A Message for Pentecost

So I wrote another sermon this week…For Pentecost…And you know, it’s fine. I come up with stuff, and there are maybe a few ideas and it’s on line and you can check it out if you want and maybe it will help you to think about things but in this context, given the events that took place this weekend, my heart isn’t in it to preach it today and I don’t think you’ll get much from it right now.

Pentecost, right. We should celebrate the coming together of all people – tongues and nations, united in the power of the Holy Spirit – but what happened this week is that we’ve just been witnessing all this hate and division in our society, white people threatening, humiliating and murdering African Americans – or white people just being bystanders, approving by a criminal indifference and silence.

It sickens me.

I was texting yesterday with a friend of mine from seminary who is now a priest in Memphis – He’s an African American. And he wasn’t saying a thing about the situation you know – He was just texting to send me pictures of his two beautiful kids playing together in his living room, but when I saw his kids, his four years old daughter and one year old son, it made me want to cry, it made me want to cry thinking about them so innocent and joyful growing up in this society. And I thought, I need to say something to my friend, and I didn’t know what to say. And I had this back and forth in my mind: “I need to say something, I don’t know what to say” and you see, I didn’t know what to say because I don’t know much about races in America, I am not American as you know, I am not Black obviously, but this only thing I know is that this situation sickens me and so that’s what I told to my friend: I don’t know what to say about all this s…ituation (I didn’t say “situation”) going on, it makes me sick. And when I wrote that to my friend, that’s what he answered me:

That’s exactly the right description for this nation. It is sick! And I said Yes, maybe it is even sicker on the inside than it is on the outside.

Today, we’re looking for cure, medicines and vaccines against the virus and yes we need to put all our efforts in it. Yet we also need to remember, urgently, that’s it’s on the inside we also need to be cured. It’s on the inside that we need to be healed and maybe it’s not that bad after all that today we think about Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, because here’s the thing: Our hearts need to be changed. Life is not only about our bodies. It’s important to be healthy in our bodies, but now it’s not only our bodies that are threatened. It’s our hearts that are dying, it’s our souls that are in danger.

We need the Holy Spirit more than ever. To change the hearts of those who commit and support such hatred. And we also need the Holy Spirit to mend the broken hearts of those who endure this hatred, those who have been enduring this hatred for so long. We need the Holy Spirit to strengthen them, comfort them, restore them.

I don’t know what to say because I don’t feel I have the right to say something: I am not American, I don’t know much about races, but I know that most days I am ashamed to be white and I would like to apologize for all white people, and in the same time I feel it’s even more shameful to think white people could get away with an apology and mostly I don’t want to burden you with my white people feelings, so I won’t say anything.

But as your priest, there is something I can tell you. I can tell you that we need the Holy Spirit more than ever and although the Holy Spirit is like the wind and blows wherever the Spirit wants to blow, we are reminded today that the Spirit chose Jesus’s disciples and the Spirit continues to choose the church and you are the church.

And maybe we don’t have much at Christ Church. For now, we don’t even have our building! And we’re not the youngest, the fittest, or the richest, but we have each other and even if it’s not perfect, we have managed to find a way to live together and to worship together between races. Oh, it’s not perfect, I am sure there are some hurt feelings, misunderstandings and prejudices – we make mistakes, we fail, but we try again. We try and we’re still here. And maybe we’re not a fancy church, but you see, we have that. We have each other and we try to be together. And we love each other.

And it’s so important. It’s so important right now not only to be the church, but to be our church. To be us. A church where we try to love each other coming all from different places, backgrounds and races.

When you read the Scriptures, really, this is all there is to it – the Church, the Holy Spirit. People coming together in love, in peace, in reconciliation. And the world needs this testimony.

We hear a lot today that church, it’s not that important. You can just stay home and believe in God. But it is important. Church is important. Because God is just not a Spirit up above, God’s Spirit visits God’s people. God’s Spirit holds people together. We need to be the church. Just to show them. Just to show them it’s possible to be us.

But better than showing them, maybe we need to tell them. I don’t know what to say, but what I can say is that I know a lot of you would know what to say. Or even if you don’t know what to say, the Spirit will tell you what to say. The Spirit will lead you out of weariness, fear and pain to speak your truth and your reality and to carry on the mission to change the world and even harder, to change the hearts of those who wouldn’t listen – a mission the Apostles started two thousands years ago when they left their house to meet the people out there, people who didn’t want them, people who were their enemies, people who killed their friend.

