Proper 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinity Sunday

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

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

So how have we been feeling this week?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Message for Pentecost

So I wrote another sermon this week…For Pentecost…And you know, it’s fine. I come up with stuff, and there are maybe a few ideas and it’s on line and you can check it out if you want and maybe it will help you to think about things but in this context, given the events that took place this weekend, my heart isn’t in it to preach it today and I don’t think you’ll get much from it right now.

Pentecost, right. We should celebrate the coming together of all people – tongues and nations, united in the power of the Holy Spirit – but what happened this week is that we’ve just been witnessing all this hate and division in our society, white people threatening, humiliating and murdering African Americans – or white people just being bystanders, approving by a criminal indifference and silence.

It sickens me.

I was texting yesterday with a friend of mine from seminary who is now a priest in Memphis – He’s an African American. And he wasn’t saying a thing about the situation you know – He was just texting to send me pictures of his two beautiful kids playing together in his living room, but when I saw his kids, his four years old daughter and one year old son, it made me want to cry, it made me want to cry thinking about them so innocent and joyful growing up in this society. And I thought, I need to say something to my friend, and I didn’t know what to say. And I had this back and forth in my mind: “I need to say something, I don’t know what to say” and you see, I didn’t know what to say because I don’t know much about races in America, I am not American as you know, I am not Black obviously, but this only thing I know is that this situation sickens me and so that’s what I told to my friend: I don’t know what to say about all this s…ituation (I didn’t say “situation”) going on, it makes me sick. And when I wrote that to my friend, that’s what he answered me:

That’s exactly the right description for this nation. It is sick! And I said Yes, maybe it is even sicker on the inside than it is on the outside.

Today, we’re looking for cure, medicines and vaccines against the virus and yes we need to put all our efforts in it. Yet we also need to remember, urgently, that’s it’s on the inside we also need to be cured. It’s on the inside that we need to be healed and maybe it’s not that bad after all that today we think about Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, because here’s the thing: Our hearts need to be changed. Life is not only about our bodies. It’s important to be healthy in our bodies, but now it’s not only our bodies that are threatened. It’s our hearts that are dying, it’s our souls that are in danger.

We need the Holy Spirit more than ever. To change the hearts of those who commit and support such hatred. And we also need the Holy Spirit to mend the broken hearts of those who endure this hatred, those who have been enduring this hatred for so long. We need the Holy Spirit to strengthen them, comfort them, restore them.

I don’t know what to say because I don’t feel I have the right to say something: I am not American, I don’t know much about races, but I know that most days I am ashamed to be white and I would like to apologize for all white people, and in the same time I feel it’s even more shameful to think white people could get away with an apology and mostly I don’t want to burden you with my white people feelings, so I won’t say anything.

But as your priest, there is something I can tell you. I can tell you that we need the Holy Spirit more than ever and although the Holy Spirit is like the wind and blows wherever the Spirit wants to blow, we are reminded today that the Spirit chose Jesus’s disciples and the Spirit continues to choose the church and you are the church.

And maybe we don’t have much at Christ Church. For now, we don’t even have our building! And we’re not the youngest, the fittest, or the richest, but we have each other and even if it’s not perfect, we have managed to find a way to live together and to worship together between races. Oh, it’s not perfect, I am sure there are some hurt feelings, misunderstandings and prejudices – we make mistakes, we fail, but we try again. We try and we’re still here. And maybe we’re not a fancy church, but you see, we have that. We have each other and we try to be together. And we love each other.

And it’s so important. It’s so important right now not only to be the church, but to be our church. To be us. A church where we try to love each other coming all from different places, backgrounds and races.

When you read the Scriptures, really, this is all there is to it – the Church, the Holy Spirit. People coming together in love, in peace, in reconciliation. And the world needs this testimony.

We hear a lot today that church, it’s not that important. You can just stay home and believe in God. But it is important. Church is important. Because God is just not a Spirit up above, God’s Spirit visits God’s people. God’s Spirit holds people together. We need to be the church. Just to show them. Just to show them it’s possible to be us.

But better than showing them, maybe we need to tell them. I don’t know what to say, but what I can say is that I know a lot of you would know what to say. Or even if you don’t know what to say, the Spirit will tell you what to say. The Spirit will lead you out of weariness, fear and pain to speak your truth and your reality and to carry on the mission to change the world and even harder, to change the hearts of those who wouldn’t listen – a mission the Apostles started two thousands years ago when they left their house to meet the people out there, people who didn’t want them, people who were their enemies, people who killed their friend.

The world needs you and the world needs Christ Church. The world needs to hear us, as a church, and the world needs us to preach, all of us, not just me! Each in our own voices, we need to preach about the Kingdom of God and denounce the absurd violence and hatred of this world. The world needs the Church and needs Christ Church because the world needs to be healed and we can be an example of this healing / strive to be an example. Together.

I am sure a lot of you today are angry. I am not going to tell you not to be angry. Yesterday, I came across this beautiful quotation from Maya Angelou: “If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone, or you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry. You must not be bitter. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger, yes. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”

Don’t be a stone and to be too sick to talk about it – as I have felt these past days. We can be angry yes, and we can use our anger – not as they want everybody to believe to bring more violence and destruction in the world, but to heal the world – we need to use our anger to claim the justice of God’s kingdom and to do something good for God’s children who suffer and to do something redemptive for those who persecute them. We need to let the Spirit act through us. The Spirit set the disciples on fire. Let the Spirit set a fire inside of you. Speak your truth and your reality. Never stop talking it. By your individual testimony, by our collective testimony.

