Proper 17

– OT: Famous encounter between God and Moses at Mont Horeb / A flame of fire in a bush, “The bush was blazing yet it was not consumed”.

I love it that Moses, the author of the Law, the recipient of the Torah meets God in such a fabulous, disturbing, epic way. It says a lot. Moses does not encounter a God who tells people what to do / wants them to behave and obey. Moses encounters God as fire.

If you have watched the news this past week, you probably have a lot of images of fire in your mind that aren’t that positive: Fire bringing devastation, distress and destruction.

The image we have in the OT is very different though, a fire that keeps burning but that does not consume / destroy.

A lot of theologians have associated this image of fire with the love of God / the love God has for God’s people. There are also many images (especially in the catholic tradition) of Jesus showing his heart to his saints, telling them that his heart is consumed with love / burning with love for his people.

Fire is associated with desire, passion – inability to be contained (Actually Jesus is believed to have said to one Saint: “My heart is unable to contain the flames of my love”)

This love though is not a mere feeling. God does not just look at God’s people and loves them from afar. Quite the opposite, with Moses in the book of Exodus, it’s actually the first time that God decides to intervene in History. God takes action. God’s love is sensitive: God says that God “has observed” (the misery of God’s people), God “has heard” (their cry), but God defines also God’s love by taking action: God “has come down to deliver” (…) “to bring the people up” and finally is sending Moses.

God gives God’s name to Moses and in the meantime refuses to give God’s name: “I am who I am”. We say here at Christ Church that we can’t put God into a box. This is true. God does not want to define who God is by giving a list of qualities, God defines Godself and we learn who God is by seeing how God’s love act in God’s people’s lives. Maybe even by living our lives. There is a saying that goes: God comes to you disguised as your own life.

God is always acting / always at work. There is not a place where you cannot find God. You find God by living and living in witnessing the work of God is your life and in the world:

“Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, all embarrassment into laughter”

Now the question for most of us (at least for me!) is: Why is it that so often it does not work better?

If God is always at work, how come that we may encounter so many difficulties, struggles, opposition? Why is it so hard to understand God’s will and to do it?

Well, we may have the beginning of an answer with today’s Gospel. Jesus rebukes Peter harshly, it can be shocking to us. Yet Jesus rebukes him for a very specific reason: Peter is a “stumbling block” / “setting his mind on human things and not divine things”

Peter, by telling Jesus how things are supposed to happen for him, how it will all work out, by trying to second guess God’s will, is standing in Jesus’s way. And it makes Jesus really mad because by doing so Peter prevents God from doing God’s work.

Well when I was reading that I thought: How often is it that we do the same thing? Standing in God’s way, being a stumbling block for the God who “turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, all embarrassment into laughter”

Christians – we are so preoccupied with doing God’s will / thinking about what God wants us to do. And like Peter, it often all comes from good intentions / generosity of our heart. But as Jesus reminds him today calling Peter a Satan: The road to Hell is also paved with “good intentions”. We have to do more than being well meaning / for Jesus: We have to let God do God’s work.

We have to let God do God’s work and maybe that’s the hardest part for us. Because of our insecurities, feelings of unworthiness, fear of suffering / being hurt or disappointed, we stand in the way of God’s grace. We pretend we know how things are supposed to happen and what is supposed to happen. We struggle a lot, and gain next to nothing.

Jesus = We have to let God do God’s work. Sometimes it’s not so much about all we need to do, sometimes it’s more about doing what seems like just doing nothing. And I think it can be very hard / frustrating for us. It was probably very hard and frustrating for Peter who had just acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, has been told by Jesus that he was the “Rock of the church” (cf last week’s readings) and so now he wants to do the work, of course! But Jesus tells him he has no idea what he is talking about. Peter has to let God do the work of salvation through the cross, even is he really wants things to happen a different way.

So how do we do that? Letting God do God’s work? How can we avoid being a stumbling block?

I’ve been struggling with that for many years: Between running in every direction trying to make things happen or staying at home doing nothing hoping God will make something happen?

