Proper 23

I am thankful for this Sunday’s Gospel because it reminded me that I had to pay for my car insurance!

I was absorbed by the readings, trying to figure out this well-known passage where Jesus invites us to: “Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s” aka “Give to Cesar the things that belong to Cesar”, wondering what was the deep spiritual meaning behind all of this, when I was reminded that maybe this is all there is to it, or that at least it is really the starting point: You have to pay your taxes, and you have to pay the bills – and so maybe I needed to interrupt my meditation to actually catch up on my payments and send my check before reaching the deadline.

The Gospel is very real life oriented, isn’t it? It’s actually not the first time that the question of taxes shows up in Matthew’s. If you go back to chapter 17, you will find this funny and strange passage where Jesus pays his taxes and Peter’s taxes by sending him to retrieve a coin in a fish’s mouth! I wonder how many sacred texts in the world, how many religious books and how many theological essays deal with the problem of taxes. It seems so trivial, doesn’t it? When we think of spirituality, we may think more easily of Moses on the top of the mountain, like in this passage of the Old Testament we have just read: Moses praying and pleading for God’s presence, asking God to show God’s glory, asking God to show God’s face.

But so much for spirituality: In the Gospel today what Jesus shows us is a coin, and a coin with the Emperor’s face on it.

So is Jesus just making fun of us – at least making fun of the Pharisees and the Herodians – or is it the beginning of something? Could paying your taxes be the beginning of spirituality? Well, it reminded me the whole issue about finding out whether the President of the United States pay his taxes or not. Certainly, to be the President of the United States you have to do much more than pay your taxes. Yet, if the President of the United States does not pay his taxes, that does not reflect well, does it? That may mean there could be more problematic issues behind that – if he is not able to do this little thing. And so maybe, this is the same for us, as children of God: If we don’t do this little thing that is called pay our taxes and bills, and deal with real life problems where money is involved.

It is very interesting if you pay attention to the text, that the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is “lawful” to pay taxes to the Emperor. That should be the other way around, right? Rather, they should ask: “Is it unlawful not to pay taxes”? But of course, the Pharisees aren’t talking about civil law – in Matthew’s when it comes down to the law, it’s always about God’s law, the Torah. And of course there was a conflict between God’s law and the civil law, the only God of Israel, and Cesar Augustus who claimed to be God on earth. Yet I guess, it was also a good excuse for the righteous ones – to criticize the Emperor so they could get away with the rest. A good excuse not to pay taxes, a good excuse to keep their money.

And that’s what the Pharisees did, didn’t they? We saw that a few weeks ago, when they started to question Jesus’s authority because they didn’t want to listen to what Jesus had to say. Well, in the same way, they questioned the Emperor’s authority – probably not so much because they were such religious and God fearing people who were afraid to do an unfaithful deed by supporting the Emperor in sending him money, rather my guess is they didn’t want to pay taxes because they didn’t want to pay taxes! They question the fairness of the taxes because didn’t want to give out their money. This is what we do as well, I guess: When we don’t want to pay for something, we always find a reason why we should have it for free: the meal was cold, the shirt was torn, I only parked there for ten minutes…

Well, in response to all those arguments, Jesus grab a coin and shows it to them, show it to us today.

To discuss money, Jesus grabs a coin and shows it to us. Take a good look at it. He makes it real and what I hear when I hear him saying to give back to the Emperor’s what’s the Emperor’s is this: It’s just money and money is just a thing and the Emperor can have his thing, why do you care about it.

This scene in the Gospel actually reminded me of a scene in a movie I re-watch recently: In The Wild. This movie tells the story of this young man, Christopher McCandless, who decided after he graduated from college to leave human society as an act of defiance towards his father but also as he pursues a more authentic way of living. And so there is this scene when he gets ready to leave for a new life in the forest: After abandoning his car, on the side of the road he tears down his credits cards and he burns up his money. And then he grabs his backpack and he is on his way – and you can’t help thinking of course: What is he going to do? How is he going to live? But I think what’s really striking and shocking for us is this message that comes across: Money is just a thing after all, a thing among so many others in the world. Like paper it can burn, credit card can be destroyed, you can lose your wallet or your purse and still be alive and on your way.

And to me, although the passage of the Gospel has been used many times to talk about church and civil society, the difference between God’s commandments and federal law, and what’s really moral or not, deep down to me this passage is probably just about money. To me, Jesus does not let the Pharisees and the Herodians catch him in their trap about religion and politics, because to me Jesus knows that in the end the real problem is money. And this is the lesson I believe Jesus teaches them by showing this coin to his audience, and to us: Jesus reminds us that money is just a thing.

Money is a thing that people use and if all belong to God, Jesus, not without a good sense of humor, casts a doubt on the fact that maybe money just belongs to the Emperor because God really does not care for money. At least to me one thing is sure: Jesus really didn’t like money. He despised it. You cannot serve two Masters, he said many times to his disciples.

