Lent 5

Our Gospel starts today with this mention that among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks who came to Philip and asked to see Jesus. Remember the Jews were scattered throughout the great Roman Empire – so they likely were pilgrims coming to the Temple to sacrifice. As John makes this reference to the Passover, we also know it is Jesus’s last week, before his condemnation.

Here actually our lectionary (= set of readings for each Sunday) is a bit upside down. The passage we have just heard comes In john’s Gospel right after the triumphal entry of Jesus in the holy city – this triumphal entry that we will celebrate next week for Palm Sunday. But you get the idea: Some Jews from outside the country have heard for the first time about Jesus, maybe they have witnessed Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem, the crowd welcoming him by shouting: “Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord – The King of Israel” and so of course, these people are eager and excited to meet him.

Now you would expect that after that request to the disciples, they have this amazing encounter with Jesus, and that the rest of the story would be about the Greeks being blown away by Jesus’s teachings and miracles.

And yet – This is not what’s going on at all. We don’t know what happen with the Greeks – but Jesus hearing that some people want to meet him gives him an opportunity to explain what it really means to “see” him: Jesus announces that he is going to be “lifted up from earth” – and that’s a double meaning as we often find in John’s. Yet this time, rather than Jesus giving spiritual meaning to earthly things (like the wine at Cana or the water with the Samaritan woman), literal meaning takes precedence on the spiritual meaning: Being lifted up does not mean first that Jesus will reign over earth, very concretely it means that he will be hung on the cross on the outskirts of town, on mount Golgotha.

So yes, and that almost sounds cynical, lifted up on the cross, that’s how the Greeks will “see” Jesus. And that’s still how we see Jesus, each time we enter a church – we see Jesus on the cross, and as we enter Holy week, more than ever, we are called to “see” the crucified, after following him in teachings, miracles and ministry.

Not a triumphant king but condemned with other criminals.

And naturally, this sight of Jesus, it’s unbearable to watch. We know that the disciples fled. The suffering, the shame and the despair one suffered on the cross was absolutely gruesome and terrifying. That’s actually why the Romans used crucifixion as away of putting criminals to death: to dissuade the people from rebellion.

But if the cross is this mirror to our suffering, it is also a mirror to our violence and to the terrible things human beings do to other human beings. Of course, we haven’t crucified Jesus on that day, but we live in a world where violence still befalls on innocent people – not necessarily those who have done nothing wrong, but those who cannot defend themselves for lack of physical or mental strength, lack of social status and relationships, lack of means and money. And we know that even when we are not violent with our acts, we still judge and condemn others with our lips, those who cannot defend themselves because they are too shy or too vulnerable, or just clueless about what we say behind their backs.

So yes, we don’t want to see Jesus on the cross not only because we hate to suffer, but maybe we also refuse to see him because we know our own violence and our own sin. On that week in Jerusalem, Jesus will become another prophet to be put to death by his people. In him, not only we reject an innocent man, but we reject God. As our confession of sins states: We deny God’s goodness and God’s goodness in one another.

To see Jesus means that we also have to see the grief we bring upon God and the pain we bring upon each other. To see Jesus means that we also have to confront our sin.

And it’s interesting because confronting our sin, this what our Psalm 51 is all about. You may have noticed that we read it each year for Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent, and here we hear it again on the last Sunday before Palm Sunday. Psalm 51 is known as the psalm of repentance.

To give you a little bit of context, this psalm is believed to have been written by David after the prophet Samuel told him in a parable how he had offended God by sinning against two innocent people: Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. The sin David committed with Bathsheba is often qualified as an adultery, yet adultery is between consenting people. From the story though, it is clear that Bathsheba was taken from her house and her husband and brought to the king without her consent. David committed sexual abuse and even rape. And this was not the end. When David found out that Bathsheba was pregnant, he tried to manipulate Uriah to come back home from war and sleep with his wife so Uriah would assume the child was his. As David failed to talk him into doing that, David got Uriah killed by asking his General to send him to the forefront battle. One could say that it was even worse than murder because David got his rival killed by somebody else. On top of proving himself manipulative and deceptive, David acted like a coward. Then he married Bathsheba with no regard towards her feelings, after he did the worst things to her.

So this was serious sin, you see. Although he was the king, David completely over stepped the boundaries not only of good behavior, but even of human decency.

Yet in the midst of that, David cried for mercy – and this is what Psalm 51 is all about. David expressing his regrets and guilt and asking God for forgiveness – This is him confronting his sin and in this he will find redemption, because he did not give up on God’s mercy and God’s goodness, and in this he does not give up on himself either. There is a flip side to sin you see. There is active sin, the sins we commit when we abuse our power and overstep the boundaries, as did David, but there is also passive sin: despair, when, as David puts it “[our] sin is always before [us]” and we get stuck in self hatred, shame or hardheartedness. And to me, in Psalm 51 David walks that thin line: he regrets the evil he has done, mourns his wrongdoings while feeling the pain he has inflicted on others, yet he refuses to be eaten up by a past he can’t change and he refuses to be limited by a future he has destroyed. David finds hope and he finds hope because he believes that God is bigger than any sin he has committed, however awful. And so God will hear him and deliver him. David trusts in God’s power and finds a horizon beyond sin.

Life is not limited by the terrible things we have done. I love it that David trusts God to wash him and make him clean. The translation of our psalm in the Bible “The Message” actually uses images of God of “soaking David”, scrubbing his stains and doing laundry with his sins! It may seems strange to see God’s power as a washing machine, and yet I know that to me, I wash the clothes I love because I want to keep them and I want them to look beautiful. And I think it says a lot about our relationships with God. God hates sin, of course, but God wants to remove sin from us because God wants to see our beauty, God wants to use us, and God wants to keep us forever. The way God deals with our sin reveals God’s great love for us and that’s what we are invited to experience when we confront our sin in the presence of God. Not condemned, but washed and made beautiful and usable again!

We can see our sin and just despair, or we can see our sin and experience God’s love and to me this is exactly what happens to David in this psalm. We know that as God will wash David and cleanse him from his sins, God will reveal David’s soul’s beauty, God will use David for God’s purposes, and God will keep David forever. David will experience this deep knowledge and intimacy with God the prophet Jeremiah talks about in our reading today.

In the same way, when we see the cross, we are invited to see God’s love beyond the suffering, the violence and the sin. That’s the glory Jesus is talking about: Not the apparent glory of walking triumphantly in Jerusalem, but the deep glory Jesus manifested as he loved his people to the end, and no matter what. This love is the true meaning of the cross and our reason to hope beyond the suffering, the violence and the sin. This is this love we are invited to see during Holy week.

Lent 4

This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus would say these words to Nicodemus. who, as the Gospel puts it, came to see him “at night”? [Because of the way our reading is laid out, it may not be evident for you to realize that the words of Jesus we hear today are the conclusion of his dialogue with Nicodemus, but that’s where we are]. Nicodemus was a teacher, a leader of the Jews says the text, and the common explanation for his nocturnal visit to Jesus was that he was trying to be discreet – attracted to Jesus’s teaching and amazed by his miracles, Nicodemus wanted to find out more, yet he also didn’t want to be exposed having a conversation with the one so many of his peers accused of being a blasphemer. And so, I find it quite ironic that Jesus finishes their conversation telling him that people love darkness more than light because they don’t want their deeds to be seen! Nicodemus is attracted to the light that is Jesus, but he cannot bring himself to talk to Jesus during daylight, because he doesn’t want to be seen, judged and rejected by the other religious leaders who hate Jesus so much.

Well, it may be tempting to feel a bit annoyed by Nicodemus’ behavior, but if we think about it, aren’t we all like him really? Unless we have a huge sense of provocation, who among us would bring to daylight what our friends, colleagues, family, gang or tribe would disapprove of? One of the fears the most shared among human being is the fear of being rejected, and most of us want to be seen as a good person, to be loved or admired. I guess there are some people out there who don’t mind being seen as a bad person but only if it brings them attention or respect. I can’t think of anybody who truly wants to be seen as idiot or as a traitor. I can’t think of anybody who truly wants to be mocked, shunned or even condemned by their peers.

And so it is with Nicodemus you see. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because he does not want other religious leaders to find out about the admiration he has for Jesus, the questions he has on is mind, the longing he has in his heart. It could look silly, inappropriate or even dangerous for him.