Yet, we have a response in our readings today and I think this is what Paul is writing about in the Letter to the Romans. This is how it looks like, I think, to let God do God’s work:

“Let love be genuine” and “Hate what is evil, hold on fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection” and so on.

The only work God ask us to do / or better the way we can collaborate / enable God’s work in the world is doing the work of love.

Now this is a broad term right? There are many kinds of love. The love Paul is talking about is a love that is “genuine”, it is a love that does not pretend to be something it is not, it is a love that acts, do the best for others, it is a love of compassion. Compassion is the characteristic of God’s love. What happens in our first reading, in OT, is God having compassion on God’s people’s suffering and to help God, Moses is invited to have compassion at his turn, compassion not only in his heart, but a compassion that leads him to act to deliver the people. Moses found refuge in the desert because he killed an Egyptian – he did that because he was very angry at the way the Egyptians treated the Hebrews – but this killing led him to nowhere. It is not his anger towards the Egyptians that can bring God’s healing, it will be his love / his compassion for God’s people that will lead him to go back to Egypt and deliver them.

We can let God’s work happen only in basking in God’s love. Peter does not get it yet. He does not show compassion for Jesus, denying the possibility that Jesus could suffer. He wants his friend – and his God – to be strong because that’s more reassuring for him. On the other way around, Jesus is ready to do the work of compassion, he wants to be with his people to the end, embracing the suffering of the least of his people. After a life spent doing good to the ones suffering, Jesus decides he wants to share the suffering, to be there with them. How many billions of people throughout the ages have found comfort, healing and hope by looking at the cross – knowing that there was nothing they went through that could not be redeemed and sanctified.

We have to let ourselves be transformed by God’s love / by the way God wants to love the world, wants to love us and wants us to love. This is hard work / real work, because indeed we have to be transformed, but it’s not a work that should be exhausting or distressing. God’s fire does not consume.

“Just assume the answer to every question is compassion” – this includes compassion for yourself. Peter had to be saved before he could save others. But that will be a discussion point for another sermon!

Proper 16

This Sunday, we’ve heard a very well known passage of the Gospel: Peter’s confession of faith – acknowledgment that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and in return, Jesus gives Peter authority on the church and the keys to the KOG.

Like all those passages, when we know them so well, it can be tricky. We just assume what it’s about (and sometimes it is!) but it’s harder to hear them anew.

A few points I would like to reflect on with you:

– Jesus asks this central question to his disciples: Who do you say that I am?

It’s not only a central question metaphorically speaking, but literally. Scholars have observed that this passage is the climax in two folded Matthew’s Gospel: first part is about the ministry of healing and teaching / second part is the suffering and the cross.

The question, of course, is redirected to us: Who do we think Jesus is?

I asked this question to our Bible study group this past Tuesday and I loved what I heard:

Jesus is a friend / my best friend” (said spontaneously) and then adding “…but he is more than a friend” (said more hesitantly, but more reflexively)

And I really like that because I think it really reflects the familiarity and the mystery of Jesus, the way the disciples experienced him at the time: He was their friend, they ate and talked and traveled with him, but he was more than a friend, he knew them in a way no friend can know you, he helped them / healed them / transformed them.

Matthew insists in the first part of his Gospel that Jesus is God among us (He is called “Emmanuel”, God among us) – especially in the nativity story. God comes close to his people. But then, and that the second part of the story, he is taken away from his friends and this world (suffering and cross), not because he is vanishing, but because he draws all to God.

To me, this is really what the structure of the Gospel is about, and who Jesus is and how salvation works:

Jesus comes to be with us and then he takes us to be with God

He makes himself close to us so we can come close to God.

He is a friend, and he is more than a friend. He is a friend that can save, heal and redeem.

– So what does it mean in the way we relate to Jesus? I heard once this joke that gave me a lot to think about:

If one person has an imaginary friend, we call them crazy
If several persons have the same imaginary friend, we call it a religion.

How do I know that Jesus is not my imaginary friend? A lot of us have talked about the way it’s easy to talk to Jesus during the day (especially in these times of loneliness and isolation) and the feeling that came of being helped, comforted and supported.