And so, I wonder what it would be like for us to think of money only as a thing. A thing we need, of course, especially when we live in society, but just a thing among other things. To see money as a thing rather than seeing all the fantasies we attach to money. When I see a few bills, I don’t see a piece of paper, you know, I see dinner outside, a new pair of shoes, maybe a plane ticket. I see entertainment, freedom and peace of mind. Some see power, influence and success. But it’s like whatever you dream of, money can give you. And so to most of us money is not just a thing, it’s the means, the magic mediator between where we are and where we need to be. Without even realizing it, we make it our God.

I grew up in a household where money was sacred. Not that we had so much of it. But I remember vividly one day I had a few cents sitting there on my desk and as I didn’t know what to do with them, I put them in the trash can. Somehow my father found out and gave me a lesson I would never forget. He had worked hard to make this money, he told me, it was insulting to his work that I would get rid of these coins, this money could buy us gas and food and clothing. I didn’t know, I was a child – for me, these coins were just a thing. As I look back on this episode, I am sure that had I had gotten rid of a few dollars toy, it wouldn’t have mattered at all. But it was money. And like so many of us, my father didn’t see a thing, a few dirty coins of little to no value. Rather, he saw, like so many of us, all the fantasies we attach to money: work, duty and suffering but also life, freedom and maybe even salvation. In my household we were very devoted Christian, yet I realize we also worshiped money.

And I imagine our hearts were torn between what money could buy us and what God could give us.

And so to me that’s why Jesus reminds the Pharisees to pay their taxes. Because by letting go of this money they find good reasons to hold on to, they can let go of what they think money can do for them. Send back the money to the Emperor’s because money is just a thing – it’s not your God and it’s not your king. And this could be the beginning of spirituality. Money is powerful, but only in its own realm. If we’re looking for God, if we’re seeking God’s face, maybe we don’t need to grow a bear and go hike on a mountain like Moses, maybe we just have to realize by concrete acts that money is just a thing. Yes we need to know that money can buy us a better health, but we also need to know that it cannot give us life, yes money can buy us a house, but it can’t give us a home, yes money can buy us relationships but it cannot give us real friendship. We have to get rid of all the dreams and all the fantasies to realize that money is just money – and we all need money when we are in society but it’s not God’s thing: It won’t save us, it won’t heal us, it won’t love us back, it won’t give us life. Only God will.

So maybe we can remember that next time we have to pay for something we really don’t want to pay for, whether it’s our taxes or a parking ticket, or our insurance. It’s not just an unpleasant daily task, or an anxiety we have to deal with, it can also be the beginning of spirituality, it can be taking a step towards God. By letting go of all what we believe money can give us, we open ourselves to better things only God can bring us…Well, at least I could be a comforting thought!

Proper 22

I don’t know if you have noticed but, not unlike the days in the Fall season, Jesus’s parables grow darker every week…

You may remember from last Sunday the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard, the tenants who kill the landowner’s son who comes to claim the fruit of the harvest – it was dark enough, wasn’t it? The parable we have today, known as the parable of the wedding banquet, may be the darkest of all though…

So what’s up with that? Was Jesus trying to terrorize the people? And why would he do that?

Well, I had these words in mind when I read the story – words from Stendhal, a famous writer. Criticized by some of his readers for telling bleak stories, he answered that a good novel was “a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shews the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.”

And so to me, as the writer who describes an ugly reality not because he has bad intentions, but because the days are ugly, Jesus didn’t tell terrifying stories because he enjoyed terrorizing people, Jesus told terrifying stories because the days were terrifying. His parables, also are a mirror, a mirror of the days getting darker and darker – Jesus, experiencing more and more rejection, knowing he is going to be put to death and bring great mourning on his disciples. To us, today, the parable still work because it is also a mirror of certain aspects of our world, and even deeper, a mirror of our souls.

Actually, I am wondering if this is not the most important to Jesus: To show people some aspects of their souls, of their hearts that they refuse to look at. We see that in the end, as in last week’s parable, Jesus isn’t that preoccupied with the Son’s lot, about his own lot, Jesus is worried about the landowner / the King (God’s figure) – or more precisely about people rejecting God. And as I was scrolling through our Scriptures for today, I think it’s also the question our Old Testament lesson deals with – and this theme is a constant preoccupation in the Bible: people rejecting God (and the consequences for them)

But first to our Gospel. In the parable today, we see people rejecting God / The King for different reasons: first group who is invited represents not the Jewish people in general (as we may believe) but more precisely the leaders, the religious ones. We know that they rejected Jesus for some deep reasons – Jesus turned upside down their theology of election and privilege, a religion that made them feel important and better than others – but they also rejected Jesus for superficial reasons: Jesus said “They made light of it”, they went to their business, they had other things to do! Certainly, it was not a little rabbi from Galilee who was going to teach them!

