with greed and sex. It is often the way we interpret this first reading of Genesis. But if you read Genesis though, after he created Adam and Eve, God commands them to “Be fruitful and multiply”, so it’s not sex that is forbidden when they “eat the apple”.

Of course, there is a lot to say about greed (and sex when it becomes greedy), a lot of our problems in our world are happening because of greed (Greed for money and power). The collapse of ecological systems today is the result of centuries of collective greed.

But that’s not the real work of the devil. People walk down the path of greed by themselves most of the time. The real temptation (and the most dangerous) is the one we don’t see coming. It’s when the devil tempts us with our own goodness and our own faith.

To me, this is the story of Eve. You see how the serpent talks to her? The serpent promises Eve that she will be “Like God”. But you want to become like what you really like, what you really think is good. Eve has this perfect relationships with God, and she wants to become as wise as God, probably not out of rivalry, but out of imitation.

And we see that we Jesus as well. The devil does not tempt Jesus by telling him he should better get out of the wilderness to make lots of money and spend it on partying. The Devil tempts Jesus with proving / testing his relationship with God. The devil tempts Jesus with ways Jesus could become “even closer” or “even more beloved” by God, or carry on a more successful mission.

You know how we say that best is sometimes the enemy of good, or The road that goes to Hell is paved with good intentions. There is some wisdom in that.

If you really love your job, maybe Satan is going to tempt you by working so hard you won’t have time for anything else.

If you really love being a Mom, maybe Satan is going to tempt you by exhausting yourself trying to do such a terrific job, at some point you will start resenting your family for not being more grateful.

If you really love God, maybe Satan is going to tempt you by willing so much to do God’s will, as you carry on your mission you will lose track of your community and your own soul.

– As we exhaust ourselves to measure up, we start to self destroy. The way Satan works always lead to despair and to self destruction. Because Satan is jealous of the work of God and wants to destroy the work of God, us, humans beings, replicas of Adam and Eve, but even more, the replicas of Christ Christians are supposed to be.

And to me, this is the heart of the problem. Doubt in itself is not the enemy of faith. Quite the opposite, it is reasonable to reflect on the articles of faith, and our tradition in the Anglican Church invites us always to question.

The doubt that the devil introduces is the doubt towards God’s goodness. When we hear this voice that says: “See, God does not care, nobody loves you and your life means nothing” – especially in times of weakness, when we are tired, sick, bullied, or isolated.

We start doubting that God really loves us or desires what is good for us

We start wondering if goodness is God, if goodness is really this ultimate power / has really the ultimate authority or if we should surrender to other powers (= Satan’s) / wondering if goodness is good enough or if we should add a little more to it.

The work of the devil is to convince us that God does not care about us and that there is no use in being good, and that’s the opposite of what Jesus commanded us to do: Love God and love neighbor. Now that’s the path that leads us not only to sin, but even more, that leads to self destruction, nihilism and despair (Spiritual death – the real problem with sin)

This is where Eve fails the test, and where Jesus passes it.

Eve does not believe that goodness, trust in God and confidence in the fact that she is already created in God’s image, will lead her to be God like / make her already God like. She thinks she needs a shortcut to get what she wants, to get even more b/c maybe God does not want what’s best for her.

Jesus is also tempted to look for proofs that he is indeed the Son of God, that God really cares for him, that God will reward him. But he decides to trust and not use tricks. Jesus believes the goodness and love of God will carry on and see him through his trials and questioning.

In the end, Jesus is the one (and according to Paul, the first one) who truly outsmarted the devil.

Isn’t it interesting to notice that the devil quotes the Scriptures? God can be whoever you want God to be, you can make the Bible say a lot of things. The devil can tempt us with our own faith. The bottom line is to hold on to the truth that God is good and that goodness/ love are not only the ultimate end but the only means / the only way – The way of Love: “Love is the only thing that has ever worked” (Bishop Curry)

The response to the devil: It all comes down to trusting ourselves as being enough, already loved by God and led by God / goodness in spite / through of the difficulties (wilderness).