And so of course Jesus picks up on that, with a sense of humor full of compassion and tenderness even as his words cut down to the heart because they speak a truth that is very hard to hear: We don’t always like the light. We don’t always like the light. We like the light when we feel good about ourselves, but we also like the darkness if it helps not being found out. We don’t always love the light for the sake of the light, we love the love the light when it’s convenient. And if it’s true with others, that we will flee the spotlight if we don’t feel good about ourselves, it’s certainly true with God as well. We will flee from God if we aren’t proud of who we are. We will flee from God if we aren’t proud of who we are.

And I find that very interesting because we generally assume that this is what we like, what we believe in that makes us act a certain way: We believe in a good God and so we become good people. Or on the other around, we believe in a judgmental God and so we become judgmental. But here, Jesus seems to say something completely different, something we may want to think about: It’s our behavior that influences our taste, our love, and in the end our belief.

It is not our belief that changes our behavior, it’s our behavior that changes our beliefs.

Practice mercy, justice and goodness, you will look for the light and a God of mercy, justice and goodness. Live a life where you abuse, judge or condemn people, you stay in the darkness and believe in a God who abuses and condemns people.

The reason why religious leaders rejected Jesus is not that they had strong theological beliefs (although they certainly had), the reason they rejected Jesus is thatthey didn’t feel good about themselves around Jesus because of the sins they couldn’t let go of. They lived a life of judging and condemning people, so they couldn’t fathom a God who was would be welcoming to all.

This is the problem some of the Hebrews had in the wilderness, as we read in the Old Testament today. They met a God who judged them and punished them but that’s only because they had already judged and condemned God. They saw God as unreliable and untrustworthy, not because God had let them down but because they were afraid and unable to trust, and in the end they proved themselves unfaithful. You could say that they obtained the God they deserved! They acted like God was their enemy, and so God became their enemy. When they changed their minds and acted as if God was going to have mercy on them, God had mercy on them.

And that’s what Jesus wants to show people, that on top of condemning others, they condemn God and condemn themselves all the time. Only if they repent from their sin they can find who God truly is, the heart of the faith of the Hebrews that is proclaimed in our Psalm today: Give thanks to the Lord for God is good.

God is good. So to meet this God, we don’t have to convince ourselves that God is good, we just have to practice goodness. This is as simple as that. What we believe in or not believe in, even belief in God – it does not have much to do with religion or ideology. It has to do with the way we behave. What we choose to practice or not. If we practice goodness, we will see goodness. If we ourselves do good, wouldn’t it be much easier to believe in goodness, to believe that good is real? But if we practice deception, how can we experience that God can be trusted?

If you want to know God’s goodness, you have to practice goodness – would it be only towards yourself. And the more you practice goodness, the closer you come to God even if you don’t feel it. That’s why charity is a spiritual practice. Grace is there yes, and we can experience God’s mercy in our darkest hours, but in the long run we have to do good to experience goodness and a God of goodness. I haven’t known a truly good and loving person who believed in a God of wrath or vengeance – unless they had been traumatized by the evil done to them – and this is why self care is so important. Be good to you if nobody else. Love yourself if nobody does. Or find friends who truly love you and get away from abusive people. Whatever your circumstances are, if you live a life where you practice love, your God will be a loving God too.

Jesus reminded us in the text last week that we are the Temple of God. Our heart is the place where God happens, where God becomes real. The God we experience depends on the quality of our heart as surely as we can only see through our own eyes, right? If our hearts are darkness, we cannot receive a God of light. Yet it does not depend only on us as individuals, sadly. If you have experienced much darkness from others, if you have been told you are unlovable or evil – it will be hard for you to find a God who is good. And so, we have a responsibility towards one another. God is also a communal experience – the way some Christians behave make it impossible for others to believe in God and to believe in goodness. How can you support the institutions if politicians are untrustworthy? How can you trust the church, if priests are molesters? How can you believe God cares for all if innocents are put to death?

And so maybe the question we could ask ourselves today is the following:

How can we live in a way that makes it possible for others and also for ourselves to believe in goodness and, in John’s words, to give testimony to the light? How can we show in our lives that the God of Psalm 107 and the God of Jesus is real?

Lent 3

The passage from the Gospel we have just heard is one of those few stories we find in all four Gospels. Something is unique about our passage though, and it is that John places this episode of Jesus’s life at the beginning of his ministry, whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke relate the event during Jesus’s last week, a few days before he is arrested, condemned and put to death. And we would understand why this timeline make sense: Jesus acted in a provocative way in the Temple, radically putting into question the way religion was organized, which would have infuriated the religious leaders. After that, they would have felt even more urgently the need to get rid of him.

But that’s not the way John sees it. John places the “purification of the Temple” – or maybe a better name would be the “disruption in the Temple” – right there at the beginning. Why would he do so?

Well, one of the ways to see it is that the evangelists recalled and related the events of Jesus’s life, not necessarily according to what was chronologically accurate but rather in a way that would explain who Jesus was for them. In the case of John, it certainly makes sense, for two reasons that are important.

In chapter One, John presents Jesus as the Word of God sent in this world to be God’s dwelling. In this passage, Jesus presents himself as the Temple. He does not so much oppose the physical Temple in Jerusalem to the Temple of his body, but he understands them in continuity. The Temple is an image, a materialization or if you prefer a sacrament of the inner Temple, heart and soul. God is present in the Temple in the same way that God is present in Jesus – and – as a consequence in each one of us. In the beginning of the Gospel, John announces to all people that we are called to become God’s children – to be ourselves, in our flesh, an indwelling of God in the world. Religion does not mean a lot if it does not lead us to change profoundly our hearts and our behaviors and leads us to be “witness” to the light that has been manifested to us (again, in John’s words)

Well, this is already something, isn’t it? If we could think of of people as as sacred as our churches, the altar, the cross or even the consecrated wine and bread we share for communion, no doubt that we would look at each other, and at ourselves, much differently. Perhaps that’s the beginning of conversion, to be able to see the beauty and preciousness of who we are when so often we are blinded by the business of life and down to earth preoccupations – in the same way that the sacredness of the Temple became elusive when it was turned into a marketplace.

– The second reason why John may have placed this episode of Jesus’s life at the beginning of his ministry, is that in chapter one, John announces through the voice of John the baptist that Jesus is the “lamb of God” and it is an image that is very important to him and to the people who would come to join his community. In the book of Revelation, written by “John”, Jesus is presented many times as well as the “lamb of God”. It means that indeed, no sacrifices are required anymore, because Jesus gave his life for us and we, through him, are reconciled with God. This is what Jesus would be already announcing in this Chapter 2, driving out the animals out of the Temple to fulfill the sacrifice with his own person.

Again, this is also we may need to think about more deeply. The Jews in the Temple weren’t doing anything “wrong” by offering sacrifices – actually, the Bible commanded them to do these sacrifices (see the book of Leviticus!), but Jesus reminded them, as the prophets reminded the people before, that nothing replace a living relationship with God, along with practicing justice and mercy. Again, the Temple points out to this relationship and faithful living, but it’s really about becoming the Temple in ourselves and Jesus shows us the way, even more, includes us in this relationship and enable faithful living – and that’s what John is preoccupied showing.

Now there’s a third reason why John may have given priority to this episode in Jesus’s ministry, I found this explanation in one the commentaries I read while preparing for this sermon, and I think it is worth sharing. The author said that generally, we recall more vividly times in our lives that are very emotional, and she said that when John sat to write his memories about Jesus, that was probably this episode that came to his mind because it made such an impression on him.

And as I thought about it, her explanation made much sense to me. According to the tradition, John was very young when he started to follow Jesus, the youngest of all the disciples, a teenager – probably 17 or 19 at best, and then he lived a very long life and it’s only at the end that he wrote his Gospel. And so, I can only imagine him, being very old, trying to remember what was that, that as a young man, impressed him so much about Jesus – what was that that made him fall in love with him and follow him. Certainly it could be what happened on that day at the Temple where Jesus chased the cattle, overturned the tables and argued with the merchants, that made John fall in love with Jesus and made him want to follow him to the end. John, maybe unlike the other evangelists, wasn’t shocked or unsettled by Jesus’s outburst. Unlike the other evangelists, John didn’t place this episode sandwiched between many others events of Jesus’s life, and once we’ve been much acquainted to the meek and mild Jesus. John placed this episode at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry because for him it was who Jesus was and he loved it! A Jesus who was a breath of fresh air in the Temple and who was turning religion upside down.