The world needs you and the world needs Christ Church. The world needs to hear us, as a church, and the world needs us to preach, all of us, not just me! Each in our own voices, we need to preach about the Kingdom of God and denounce the absurd violence and hatred of this world. The world needs the Church and needs Christ Church because the world needs to be healed and we can be an example of this healing / strive to be an example. Together.

I am sure a lot of you today are angry. I am not going to tell you not to be angry. Yesterday, I came across this beautiful quotation from Maya Angelou: “If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger, yes. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

Don’t be a stone and to be too sick to talk about it – as I have felt these past days. We can be angry yes, and we can use our anger – not as they want everybody to believe to bring more violence and destruction in the world, but to heal the world – we need to use our anger to claim the justice of God’s kingdom and to do something good for God’s children who suffer and to do something redemptive for those who persecute them. We need to let the Spirit act through us. The Spirit set the disciples on fire. Let the Spirit set a fire inside of you. Speak your truth and your reality. Never stop talking it. By your individual testimony, by our collective testimony.

And when it’s too much and you’re weary, remember, we still have each other. And God is with each one of us. Today is Sunday, and it’s the Feast of the Pentecost. Take some time for God – seriously. Unplug from the news, TV, social medias. Put down your phone. Just stop for a few hours. Go out if you can. Take a walk, pray. Ask God to fill your heart with God’s Spirit, ask God to give you peace, healing and comfort and then what God wants from you, in this situation. What you can do, what you can say, how you can use your sadness, your anger and your pain to bring a little more of God’s Spirit into this broken world. And God will certainly show us the way. God wants this to change even more than we do.

Day of Pentecost

On this day of Pentecost, both of our readings today (Acts and John) start by mentioning a location, and the situation the disciples found themselves in when the Holy Spirit was given to them: Luke mentions in Acts that “They were all together in the same place” and the Gospel of John adds that, more precisely, it was “Evening on that day”, “the first day of the week” and the “door of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews”.

And so those two versions of what happened on the Day of Pentecost we’ve heard today differ quite a bit, but Luke and John agree on that: The Holy Spirit finds the disciples locked behind closed doors, afraid and wrapped up on themselves / keeping safe in their little group. And it’s only when they receive the Spirit that they can open up and start their work of evangelization through meeting people and giving their testimonies, living up to their full potential.

Actually, I thought it was a bit ironic to have those two readings on the Eve of the reopening of our county. I was afraid it would make us feel like we “all need to go out now”, you know because staying home would mean we are afraid and not empowered by the Holy Spirit, and certainly many churches today, and many church leaders, have made some members of their congregation feel guilty about staying home saying something like: “If you’d really have faith, you wouldn’t be afraid”. Well, we know that things didn’t turn out that well for those who felt overly confident in this pandemic. It’s quite clear for all of us with common sense that it is safer now to stay home, not only for ourselves, but it is also the loving and wise thing to do for our vulnerable neighbors, to do our best efforts not to spread the disease.

This said, I have good news for you because the thing is that, of course, the readings are not so much about the dilemma “leaving home or staying home”. Even if it’s an important question today, now spiritually, that would be a bit shallow, right? Luke and John both refers to the situation of the disciples from a closed space to an open space to describe an inner tension: how often our hearts and minds get closed and our lives get stuck when God’s work is to always take us beyond our routines, habits and what we take for granted.

And so mainly that’s what I want to talk to you about today. As I mentioned in a previous sermon, I wouldn’t say about myself that I have many earthshaking spiritual experiences, but I remember the day of my confirmation a friend asked me if it “changed anything” to receive the Holy Spirit, and I remember telling them, to my own surprise, that it “changed everything”. We say so much about the Holy Spirit: If you open (as I did to prepare this sermon) a book of Biblical doctrine, you would find that in Paul’s writings there are at least 22 gifts of the Holy Spirit: Apostle, prophet, teacher, healing, encouraging, tongues, wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, leadership etc. and it can becomes quite overwhelming (I remember having to learn about those gifts to prepare for my confirmation, and I was quite confused!). We have to acknowledge that the HS can do so many things, and that in the end it’s very difficult to identify the HS if we describe all the things the HS can do. So to me, I would stick to the definition I gave to my friend on that day when I was 16 years old:

The Holy Spirit is the one who makes a difference, and who makes all the difference.

