Proper 12

It’s probably not unfamiliar to you that children have sometimes, and often, great insights about life and about God. I remember a year ago, when we were celebrating at church the baptism of Brianna and Anastasia, I asked the kids this question during my sermon: “How do you know when somebody loves you?”

“How do you know that somebody loves you, how do you know that your parents love you?”

And one of the children looked at me a bit puzzled and then cried out, like it was the most obvious thing in the world: “They do everything for you!”

That was not exactly the answer I was waiting for, I was expecting something like: “They’re being nice to you”, but what the child said really made me pause and, you know, I thought “This is it, this is such a great definition of love”: When you love somebody, you do everything for them. You don’t just act nice, hang around being charming or pleasant, what you do is that you really put in the effort – whatever it takes. You do things for them. You do nice things and helpful things of course, but you also do difficult and unpleasant things, things you know they may even not notice or not notice they come from you. And sometimes you also do silly things, right?

And so, that’s what I thought about this week when I opened the Old Testament lesson. There is a huge story going on about deception, manipulation and jealousy, and there is certainly a lot to preach about that, but in the midst of that the only thing that really catches my eye is where it reads that Jacob served seven years for Rachel. Seven years! Seven years being Laban handy man, not shying away from doing chores and enduring the heat of the day, accepting to be bossed around by this old man who does not look like the nicest person in the world – as a father in law he was actually very deceptive – and yet, after he tricked Jacob, Jacob still did not lose heart and worked another seven years to be able to marry the woman he loved.

Now that’s something, isn’t it? Jacob was far from being a perfect man, as you probably know. He was also cunning and deceptive and jealous and tough, and yet, he had the child’s wisdom, he had the parents’ generosity, he knew from the bottom of his heart how a true, deep, real love looks like: When you love somebody, you do everything for them.

I read an insightful commentary that made a connection between this Old Testament lesson and one of the parable Jesus tells to the crowd today. The commentary said that to Jacob “had found his pearl”. Rachel was the pearl of high value he was willing to give up everything for – and so did he. I really like that the Scriptures mentions that “Seven years seemed to Jacob a few days because of the love he had for Rachel” – because that’s exactly how it feels when you love someone, right? You don’t check your phone when you’re with them! It’s true also when you love to do something, correct? I know I completely lose track of time when I am reading or writing and I can’t stand to be interrupted, I won’t even stop to eat something. When you love someone or something, you can just drop everything else and it does not feel like a sacrifice, quite the opposite: you find joy in doing so. And to me this is what Jacob did when he accepted to work all these years to marry Rachel. He worked hard indeed, but he did it willingly, from the bottom of his heart.

Now I think it’s worth spending a little time on Jacob’s story not just because I can be a hopeless romantic but mainly because it tells us a lot of what it means when Jesus asks us to give everything up for the Kingdom of God. The way we often react to that is that Jesus is going to ask us to do terrible, painful sacrifices, to endure many hardships and to have a difficult life – and well, sometimes, it can be true – but we also forget what it’s really about. The call to follow Christ is not a call to deprive yourself of plenty of pleasant and fun things in this life so you’ll have a crown in heaven and you’ll be rewarded as a good person, the call to follow Christ is about leaving behind all that is not that important to find true, deep and real love.

It’s about giving your everything to find God’s everything. And it starts right now. And like it did for Jacob, this love you find keeps you going through all your work, and all the hardships, all the tricks, all the lies and all the deceptions in the world. It reminded me of the story Viktor Frankl tells in his book about surviving the concentration camps. He said that what kept him going during these awful years was thinking about his wife. He didn’t know if she was still alive, but just knowing that a love like that could exist for him, had existed for him, made him stronger and always more resilient. The hate, the scorn and the humiliations he endured everyday from the nazis, no matter how terrible, were not enough to destroy this memory of having been truly loved and knowing he was a man worthy of love.

Now I think it also helps us to think a bit differently about the Letter to the Romans we have just heard this morning. This is a very famous passage, isn’t it?