Young people are much more at ease with anger and rebellion than we are when we reach a certain age. They want things to be different – even sometimes they just want something to happen, no matter what. Tradition does not reassure them a lot, they don’t generally find it comfortable – more likely they find it boring. I remember when I was a teenager I didn’t go to church hoping to find things the way they always were – I wanted to see something new, to hear something new, to do something new. Something that would bring me closer to God – something that would make God become alive for me.

And I really think this is what Jesus did for John. John must have thought that Jesus was really offering something different, something that wasn’t boring, something real and authentic, something that made God come to life for him. Jesus was offering something new. If you read through John’s Gospel, you will realize that almost each chapter could be called by the newness it brings:

New Revelation. New wine. New religion. New birth. New water. New food. New light. New eyes. New life. New love. And this is also what Paul testified about. Jesus brought a whole new way of understanding God. So different that it looked completely foolish to the philosophers and the religious traditionalists!

When Jesus came among the people of Israel, they had been offering sacrifices for twelve hundreds years for the forgiveness of their sins and their impurities! But as Nicodemus, a lot of them were longing for a new level of spirituality where they could be brought closer to God’s heart, to be more intimate with God – and we know that even the Jews who didn’t come to follow Jesus stopped offering sacrifices after the destruction of the Temple, the religion was much changed and more internalized.

Actually if we look in the Bible, from the beginning God wants to bring new life to God’s people. We have just read about that in the book of Exodus. Before God asks anything, God reminds the people that God “brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”. God brings liberation to the people and for one reason or another, the people of God always end up “taming” God, “entrapping” God in their Temples, dogmas or prejudices!

So what about us? Are we on the side of those coming to the Temple to perform the same rites hoping God will answer our prayers, or are looking for something new to happen? Not just novelty, something that would flatter our senses or bring some entertainment, but are we looking for a fresh and authentic way to relate to God? Are we looking to grow, do we feel the need to deepen our relationship with God, to learn about God, to learn from God? And to let this happen: Are we able to let go of what has grown old? Are we willing to have an honest look at what isn’t working anymore and find ways to renew and understand better our faith and bring it to the next level?

Last Epiphany – The Transfiguration

This morning, we have heard from the Second Book of Kings about the story of Elisha and Elijah. To give you a little bit of background, Elijah was this great prophet at the time of King Ahab. King Ahab was married to the idolatrous Queen Jezebel. It was a difficult time for the kingdom of Northern Israel. Ahab and Jezebel were persecuting the prophets of the Lord. It was a time of wars and injustices and Elijah was sent by the Lord to bring back equity and faithful worship. Most of you probably know that at times, Elijah felt very discouraged with this mission. There is this passage in the Bible where Elijah lies down and asks God to let him die because he is so overwhelmed by what’s going on. That’s when God sends Elisha to be with him, as a trainee, an attendant and a designated successor. From then, Elisha will follow wherever Elijah goes and will learn from him – over a period of time of approximately 7 to 8 years. It’s at the end of this time period that our passage begins. Elijah’s “departure” (or impending death) is announced and that will be when Elisha will have to take over the mission on his own.

The passage makes it clear that Elisha, as well as Elijah and the other prophets, knew this was coming. And yet, we see how difficult it was for Elisha to accept to lose his Master. Twice, he refuses to hear what the prophets had to tell him to get him prepared. Three times, he says to Elijah that he will continue to follow wherever he goes.

It’s interesting we have this passage of the OT mirroring today’s Gospel about Jesus’s transfiguration. It is often assumed that we read from the story of Elijah because on that day Mark tells us about, Elijah appears next to Jesus on the mountain. Yet, as I was reading this, I have started wondering if the story was not placed here to remind us of Elisha as well.

The story reminds us of Elisha as well. The transfiguration is often read as this climax in Mark’s Gospel, right after Jesus announces his impeding death as he heads towards Jerusalem. From now on, Jesus will prepare his disciples to be on their own. So for the Evangelist, not only Elijah appears next to Jesus on that day on the mountain, but Jesus is similar to Elijah in many ways – which could also mean that the disciples are similar to Elisha too.

Indeed, right before our passage, Jesus announces to his disciples that: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” and Peter refuses to listen and tries to silence Jesus, in the same way that Elisha tried to silence the prophets. In the same way also, Peter assures Jesus that he will follow wherever Jesus goes – and we know that it is not going to happen, of course – Jesus will have to die on his own. So we see clearly that the disciples are going through the same kind of struggle that Elisha went through. They love their Master and can’t let go of him, they’re sad and afraid to be left of their own – they don’t know what they would be able to do without him.

And I think it can be easy for us to relate to them, isn’t it? I think at some point in our lives, and even several times, we all had to let go of a friend or a parent that was a tutor or a mentor to us. On top of feeling very sad, we often felt afraid, left behind and worried about what was going to happen to us. And yet, as the prophets reminded Elisha, and as Jesus, and even the voice of God who says “Listen to him”, reminds the disciples, they have to let go and be prepared to be on their own – or maybe, in a more positive way – they need to feel empowered to start their own ministry, feel ready to “take over” and to continue the mission instead of staying a trainee, an attendant all their lives. And maybe this is what you also experienced at some point, after you lost a parent, a guide or a teacher. After the grief and the pain and the disorientation, you realized in which ways you could become a successor, continue the mission and bear fruit worth of what you had been taught and trained to do. The promise Jesus makes to his disciples is not only that he will be killed, there is also a good news – even if in their grief the disciples cannot hear the good news – Jesus announces in our story today is that “The Son of Man will rise from the dead.” Even if the disciples won’t be able to be with Jesus like they used to, sharing meals, stories and long walks, Jesus’s spirit will be in the disciples to carry on the mission, in the same way that Elisha inherited “a double share” of Elijah’s spirit.

So what does it mean for us as a church?

Well, I am currently reading an amazing book called “Letters to the Church” by Francis Chan. Francis Chan used to be a pastor in a megachurch, and then one day, after maybe twenty years of doing this ministry, he started to think differently about the church and what he was supposed to do as a pastor. In one chapter, he says that one of the things he regrets the most is that he spent so much time trying to fill his church with people, when now he realizes that it’s not exactly what a good pastor is supposed to do. He says that good pastors shouldn’t worry so much about filling their churches, rather they should worry about equipping their people to become disciples – which means to get them ready to minister, to take care of others, to share their faith, to teach others and to proclaim the good news around them. Chan says that, ideally, each member of a church should reach a point where they could start their own church wherever the Spirit takes them! Yet Chan observes that, most of the time, it does not happen because pastors and priests are not very good at raising leaders. A lot of church members are schooled to come to church to be fed, but they aren’t taught to think of their church as a place where they can learn to feed others. Most church members don’t feel empowered, or ready, or called to start their own ministry. And Chan says this is very sad when people aren’t taught to mature, to be able to do their own thing, he says “What do we think of people who remain all their lives at their parents’ house, expecting to be taken care of as if they were still children even when they are in their thirties or forties?” “Isn’t it a failure, both for the parents and for the children?”

Those words are difficult to hear – whether you’re a church leader or a church member – I know it was hard for me to hear them. But as I thought about it, I realized that it was probably what Elisha and the disciples were struggling with. They loved God and they loved their mentors, but actually they weren’t ready to let go and start their own ministry. Yet Jesus and Elijah were good leaders. They knew they had to let their disciples take over. Actually, at some point in the Gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples that it’s to their advantage that he is leaving them.

So it think our lessons today encourage us to mature as Christians: In our churches, we have to keep on learning, studying, praying, reading the Bible, attending worship, to feed ourselves but also because we want to be ready to feed others and start our own ministry. And maybe we should think of our churches as a safe and encouraging place for each of us to start our own ministry, to try something out. You know, when students are done with their studies, they write their dissertations as a way to own the teaching that has been given to them and as a way to start teaching others. In the same way, when you have learned what you needed to learn at church, you need to start sharing in your own way and be supported by your leader as you do so. I am hoping that at Christ Church, you feel encouraged to have a spiritual ministry: to preach, to teach a class, to lead a small group, to be on a committee, to reach out to the neighborhood. As I was writing this sermon, I actually had a phone call from one of you who had an idea about a ministry their wanted to develop and be in charge of. I was overjoyed because I think this is exactly what the Scriptures are about today. And so this is my question for you: What is it that you get from Christ Church that you want to share with others and how do you want to do it?