And I think this is true – I experience it for myself everyday.

The thing is that it’s often where we are tempted to stop: Jesus is with me and I can talk to him. Now to go deeper into Jesus’ identity we understand from the Gospel today that Jesus comes to us to lead us to be with God.

We miss the mystery and Jesus’s real identity if we only relate to his “humanity” (his ability to be with us, to be compassionate) while missing his “divinity” (how Jesus redeems us and leads us to God)

As Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God, he is changed.

His name changes (from Simon to Peter), his role is changed (He is in charge of the church), his character is changed (He is a rock), his authority is changed / Power is given to him (He can bind and loose).

Jesus comes into our life to bring transformation, liberation – to bring us power (not power over other people, but power to act) Jesus does not come into our lives just to help us cope (even if often it’s where we are to start)

It’s very clear in our first reading. Exodus of course, it’s like the most important story in the OT. It means something very simple: God does not want God’s people to be slaves. God wants God’s people to be God’s children. To be fully who they are / who they are meant to be. To flourish, not just to cope. As Simon, in becoming Peter, becomes the one he has always been deep inside, the one who he is meant to be.

– Now what is our way to relate to Jesus? Most of the time, we ask to help us cope, to let us be okay. And that’s what he wants to be here for! But that’s only the beginning. We have to ask him to let him change us – not that we would become somebody else, but become who we truly are – children of God. We have to ask Jesus to bring divine life inside of us, to let him bring us closer to God.

How do you pray? I know I often pray for things to change in my life, or for people to change, but I don’t often pray to be able to change. Yet if we really believe that we are in charge of our lives, if we change, our lives will truly be transformed.

Jesus wasn’t well received as the Messiah because people expected a Messiah who would come to change the world, to undo political power, to restore the Kingdom of Israel. But Jesus started in this world with making friends and then talk to them / lead them to God. Jesus knew that the most important thing is to start changing hearts before we can change anything in the world. By doing that, he gave power and authority to his disciples.

– This is really what the passage from the Epistle to the Romans is about today: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”

And Paul says two important things:

The first one is that we have to offer ourselves to God. Do we do that? In Jesus, God offers who God is constantly – In Scriptures, in Sacraments, in the way we relate to God is prayer. Do we offer our hearts to God / ask God to let God’s will be done in our lives? (“So that you may discern what is the will of God in your lives”)

Second thing is that God has a special purpose for us. In this life, we look for support, comfort, love, for friend…but we also look for “more than a friend” / we look for something or somebody to live for, maybe even something to die for. We have special gifts to bring to the world – it’s does not have to be church related (Paul names prophecy and teaching, but also generosity, compassion, cheerfulness).

Peter today finds meaning to his life / understands his role – and God wants that for all of us. No matter our age, life situation.

– Jesus saves us, yes, but he does not rescue us like we rescue a puppy. Jesus rescues / saves us as his friends / his equals, somehow. In the Gospel, Jesus always, always, empowers people / his friends. Show them who they truly are / show them their own strength and their beauty and their abilities.

Do we let Jesus does that for us or is it to hard to truly believe in whom we can become with him / is it too hard to let Jesus love us, and change us?

Do we do that for others? Are we to others a “friend and yet more than a friend”? I think we all want to have friends, because it’s nice to hang out, to talk about everything, to have fun together, to feel supported and comforted if needed. But in the Antiquity, people had a very different understanding of friendship. Friendship was meant to make life happier, but for many Greek philosophers, friendship was about spiritual growth. Friends will support each other so they become wiser, more mature and grow into divine life.

That’s also what the church is about. Our church is not about fellowship as a happy get together or support / cope group. It’s about getting to know God together / growing in the knowledge of God.

In this passage of the Gospel, we see that when Jesus talks about building the church, he is not thinking about building a building, than about building up people as he builds up his disciples / Peter. Do we build up each other? Do we stir up the best in each other / become our best selves / help one another to find our place in the world? That should be our role as the church.

