Proper 8

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to go and see the movie about Harriet Tubman’s story. I must admit that I knew next to nothing about her, and so the movie was really helpful for me to learn about her work as an abolitionist and political activist, but also, and it was one of the angles of the movie, to learn about her ministry as a woman of God and a prophet. The movie is very moving throughout as you can imagine, describing the horror of racism, the pain of slavery and the dangers on the journey to find freedom. Yet one of the scenes that was the most touching to me was when, after Harriet first escapes to Philadelphia and spends much time saving money preparing to go back to Maryland in spite of all the risks to bring her husband back, she arrives only to find him settled in a new life, with a new wife and a baby, unwilling to take Harriet back, unwilling to leave his home and his life of slavery. There is this scene where we see Harriet crying and praying and you can tell the pain is so great – not only for the loss of her love and of her former family life but also, and mainly, for the loss of her hope and of her trust in God. She was so sure, she says, that God was sending her back, calling her back to Maryland to be reunited to her husband and to save her family and take them with her (her sister will also reject her offering), how could God betray her in such a way? Playing such a cruel trick on her and breaks her heart? Had she lost her connection with God? Was God rejecting her? Was God taking back God’s promise?

And so – when you watch this scene in the movie this is quite heartbreaking (I was quite heartbroken!) and yet, as a spectator, you know better, of course. And if you’ve already heard about the whole story of Harriet Tubman, maybe, in spite of understanding and sharing the pain, you cannot help but smile because you know so much better than that. For one minute you see the scene from God’s perspective, and you understand: How could this simple, frail and young woman know that God had sent her to be the new Moses? Not only to save her own, but to save so many of her own, to save a multitude, to save her largest family, all her brothers and sisters bound in slavery? Prophets, you see, they interpret God’s will to the best of their abilities – They hear what God says and what God wants but how can they have the spectator’s vision, the big picture, knowing the end of the story before the story even unfolds? Indeed, God wanted Harriet Tubman to save her family, she just thought about family in a narrower sense, not only because her knowledge was limited but also because of her great humility. How could she have guessed the depths of God’s will on her life?

I am telling you this story, you see, because I think it sheds a lot of light on the story we have just heard this morning in our readings, the famous story of “Abraham’s sacrifice” aka “The binding of Isaac”. I must confess that I had a terrible time with this story. As you know, I like to do my homework when I prepare a sermon, but after having read ten, twenty, thirty commentaries about the horror of child sacrifices, the cruelty of the Old Testament and the terrible heartbreak God inflicted on Abraham (Not to mention Isaac’s terror!), I didn’t know where to go from there and to make the story acceptable to our modern ears. Bu that’s when I remembered the story of Harriet Tubman: Prophets interpret God’s word to the best of their abilities, they hear God based on what they know, have observed and experienced in the world, and because they are only human and sometimes because they are just very humble, they have great intuition, but they miss the exact point. They’re not wrong, but they’re not right either and they have to wait for a second revelation from God, as the story goes, to understand what the plan is really about.

Has God really asked Abraham to sacrifice his son? Among all the commentaries I read, most preachers agreed that the only way to redeem the story was to believe that Abraham actually “misunderstood”. God never asked something like a child sacrifice because God isn’t sadist or cruel or unfair and God does not take back God’s word and God’s promise. And actually, in the end, we see that the angel of the Lord held back Abraham’s and then the ram showed up to be offered in place of Isaac. And so, I would like to believe that too, that God didn’t ask for the sacrifice but if you read the text, it is still very clear that God did order it, and even if it was just the test and not really bound to happen, it still feels like the cruelest test of all.

How can we understand the story? Well, I think we can understand Abraham’s story as we understand Harriet Tubman’s story: Abraham had to “sacrifice” his son, as Harriet Tubman had to save her “family”. They have good intuitions, but they miss the point because even a prophet cannot grasp the wideness and the unfolding of God’s will and God has to talk to them in a language they can understand.

So what’s going on with Abraham? Well, if you remember from last week, Isaac is growing up, the child has been weaned and Abraham threw a great party. Yet something is going wrong. Tensions rise between Hagar and Sarah. Ishamel, though loved by his father, is not seen as the son of the promise anymore and in the end, he is is sent away (to die?) in the wilderness with his mother. From now on, it is just Abraham, Sarah and Isaac the legit son, and they are waiting for the next thing, probably Isaac’s marriage and the birth of a new generation. And yet, when all should be good and happy, this is when Abraham hears something quite terrifying – that’s when Abraham’s hears that God wants him to sacrifice his son.