Then there is the second group who is invited. They often have been identified as the Christians, but when Jesus told the story he really meant the rest of the Jewish people, the crowd, the little ones. And those guys, they accept the invitation the other ones refuse, happy at the idea of a good meal and celebration, and they go to the banquet and you know…they have a good time! Luke’s Gospel, who reports a similar parable stops the story here and that’s great but maybe a bit shallow! Yet Matthew goes on and as he does so I think he gives more depth to the story and warms us of another danger: In the end, even the little ones, or some of them, don’t put in the effort – symbolized by the putting on of the wedding robe. The little ones can also reject God too, in their own way. Not because, like the religious leaders, they are in active rebellion, or have other things to do – these people care about God’s gifts, they need the healing and food (here symbolized by the banquet) but they don’t truly care about God, about having a proper relationship with God – and so in the end these people may end up condemned as well, like the powerful leaders.

Although it’s a difficult one, I like this version of the story because I think it describes quite accurately what Jesus was feeling during his ministry. We know that Jesus welcomed everybody, healed and gave out food generously, yet several times he complains that this is all what people are after, when healing and feeding are a sign of God’s presence to whom he wanted to drive attention to.

In the story of the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus says: Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves (John 6:26)

In the story of the ten lepers, Jesus asks: Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? (Luke 17:17-18)

This ingratitude reminds us of course of our first reading – in Exodus, the famous passage of the worship of the golden calf. Again and again in our OT lessons these past weeks, we have read how the people in the wilderness kept on rejecting God when God did not “deliver”, at least not according to their standards and their time frame: Food, meat, water. Today they just get mad because God keeps them waiting, so they go out to worship another God! As a side note, to me, it’s very shocking to see Aaron participating in this, he is a leader, a priest – but we see that he just wants to please people by letting them worship what they want, whatever make them feel better. “Whatever works” could be the motto of these people. They don’t want a God, they want a magician.

Well, I don’t know what you think but it seems to me that things haven’t changed a lot since the wilderness and since Jesus sat in the Temple in Jerusalem to deliver disturbing parables to the people.

We want the honor and the privileges or maybe we want the healing, we want the food (and God knows we need them), but in the end we are not that interested in a relationship. We care for the gifts and not so much for the giver (That’s actually what idolatry is all about) Jesus’s parable is a mirror of what’s going on in the world and in our souls: Humankind at war with God, directly or indirectly. I don’t think so many hate God literally, reject God actively but as you may be aware of, worse than hate is indifference. And at some level, we are all guilty of indifference, we have better things to do than to wait on a God who does not deliver in the way we expect God to deliver.

We’re not interested in a relationship and we don’t want to change.

And it’s not only with God I think. How often are we more interested in what people can do for us, rather than interested in people themselves? And isn’t it the same with nature? We want the resources the earth provide for us but we don’t care for the earth itself.

The parable we’ve heard today is a dark parable, but I think it reflects not only the state of our world and of our souls but also the grief in Jesus’s heart. Jesus came to convert people and in the end, he realizes that people really don’t want to change. God gives them the best that God has to offer, a relationship with God through his Son, and the people are not interested. They rather run their businesses or fill their plates at the buffet. They don’t want to change their hearts as the man in the story does not want to change his clothes.

And so in the end, there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. An expression Jesus uses 6 times in Matthew’s Gospel, and it’s always “in the end” that there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. So is God going to punish the world, and to punish people the way the King does? Well, I think that the story tells us that God would have very good reasons to be angry. I think Jesus asks us this question: Wouldn’t you be mad if you were the king? How much more offended should be God? Yet we know that God does not punish people, rather people punish themselves and to me this is the sense of the expression. We weep and gnash teeth in the end when we have remorse and regrets and it’s too late to do anything about it.

So maybe what Jesus asks us today with this story is this: How do you live today, so you know that you have answered the invitation and do what’s most important? How do you live today so in the end, you have no regrets?

How do you live today so in the end, you have no regrets?

Most people would answer to this question by saying: “Just enjoy the most of it”, and, right, Paul tells us today to rejoice as well. But he says more precisely: “Rejoice in the Lord, always”. We are invited to rejoice at God’s table, not because it is well supplied but because true joy is to love God and love one another. We are invited to open our hearts to be able to enjoy deep and meaningful relationships because in the end it is all that’s going to matter. No one dies thinking they should have worked more, made more money or spent more time shopping. In the end, all that matters is that we have loved and been loved in return. But as wide and deep God’s grace and God’s generosity, God cannot make this choice for us. We are all invited but we’re the only ones who can accept the invitation.

Proper 21

I wish I had a chance to preach the Gospel we have just heard as a children sermon, because I think there are a lot to tell children about this passage – In the meantime, I also acknowledge that this Gospel certainly speaks to the child inside of us, and we certainly need to talk to them from time to time.

So what do we learn in this passage? The chiefs priests and the elders question Jesus’s authority as he teaches in the Temple. We already know that they don’t like Jesus’s teaching because Jesus does not approve of their behavior. The chief priests and the elders are very respectful of the letter of the law, but they forget the spirit of the law – which is to live in love, compassion and forgiveness. They also use religion as a way to have power over people, to gain some honors and privileges. Jesus wants them to change their hearts, but they’re not ready to do it. They’re not ready to admit they’re wrong – and so they question Jesus’s authority so they don’t have to think about themselves.