A message for Proper 15

Hi friends,

I have prepared a sermon this week and, as usual, it has been posted on line on Friday. I am not going to talk about it today though, but you’re of course invited to read it if you want to explore a bit more the Scriptures we have just heard.

I sat Saturday afternoon at home with a heavy heart after having received a phone call and an email both bearers of very sad news for two families of our community. These sad news came piling up on other sad news we have had this past week and in the past months at Christ Church. And so Saturday, I could do nothing but sense the grief and the pain a lot of you are going through right now, who had lost a close and beloved one, brother, sister, cousin or even a child. Or maybe you haven’t lost a beloved one, but a lot of us – if not all of us! – have experienced recently a fair amount of anxieties and isolation, worrying about our health, jobs, finances and our families.

For all these reasons, I don’t think teaching or sharing my deep thoughts about the Gospel with you today would be a great help – I know it wasn’t helpful even for me! – But maybe we can just approach the readings as we are, with our heavy hearts, and try to get a hold of what God wants to tell us.

To me, the first lines of the Old Testament today are just remarkable, if you pay a little attention. It reads: “Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out ‘Send everyone away’ (…) He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it”

Well, I find this remarkable and touching that the Bible shows us that it’s really okay to express your grief and your hurt. The story of Joseph is such a long and amazing adventure: From the dreams of his youth, to his being sold in slavery to the Egyptians, becoming Potiphar’s intendant, then being sent in prison because of false accusations, and then leaving prison again, becoming Pharaoh’s counselor and then something like his prime minister. Yet, as much as it is of a “success story”, it’s hard to imagine how utterly heart broken Joseph must have been throughout all of this, having been betrayed and rejected by his brothers, living away in a foreign country, not even knowing if his parents were alive or dead. Throughout all of what happened to him, Joseph had remained strong, courageous and faithful to God, but today in our reading, Joseph sees his brothers again and it’s like his heart finally melt, or at least, he has a meltdown – and everybody in the palace knows about it, hear him cry, servants and royalties, including probably Pharaoh himself.

And what is remarkable is that the author of the Bible does not seem to be embarrassed to say this, about this great man Joseph, that he had a meltdown. Quite the opposite, it looks like Joseph’s ability to be touched, to cry and to mourn is part of his greatness, of what makes him a strong and powerful man, and moreover – a man of God.

I was talking recently with a friend who is from Middle East and who is also an artist – he lives now in US – and he was telling me that, in his country, he has never felt it was okay for him to be who he was, emotional and sensitive, because that’s not how men are supposed to be like in his culture. But then he asked this very insightful question: “Isn’t it our feelings that make us human? How can you be a man, if you are not human to start with?”

How can you be a man, if you are not human to start with?

Joseph shows us the way. To be a man, and even more to be a man of God, he has to be able to be in touch with his pain, and as he does so, he is also in touch with his own heart, the love he has for his brothers and for his own, and instead of burying him deeper down into depression and isolation, expressing his grief enables him to be brought back together with his brothers and to be reconciled with his family.

It didn’t matter, you see, if he was the more powerful man in the country after Pharaoh, it didn’t even matter if he could know the will of God or interpret dreams. What he needed was to have his heart comforted and healed and be surrounded by people he loved and who would love him.

As so I think, this is really how it looks like to be powerful in God’s realm, it is to have the power to be touched, to mourn – not because we would be good at being sad – but because we are able to love, and also to have compassion. God makes us strong in a way that does not look like “strong” according to the world – we are often schooled to not put on display our feelings, or at least to not show any weakness – but in the Bible, to those who express their pain, God gives them the strength to overcome their pain by a greater love and a deep compassion.

And I think this is also how it goes with this strange story of the Canaanite woman seeking after Jesus.

Not unlike Joseph, this woman does not behave according to her gender’s standards. Women – yesterday and always – are expected to be “good girls”, discreet and reserved – but this woman, she is loud, rude and disruptive, she cries out after Jesus, she begs him to help her. She asks for help and for compassion, she expresses the despair she has over her daughter’s disease and in all of this, far from being weak or a victim, she shows herself strong, bold and courageous – and not only she will win over Jesus who will have compassion on her, she is also shown to the disciples as an example of “great faith”.