And I believe God told Abraham that he had to sacrifice his son, but I also believe that God talked a language Abraham could understand and Abraham heard it to the best of his abilities, living in a culture where offering up your child to the gods in a burnt offering, even if terrible, wasn’t such an unusual thing to do – it was the kind of thing a god could want – to show you who was in charge and had the power and authority about life and death and all the things that were given to you. And it is true, in some ways: that is the ultimate meaning of a sacrifice: to realize that we are not charge and that nothing, and nobody, ever belongs to us. But we don’t need to realize that because we have a cruel insecure God who needs to assert God’s power, we need to realize that because God is the God of the living and the only way to live is to not hold on, capture, or bind what God has given us.

And so, take it or leave it, this is my angle on the story: God did ask the sacrifice, but in the end what God wanted was certainly not blood or death. Quite the opposite. God wanted a sacrifice to bring new life, fruitfulness and the realization of the promise. God needed Abraham to renounce to his son, to let go of him. God saw that something had gone terribly wrong in Abraham’s household: Isaac became the center of attention, both his parents brooding over him like “helicopters parents”, suffocating the sacred child of the promise to whom no one could come close to, not even his half brother who enjoyed playing with him – and was sent to death for doing so (Re-read last week’s lesson!).

Abraham had to renounce to his son and had to let go of him in order for the promise to be fulfilled. Isaac was not given to be Abraham’s but to start his own family. And that was the sacrifice God was asking of Abraham, because there literally would never be any fruitfulness if Isaac’s parents never let anyone near him, if the kept the child (or young man) to themselves. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a stunning book about those three terrible days of Abraham walking in the desert, preparing to put his child to death, but also, mainly, being prepared in his heart to live without him – and ultimately, to me, this is what God wanted. Not because God wanted to display God’s power and ultimate claim on God’s promise, but because there is no fruitfulness without letting go, there is no love without sacrifice because love is about giving and giving away and also, and mostly, there is no love without leaving people be their own person and creating their own destiny.

This passage of the sacrifice of Abraham is interestingly sandwiched between the weaning of Isaac and his wedding. This story is a rite of passage, a coming of age story. Isaac is freed from his father, the binding of Isaac is the story of how God unbound Isaac from the grips of toxic paternity. In the meantime, it also frees Abraham from holding on and ultimately allow the future to take place for his offspring, and fulfill his deepest desire to be the father of nations.

What about us? What is the heart breaking story of our letting go? Or maybe, what is the terrifying story of our unbinding? Are these stories cruel jokes and tricks God played on us or are they the answer to a deeper call, a rich life, a more meaningful spirituality?

Proper 7

– Sundays after Pentecost: We’re in this time of the liturgical year where we want to think about “Discipleship” – What it means to follow Jesus. I apologize in advance to those for whom I state the obvious but we sometimes need a little reminder: The liturgical year is really split in two cycles rather than 6 seasons (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and then Ordinary time or Sundays after Pentecost). A year in two cycles that divides like this:

From Advent to Pentecost we look at Jesus’s life / Important moments in Jesus’s life, his death and R

From Pentecost to Advent: “Ordinary times”: What it means to be Jesus’s church / what it means to be a Christian or what it means to “Follow Jesus”

– and today in our Gospel this is what we hear about what it means to follow Jesus: It is “to take up our cross” – an expression we hear many times in the Gospel, an expression that is also one of the most misunderstood of all – so I would like to spend a little time with you on that today. I don’t pretend I have the right explanation to what it means to take up one’s cross, but there are a few things I can’t help noticing:

– First of all Jesus asks us to “take up” our cross and to me it sounds really different than saying “Accept your cross”. It is rather quite the opposite and we know what happened to Jesus when he “took up” his cross. The tradition tells us that he fell three times under the weight of the cross. He could have remained crushed, but he got up each time to finish the way / to give all he had to give.

To me “Taking up one’s cross” means that when we suffer, we don’t necessarily have to be passive. It does not mean that we have to be a “warrior”, to be at war with our pain or whatever causes our pain. Taking up our cross means that by the way we endure, or better, by the way we walk trough our sufferings we can be a sign of hope and resilience to others, and we can also make the choice to keep on being loving people instead of staying wrapped up in our pain. If you’re interested in thinking about suffering as a place where you can still make decisions, bear hope and eventually learn to be more loving and compassionate, I invite you to read the beautiful book “The choice” by Dr Edith Eva Eger who survived the concentration camps.