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”

The way we often understand this passage is that God loves us in Jesus no matter what – and that’s the truth of course. But now I think about the story of Jacob, and Frankl, and looking for a pearl of great price, I realize that it also means that truly love can keep us going – that love is not just only this charming, pleasing feeling, but with love in our hearts we are more powerful than armed soldiers and nothing in the world can defeat us. Not even death.

Now we don’t love out of our own strength, but God gives us the strength, God gives God to us and God gives us the ability to be loving whatever the circumstances and beyond everything that we could ever imagine: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness (…) that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words”.

That is something that is important to remember, that God is always ready to give us the strength to love. Not only to love people in the midst of difficulties, or to love people who are difficult to us. God gives us also the strength to love ourselves in spite of not being loved in the way we would like to be.

It does not make us invincible, but it carries us through.

Sometimes love keeps us going because it gives us energy and purpose, like it did for Jacob and Frankl. But sometimes also love carries us through just when we let ourselves being loved by God, by our parents, by our friends – being accepted and nurtured and taken care of. Sometimes we may find ourselves, especially when old, sick or depressed, in situations where we have to let others “do everything for us”, and it may not be easy to accept. Sometimes we need to be able to ask for help, for compassion or for respect. Sometimes we may need to tell people we need them to love us, or we need to tell them the way we would like them to love us. But in the end I think, it all comes down to what Jesus tells us today in the Gospel: that the kingdom of heaven, the reign of love, is worth giving the best, asking for the best, because love is worth everything.

Love can do and give everything because love is everything. A Saint said one day that unfortunately in our world “Love isn’t loved”, and certainly a lot of people value many things above love: Money, comfort, good reputation or just not looking like an idiot and valuing their own interests. But it also means that to be a saint, there is maybe nothing else to do than to value love above all things.

Proper 11

If you remember from a few months ago, we talked about the parable of the rich fool – this man making big plans for his retirement only to be waken up in the middle of the night by the voice of God telling him how he’s about to die and be faced with his judge this very day, all his goods lost and all his plans for the future doomed. Remember? That’s when I told you there was something really unique about Matthew’s Gospel and you have to leave it or take it, love it or hate it (and I know more than a few people for whom Matthew is their “least favorite Gospel” to put it mildly). But this is how it is: Matthew’s is spooky and eerie and disturbing and frightening and in Matthew’s Jesus tells you stories you find nowhere else, stories that just send you chills right down the spine – and I think this is exactly what we have today with the parable of the wheat and the weeds and the return of the Son of man.

As I was reading this story (over and over) I was wondering if Jesus was re-using already well known symbols and images or actually creating them: Death as a “reaping angel”, hell as the “furnace of fire”, pain and regrets as “weeping and gnashing of teeth” – One thing is sure, those expressions are strongly embedded in our imagination and so if you pay a little attention, the story of the wheat and the weed is really, really a scary story. Now as I was considering this, I wondered though: Who does not like a really good scary story? Who does not like a scary story? I know I do. Not a violent story, not a horror story, not a despair story – just a good story that sends you chill down the spine, the kind of story you really enjoyed hearing and telling when you were a child, at sleepovers and at camps, even if it kept you up all night after that.

And so I thought – well, maybe that’s the way we can reconcile ourselves to these difficult passages in Matthew’s,imagining a Jesus who loved to make up scary stories for a crowd who actually loved to be terrified by them – as we ourselves enjoy a good fright from time to time. It’s not a joke though, and Jesus was not an entertainer but Jesus told stories to help people think about their lives – and to do that, he had to capture their imagination by using powerful images. Jesus is not entertaining, but he is not threatening either – and I think this is what we have to keep in mind to be reconciled with the stories in Matthew’s. We’re often worried Jesus is threatening us with those stories when he is just trying to capture our attention to help us see things in a different way. When we threaten people, we scare them with something they should not have to be afraid of – that’s not what Jesus is doing. But when we tell scary stories, we awaken a fear that’s already there – and I think this is exactly what Jesus is doing. Jesus is talking to a fear that is deep inside of us, and doing so, as with any kind of literature since the birth of Greek tragedy, he helps us explore what it means to be human, what it is to be in the world, and what it means to be mortal.