You see, to me what the readings are about today is that it’s not enough to believe in God unless it changes our lives and more deeply, until it changes us. We can be assured that after Easter, on that day they were gathered together, the disciples believed in God, and in Jesus’s teachings and in Jesus’ s Resurrection – yet it still didn’t make a difference in their lives. Until they received the Holy Spirit, they were closed behind visible and invisible locked doors and walls. Then they received the Spirit and they opened up and got out of themselves to meet people and change the world. So the Holy Spirit, if you will, and that would be the main idea I would like to share with you today, the Holy Spirit is the one who gets us unstuck. You can name many things the HS does, Paul found 22 gifts (and it was just the beginning of Christianity) but, to me, the role of the Spirit, whatever the Spirit does, in the end is to get us UNSTUCK, and I’d like to explore that a little bit with you because for us, it is still the same story than it was for the disciples. We need to move from “belief in God” to “life in God” and even more to “live out God”, which means: not just to live conforming to a doctrine but to let God live inside of us, through us. A Liturgical time ends here: We turn from the life of Jesus (Advent through Pentecost) to the life of discipleship (“Ordinary times”) and what we learn is that God’s story isn’t just written for us, we have to write God’s story. And we know it’s not easy. It’s not easy because we get stuck.

So how do we move from that?

– First of all, I think that we have to recognize that it is a natural tendency to get stuck, as individuals of course, but also as people, societies, races, civilizations. We get stuck in our patterns / ways of thinking and behaving. We are animals of habits (Aristotle) for the best (survival, natural life) but also for the worst (when it comes to divine/ supernatural life). Jesus came on earth at a time when Israel was stuck in a way that it has never been before (Roman Occupation / no prophets for centuries / Religious legalism).

Getting stuck can happen even if you’re a devout believer. Don’t blame yourself if you get stuck, first because as I’ve just said, it’s a natural tendency but also because it does not mean that you should believe “more”! At different times in our lives, we just need to get unstuck. Maybe because we have old habits (It is sometimes with God like in an old couple), sometimes we get stuck because of grief, or trauma (We discover that the world is a dangerous place, or that we ourselves can become dangerous, and so it may be better to “shelter in place” in our own ways).

The disciples believed in Jesus (probably more than us!) but they still were stuck, and what they needed was to receive the Holy Spirit (Readings last week: “Stay in Jerusalem until you have received the HS”). If you think about that Jesus’s life and teaching was all about: not enough to believe in God / to live religiously or even to have moral standards (as did the Pharisees) – especially in John’s: You have to keep moving and to receive the divine life and to live out a godly life.

How does the HS get us unstuck?

These days, we see so many books on shelves about how to get unstuck. All authors have their own theories but what comes back again and again is that when we are stuck in our lives, it’s not so much because of our circumstances. We have the power to change circumstances, at least some circumstances. Most of the time we are stuck in our heads. Because of habit, grief, trauma we have set patterns of fear and anxiety (like the disciples) that kill life inside of us: It can be something as simple as low self esteem that paralyzes us, or we got our heart broken and we don’t believe there is anything good left in this world. Sometimes also, we get defensive after being hurt. We believe that “some people are evil”, “money is the answer to our problems”, “or just don’t mention it and it’ll go away”. And so to me what we see is that it’s not even so much in our heads that we get stuck, it’s mostly in our hearts. And this is where the Gospel hits home today and this is second idea I want to share with you:

The most helpful advice to get unstuck is the one Jesus gives us: receive the HS by making peace and do the work of reconciliation and forgiveness. Comes to terms with the ways you’ve been hurt and the way you’ve hurt others (and yourself!).

I love it that Jesus does not just say “Forgive” to his disciples. First of all, HE forgives them, granting them “peace”. He does not come back to condemn them for letting him down at his worst hour. And then he asks them to “do the work”: “Retain the sins”: Yes, the disciples have to grant forgiveness but also they have to ask those who do wrong to repent, to change, ask for justice. Forgiveness in the Gospel is never, never a forget and let go right away. It’s always hard work, with oneself, others and God and there is always a reciprocity (Lord’s prayer: Forgive us as we forgive others). Forgiveness is meant to expose the sins, bring justice and healing, it’s not a “covering up” of wrongdoings. It’s hard and painful work, but it’s done in the hope of a possible renewal.