– The second thing I notice in the expression “Take up your cross”, is that it’s probably something Jesus never said at the time of his teaching on earth. To me, Jesus had probably a strong sense that he would be rejected and possibly be put to death, but I don’t think he knew with certainty he would be crucified. This expression comes from the other side of the cross, from resurrection – whether the risen Christ said it or the author of the Gospel put this expression into Jesus’s mouth.

And so when we “take up our cross” we don’t do it for the mere sake of suffering, we take up our cross because there is a horizon. It’s not that God wants you to suffer so you’ll become a more spiritual person detached from the flesh and the world. It means that there is still goodness and beauty to be found and that eventually life will have the last word. As Christians, we made the cross our symbol yet all the meaning of the cross is that the cross does not have the last word! We don’t give up. We don’t give up on the world, we don’t give up because of sin, we don’t give up on others and on ourselves. We don’t give up on God. Taking up our cross is about moving forward because we know that there is something beyond our pain.

– Third observation: The pain mentioned in the Gospel today / the context is more about the pain endured from rejection than from the hardships of life by themselves. When we bring our testimony about faith, we suffer. Jesus warns his disciples that they will be persecuted.

What does Jesus mean exactly? It can be tricky because some people come to believe, when they are hated, or when they meet opposition that “they must have done something right”. And maybe. Sometimes you do something right and it makes people mad. But we have to be very careful not to be arrogant with that. I am currently reading the book “Unfollow” by Megan Phelps-Roper about growing up in the Westboro Baptist Church, the very virulent anti-gay church, and she says that this is what they believed in her church: that they were hated because they did God’s work! It took her time to realize they were hated (back) because they were just a hateful church!

So what Jesus asks his disciples is not to judge or condemn others, to set the standards, rather it is to live with integrity, to have the courage to choose for ourselves what’s right over what’s comfortable – like being approved by people or pleasing your family and being a good son, daughter or daughter in law who goes with the flow. We say that every week in the Sunday school prayer: “Help me to stand for the hard right against the easy wrong”.

And you know, I believed for a long time that those words of the Gospel about being persecuted for the truth had not much to do with me. Not much to do with me because I live in a Christian country, and so if I say I believe in Christ, people are more likely to approve of me rather than criticize. It’s not very controversial, right? The thing is, it’s not about what you believe / your identity as Christian. It’s about what your belief sets in motion and how you live your daily life because of what you believe. Living with integrity is for all of us, every minute of our life we have to make this choice.

I have started talking about racism with a group of neighbors and our group opened in conversation with this simple question: How do you react when people make racists comments? Do you say nothing, do you pretend it’s not your problem (if you’re white) or if it is thrown at you (because you’re black) do you choose to ignore it because you’re so tired of it? And as we unpacked our experiences, we realized how hard it was to do something as simple as interrupting a conversation, as risking to be the troublemaker or the offended one by asking this simple question: “Why would you say that?”

Why would you say that?” I think is a good example of what it means to take up one’s cross, to live with integrity for the Gospel at the risk of being criticized and rejected. Sometimes it seems like very little things, so small we think we can overlook them, but it is really what our daily lives are made of and eventually our society.

– As a conclusion on that, I would say that what it means to “Take up one’s cross” is perfectly summarized by Paul in the passage from Romans we have just heard: “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life

Taking up our cross is about walking in newness of life, for ourselves but not only – it’s for our community and for our world. Even if “taking up our cross” includes a level of acceptance, it has nothing to do with passivity, resignation and giving up. It’s about transformation and rebirth, it’s about “kicking the darkness until it bleeds light” (Nadia Bolz-weber)

– We have a beautiful example of what it means to walk in newness of life in the story of the OT today that tells us about Hagar and Ishmael’s rejection by Abraham and Sarah. When Abraham and Sarah finally obtain what they wanted – a son of theirs – they decide that Hagar and Ishmael don’t fit anymore into their plans and they get rid of them. And the story could end here. But we know that it isn’t where the story ends. God hears the boy and sees Hagar’s despair and provides the means for them to go back to their country where Ishmael will be able to start a new family. And we know that it is also the start of a brand new story of God with God’s people through the Ishmaelites and Arabian people.