Jesus today asks his disciples to be fully engaged with their faith. He’s just told the Pharisees that true religion isn’t about looking good on the outside, doing the right thing, keeping it together not matter what. Faith is about engaging our hearts in what we do, with the ones around us, and it is to trust God to give us the best, to restore us beyond our heartbreaks and to bring new life to us. Jesus tells his disciple that they are “without understanding”, which is also translated by “dull”, “dumb” or “numb”. To them, he shows as an example this woman who expects everything from God’s mercy.

I hope today that, with the example of the Canaanite woman begging for the crumbs of the meal, we would feel encouraged in persevering in prayer, trusting that at God’s feast, there is a place for all of us. Joseph tells his brothers that all these hardships he had in his life, God intended them for good. I don’t think it means – as we usually assume – that God had planned everything that happened to Joseph, even the bad and the terrible – because it was the best way to make something good happen to his family (being rescued from the famine). I think it means that Joseph had enough love in his heart to see goodness coming even from terrible places, to see that there was no situation, no trial and no pain that love could not redeem.

We are invited to trust that in the end, everything will be okay, well and meaningful, not because there is so hidden justification to evil and pain, but because in the end we will be able to experience fully God’s power and God’s goodness in the reuniting all God’s people, in the same way that Joseph was reunited to his family in the end – because indeed it was all Joseph longed for. You know how sometimes we look back on the difficult times and we think it was all good and okay because those circumstances brought us this friend, this partner, this child in our lives? It does not mean the difficult times were okay or good or even necessary. It means that it was still worth it, because the love that is to receive is stronger than the pain we have to endure. I think, it is the same for all our lives, it will be all worth it, because it will bring us, all of us, into God’s arms of mercy.

God is really in our pain and our sorrows, right here and right now and look at us with compassion. And all what God expects from us is that we would open our hearts to God. To release us from our pain, and to find a way with God through our suffering towards the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Proper 15

The Gospel we have heard today is obviously two folded with a very clear structure:

– Jesus has a conversation with the Pharisees (taking it further in front of the crowd listening to them) about the respect of religious laws and what matters ultimately

– Then Jesus has this famous conversation with the Canaanite woman about whether it is acceptable for her (and her people, the Gentiles, the historical enemies of God’s people) to have access to the Kingdom and to receive the crumbs falling under the table.

We had quite of a discussion with our Bible study group about this text this past Tuesday, and one of the problems we raised was the difficulty to make a connection between the two stories – what is it that make them all come together in the end.

The themes, though important, are not new. Especially in Matthew’s. Matthew liked to identify Jesus as a new Moses (with yet an even more important role than Moses). In Matthew’s, Jesus is constantly revisiting the law given to the Jews, not to transform it radically, but to underscore what is really at stake in it and you could summarize it up this way:

It’s not about the rules or about the rites, it’s about what the law and the rites point to. The summary of the law for Jesus being contained each time (and comes back in the Gospel like a chorus) in this short sentence: Love God, love your neighbor.

Today again, Jesus, with heated energy, redirects the Pharisees, and the crowds, not towards what they need to do with themselves around religion, how they might protect themselves from being defiled by the bad things and the bad people around in this world, but Jesus redirects them towards their own hearts, have them think about how they may defile themselves by not being pure in their hearts and how they might be hurting themselves while hurting other people by their evil thoughts, words or actions.

Although it sounds very ironic today in our context of pandemic to hear Jesus saying that’s it’s not important to wash your hands, I think his sayings on cleanness and uncleanliness are right on target with what’s going on right now. Have you noticed that, with the virus, most of us are always worried about being contaminated by others, but we don’t think a lot about ourselves being the source of contamination? That we may not so much need to wear a mask to protect ourselves, but to protect others? It’s not that often that it occurs to us: Maybe I am the one who is sick, after all?