When we don’t want to do something, we question the source of authority, don’t we? When somebody asks us to do something (or to not do something), don’t we often have this question in the back of our minds: “Who are you, to tell me what I need to do (or not)”? The reason why I’ve said I’d like to preach a children sermon about this passage of the Gospel, is that children are very candid about that, aren’t they? They don’t just question in the back of their minds, when they don’t want to do something, they scream at you: “You’re not my dad!” (if you are not their dad) or “You’re not the teacher!” (if you are their dad). Or the one I like the best, the excuse my sister used with my parents when she was a teenager: “I didn’t ask to be born” (Implying: “But you chose to give me life so deal with it, I’ll do whatever I want”). All of this a way of saying: I cannot acknowledge your authority over me, you have no permission to tell me what to do (or not).

And in a sense, there is no real possible way to argue with that, is it? Unless you enforce your requests upon others with threats, violence or lawsuits, you can’t “make” them – another expression children like to use. Jesus of course, leaves it as it is. He acknowledges that he cannot convince the chief priests, prove his authority, he cannot “make” them.

Jesus gives up, sort of.

And I think this is really interesting because to me, what the Gospel shows us throughout is not so much that the problem is that there are people who behave badly – all of them and all of us behave badly at some point – the heart of the problem is that people don’t want to convert, or, as Jesus puts it in a much more simple way in his parable, people don’t want to “change their minds” when God asks them to. We keep on doing the same mistakes – sometimes just because we’ve been doing them for so long, it’s really hard – as it was for the chief priests and the elders – to acknowledge that we’ve been wrong from the beginning. We just don’t have enough humility, faith or resilience to confess (even to ourselves) that we’ve been careless, that we’ve hurt somebody or made a mess of a situation.

And yet, as I mentioned last week, we need to let the Scriptures ask us questions and we need to let the Scriptures question us and search our hearts so we can change our minds, do the right thing, fix our mess and become more loving, compassionate and forgiving people. According to Jesus, or at least according to his parable, the world isn’t divided between “good people” and “bad people”. According to Jesus, there are two types of people in the world: Those who question their behavior (like the first son), and those who don’t question their behavior (like the second son).

Many people live on the surface of things. As we also talked about last week, we are often people pleaser, aren’t we, just so people will like us back and mirror to us a good version of ourselves so we can like ourselves too. We put on a nice face, sometimes a bit of a fake smile, and as the second son, utter empty promises. Not necessary to deceive, but simply because we cannot help it. We want to please, we want to be pleased with ourselves, and most often we just don’t know who we are. We think that we are really good people and of course we want the good but then life gets real and difficult, in the end self interest prevails or our own prejudices. The second son wants to please his father, wants to be happy about himself, but then he realizes it’s not going to be as fun as he thought to go work in the vineyard, so he just does not do it.

We are not who we believe we are. It’s not easy to spot that in ourselves yet we all know those people who claim not to be racist, not to be stingy or not to be resentful, and yet they don’t have a single friend of color, they will always let you get the check or they haven’t talked to their siblings for years. But those people are us, too, aren’t they? It’s just that we often lack the self reflection, the honesty and humility to take a good look at ourselves and to look not at what’s in our heads, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, who we want to be, but we need the honesty and humility to look at what we actually do (or not) in the world and to others.

I think this is the sense of the parable, Jesus says: what you do or fail to do tell us who you are, not what you say about your intentions or about who you claim to be.

Kant is one of the most famous moralists of all times, and he used to say that in the end, all that matters are good intentions. We cannot control all the consequences of our acts but even if our good intentions set a course of actions that lead to a disaster, it wouldn’t be our fault because we have wanted the good. To that, another philosopher, Hegel, responded with irony: “Your morality has pure hands because she does not have hands at all”. And what Hegel meant by that is that good intentions, the people we want to be in our heads, that can be a start but it’s certainly not enough to live a moral life: To live a moral life, we have to be responsible. We can’t use our good intentions as an excuse. If we mess up, we have to pick up our mess and fix it (as much as we can).

And once again, that’s what we want to teach our children isn’t it? That their actions have consequences and they need to be responsible for the consequences of their actions as much as it is possible to be. Jesus tells us that the difference between the chief priests and the elders on one side and the tax collectors and the prostitutes one the other side is that the latter were willing to acknowledge their mess, change their minds and turn back to God.

The good news is that Jesus tells us it’s never too late to do the right thing. We’ve heard about that last week with the workers of the last hour, and we hear it again today in the parable of the first son. It’s never too late to change your mind and to do the right thing. It’s interesting isn’t it to realize that in our world changing our minds is not often seen as a good thing, whereas in the Gospel it’s the beginning of salvation? Changing our minds, seeing ourselves as we are, the mistakes we have made or just the consequences of our actions, lead us to have power on the world, and change it for the best. In the meantime, as we are responsible for our actions, Jesus never wants us to have to bear the weight of guilt. As we acknowledge our mistakes, we are also forgiven – we don’t remain in our sins – and we are indeed, in real life, converted.