The story does not have to end in despair. The bible shows us that God always provides a horizon whether for an individual or through an individual to her descendants / her people. Hagar moves from being a slave to being a matriarch. But yes, we may have to go through the pain. To take up our crosses. It may have been easier for Hagar to get used to her slavery rather than to walk through the wilderness with her son. But there was a horizon for her and God led her to new life beyond her humiliation, rejection and suffering. May it be so for us whatever the pain we’re going through.

Trinity Sunday

– Quite a week we had. Lot of emotions. Most of them not precisely positive. Disturbing emotions!

I have one of those little tables at home you may have seen to teach children (and adults) about emotions, it’s called: “How are you feeling today?” and there are representations of facial expressions with naming all the feelings we may experience. I thought it might be interesting to check the feelings of the week. Those I have witnessed in the press, social medias, in conversations with friends and with some of you, and also those I noticed when I have been in conversation with myself!

So how have we been feeling this week?

Aggressive, Angered, Argumentative, Apologetic, Bitter, Confused, Depressed, Disappointed, Disapproving, Disbelieving, Disgusted, Distasteful, Engrossed, Enraged, Exasperated, Exhausted, Frightened, Frustrated, Grieving, Guilty, Hopeless, Hostile, Horrified, Hurt, Lonely, Miserable, Nauseous, Negative, Obsessed, Pained, Paranoid, Perplexed, Puzzled, Sad, Shocked, Sorrowful, Steaming, Stressed, Traumatized, Worried, Withdrew?

Have you checked any? How are you been feeling this week? And how are you feeling today?

The reading of Genesis reminds us today of another week, a week that happened a long time ago, even if most of us don’t believe it was an actual week. The week the world was created and every living thing and creature and humankind brought into being and blessed by God. And I thought it was kind of funny and touching to realize that each day of the week, God saw that is was “Good” (“Tov”: good and beautiful – used 7 times in the text). Each day, how did God feel? God felt contented, and how was the world? The world was contented. And humankind, man and woman were created in the image of God – and they were contented too!

And I would like to make a first observation about that:

– I think it’s more important than ever to remember that the world was created good and that we were created good. And we were created for peace, harmony and contentment. And it’s so easy to forget about that. Not only because there are so many disturbing events taking place these days. It’s easy to forget that we are made for goodness because religion throughout the ages has been quite responsible for presenting humanity as guilty, lawless and enemies of God. But Genesis reminds us that first of all, we are good and made for goodness. I heard once a preacher saying that the world was wonderfully made because the color the most soothing to the human eye is green and so God created everything green so we would be soothed. Well, I am not sure about that. Green is soothing to our eyes because our eyes have evolved surrounded by the green of nature. But you get the idea: There is harmony in nature – not necessarily a harmony where there is never suffering or death, but there is an equilibrium, a balance. No distress and despair. The world is brought into being by leaving the chaos behind.

I was amazed to realize this week that even in the midst of the pandemic people were not doing too bad. They were worried of course, but even when nature acts hostile towards us, we have experienced ways of coming together and finding solutions. I had a sense that these past couple of weeks, the shift in our minds came with the racial violence, the protest and the looting and the repression and all of that was not just worrying, it felt traumatic. We can face uncertainty and danger together but hate and violence that create division are traumatic. Because we are made for goodness and harmony.

And so, if like me you’ve been wondering about those emotions we’re going through right now, I think that’s it: Our brains are traumatized, because deep down we are wired for goodness, harmony and peace and it does not make any sense. I heard so many people this week saying to me that they could not make sense of hatred and physical violence, about the racism, but I’ve also heard about the looting, the verbal violence against the authorities, the politicization of the church, Christians condemning other Christians…

We are not meant for chaos, we don’t thrive in the chaos and actually God called us out from the chaos.

“In the beginning (…) the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep”

So I think one of the things we can hear in the passage of Genesis today is that we have to stop. Stop trying to make sense of the chaos, stop obsessing with the chaos, and sort of “making friend with the chaos” when we spend most of our days watching or scrolling through the chaos. Today and from the beginning, God called us out of the chaos.

I had an interesting conversation with a friend who told me she didn’t really like the role the National Church was playing in the crisis and my friend told me that she felt bad because “She didn’t know how to react” – and it really hit me – this expression. I said to her: Well, you don’t have to react.

We have to act, oh yes indeed, but we don’t have to react. We certainly have the right not to react and it is actually recommended not to react. When under pressure, we have the right not to know how to feel or what to think – and it would actually be quite normal. God called us out of the chaos because we’re never going to be out best selves in the chaos. We’re not going to be our best selves when our mind are on alert, our bodies tensed, our brain overloaded and our nervous system overstimulated.