The transfiguration is not only about Christ’s glory, the story tells us today that it is also about the transformation of the disciples. As he encouraged his disciples, Jesus encourages you to start being a leader, whether you feel ready, worthy or wise enough. So what will you do?

Epiphany 5

Mark’s Gospel, more than any of the three others Gospels, is the Gospel of healing. I’ve mentioned that when we did an introduction to this book: Mark spends little time to detail Jesus’s teaching (comparatively to Matthew, for example). Mark focuses of what Jesus does, and we see that right from the beginning – We’re still in Chapter 1! – Jesus is busy doing healing and casting out demons.

To me, one of the messages we can take away from that is that we are reminded of the spiritual nature of healing. And it’s very interesting to be reading that in a time of a pandemic, where we are very preoccupied with healing – as individuals and as a country. We can’t wait to be healed, and by that most of us mean we can’t wait to have a cure, to receive the vaccine, we can’t wait for the virus to go away. And of course, this is very natural to wish that and to do everything that is in our power to accomplish this goal. Yet in the meantime, we have also to remember that healing is also spiritual.

What do we mean by that?

You probably remember, it wasn’t a long time ago, that when he was elected, President Biden told the Nation that it was “Time for healing”, and in those words I think most of us could understand it wasn’t only about the pandemic. There are a lot of things we need to heal from as a nation: racism, bigotry, division, social and economic injustices, lack of purpose, lack of solidarity, isolation, individualism, greed, lack of respect for the earth and so on. We need bodily healing, but we also need spiritual healing because by our way of living, whether it’s because of addictions, stress, selfishness, lack of respect for our bodies, for our neighbors, for our natural resources, we make ourselves sick, but we also make sick those around us – and today it’s even realistic to say that by our way of living, we make sick people who live thousands of miles away from us.

We need spiritual healing as much as bodily healing.

And I think that at Jesus’s time, that’s also the way people thought about sickness. There were, as today, obvious and serious diseases or handicaps, like leprosy, paralysis, epilepsy, blindness and so on, but people knew there was more to that, there were also all the things that made their souls sick and kept them in bondage: possessions and demons – and we see that as Jesus addressed the ills of the body, he always addressed the ills of the souls, and he cured the bodies by curing the souls, the hearts, and the mentalities not only of the individuals bound by sickness but also, and mainly, by healing the community around them.

If we’d have to describe the way Jesus heals people, it’s not only by making them disease-free, but he very literally de-possess them, set them free from the bondage that isolate them – whether they isolate themselves – ashamed or angry – or whether they are isolated by others – rejected and seen as contagious, unclean or dangerous. Healing, forgiveness of sins and proclamation of the good news are all woven together in the Gospel: It’s all about liberation and reconciliation in the depths of our beings, with God and with one another.

Now, how do we do that? How can we receive spiritual healing or participate in the spiritual healing of the world as follower of Jesus? Can today’s Gospel help us a bit with that? Well, I’d like to think so.

I really love that, among the throngs of people who come to him to receive healing, we have in our Gospel a “snapshot” of how Jesus brought healing – how he healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. I think I’ve mentioned to you that Mark was a disciple of Simon Peter and Mark’s Gospel is basically Simon Peter’s memories. And Simon Peter remembered probably very vividly that day we’ve just read about– the excitement and the joy of receiving Jesus in his house, and then the disappointment and the pain of finding the mistress of the house incapacitated and unwell. Actually, the commentaries of the Gospel agree to say that the way her illness is described, “a fever”, probably meant that she was not just “unwell” but rather seriously ill. As for Simon Peter’s mother in law herself, she was probably quite disappointed and even ashamed to be found in bed, unable not only to entertain the guests, but even unable to greet them at the door. I don’t know if it ever happen to you to be sick on a day you have been expecting for a long time – it is quite frustrating if not infuriating. We can only imagine how Simon Peter’s mother in law must had been excited in the days before about finally be able to meet Jesus, and how much she probably had wanted to have her house and table ready and to look her best, only to be found in bed unable to stand up.

Jesus though, maybe the only one in the crowd, isn’t disappointed or irritated. If she cannot greet him, he comes to greet her, gently touch her hand and raises her up. As he does that, the Gospel mentions, “the fever left her and she began to serve them”. This passage has often been negatively interpreted: She does what women are expected to do, serving her family and waiting on the men in the household. Yet I don’t think this is what it is about. I think she is just back to herself, back to being a Mom and to have the joy to have hers sons and their friends at her house and be able to feed them and to spend time with them, laugh and talk at the table with them and be proud and amazed at who they are and what they do.

And I wonder if it isn’t the way Jesus is doing healing all along: He lifts people up, he frees them from whatever it is that keep them down, make them unable to appreciate and enjoy life and disconnect them from their true selves. Freeing us from all that bind us and bring us down, Jesus brings us back to our senses, to who we are and to what we are called to do to serve and love one another.

In this sense, there are many different kind of healing. You don’t have to be healed in your body to be healed in your heart or in your soul. Or maybe you look very healthy on the outside, but you’re still in need of spiritual healing because you have troubles living with yourself and with others, you have troubles receiving joy and energy to live the life God has called you to live.

So how can we do that? How can we receive and bring healing?

Well, the first clue we have in our passage is that, in order to bring healing, Jesus took time to pray, and he did it a certain way. For a long, long time, I used to think that there was no right or wrong way to pray. But the more I think about prayer and practice prayer, the more I think that, even if it’s always better to pray than to abstain from praying, the more I think there are better ways to pray than others. And we can certainly take example on the way Jesus used to pray: He took time to be on his own with God – to meditate, to still his soul, to listen to what God had to say. How often our prayer life are anxious monologues, talking at God about what we need instead of receiving what God wants to give us! Sometimes we need to talk at God in order to release our negative feelings, and it’s all right and a good thing, and sometimes we need to talk at God about all the things we want to do or the people we care about, but let’s also take the time to listen and give time to God to give us attention, restore our strengths, and renew our energy. Let us accept to be greeted by God before we greet him, as Simon Peter’s mother in law let Jesus serve her before she could serve Jesus.

Second clue is that Jesus shows us that healing happens through gentle care and lifting each other up. Even when he addresses the demons and the strongholds that possess us, Jesus show care and concern for the people. When I see that, I wonder how often is it that we see the good in people before we try to “exorcise” them of all the things we don’t like in them. I wonder how often we are really concerned about lifting each other up– although it’s something we could all use in this time where a lot of us feel depressed or de-energized. Do we remind others of their gifts, of their value, of the good things they do for us or bring into the world, or is it easier to judge and to criticize or to make others feel bad about themselves? The Gospel reminds us that we cannot heal on our own. We cannot be truly healed until everyone else is healed too. As we have heard so many times in the past year: “we are all in this together”

Epiphany 4

I think I’ve mentioned to you a few months ago this amazing book “Tattoos on the heart” by Gregory Boyle, the autobiography of a priest in the barrios of Los Angeles whose main ministry is to rehabilitate gang members by offering them a chance to work and to create community within the sphere of the church. Each story Boyle tells is quite extraordinary, and nonetheless extraordinary are the reflections he offers based on his experiences. One of the remarks that was the most striking to me – commenting on the way he would interact with the young – Boyle said: Act as if the answer to every question was compassion.

Act as if the answer to every question was compassion.

And it seems to me a very good way to summarize what it is to be a Christians in the world and to follow in the steps of Jesus – Jesus who always showed compassion to everyone who would come to him. We see that again in our Gospel today. Jesus is in the synagogue in Capernaum and it is an important moment for him – as of Mark’s, it is likely to be Jesus’s first sermon, his introduction to the people as a rabbi – but then suddenly this man, possessed by an evil spirit, pops out of nowhere accusing Jesus of the most terrible things: You came to destroy us, he screams. And yet, instead of taking offense or ignoring the man, Jesus interrupts his teaching, take pity on the man, and heals him by rebuking the unclean spirit.

Maybe that’s not the point of the Gospel, but it gave me something to chew on as I thought about the way in our churches ministers start rolling their eyes when a cell phone goes off or when little children start to be a bit restless in their pews. Jesus does not take offense and is not irritated when he is interrupted – even when he is interrupted by a demon! Jesus drops what he is doing and addresses the situation with concern, pragmatism and love.

Jesus acts as if the response to every situation is compassion.

And I think this is a very good key of reading to help us understand the first letter to the Corinthians on which I would like to spend a little more time with you today. If you’re interested, you can stay on line / on the phone after the service and I will present to you a video that is a short introduction to the whole letter and it will give you even more background.