Proper 20

This Sunday, we have another challenging parable from Matthew’s Gospel! It may not be a scary one, as we have almost gotten used to, but this one can certainly leave us with mixed feelings: The parable of the “Generous landowner”:

A landowner hires laborers to work in his vineyard for the usual daily wage. As the day goes by, the landowner returns several times to the market place to hire more laborers, from 9:00am to 5:00pm. When the day is over though, instead of paying each one of the laborers based on the time they have spent working, the landowner asks the workers last hired to come forward and offers them the same daily wage that was agreed on with the first workers. Unsurprisingly, it makes these ones quite unhappy while the landowner declares “having done them no wrong” and praises himself for his generosity.

So as I was reading and re-reading this story, I was torn by two approaches:

– On one hand, I can’t help but agree that indeed, the landowner has done “nothing wrong” and has proven himself fair to the early workers and generous with the latest ones.

– On the other hand, something is really bugging me and I can’t help but feel that I don’t really like this guy, or maybe I don’t really like this story. I can’t really explain why but something inside of me tells me that this is not how things should go / this is not how things should end in a perfect world.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t preaching in a perfect world, was he? Parables aren’t fairy tales or a Hallmark movie, here to make us happy and contented with the way things are. Moreover, at some level, I think that if the parable is in a way annoying, it may prove that it works, that it is doing what it is supposed to do. A famous theologian said that we should read the Bible not so much for the answers it may provide, but for the questions it leads us to ask.

So what questions does this parable invite us to wrestle with?

– On a first level, it certainly invites us to think to very concrete, down to earth problems. Quite evidently, Jesus questions the way our society and economy work, and it’s interesting to realize that things haven’t changed that much in 2000 years: Not only do we assume that only those who work deserve a salary, we also assume that the more you work the more money you deserve.

But Jesus questions this understanding. It looks like first, those who don’t work aren’t necessarily responsible for not working, being lazy. They’re not working because “Nobody has hired them” and it seems that the landowner ends up hiring them not so much because he needs them but out of generosity. As he pays them a daily wage, even for having done so little, he gives them the opportunity to buy dinner for themselves and their families. He does not keep tabs on who’s doing what. He understands that everybody needs the minimum to live. It’s not their fault if they’re poor.

This understanding is disturbing to us, of course. It’s always easier to believe that we have what we have because we deserve it, because we have worked hard for it. But if we look at the reasons why we have what we have, if we “check our privilege” as we say (White privilege, inheritance, education, health, functioning family…), we may realize that our good fortune isn’t all our doing. Certainly the landowner realizes that and it leads him to share his resources.

Second very down to earth assumption this parable puts into question is our belief that we should always make more money. The more we work, the more we should make. By sending back the worker of the first hour with their full daily wage but nothing extra, the landowner claims that this is enough for the day. And indeed, the daily wage is what you need to get you through the day. Of course, it reminds us of the story we have just read in the Old Testament about the manna. God gives us our “daily bread”, gives us each day “enough”- or at least, we should live in a world where there is enough for everybody. We know of course that it isn’t a reality. Our wealth is not necessarily a blessing from God, our wealth can be what hasn’t be shared with others. We don’t deserve to have more resources than others. It just happens because it’s the way our economy works. I don’t know if Jesus was what we would call a socialist, but he certainly asks tough questions to the way we understand capitalism.

Without developing any further on those issues, I think the bottom line is that Jesus resets human economy on divine economy, reminding us that, in the eyes of God, each of God’s children is precious, deserving and valuable. Now how does it lead us to live and to treat others knowing that, as individuals but also as a society?

When we ask this question, I think we come to the heart of the parable and this is really where I would like to dwell on a little today. As I have mentioned earlier, the parable has been graciously named by the editors of this version of the Bible “The parable of the generous landowner” but I don’t think that generosity is what strikes us in this man. I think that what strikes us is that he is disliked: by the workers of the first hour, by the people who were listening to Jesus, by us who read the Gospel. We don’t hate him, as I said, we acknowledge he has done “nothing wrong” and even proven himself generous but he disturbs something inside of us – our sense of fairness, our sense of how things should go – we don’t even know if the workers of the last hour like him – Maybe they think he is a fool for doing what he does. If I had to rename the story, I would call it “The parable of the disliked landowner”, and I would do that not only because I think it is more accurate, but because I think this is the point Jesus is making:

This man has the “courage to be disliked”, as we say, and this is what makes him an exceptional character. He has the “courage to be disliked” not because he just wants to live his life as he pleases or he really wants to do something even if it was bothering or shocking to some people, he has the courage to be disliked for the sake of doing the right thing, for the sake of living according to his conscience, for the sake of reaching out to the less fortunate and to give them an opportunity to thrive. And as I thought about it, I realized: Well, this should indeed be the heart of Christian living, shouldn’t it? This should be what true morality should be?