And so it is our job to bring back peace into ourselves and into the world. The harmony God wanted to bring from the beginning. To bring back goodness. It is not the goodness of the status quo. It’s a goodness that brings life and enable all creatures to thrive. We don’t have to react, but we are called to act and actually if we really want to act, we have to stop reacting – whatever is our way of reacting (withdrawal and indifference or anger and panic). Psychologists call that the “blue zone” (withdrawal, indifference, depression) and the “red zone” (anger, fear, panic). The “green zone” being the one where we can be balanced and truly ourselves. There is nothing wrong with being in the blue or red zone, that’s just the way our nervous system work, and maybe it’s even harder for some of us who are more sensitive, but we have to come back in the green zone to make rational decisions, act with love and compassion and be fully engaged in the world.

In his letter today, Paul reminds the church to live in peace. I am really amazed to realize how often this message of peace comes back in the first Christians writing, whether in the passages about Jesus’ resurrection, in Acts and the Epistles. The first Christians insisted on peace, not because they were dreamers and idealists but actually because they had plenty of good reasons to freak out! Roman persecutions and also Christians divided against each other.

How do we do that? How can we achieve peace so we can be fully engaged with the world and one another?

Well, of course, we have first to be mindful or our physical and mental well being. Sleep, eat, exercise.
Do something that connects us with the world, brings us relief, joy and even fun if we can. Something that keeps us grounded. (I’ve been experiencing quite unsuccessfully with Art, but at least it brings me peace, one of my neighbors told me she watches all the romantic movies she usually really does not care about). It’s not always superficial to be superficial. We also need to be mindful of addictive behaviors (food, alcohol of course but also social medias). We have the right to remove ourselves from stressful situations, toxic people and toxic conversations. If we’re feeling overwhelmed, we need to talk to a therapist as surely as we would visit a doctor if we are sick. It’s not weakness. We cannot cure ourselves of mental disease as surely as we can’t cure ourselves of a physical one. We can certainly do things that help or not with our health. But there are also specialists and medications out there that are meant to help us. I have put a list of resources in the announcements.

Now today what we need to talk about is spiritual well being.

– Genesis: Surprising that it is not so much about telling us that God is good than God is the one who creates, see and seek goodness. As I’ve said, let’s not be caught by chaos, evil and toxicity to try to “react” to it. We need to turn our eyes towards the good, constructive actions, constructive people and then respond to it, build on it, make it happen with others. “Be the reason someone believes in the goodness of people”

– The first commandment God gives to humankind is to be “Fruitful and multiply”: Fruitfulness is not all about multiplying, about physical reproduction. It’s about the reproduction of God’s act of goodness. God name “good” what brings life and growth, what promotes life. We can help other people, do our part. (“Tov” means “Beautiful and good” – but also, mostly, in this context: “What brings life”. Good is not just something pleasant, comfortable and nice, it is something that brings growth and expansion and novelty.)

– Paul asks us to live in peace. Not so much about remaining undisturbed. PEACE: Presence, Engagement, Affection, Calm, Empathy.

Presence: Show up / awareness/ openness / invite connection
Engagement: Actively listen – to understand, not to be right
Affection: Express your affection, make people feel loved and affirmed
Calm: Be the adult in the relationships / Act from a place of calm
Empathy: Feel with people, make them feel felt.

– Remember Jesus’s last words (not just the words on the cross!): “I am with you always.”
Do we really believe that?

Today is Trinity Sunday: We are reminded that we believe in a God who is not a sovereign God who acts like a ruler who wants us to obey orders. God came to be in relationships with us in Jesus and still is. God hasn’t abandoned us. We can talk to God from our heart. God is not that interested in our formal prayers. Rather God is interested in what’s going on in our hearts (You don’t want your lover to read you poetry / you want to hear words from the heart)

– Psalm 8: “You are mindful of human beings…” We need to rest – even God rests! Rest our body, but also quieten our soul and our heart knowing we’re in God’s hands.

– God as Trinity share God’s spirit with us: God fills us with God’s spirit to know when and where and how to act.

Conclusion: Be like God! The only response to chaos is goodness! It’s not so much about justifying ourselves, trying to find out if we are the good people or not, it’s seeing goodness, not despairing about humanity, having a sense that there is still room for love and justice in the world. And trusting that God still brings goodness out of chaos if we’re willing to make room for it and receive it.