In a few words, in Corinth, Paul raised up a church in pagan territory, and most Christians (some Jewish, some Gentiles) struggled to find the Christian way among the worship of Greek and Roman deities. In Chapter 8 which we have heard today, the question was whether it was okay for them to eat meat out of animals that had been sacrificed in the Temple: Would it be considered as idolatry? Would it associate, somehow, the people consuming the food with the sacrifice to the pagan gods? Or on the other way around did it matter at all since the Christians aren’t supposed to believe in pagan gods, moreover don’t even think they are real since there is only one God, and besides, hadn’t Jesus declared all foods clean? The church of Corinth was divided on this issues, and to answer that, as to answer other questions throughout his letter, it is interesting to notice that Paul does not offer philosophical considerations or a treaty of theology –

Throughout the Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes as if the response to every situation was love, compassion.

And for example, in this chapter 8, although we understand that, clearly, for Paul as for the other educated folks, eating meat from animals that had been sacrificed to the idols did not matter, did not do anything wrong since those idols didn’t even exist to start with, nevertheless Paul said that Christians should refrain from this practice at least in public, not to keep themselves clean, but in order to not “wound the conscience” of those who hadn’t yet come to the same understanding.

And so, of course, this question debated by Paul in not very relevant for our church today – it’s been a while we haven’t had to deal with meat sacrificed to the idols, but the way Paul answered is still relevant, and that’s what we should consider today.

Paul said that the answer was compassion. For the sake of “Not wounding another person’s conscience“. Well, it’s been a while I haven’t heard this expression! Paul insisted that Christians should have respect for other people’s beliefs, ways of thinking, even if they would hold those beliefs for lack of a better education. This Letter of Paul reminds us that we don’t build the church “puffing ourselves up with knowledge” but “building out of love”. And this Letter says something that a lot of Greeks people would have understood:

“Anyone who claims to know something does not have the necessary knowledge”: Socrates, the smartest man of all in the Antic world, used to say that the only thing he knew is that he didn’t know anything. An idea that is also brought forth by our psalm this Sunday, a psalm which reads: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” – if we understand fear as awe, reverence, respect and not anxiety, terror or defiance.

The real knowledge comes with respect, compassion and love. And beyond knowledge there is wisdom, acting kindly and out of consideration for each other.

And well, as I was reading this, and thinking of all of that, as I was wondering what it means for us today, what kind do Letter Paul would write to us today – the Episcopal Church – a church where we understand ourselves so often as the “enlightened Christians”, knowledgeable, progressive, inquiring kind of folks? I wonder what Paul would think about the way we treat or consider other brothers and sisters in Christ who may not have the same education, tradition or maybe just the same sensitivity as us? Are we worried, as Paul says we should, about not wounding their conscience or being a stumbling block for them, or are we more worried about not being associated with them – the “ignorant and superstitious” Christians?

A few months ago, I read a very good article about a priest – from the Lutheran church I believe – who went on a pilgrimage to Holy land. She said that as a Protestant and as an intellectual, it was kind of embarrassing for her to see so many pilgrims bowing before icons, lighting candles on the holy sites, or kissing the foot of the statutes. Knowing that the deity indeed wasn’t in the works of art, as surely as it was probably very unlikely that Jesus was born into this or that house or made there his first miracle or preached his first sermon – The pilgrims’ reactions looked like superstition to her. And yet the priest said, as she observed them, she realized that maybe she was kind of smart and educated, but maybe she was missing something as well. To her, she realized that her faith was a lot in her head but she struggled to express it with her body: bowing, kissing, making offerings…and just let herself go in prayer and adoration. Looking closer at the other Christians instead of looking down on them, she started to think that probably there was a lack of awe and reverence in her faith, and maybe a lack of love as well, or at least her love struggled to find a way to express itself.

Well, I think it’s beautiful that not only she started to be able to have compassion, to understand with her heart what other Christians were doing, but that she was even able to put herself into question and learn something from them. I wonder how often it is that our inquiring minds are only inquiring about others, to judge and criticize, instead of questioning who we are and what’s going on inside of us.

Awe, reverence, respect, that’s maybe what those Christians criticized by other Christians in Corinth were feeling for God – They didn’t want to take a chance to do something disrespectful to God by eating the meal of idols. They wanted to do right by God, and surely the other Christians needed to respect that, instead of looking down on them as ignorant.

Now am I saying that when it comes to faith ignorance is a good thing? Certainly not. I love it that today in our Gospel, we see Jesus standing in the pulpit, reading and teaching. It was not a usual thing at the time for everyday people to be able to read – certainly it was not usual for a carpenter’s son. And we see throughout the Gospel that Jesus was indeed knowledgeable on many topics: he knew about religious tradition and Scriptures of course, but he knew also a lot about construction, farming, baking, wine fermentation and he even knew how to sew a tunic! – yet, never, never, Jesus used his education to look down on others or make fun of them. We often says that Jesus welcomed the poor, the foreigner, the sick and the disabled but we forget that Jesus welcomed simple people, the uneducated – even when they were uneducated in their own religion and their own tradition. And instead of using knowledge to “puff himself up”, as did a lot of religious leaders at the time, Jesus used his knowledge to educate the uneducated and to help them come closer to God instead of taking advantage of them.

I wonder today if we have still the same compassion and care for people? If sharing a bit of our education with others – or getting more educated to be able to share our faith – is really on top of priorities? I wonder also is – as the Lutheran priest I was talking about – we are willing to learn from others Christians – and be able to see, beyond what may seem to us like naivete or superstition, what it’s really about? Most of us are preoccupied about growing the church (in number) but how can our churches grow, if we don’t grow spiritually and intellectually and encourage one another to do so? How can we see love as playing a main part in the knowledge we want to share, to receive and to offer?

Epiphany 3

This morning, we have heard a passage from the book of Jonah.

The story of an angry, angry man.

You probably know the story but if you don’t, I invite you to open your Bible this afternoon and read it. It’s a short read, ten to fifteen minutes and it’s funny, satirical.

It’s the story of a prophet, but not your usual prophet. It’s the story of a prophet who desperately tries to escape God’s call.

God calls Jonah to go and preach repentance to Nineveh – the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the enemy of Israel. And Jonah refuses to do it, because for him the people of Nineveh are such bad people, they aren’t worth being forgiven. Jonah is very angry – angry at the people of Nineveh but mostly angry at God who wants to give them a second chance by warning them of the calamity that is to come. To escape from God’s call, Jonah gets on a ship headed in the opposite direction of Nineveh. But God does not let go. To stop Jonah, God sends a huge storm on the sea, the sailors throw Jonah overboard and he ends up in the stomach of a whale. After three days, the whale vomits Jonah on the shore close to the city, and – as of our passage today – God asks him again to go there and preach. Jonah finally obeys and the people of Nineveh repent, but in the last chapter of the book we learn how shocked and unhappy Jonah is that the people of Nineveh have been forgiven by God – and God has to teach Jonah again how all people are precious to him and deserve a second chance.

What is interesting is that we don’t know if in the end Jonah finally gets it or not – if he still remains angry or if he is able to change his mind about the people of Nineveh and God’s mercy. All along and until the last line, the story keeps us wondering:

Will Jonah finally answer God’s call? Will Jonah finally obey God’s commandment?
Will Jonah change his mind about the people of Nineveh as the people of Nineveh changed their minds about God, turned from their evil ways?
Will Jonah change his mind about the people of Nineveh as God changed of mind and did not bring a calamity on them?

And so, in the end, we realize it’s not so much the story of the conversion of Nineveh – but it’s also, and mainly, the story of the conversion of Jonah.

We realize it’s not so much the story of the conversion of Nineveh – but the story of the conversion of Jonah.

It’s hard to change our minds, isn’t it? Especially about people. When we don’t like them, we don’t like them – and sometimes for good reasons. The Assyrians were truly the enemies of the Israelite. And it was assumed for the people of Israel that God was one their side, that they had God’s favor and that God hated their enemies as much as they did.

It’s easy to believe that God is on our side, isn’t it? That our God is the true God who agrees with everything that we do and everything that we believe in. In this country, a lot of people claim to have God on their side and struggle a lot to see the good in others, to see how God could be with them or how they can call themselves “Christians”.