But what have we done with morality in our world? As I was thinking about it, I realized how often it is that basically our morality is about being liked by others. We want to be nice to people, we want to please them – and there is nothing wrong with that, of course! But there is nothing wrong with that as long as it still leads us to do the right thing. Yet often, as we try so much to please people, to make them happy, we just conform to live in the world as the world is, instead of trying to transform it. If the landowner had paid everyone according to their work, he would have been a good landowner, he would have done what was expected and people would have been happy with him. But as he chooses to pay everybody the same, and to make a statement out of it (asking the workers of the last hour to come forward so everybody see they receive full salary), he challenges our assumptions, he disturbs our sense of fairness that often supports our selfish or at least quiet lives. The disliked landowner puts everything into question and cuts open our hearts, and he can do that because he has supreme freedom having the “courage to be disliked” – Not wanting to be loved as a motivation for his actions.

He is of course, a messianic figure. As he’s headed to Jerusalem, Jesus certainly identifies with this landowner. Jesus came into the world to announce that God loves and treats everybody the same way, to announce that there a no privilege, no good deed or false piety that can save us, and people hated him for that and put him to death.

So this week, I invite us to think about the motives of our actions. Do we do what we do to be loved or do we do what we do because we think it’s the right thing to do? It’s normal to want to be loved, valuated, appreciated, but I think Jesus invites us to look at a higher level: Not acting nice to people so they would like us and we can enjoy this good version of ourselves they send us back in the way they look at us (which is basically seduction), but acting doing what we truly believe is the best interest of others / the best we can do for them given a certain situation. Not to teach them, not to show them, but to give them the best we have to offer.

Christian love isn’t about pleasing people, it’s not about being well considered by those who are going to make us feel good about ourselves, Christian love is about lifting up, raising up our neighbors starting with the most needy. In this understanding indeed, the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Proper 19

– The passage of the Gospel we have just heard is a famous and difficult one, isn’t it?
Peter asking Jesus how many times he is supposed to forgive his brother or sister, should he be as generous as 7 times?, and then Jesus replying Peter will have to forgive “Not seven times (…) but seventy-seven times” (In certain translations: 70 times 7!)

– Now I don’t know what you think, but my guts feeling is that it does not make me happy when I hear that. I think it’s difficult to take in. Forgiving again and again and again and seventy-seven times again…How does it look like in real life?

Do you teach your children or grandchildren to let the bully hit them at recess, because they are not to seek revenge?
Do you think (as I’ve heard so many times) that it is fair that so many clergy ask their female parishioners to forgive again and again their abusive husbands or sons?

Somebody posted on tweeter the other day something I think is very accurate. He said:
“Stop using sermons of peace and forgiveness in order to manipulate the oppressed into accepting their oppression”

Indeed the Bible has been used to manipulate people into accepting all sorts of evil in the name of forgiveness, in the name being good Christians, from slavery to clergy abuse, denying women’s rights and so on.

So we really need to think seriously about what Jesus is saying to us today. Is Jesus really saying that it does not matter if we’re hurt, we still have to be good and to accept whatever people do to us because we have to forgive, or is it something else?

I think it’s really hard when you’ve been hurt by somebody and what you hear from good Christians is all you have to do is forgive. Why is it so hard?

– It does not acknowledge the hurt you feel (= makes you feel like you make a fuss out of nothing)

– It also denies your sense of justice

– Even worse, it makes you feel like you’re not a good Christian! You’re unable to forgive, that’s bad!!!

But we see in other parts of the Gospel that Jesus has always acknowledged the hurt people felt and never supported the bullies in the name of forgiveness. Jesus sides with Mary when she is criticized by Judas for spending too much money, he sides also with her when her sister calls her lazy. Jesus didn’t like it when people made fun of Zaccheus and so on.

Besides that, Jesus has always asked for justice as well. He asked repeatedly people to share their bread and their wealth, to be compassionate to one another. He didn’t say to the oppressed they just had to accept being taken advantage of or accept to be neglected just because they had to forgive their oppressors.

Jesus has never enabled bullying and injustices. So when Jesus asks us to forgive again and again, it does not mean that when you are a Christian, you just need to hit the reset button each time somebody does wrong to you, forget it all and let people hurt you seventy seven times again because you need to be such a good person!

So what does it mean then, to forgive again and again?

Well, this week we have commemorated the anniversary of 09/11 and as I was watching a documentary about forgiveness I heard something very powerful about this tragedy coming from the families’ victims, they talked about what was for them: “The journey of forgiveness”.

The journey of forgiveness. Suddenly, it made so much more sense to me. Yes, indeed forgiveness never looks like hitting a reset button again and again and let people do you wrong again and again. Forgiveness is a decision you make that starts a process of healing towards a new life – and that’s exactly what some of these families were describing.

Forgiveness starts the process of healing and healing is a journey – and depends on the hurt, healing can be a long journey, sometimes a life long journey. Thinks about how are it can be to forgive our own parents for things that happened 30 or 50 years ago or even more, and we still carry the hurt! And we’re not even sure we’re really reconciled with them!