And so this is how it goes. Jesus compares our world to a field and our lives to a mix of wheat and weed (we don’t know exactly if it is different kind of people, or different kind of things we have in our own hearts), and those weed and wheat grow together until one day the reapers come to get rid of the plants that haven’t given any fruit and burn them, while they only save the good crop. And so this is the point: either you grow into wheat and you’ll be saved and “shine like the sun” for eternity, either you’re a meaningless weed that will be taken by the angels of death and burnt to the bone, destroyed entirely although their will still be room for your soul to be tormented.

That’s really scary, isn’t it? With this story, Jesus is touching our deepest and most intimate fears and so it’s terrifying but it’s also a good way to actually release those fears, have a good look at them and move on to what God is inviting us to do about them – and I would like to explore that a little with you today.

What is it that we fear the most? I think our parable today bring answers to that question and takes us a little deeper than what common sense would agree on.

What is it that we fear the most? Death would be the immediate answer, correct? But it you think about that, death might not be the ultimate answer. In our story, both wheat and weed are taken from the field, only the weeds are meant to be burnt and destroyed when the wheat is collected to become bread, food for the world – which leads me to think that our deepest fear might not be death, our deepest fear might be rejection, meaninglessness and destruction.

What the story tells us is that we are meant to grow and being given away like wheat instead of perishing like useless weed. Our deepest fear is not (or should not be) the fear of death, it’s the fear of nothingness – of not being able to bear any fruit.

And you know, it makes sense to me, because I’ve met a lot of people in my life who weren’t that afraid of dying actually, and they weren’t that afraid of dying – not necessarily because they were “good people” having done everything “right”, patiently waiting for their “reward”. They weren’t that afraid of dying because they’ve had a full life – maybe not a life of great accomplishments – but a life that has been filled with love, creativity and generosity – a life that already shone like the sun – a life that has been lived for the sake of others and for something greater than just mere survival and selfish gain. Wheat, instead of weed.

To me, this is what the Gospel calls us to do and calls us to be. More than doing good, or being nice or right or pious: Bearing fruit.

And if you think about it, it’s maybe what the whole Bible is about. Being fruitful is the first commandment God gives to Adam and Eve, long before “Thou shalt not kill nor commit adultery” and in these past weeks we have been through many, many of those stories in Genesis and it’s always about people being called from barrenness to having an offspring. We can take it very literally – as did the Hebrews – it’s about birthing babies – but we can also see it in a more spiritual light: It’s about bringing forth life.

Our life is about bringing forth life and make all the choices that are life giving, life affirming, life sustaining. God revealed Godself as the God of the living – as Jacob encounters God in our text today: The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac.

So yes, of course, our deepest fear is nothingness but not because we are meant to be nothing, quite the opposite: because we are meant to be everything – to shine like the sun – to be part of a life that is so much larger than us, to be part of a life that is still to be revealed. Choosing everyday what is life giving, life affirming, life sustaining against destruction, status quo and morbidity. The world is maybe not so much the theater of the war between good and evil, maybe it’s more about being pushing against nothingness. Our world is the theater of being pushing against nothingness like the wheat growing among the weeds.

It’s scary, yes. Today, Jesus is telling us a scary story and it’s the story of our lives, but in the midst of that, we find God’s faithfulness and infinite patience, a God who isn’t willing to uproot anything that hasn’t matured yet, anything that hasn’t been given a chance to become what it’s meant to be. We meet a God who has all the time in the world when our time is short, a God who knows exactly when we are ready or not and what to do with us.

In a time when so many of our fears are being released, may we know that this is how it goes with God. May we leave behind our selfish and barren ways. May we find a God who is life giving, life affirming, life sustaining and not a judge. And may we dare to trust this God to sustain our growth and to lead us to bear fruit, and not be afraid.

Proper 10

The good news is that I am not going to talk very long this Sunday because we have two members of the congregation who are going to share messages with us as well…A little later during the service we are going to commission Holly who’s just completed a training to start a lay pastoral ministry and she will tell us a little a bit more about that. And during the announcements, Art will present and read Bishop Marian’s recent address to the congress.