Maybe that’s a reason why the story of Jonah is worth reading today, because the story is not here to teach us who is wrong or who is right and who has access to God and who is denied access. The story is here to tell us that God has a claim on all people. I am not sure God claims that the people of Nineveh are good people. That’s actually the other way around: The story tells us that God plans to punish them to put an end to their evil ways. But first, God wants to give them a warning and a chance to come back. What we learn is that the people of Nineveh may not be good people, but you see, they are people. They may not be good people, but they are people. And God has mercy on them. Actually, the book of Jonah mentions that God also has mercy on animals and even on trees.

They may not be good people but they still are people – and God longs for Jonah to understand things this way, and we understand quickly that it’s not only the people of Nineveh who need to repent of the evil they do, it’s also, and mainly, Jonah, who needs to repent from his stubbornness, his judgmental and unforgiving ways. Throughout the story, we keep wondering: Will Jonah change his mind? But more deeply, the question is: Will Jonah change his heart?

Will Jonah change his heart? Because it’s mostly about that isn’t it? Jonah has no heart for the people. He does not feel sorry for them, he isn’t concerned, he isn’t touched, they are not his problem. It’s easy to think isn’t it that people aren’t our problem, or that they are beyond redemption? But God is concerned with all people, and even animals and even plants and trees.

And so the story is the story about God trying to break through Jonah’s carapace, God trying to break through Jonah’s hardness of heart. In the end, we still don’t know what will happen. Will Jonah open his heart to compassion or will he die bitter, resentful and angry? There is only so much God can do, only so much God can ask, only so much God can explain.

It’s up to Jonah to live up to his calling and to accept – or not – the change God wants to bring in him.

The Gospel today is also about God calling people, as Jesus calls his disciples on the sea shore of Galilee. We may have gotten used to this story, that Jesus called fishermen, but it was an extraordinary thing to do at the time. Rabbis and teachers would wait for their students to apply to their schools, and check if they were worthy of their teaching before receiving them as their disciples. But throughout the Gospel, Jesus goes to the people and call them all, good and bad, religious or not.

Still today all are called but it’s also up to us to live up to our calling. God wants to give us a new heart, but as with Jonah, there is only so much God can do. God can explain again and again, but in the end, compassion cannot be demonstrated, cannot be explained, you have to let yourself feel it in your heart. The story of God trying to convince Jonah of having compassion on the Ninevites reminds me of those words by Dr Fauci addressing the Nation, when he said: I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people. I think that sometimes God does not know how to explain to us that we should care about one another and be compassionate if, like Jonah, we decide we won’t listen.

And so, we don’t know how the story of Jonah will end, but what we are asked today is maybe to think about the end of our own story. Will we care for people and have compassion on them – not because they’re good or even innocent people, but because they are people too, and they are still people whatever they end up saying or doing, and God cares for them too? It’s not about forgoing our desire for justice, but the question is: How do we desire justice to happen? Do we want to punish people, to make them pay, to have our revenge on our enemies, or do we desire that justice will lead them to change and to come back to better ways – and do we ourselves accept to change and be reconciled in the process?

That’s the question God is asking Jonah and still asks each one of us today. And we know how hard it is. Prophets, like Christians, can be hard-hearted.

The good news for us is that as Jesus calls his disciples in our Gospel today, he asks them to follow – he does not ask them to have it all figured out. They are who they are, and we know that if they jump right away out of their boats, excited by the adventure, it’s going to be along journey for them to understand who Jesus is. We know how difficult it will be for them to change, to repent, to let their hearts be touched by Jesus’s message and Jesus’s compassion on all people: Foreigners, Roman centurions, tax collectors, rude women. Yes, indeed, it will be very difficult for the disciples to let their hearts be transformed. We know how difficult it was for Simon Peter who will let Jesus down when he realizes Jesus is not a conquering Messiah. We know how hard it will be for James and John, who will ask Jesus to be the among the greatest in the Kingdom. Mark’s Gospel is the Gospel of the disciples who don’t get it – but they learn and they keep on learning. And Jesus will model their hearts after his own just because they are open to Jesus’ teaching.

So today, let us ask Jesus also to model for us heart worthy of our calling, let us allow God to change us, and heal us. That our desire to bring justice in our common world and in our own worlds may not be cut off from a profound desire for understanding, healing and reconciliation. As with the first disciples, it may take the time it may take, but we don’t have to have it all figured out, we just have to be on our way.

Epiphany 2

– Maybe you have been watching this new show, “The Chosen”? A show about Jesus’s disciples. I enjoyed it very much, and would strongly recommend it to you. It really makes the Gospel come to life. Those people we’ve heard so much about, suddenly they become alive, you discover their stories, their families, their friends, their joys and their struggles, their hopes. From “flat characters” they become 3D people.

Of course, it’s just a story, the screenwriters elaborate based on the little we know about the disciples. Because indeed, there is very little we know. It’s especially the case with Nathaniel we meet in our passage of the Gospel today – although he was one of the 12, this passage of John’s is basically all that the Scriptures mention about this man.

So what do we learn about Nathaniel in this passage? Well, as I was reading it, I thought it was funny you know, because I realized I had always assumed that Jesus picked his disciples among young men full of strength, energy and enthusiasm. But it’s hardly the case here, isn’t it? The least we can say is that Nathaniel doesn’t run to meet Jesus. As Philip announces him the incredible news, that “They have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophet wrote”, Nathaniel does not seem very responsive. He rebukes Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, and then, when he is finally introduced to Jesus, he asks him: “Do you know me?”, the kind of rebuke you would give to someone you haven’t met yet and who act a little bit too familiar with you.

– And so here it is, in a few lines, what we seem to learn about Nathaniel: he is sarcastic, and even a little bit prejudiced, cynical, a tough cookie. As I was reading this, I was thinking that maybe I wouldn’t want to make friends with him – but maybe he wouldn’t want to make friends with me either. He does not seem to want to make friends with Jesus. And yet, Jesus wants to make friends with him. Jesus tells him: “I saw you under the fig tree” and we are left to wonder what it could mean.

Well, as you can imagine, scholars and theologians have elaborated on that for centuries. The fig tree is known to be a symbol for Israel, it is also the traditional place where one would study the Torah, the Law of Moses Philip is speaking about. So it makes for a lot of symbolism but it does not help us much to get to know the character. I was thinking about that this week as I was working on my sermon, trying to focus my thoughts while constantly going back to the news: watching the news, talking about the news, thinking about the news, worrying about the news. And then this is what happened to me. At the end of the day, I had to leave my apartment just to take a 10mn break from all of this, books, TV and devices, and I sat on a bench in a park. That’s when I raised my eyes and realized I was sitting under a tree. Oh it wasn’t a fig tree, probably a magnolia – although for me it’s hard to tell in this season – but I had to smile and Jesus’s words came back to mind: “I saw you under the fig tree”. I thought about Nathaniel.

Maybe he was also looking for a break, maybe his soul was tired. Maybe he was longing for something. When Jesus tells him that he saw him under the fig tree, he doesn’t mean so much something like he saw him with his eyes, like we would bump into somebody we know on the parking lot or at the store. Jesus means that he could see him, who he really was and what was going on inside of him. Maybe, beyond the mask of cynicism and toughness, Jesus saw defensiveness, Nathaniel’s weary heart and his longing for something real. A man “with no deceit in him”, looking for something, or someone, who wouldn’t deceive him.

And Jesus comes to meet him and in a short sentence shows him that he knows him, that he sees him and that he cares about him – exactly what the God of Israel has always been doing, as we are reminded in our psalm: “Lord, you have searched me out and known me, you know my sitting down and my rising up, you discern my thoughts from afar“.

Thinking about Nathaniel gave me hope for all of us who may not feel young, or full of energy and enthusiasm, as we are wearied and discouraged – maybe because of our our own individual circumstances, maybe because of what’s going on in this country and in the world, maybe because of all of this. Jesus knows about that, sees through that and raises disciples among these people. Jesus actually came on earth at a time when people were weary and discouraged and had kind of lost hope in better days.

So what makes the difference? What makes Nathaniel stand out in spite of being so much like many people at his time and like so many of us? What can we learn from him?