It says a lot about the way we think about ourselves, does not it? We so often see the world, what’s going on outside, people we don’t know (strangers, like the Canaanite woman) as the source of evil, or maybe at least as the source of danger, but we barely think of ourselves as being the danger and the source of evil. Yet today Jesus raises this important question: Maybe you are the one who is sick, after all. Maybe the source of contamination is inside of you, good and religious people.

And it certainly can give us a lot to think about, invite us to turn our attention inwards and see how our polluted and twisted thoughts, our toxic and auto centered feelings, our impulsive or self righteous reactions contribute to the brokenness of the world we see and lament all around us. Because maybe, just maybe, everywhere we go seems to us dangerous and polluted because really, we carry the danger and pollution everywhere with us, because the danger is inside of us, inside our own hearts.

And so while we are here, then comes the other part of the story today. The encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman. I love each and single one of Jesus’ encounters with women in the Gospel. They are so refreshing! The women Jesus liked, they are not the kind of well behaved women: Martha, Mary, the hemorrhagic, the woman at the well (look them up!) and today the Canaanite. These women, they don’t fit the description on how women are supposed to behave in society, around men and those in authority, how women were – and are still – schooled to be: Don’t be a pain, don’t be angry, don’t be needy, don’t ask questions, don’t tell them what they need to do – and of course the golden rule: don’t be a smart ass. Be a good girl, keep it light and easy.

But the Canaanite woman – she has it all wrong, hasn’t she? She is loud, demanding, rude, she talks back to Jesus and challenges him.

And yet, that’s when the miracle occurs – at the very moment when she did what’s absolutely the last thing her culture wants her to do – outsmarting the Master with her wit – that’s when her daughter is healed. But unlike the well behaved Pharisees and maybe a lot of goody two shoes of her time, she does not have to hide herself behind moral codes and religious laws, she can give her heart out because her heart is pure. It’s all about the great love she has inside of her. Not only the great love for her daughter, but the assurance of being a beloved and beautiful daughter of God who deserves her part in the kingdom, who deserves, if not a seat at the table, at least the crumbs that fall underneath.

In her assurance of being worthy of love, and yet in her great humility, not only does she give her heart out but she also conquers Jesus’s. Because this woman is real, fully engaged and alive.

And I think that maybe, it’s all what it comes down to in the end. Maybe that’s all what Jesus expect from us and maybe that’s the connection between the “two sides of the story”. It’s funny isn’t it to realize how often – without even meaning it – we skip the things that really bother us? It took me hours of rereading the Gospel to finally notice the center of our text today:

Jesus accusing his disciples to be “Asunetos”: Without understanding but literally in Greek “without intelligence” also translated in English with the words “dull” “numb”, which means: the disciples didn’t lack neuronal transmissions in their brain but Jesus’s regular crew was to him tasteless, without wit, without curiosity and without reaction and then comes the encounter with this salty woman who is everything but boring. And not only the miracle occurs for her (the healing), but the real miracle for Jesus is her herself, with what he calls her “great faith” of her and with who she is.

What does it take for us, to have a great faith in this liturgical season we call the season of discipleship?

Well, maybe it does not take more than not being numb and dumb and asleep (an expression that comes back many, many times in Matthew’s parables) in our relationship with God. Maybe it means we need to be more engaged, strive to understand, but also react and ask questions, maybe we need to be a little more curious about God intellectually, and concretely in our lives, ask for what we need, be ready to do what it takes to gain God’s favor. God wants us to be whole and to be real. To be exactly who we are and who we are meant to be – not resting on or hiding behind our good deeds or on our rites but be ready to open ourselves and open our hearts to God in great confidence and in great humility .

To get there, maybe we need a bit of the faith of the Caannite woman. To become aware of our belovedness, aware that God will meet us exactly where we are. It’s not about our personality, or even about how we behave or what we do. God does not want to change our personality. God just wants to give us a clean, a pure heart – a heart that is alive, a heart that knows it is loved and can love in return and put love in everything it does – whatever we do. Bishop Curry reminded us a few months ago that love is contagious too. What bigger call for us as disciples than being the source of love in a broken and hurting world?