If we don’t do the work of forgiveness we get stuck: as individuals, as couples and families (a lot!!), as societies and we repeat history: Conflicts, wars, injustices, abuse and so on. I read a great article this week about how racism in America is a never ending problem because white people never actually acknowledged the original sin of slavery. We have to go to the root of the pain and the hurt and deal with it. A theologian I like says that: “Sin is when life freezes”. When we sin against each other, we freeze the movement of life because shame and guilt haunt us and prevent us from being renewed and we get trapped in our patterns. We get frozen in sadness, angry, indifference, terror, hate, resentfulness or self-righteousness, and in the process we punish others or we punish ourselves, we may even end up trying to punish God! We are stuck in sin like a clogged drain with all sort of impurities inside of us. Life cannot circulate in a clogged heart as surely as water cannot circulate in a clogged drain.

– To receive the HS: Examine your heart and do the work of forgiveness. Ask God if you cannot ask the ones who hurt you or the ones you hurt. Sometimes we’ll find out that not only do we have to forgive others and be forgiven by them but we also have to forgive ourselves (for not being as “good” as we would like to believe, for having let others hurt us), we also have to forgive God (Not that God “sins” against us of course, but a lot of us hold well hidden grudges against God for “letting that happen”).

Yet, the promise is that in the end, life will come back rushing trough our veins when our hearts are unclogged. HS will unleash our potential. So it can be anything, really. There are much more than 22 gifts. There are as many gifts as there are people in this world, each our own language, but it’s always a potential to love, a work we do with one another aiming towards the reconciliation of all people, as impossible as it may seems. We don’t receive the HS for ourselves. Pentecost is a communal event.

Ascension Sunday

Ascension, in my experience, is a not so well-known / not so beloved Christian feast.

There is something puzzling about this feast. Well, Easter is puzzling all right but we know what it’s about and what it means for us, Jesus bringing us the hope of victory over death.

Ascension: Resurrected Christ lifted up towards heavens…What does it mean for us? What does it have to do with my life? Most of our lives aren’t about ascending, right? Most of our lives are kind of weighty maybe with actual extra pounds but mostly weighty with health problems, age, worries about finances, jobs, family…The list seems unending of what binds us to our down to earth preoccupations, especially in this time of global crisis.

Yet in the midst of that, today we celebrate Ascension Sunday (Ascension was actually on Thursday, 40 days after Easter)

And so today, I want to say three things about what Ascension could mean for us. I want to talk about Glory, about Joy and about Power – 3 main themes in our readings today.

1 – About Glory

Ascension is first of all about Christ’s glory. Easter to Ascension: 40 days, a period that is still an in between time of Jesus “hanging around” showing himself to the disciples, continuing the teaching (In Luke, explaining the meaning of the Scriptures). On Ascension Day, Jesus is reunited with the Father “sitting at the right hand of the Father” (Nicene Creed)

Sitting at the right hand of the Father” is an image / like our psalm today “He subdues the peoples under us and the nations under our feet”. Jesus ascending, often represented in paintings with his feet hanging in the air, is “lifted up” that’s what it means: Not so much an actual “lifting up” in a “heavenly elevator”, it means that Christ is given all authority, the earth is his footstool (and expression that is used a lot in the Bible). “Having the world at your feet” is an expression of kingship.

It’s an image important for us to remember, especially in times of suffering. Growing up as a Catholic, I was often taught that in times of suffering, you need to remember the cross. That’s right, but come to think about it, it’s been more helpful to me to remember the cross when everything is fine in my life and I start to become a little to self assured, arrogant, forgetful of others, selfish. But in times of suffering, when we feel crushed, I think it is important to be reminded of glory. That Christ has ultimate authority, not so much that he controls everything but that he will have the last word, a word of forgiveness, resurrection and blessing (as in our Gospel of today) Through his flesh, our flesh (=human life) (and, in my mind, all flesh, all creation) is sanctified and manifest also his glory. We can see ourselves as beautiful and significant. Beyond all the sufferings and humiliations (of the cross/of our lives) there is this beauty and majesty that comes from God, beauty and majesty that cannot be destroyed and will shine forth in the end.

And it’s not only something that brings us comfort, it is an ethical way of living, to be able see others and to be able to see creation as glorious / the footstool of Christ glory. Not seeing this glory in each other and in each creature is cynicism, nihilism (= seeing void in everything) and it’s the root of all evils: social injustices, racism, abusive relationships, animal cruelty, pollution and so on.

2 – About Joy

Seeing glory/majesty/beauty/ significance in ourselves and in others, even / especially in times of suffering, can enable us to feel joy even if it appears “out of context”.