– Well, I think something important is that, under his cynicism, we can understand that he didn’t want a cheap consolation. He was looking for the real thing and if it wasn’t there, then he wanted nothing at all. He didn’t want to be cajoled or entertained by a false Messiah, by empty words or a fake religion that was all about rites and disconnected from the longings of the heart and the search for justice and truth. We hear Nathaniel shout for joy when he finally realizes who Jesus is: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel”. He has found the real thing. But this is what we learn from him: we cannot find the real thing if we aren’t real too, wholehearted, refusing the hypocrisy Jesus spent his life condemning. It means of course that we have to renounce false gods and false saviors who shift away the responsibilities from us or comfort us with illusions when life becomes difficult. Somehow, like Nathaniel, we are to be able to face the darkness of the world, of our lives, to endure the pain.

So one of my questions for us today is: Are we able also to confront the pain and the darkness, to see them for what they are or do we turn our backs on them in ignorance and denial? “Epiphany” is the time of the year when we celebrate the light, but how can we find the light of Christ is we are blinded by an artificial lights? Can we find true hope and true salvation if we cling to unrealistic optimism and superficial healing?

– This is where we may want to draw the line between becoming cynical and looking for authenticity. I am amazed to realize that, in our readings today, everybody has a dream! Samuel has a dream, MLK has a dream, and even Nathaniel starts to be able to dream again. What does it mean to have a dream? Once again, it shouldn’t be cheap consolation that just comforts us when life gets too hard. On the contrary, having a dream is to have a vision, to see a way through when life is difficult. Not only for ourselves, but also for others. Jesus promises Nathaniel that he will see great things, Jesus rescues Nathaniel from his discouragement and his cynicism by giving him a vision, and from that Nathaniel can start his ministry with Jesus, in the same way that MLK started his ministry having this vision of justice and equality for Black people, in the same way that Samuel will become a priest according to God’s heart after God has thrown down the sons of Eli who abused their power as priests.

– How do we do that? How is it that we are given a vision? It’s maybe a question we want to think about as we are heading to our Annual meeting, renewing our commitment to the mission of our church.

Maybe we also need to sit under the fig tree, in spite of the business of our lives, or in spite of our fatigue or loss of energy. We need to sit under the fig tree and search our souls for something real so we are given also the invitation to “come and see”. Maybe Nathaniel was praying on that day, asking for God to show up in his life, maybe he had words for this prayer, maybe he didn’t. Yet he had faith enough, in spite of all his doubts, to follow Philip.

This week, I attended a formation about prayer. And what the leader told us that I found very striking is that, for her, prayer wasn’t about saying these or those words, standing or kneeling. She said that prayer was about showing up and be attentive. Make ourselves available to God – and God does the rest. She told us this funny story that she has a very good friend who is also her colleague and on her birthday, her friend showed up with something for her, but she was so busy at work, her friend had finally to interrupt her to ask her: “When will you be able to give 10mn of your day so I can give you the gift?”. And she said to us: it looks so much like our lives. We run from one thing to another, would it be only in our minds, all the while God is standing there waiting to give us a gift. She said: prayer is to open up to receive the gift. We don’t have to be young, strong, full of energy or enthusiasm, God will refresh us as Jesus refreshed Nathaniel in the blink of an eye on this day he met with him.

I will leave you with those words MLK spoke in his sermon A Knock at Midnight, confessing his own feelings of weariness and discouragement, and how the Spirit of God would find him in prayer and meditation to restore his strengths:

Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world . . . He promised never to leave me . . . I don’t mind telling you that sometimes I feel discouraged. I felt discouraged in Chicago. As I moved through Mississippi, and Georgia and Alabama, I feel discouraged. Living every day under threat of death, I feel discouraged sometimes. Living every day under extensive criticism even from Negros, I feel discouraged sometimes. Yes, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work is in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick souls.

The Baptism of Our Lord

Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord and we’re (almost literally) diving into the waters of the Jordan and into Mark’s Gospel, a Gospel we will continue to read during our new liturgical year. For those of you who are interested, I will show a video after this service (you can also listen to it if you’re joining us on the phone), a video that presents an overview of Mark’s Gospel, the storyline and the main themes.

In a few words, Mark’s Gospel is the most ancient of the four Gospels, it’s also the shortest one. There is a reason for that. In Mark’s, Jesus is presented as a man of action: Jesus recruits his disciples, he heals, exorcises demons, feeds the people and is always on the move. We studied Matthew’s Gospel last year and we spent time on Jesus’s extended parables and teachings. Nothing like that in Mark! We go straight to the point. Jesus came into the world to save people and he gets on the job, he is always active and busy!

Another interesting feature in Mark’s Gospel is that the evangelist makes a point to show us Jesus’s humanity. It has been said by scholars that Mark’s Gospel is the most authentic, the closest to the “Historical Jesus” . Well, as Christians we believe that all Gospels are authentic and historical, but you could see the reason why most scholars have been upholding this Gospel as the closest to the first disciples’ experience: Jesus, although proclaimed the Son of God right from the beginning (as we see in this passage of the baptism) and in the end by the centurion standing at the cross, Jesus is presented as very human. For example, Mark’s Gospel makes many references to Jesus’ emotions: In this Gospel, Jesus gets often tired or impatient, sometimes afraid, and even moody or angry.

Far from disturbing us, I think those references to Jesus’s character are very important because they can help us to relate to him. Jesus, as we said again and again during the Christmas season, wasn’t in this world only “among us”, he was really one of us: The Son of God and yet a human being like you and me. It is very clear right from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, in this first chapter: Jesus waits in line (a very human experience!) in the crowd, to be baptized by John in the wilderness, although, as John notices, John wasn’t worthy to even untie Jesus’s sandals – and then the heavens break open to confirm John’s intuition: This man, who looks like any other man, is also the Messiah.

And so this is one of the aims of Mark’s Gospel: To keep us wondering and questioning about this mystery: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and Jesus is fully human – From there, we see how Jesus can be an example, a model for all of us who want to follow him and be intimate with God, be God’s children. As we wonder who Jesus is, we question also who we are and this is I think a very important question. A question that a lot of people wonder about these days. This is at least the feeling I had this past week.

As I was watching the news, scrolling down articles on line and social medias, one of the things that struck me was the redounding comment a lot of people made. People, as they were reacting to the events that took place at the Capitol, asked again and again: “Is it who we are?”. Some said, most said: “This is not who we are”, or “This is not America”. But on the other way around, there were also many people saying, in response to them: “Actually, this is who we are” and “Take a good look, because this is what America is right now”.

And so, in the comments, declarations, interviews, there was a constant back and forth between people who couldn’t believe what was going on in the Capital Nation, because this didn’t look like anything they believed about themselves, the people and the country, and also people not so surprised by what was going on, acknowledging that this was the sad reality of what the country and the people were really about. To them, the veil was just lifted on people’s true nature in this time of conflict.

Between the two, who’s right, who’s wrong, is it who we are or is it really nothing like us, to that I don’t have an answer right away, but what I noticed is that because of the very disturbing events that took place this week, it’s like a lot of people seemed to start to question their own personal and national identity and were led to deeper questions:

Who is it that we are, really? Are we good people inside, is human (or American) nature good, or is goodness all just surface, an illusion, because when comes a crisis we realize our inner violence and folly? Maybe it’s a question you asked yourself too, and are still asking.

Well, if you would like to step back a little bit today, you may agree with me that this question is not new, and it is shown easily when we talk about what it means to be human. “To be human” both means, first, to refuse cruelty and injustices, like when we say “Treating others humanely”, but when we say “It’s human” or “We are only humans” we also mean that it is in our nature to make mistakes, to be weak, to contradict ourselves and to do bad things.

This is where, I think, is the connection with today’s Gospel, because those questions were Mark’s, those questions were Mark’s people’s questions and have been Christians’ questions for centuries: Looking at Jesus, they wondered what it meant about themselves. They wondered: Who is it that we are? What does it mean to be human? What does it means to be human in front of God? Do we believe that we are wretched sinners, a fallen race, called to repentance, in need of being cleansed, and forgiven, or is there something inside of us that gives us a special connection to the divine, “Sons and daughters of God” and, as in our passage today: “Beloved by God”, people with whom “God is well pleased”?

What do you think? Do you believe that God is well pleased with us, or do you believe that our true nature is to be rebellious against God, false and violent?

Well, to answer this question, Mark simply, and beautifully, introduces Jesus, the Son of God, a Son of God who, throughout Mark’s Gospel, takes hold of his humanity, steps in the waters of baptism with the sinners, shares a table with the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and at times shows himself highly emotional, subject to anger, fear and suffering. And yet as the Gospel unfolds, Jesus proves right everything that was prophetized about The Messiah: Jesus behaves like the Son of God. He is compassionate with the poor, heals, feeds and sets free, resists evil powers, tells the truth to his opponents at the cost of his life. Jesus shows us what it means to be baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit.