So I don’t want to overwhelm you with too many words – a sense I had recently, doing worship on conference call and Zoom…It has worked as well as possible so far, but it is true that we are left with a lot of words when a service in person at church nourishes our soul and our senses in many different ways: with colors, images and gestures, the breaking of the bread, the anointing, the singing, the hugging, the blessing and of course a lot of standing up and sitting down because we are Episcopalians!

But for all of these reasons, I am also happy that today in our Gospel we have such a striking parable – not just words – but a powerful visual of this “sower who went out to sow”. Jesus liked images too, and we could just take time to picture in our minds this sower throwing generously his seeds in rocky and dark places, on a barren and dry land, on the path and at the crossroads, seeds lost in the cracks, trampled upon, stolen by the birds and suddenly landing in good, rich soil, taking deep roots and bringing forth grain “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” – a fortune.

And so there is a lot that can be said about that but since I’ve said I’ll keep it short, this is the one thing that I would like to say about it:

We often think that Jesus talks about people in this parable, dividing the people between those who receive what Jesus had to say – the good soil – and those who don’t receive the word – the bad soil. The disciples on one side, the scribes and the pharisees on the other side. And maybe there is some truth in this understanding but to me, when Jesus speaks about different types of soils, I think he is not so much talking about different types of people, rather he is talking about different dispositions of the heart, the heart that is able to understand and the heart that cannot do it.

Jesus is talking about the disposition of our hearts, of all our hearts and you know in my experience there are is not really such a thing as people who have no heart at all and people who have a whole heart, and mostly there is no heart without wounds or sorrow, no heart that is not burdened or hiding somewhere, somehow. And if we all look at our own hearts, it can be everything really – some days it’s sad and barren, some days it’s thorny and defensive, some days it’s rocky and heavy, some days it’s rich, fertile, generous and open – and if you’re like me, it may also vary from one hour to the next!

And yet, yet the parable tells us today that it is in this heart that God plants the seed, it is in this heart that we have to receive the word of God and to understand it, and you know the word of God it’s not only about reading the Bible, although it can be involved in the process. Receiving the word of God is to receive something that brings us comfort in our pain and hope in the future, the strength to love and the desire to live, something that raises us from something bad to something better and make us willing to do something new – for us and for those around us.

Salvation will happen in our hearts or it won’t. As Paul explains in his Epistle to the Romans today, Salvation is in the Spirit, not in the flesh. It means that Salvation does not happen in our heads, or in our bodies, it’s not to be sought in the world outside, not to be seen with Jesus landing from a cloud. Salvation will happen deep inside of us or it won’t.

So today I would just like to remind us to do the tending because as heavy, broken, fearful, sad or bitter our hearts can be, this is the only place where we will ever get to receive God. So in the same way as we tend to the soil to bring life into the world, we need to tend to our hearts to bring divine life in us. Tend to your hearts. I have heard so many people telling me they worked on their garden during this quarantine, but what about the garden inside of us? What about the rock and thorns and dryness inside of us? And you know it’s not only about our sins, the “bad stuff” we have inside of us we need to remove: pride, blindness, selfishness…it’s also about our wounds that need to be healed, it’s about our defensiveness and our insecurities that prevent us from receiving the word of God, from being fully alive and from bringing love in this world and from receiving it. The sower sows generously, abundantly: God gives God’s love to the world, it’s only between us and our own heart that the problem is.

So how do we do that, how do we tend to our own heart and how do we make it a fertile ground?

Well, I wish I had a magic formula to give you and I don’t but I heard once that the best spiritual practice was to talk to our own heart. Talk to your heart. I am still trying to figure what it means but I can guess it’s about having a little bit of acceptance for ourselves, a little bit of attentiveness, a little bit of compassion, and even little bit of tenderness if it’s possible for who we truly are, knowing how deeply loved we have been in Jesus?

Paul reminds us today that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, but do we truly believe that, and do we act as if? How would it be like for us to start living a life without condemning ourselves, and just begin to be open to receive the best God has to give us?