Indeed, there is something surprising in our Gospel about Jesus leaving and then the disciples being left full of joy and praising God. It’s a very different experience of loss than the usual grief/ sadness/despair or even trauma. The disciples experienced trauma at Jesus’s death because it didn’t make any sense at all – but now Jesus explains the meaning of his life, of Scriptures, of every human life – and the meaning is to be reunited to God beyond suffering and death.

I heard once that human beings are actually more looking for meaning than looking for happiness. To me, I think that when we have meaning, we can experience joy even if circumstances are tough. Sometimes, Christian are too quick to assign (specific) meaning to (difficult) circumstances, and it makes it even more difficult (we hear a lot of horrible things today about the meaning of this pandemic). To me it’s enough to believe that, if we are willing, God will use all circumstances to conform our lives to Christ and to give birth to our glorious, beautiful, eternal selves. Meaning is different for each one of us, as individuals but also as communities. The common feature it that when meaning is present, there is joy (if happiness is not always possible). Jesus used the example of a woman giving birth: Sufferings are quickly forgotten and leave room for joy when her child is born, she understands that her sufferings has led to something incredible. In the same way, Jesus assures us that our sufferings are not in vain so we can find joy inside of us knowing that.

We often see joy as coming from the world, from people around us, from events, but you cannot receive joy in anything if you don’t have an ability to receive joy inside of you (and you know that there are people who are never happy, never satisfied!) Joy may not be to be found inside of us like a “thing” placed there, but the ability to be joyful surely is surely inside of us, as surely as we have the ability to talk, laugh and sing– believing (knowing!) that we are enough, beautiful, worthy of love, discovering not only that life has meaning but that we mean something (to someone) is the key to receive the joy that life brings to us / the joy we can build in this life. The source of joy is inside of us, and we can praise God for that, because indeed God made all things beautiful and worthy of love. Only our “brokenness” “breaks” this vision, but Jesus assures us that forgiveness is given and it frees us to receive joy.

3 – About Power

The joy we receive from our lives in Christ will bring us Power. All our readings today are about power, and not only God’s power, but the promise that we will be made powerful.

Interesting to notice b/c we often think of Christian life as renouncing power. But real power is not control, coercion, or even persuasion. We are called to renounce control, coercion and even persuasion (in my opinion!), but we are not to renounce power. God wants us powerful. Power is freedom to exercise our own abilities that are the gifts of the Holy Spirit (and we’ll talk about that next Sunday for Pentecost). Power is the ability we are given to be our best selves and let shine forth the glory of God that is inside of us / to see glory in others.

It’s interesting we are back in Luke’s Gospel today (in year A, we mostly read Matthew). You may remember that from last year when we were reading Luke, I told you so many times that Luke is the Gospel of the little ones, the poor, the women and the children, the strangers and it’s the story of Jesus’s compassion for all those people. Yet Jesus’s goal is not to keep them powerless, it is to be bring them strength, to “raise them up”, spiritually and existentially, to show them/ reveal to them and lead them to experience themselves as beautiful and loved.

Jesus does not feel “sorry” for all those people! It’s not what compassion is about – it’s about seeing God’s glory in all. Jesus sees God’s glory in everyone, especially the overlooked.

How about us? Do we just feel sorry for ourselves, or are we in touch with our inner strength a life of prayer / adoration / relationships with God bring us? In the same way, do we feel sorry for the poor, those we see as “the little ones”, or do we see their strength and resilience and just help them to be reminded of their power by being kind, attentive and mostly encouraging and fair?

Conclusion on Jesus’s ascension

He leaves his disciples and leaves them his legacy – a legacy of love. Not so much the “power of love” than the power to love. Jesus sends out the disciples “to the ends of the earth” to receive and share the love he has shown to them. The way he remains with us…Each time you feel far from God, try a little act of love and you’ll realize God is closer than you think, not up in the sky but inside of you.

Glory = Kadov / Weight in Hebrew. Not the weight of being stuck on earth. It means that you matter / each one matters therefore we should care.

“I don’t believe that life matters because it continues. I believe that life continues because it matters. If it doesn’t continue, it still matters. We love each other imperfectly, yet love remains. My mother’s love for me did not begin or end with her. She could love me because others loved her, they could love her because they had been loved, and so on. Her love is with me now. And it will continue, through me, through everyone I love, through everyone they love, long after we are all forgotten. Whether I actually see my mom again, in the specific way I anticipate, doesn’t change that. As love, we live forever, we always will have lived.” Karen Teel Credit (Christian theologian)