Forgiveness is a journey and a struggle. It’s a decision you make, the decision to not take revenge, to not wish evil on those who hurt you, to not “make them pay” as in Jesus’s parable, but instead to seek as much as possible reconciliation or a peaceful release of the relationships through the journey and the struggle.

The documentary I watched talked also about the way Amish do forgiveness / what they did after the tragedy of the shooting at West Nickel Mines School. They made the decision to forgive but then they had to carry one another through community, pray, meet the family of the shooter, had painful conversations, prayed again, tore down the building, commemorated etc. They never said that what happened was okay and justice and restoration shouldn’t be sought!

Forgiveness is a decision we make but then we have to walk the walk and it can be long, with detours and back and forth. Sometimes we think we’re over it and then it hurts again, or we realize we are still angry etc.

And maybe this what Jesus tells us actually: When someone hurts you, you are not going to forgive that one time and then all is good. You’ll have to forgive again and again because the hurt comes back, or the consequences of people’s bad behavior are still impacting your life. Everyday, you will have to decide to forgive them all over again.

And you might feel in your heart: Why is it that I still haven’t forgiven? When in fact you are in the process of forgiving.

Another man who was interviewed in the documentary said: “I can’t live thinking all day long about what white people did to my people all day, I would go crazy, I wouldn’t be able to function”. He said he needed to forgive to go on with his life, to set himself free. It didn’t mean that racism didn’t hurt him anymore or didn’t make him angry. He just realized he could not live in resentment and wishing evil for evil.

But how do we do that? How do we walk this walk of forgiveness – go on with our life in spite of the hurt, and not live in resentment?

Well, I think that there is something about this parable that Jesus tells us right after he talks to Peter, and this parable can really show us the way. A man has a huge debt to the King he cannot reimburse, but then the King has pity on him and let him go. Yet then the man who has just been forgiven meets one of his debtors who had a very small debt compared to the one he owed the King, but he refuses to forgive, “makes his debtor pay” and Jesus says he is terribly punished for doing so.

Now there are two ways of understanding this story. The general assumption about what Jesus means is that we are all such terrible sinners in the eyes of God that we should just quickly forget every wrong that is done to us by other people, because compared to what we have done to God, and to what we need to be forgiven for, it’s really nothing.

Okay – well I don’t like at all this interpretation, because I believe that there are people who are seriously innocent and what happens to them, the hurt they endure, is really not nothing compared to what they have done. They really, truly, deeply don’t deserve it. People having their families murdered, people raped, abused or wronged intentionally – Can we tell them that it’s nothing they need to complain about and should quickly forgive because what they did to God was much more evil? If you are hit by your parents when you are a five years old, what wrong have you done to God that is so much more than that? I would run from such a God, honestly. And I think Jesus would too.

So to me, this passage is really about inviting us to focus on God’s generosity – not only on what God has forgiven us, but everything that God has given us and all of life’s possibilities and new chances. This passage is about how goodness comes to us in surprising / unexpected ways (as this slave probably never expected such goodness coming from the king)

To me, it’s something I’ve always found very healing in the midst of hurt and deceptions. To remind ourselves that this is a big world, that we have a big God and that we need to carry on with a big heart. And ultimately, I think this is what the parable is all about. When we are hurt, we can focus on the hurt, on what our offenders owe us, but it will be the path to destruction / self destruction. On the opposite, we can also choose to make the decision not to look so much at the hurt and nurse it inside of us and instead look towards the goodness that God sends our way and how God will raise us towards healing and new life. That’s the journey of forgiveness to me.

Forgiveness is not about changing the past, it’s about changing the future…Read again this passage of Exodus and how the Hebrews were able to leave behind the hurt and the suffering – God opened the sea for them, freed them from the pain and took them on a pilgrimage towards a new land full of promises.

Proper 18

I am quite excited about the Gospel this week. As I was preparing for this sermon, by doing personal readings and talking with our Bible study group, I had a surprise. I discovered that most people react strongly to this passage from Matthew about dealing with conflicts in the church. Most people (including priests, scholars, theologians) seem to dislike this text very much – would like it removed from the Book – when I absolutely love it.

So today I am hoping to make you change your mind about this text if you don’t like it or find it necessary, and if I can’t make you change your mind (everybody’s entitled to their opinions and feelings!), at least I would like to invite you to think about it a little differently. Matthew was very concerned with the problem of organizing / leading the church – much more than all other evangelists. We have to take seriously what he has to say, so let’s dive in.

Why do most people dislike this passage? Jesus seems to say that if people in the church don’t behave / if they don’t do the right thing, they should be excluded / removed from the community. Seems unfair and unlike Jesus. We have all our struggles, shortcomings, failings – We are all sinners in the church! Church should be a safe place to be who we are.

– 1st important remark: It’s not about lifestyle. The text says: “If another member of the church sins against you”. Greek: “eis sé”. Interestingly, those two words have been removed from a few manuscripts. Yet they make all the difference.