And so, to me, the very interesting point is that Mark, in his Gospel, as Luke in the Acts of the Apostles (as we read in our 2nd reading) shows us that as Christians we can hold altogether this dual, and for many conflicting, reality: We have to be baptized in water because we are sinners, and we can also be baptized in the Holy Spirit, because we are the Son and daughters of God.

We are up to the worst, but we can also accomplish the best.

And it is not because we have an inner nature that is good, or because we have an inner nature that is bad. Or both in the same time. To me it means that we have the choice. We have the choice. As human we can choose who we are. If you’ve ever studied a bit of philosophy, you know that this was the Creed of existentialism: There is not a definition of what it means to be human. Human beings can be whatever they want to be. Something we often hear in this country, right? In America, you can be whoever you want to be.

Yes, we have the choice.

We cannot take for granted who we are. We have to choose ourselves again and again, choose who we want to be. After his baptism, Jesus is sent by the Spirit in the wilderness and will endure many temptations: Greed, power, glory. Jesus, didn’t fake it as a man in this world. Jesus as a child of God, also had to choose who he wanted to be, not only on this one day in the waters of the Jordan, but every day. He endured many temptations: He was discouraged, attacked by his enemies, left on his own, misunderstood by his friends. Jesus suffered a whole lot emotionally and physically to continue to do the right thing, to be compassionate and kind, to show’s God’s love and embody what it means to be God’s child.

How do we do that? That’s a question we may need to ask ourselves, as I said, every single day. But the Gospel and the book of Acts reminds us today that we have two “tools” (if I may use this expression) that are at our disposition: A baptism of water, a baptism of repentance, and a baptism of fire, a baptism with the Holy Spirit.

The baptism of water is on us, as it was on John and on John’s people. Repentance in Greek means “to turn around”, to “change one’s mind” and it is very interesting because in this world it’s often not seen as a good thing to change our minds, we’re afraid it’d make us look weak, undecided or unreliable, or maybe it would just make us look like an idiot. But to God, it’s never too late to do the right thing, and it’s never ridiculous or shameful to acknowledge that we have strayed and made mistakes, that we have hurt people. We just need to say that we were wrong and that we are sorry. We spend a lot of time commenting people’s behavior, but what about our own? The Gospel tells us again and again that we are ALL in need of repentance.

The second “tool” we are given is the baptism of fire, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We have power to decide the good, to choose life and life giving ways, but we often don’t have the strength, or the will to carry on, especially when life becomes difficult. That’s when we are reminded by John that this baptism is the Messiah’s job, it is God’s job to sanctify us. Jesus didn’t come only to experience what it was to be human, or even to show a beautiful example of what it could mean to be a human being, leaving us even more helpless and desperate about out own sinfulness. Jesus came so we can be “adopted” by God, full human being and yet God’s children because we would be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So I invite you now, after the hymn, to renew with me your baptism’s promises. Because we need to make the choice, again and again, of who we want to be.

Christmas Eve

Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of a great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

One of the things we learn when reading Luke’s Gospel is that God is not very good at keeping a secret.

God is not very good at keeping a secret.

Or maybe it’s just the angels. Or maybe just the way Luke tells the story. But it’s all right there, right here, in the beginning, isn’t it? It’s all right here.

Not only on this holy (if not so silent) night, but also in the months before: The annunciation to Zechariah, John’s father, and then Gabriel – the annunciation to Mary, and then Mary visiting Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaping in anticipation in his mother’s womb and Mary singing the Magnificat, and then Zechariah’s own prophecy at the birth of his son.

The Messiah is coming, and he will bring salvation and redemption to Israel, peace, hope and comfort, and above all “A great joy for all people”.

Now I don’t know how you like your stories, but to me, when I read a good novel, or watch a good movie, I don’t want to know the end before it has even started. I want to take time to get acquainted to the main characters, try to figure out their motives, following their many adventures and become enthralled by their destinies.

Not so with God though, not so with the angels, not so with Luke’s Gospel and with the story of the Savior.

It’s all right there, right here, in the beginning.

On that holy and (if not so silent) night, and even a few months before that, the heavens burst open upon the theater of this bleak and ordinary world of keeping the sheep at night, walking miles in the dark or riding on a donkey, crowds and noise, cramps and pangs, looking for something to eat, looking for a place to sleep – in the midst of all this, the heavens crack open to announce a great joy to all the people of Israel, and beyond, as we know it in the Christian world.

God can’t keep a secret.

But we have to indulge God because God can’t wait to tell us. God can’t wait to tell us.

This is how it goes isn’t it, when you love people and when you have very good news? It’s not that hard to keep a secret from somebody you don’t like, or when you’re ashamed of something you did. It’s much harder to keep from those you love something very exciting and something very life changing.

In this holy (if not so silent) night, the heavens burst open with overflowing joy. Joy coming from heavens. Not from this bleak, ordinary world, but from the story that God wants to write for and with God’s people. The marvel and the gift of Jesus coming to share our destiny.

Things will never be the same indeed.

And this how it goes with God, because indeed, from the beginning, heavens overflow with joy, and desire and love and this in this outpouring of love that men and women were created and this is in this outpouring of love that men and women will also be redeemed.

God is pregnant with a new reality God wants to bring with completion.

I don’t know how you have been feeling in the past months, before this holy (if not so silent) night but not that great is probably a good guess, isn’t it? I know this is probably how I would describe my own state of mind as well. But you see, when I open the Gospel, and God announces a great joy for all God’s people and I see the heavens shaken upside down with shouts of celebration, I understand that joy is not something I have to give to myself, or something I need to give to the world, or something I have to seek to the ends of the earth

– Joy is something that God brings to God’s people and joy is to be found, then and always, in Jesus.

God wants to bring heavens on earth, and God is waiting for people like Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, peasants, astrologists, fishermen and tax collectors, and even robbers and sex workers to open their hearts to this new reality.

God is pregnant with a new reality God wants to bring to completion in the midst of us – and things will never be the same again anymore.

Oh, it won’t start big. A small child, and infant, who will just happen to grow to become the king of kings and the Lord of all. And we are invited to follow where he leads.

No, it won’t start big. Things won’t change right away, but slowly, and surely, a new reality is coming. In the same way that, after the winter solstice days grow longer again – a few extra minutes of sun every day, we reverse the calendar and look forward to the hope brought by spring and the glory of the summer days.

Jesus came to reverse time from birth to death to another time: from the death brought by our blindness and selfishness to eternal life in him.

It won’t start big but it will start with each one of you and I hope you can start feeling this promise of a new life growing inside of you, because God can’t wait for you to discover it.

In the darkest night, God shone God’s brightest star to tell you.

Maybe in the past days you went out to see the Great conjunction. I did. I don’t know if it’s a sign, but I had to see it as I always go out to see rainbows as well. Not sure God does it on purpose each time, who can tell? But I know that when I see the heavens bursting with colors and lights, I am reminded of God’s promise, God’s promise to Noah, God’s promise in Jesus. And so indeed, even in the bleakness of year 2020, we can be reminded of God’s covenant as we open our ears to the Gospel and as we raise our eyes to the sky.

One of the things the most comforting I’ve ever read was this simple sentence in the Encyclical “Laudato Si” by pope Francis – an Encyclical about the urgency of climate action. The Pope said, in the midst of it all, poverty, hunger, disease, wars against ourselves, one another and the environment, God has not abandoned us.

God has not abandoned us. God hasn’t abandoned us today as surely as God hasn’t abandoned God’s people two thousands years ago even after the prophets went very silent for four hundreds years and the Romans took over the holy city.

It is a tough time for us as well, but as 2020 comes to an end and as we celebrate Christmas again, we have the choice to let the Scriptures remind us that God does not give up on God’s people, God remembers God’s covenant. God had promised a Savior to Israel and God sent Jesus and Jesus is till with us as surely as Jesus was with God’s people on the first Christmas.

God has not given up on you and God is not done with us. So don’t give up either. Don’t give up on yourself, don’t give up on this world and don’t give up on God. As difficult as it may seem to believe, today like yesterday God promises us that the best is yet to come in God’s reality.

And if we make silence in the dark of the night, if we raise our eyes to the stars, we may hear how God can’t wait to tell us all about it.