It’s not about lifestyle, people doing what we personally think is right or wrong: Being homosexual, “living in sin”, being “Gentile and tax collectors” and so on.
It’s about people hurting others / harming others by their behaviors. Sinning against.

The confusion is easy. We talked with the Bible study group about the Calvinist churches during the Reformation. Because of this passage, the Council of elders would visit people at their place to make sure they lived according to some moral standards and there was a lot of judgment, interference and exclusions. Can you imagine our vestry doing that to you? But once again, the passage is not about that / it’s not what we are invited to do as a church!

We are not invited to judge people but to take into account the sufferings they inflict on others / on us. This passage of the Gospel comes in the context of Jesus asking us not to be a stumbling block for the faith of the “little ones”!

– This passage invites us to take responsibility when we are confronted to evil / sin.

Take responsibility for yourself: If somebody hurts you and you don’t do anything, it will damage you and/or damage your relationships with them and others in the future.

Take responsibility for others: If somebody hurts you, they probably hurt others the same way. You need to try your best to make them stop.

A good commentary I read about that was a man saying that his aging mother was dangerous behind the wheel. He said he had to talk to her, even though it was uncomfortable, to make her stop driving. She was not just a danger to herself but to the whole town. He said he would have felt responsible if she had been involved in an accident and hurt someone.

Every week in our confession, we ask God to forgive us for things done “and left undone”. What about things “left unsaid”?

Take responsibility for the person who sins against you: Jesus says “Regain that one”. Maybe this person just need someone to tell them something. Sinning against others is a way of acting out when the offender deals with personal suffering. It can help them deal with their own problem when we give them attention. If nobody ever says anything, they end up thinking their behavior is okay.

Bonhoeffer: “Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.”

Importance of taking responsibility: Sexual, financial, spiritual abuse are not an exception in the church / organized religions. They happen frequently as in all other kind of organizations (including families). The church needs to model a way to deal with abusers. Unfortunately, most churches are “conflicts avoidant”, we do the other way around – pretend everything is okay or not that serious – and a lot of people get hurt. Jesus warns his disciples not to be naive, they will have to deal with problems.

Jesus does not ask us to exclude people and be judgmental and get into conflicts. Jesus warns us that the conflict / the problem is already here and we have to face it to solve it instead of pretending it’s not there.

– My question is: Why is it that so often we don’t deal with conflict? We don’t acknowledge the hurt?

Well, maybe it’s because it’s uncomfortable. More than that, when people sin against us, it makes us feel ashamed. Ashamed for having trusted them / liked them. They make us feel like we have done something wrong or stupid, and we will always feel that it’s too late and we should have spoken earlier.

Most of the time, we pretend nothing is happening because we are ashamed. But shame will result in destructive behaviors: either self loathing / guilt / addictions or desire for vengeance / hatred / becoming passive aggressive.

Talking is hard because talking makes the hurt real, but the only way out it through. We think we’re going to make things worse if we raise the issue, yet it’s the only way to solve it.

Jesus: We have to talk to the offender, have them acknowledge the hurt not in order to judge and exclude them, but ask them to change and see if the relationship can be restored. But we also have to remove from the community those who are a threat to others / not those who threaten the power of others (NOT like we often do in our society, sending people to jail based on racial and economical discrimination) on the other way around, we have to remove those who threaten the powerless!

– Last week, we talked about the power of compassion. Yet, there is a balance here between compassion and honesty, or maybe as Bonhoeffer says, honesty can be the real compassion: For oneself, for others (potential victims), and also for the offender.

This Gospel encourages us to act with compassion and honesty, courage and realism. If someone hurts you, don’t talk behind their backs or post something about them on social medias. Go talk to them. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding, or maybe the person will ask for forgiveness right away or at least think about it. Maybe they don’t know how to talk to you and they would be more than happy to have an opportunity to say they’re sorry and to be restored in a real relationship / not a fake one.

Yet, be careful with people who hurt you. You’re not alone when someone does you wrong. In the church, as in every community, we should look out for each other and especially for those who are unheard and at risk of abuse based on sex / racial / economical discrimination.

Dealing with sin is not about bringing judgment and exclusion it’s always about redemption and restoration. Yet we need to be aware that people exclude themselves first when they decide to hurt others. The first Church acknowledged this exclusion – what did the first Christians. If there was no other way, they would physically exclude people from the community, but they would also reintegrate them based on their good will, desire for change and repentance. I think it’s sometimes good to remember that when people hurt us intentionally and don’t seem to understand or to want to change, it’s okay to let go of them and to remove them from our lives and even from our communities – even if only for a time. Forgiveness and restoration is always the horizon, but we cannot make it happen if the offender “does not listen” as Jesus reminds us three times in a row. The offender also need to take responsibility. Hopefully, the church will make it possible for everybody to change and to grow.

“What should set the church apart is not the absence of conflicts, but the way we deal with conflicts”

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?