And when it’s too much and you’re weary, remember, we still have each other. And God is with each one of us. Today is Sunday, and it’s the Feast of the Pentecost. Take some time for God – seriously. Unplug from the news, TV, social medias. Put down your phone. Just stop for a few hours. Go out if you can. Take a walk, pray. Ask God to fill your heart with God’s Spirit, ask God to give you peace, healing and comfort and then what God wants from you, in this situation. What you can do, what you can say, how you can use your sadness, your anger and your pain to bring a little more of God’s Spirit into this broken world. And God will certainly show us the way. God wants this to change even more than we do.

Day of Pentecost

On this day of Pentecost, both of our readings today (Acts and John) start by mentioning a location, and the situation the disciples found themselves in when the Holy Spirit was given to them: Luke mentions in Acts that “They were all together in the same place” and the Gospel of John adds that, more precisely, it was “Evening on that day”, “the first day of the week” and the “door of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews”.

And so those two versions of what happened on the Day of Pentecost we’ve heard today differ quite a bit, but Luke and John agree on that: The Holy Spirit finds the disciples locked behind closed doors, afraid and wrapped up on themselves / keeping safe in their little group. And it’s only when they receive the Spirit that they can open up and start their work of evangelization through meeting people and giving their testimonies, living up to their full potential.

Actually, I thought it was a bit ironic to have those two readings on the Eve of the reopening of our county. I was afraid it would make us feel like we “all need to go out now”, you know because staying home would mean we are afraid and not empowered by the Holy Spirit, and certainly many churches today, and many church leaders, have made some members of their congregation feel guilty about staying home saying something like: “If you’d really have faith, you wouldn’t be afraid”. Well, we know that things didn’t turn out that well for those who felt overly confident in this pandemic. It’s quite clear for all of us with common sense that it is safer now to stay home, not only for ourselves, but it is also the loving and wise thing to do for our vulnerable neighbors, to do our best efforts not to spread the disease.

This said, I have good news for you because the thing is that, of course, the readings are not so much about the dilemma “leaving home or staying home”. Even if it’s an important question today, now spiritually, that would be a bit shallow, right? Luke and John both refers to the situation of the disciples from a closed space to an open space to describe an inner tension: how often our hearts and minds get closed and our lives get stuck when God’s work is to always take us beyond our routines, habits and what we take for granted.

And so mainly that’s what I want to talk to you about today. As I mentioned in a previous sermon, I wouldn’t say about myself that I have many earthshaking spiritual experiences, but I remember the day of my confirmation a friend asked me if it “changed anything” to receive the Holy Spirit, and I remember telling them, to my own surprise, that it “changed everything”. We say so much about the Holy Spirit: If you open (as I did to prepare this sermon) a book of Biblical doctrine, you would find that in Paul’s writings there are at least 22 gifts of the Holy Spirit: Apostle, prophet, teacher, healing, encouraging, tongues, wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, leadership etc. and it can becomes quite overwhelming (I remember having to learn about those gifts to prepare for my confirmation, and I was quite confused!). We have to acknowledge that the HS can do so many things, and that in the end it’s very difficult to identify the HS if we describe all the things the HS can do. So to me, I would stick to the definition I gave to my friend on that day when I was 16 years old:

The Holy Spirit is the one who makes a difference, and who makes all the difference.

You see, to me what the readings are about today is that it’s not enough to believe in God unless it changes our lives and more deeply, until it changes us. We can be assured that after Easter, on that day they were gathered together, the disciples believed in God, and in Jesus’s teachings and in Jesus’ s Resurrection – yet it still didn’t make a difference in their lives. Until they received the Holy Spirit, they were closed behind visible and invisible locked doors and walls. Then they received the Spirit and they opened up and got out of themselves to meet people and change the world. So the Holy Spirit, if you will, and that would be the main idea I would like to share with you today, the Holy Spirit is the one who gets us unstuck. You can name many things the HS does, Paul found 22 gifts (and it was just the beginning of Christianity) but, to me, the role of the Spirit, whatever the Spirit does, in the end is to get us UNSTUCK, and I’d like to explore that a little bit with you because for us, it is still the same story than it was for the disciples. We need to move from “belief in God” to “life in God” and even more to “live out God”, which means: not just to live conforming to a doctrine but to let God live inside of us, through us. A Liturgical time ends here: We turn from the life of Jesus (Advent through Pentecost) to the life of discipleship (“Ordinary times”) and what we learn is that God’s story isn’t just written for us, we have to write God’s story. And we know it’s not easy. It’s not easy because we get stuck.

So how do we move from that?

– First of all, I think that we have to recognize that it is a natural tendency to get stuck, as individuals of course, but also as people, societies, races, civilizations. We get stuck in our patterns / ways of thinking and behaving. We are animals of habits (Aristotle) for the best (survival, natural life) but also for the worst (when it comes to divine/ supernatural life). Jesus came on earth at a time when Israel was stuck in a way that it has never been before (Roman Occupation / no prophets for centuries / Religious legalism).

Getting stuck can happen even if you’re a devout believer. Don’t blame yourself if you get stuck, first because as I’ve just said, it’s a natural tendency but also because it does not mean that you should believe “more”! At different times in our lives, we just need to get unstuck. Maybe because we have old habits (It is sometimes with God like in an old couple), sometimes we get stuck because of grief, or trauma (We discover that the world is a dangerous place, or that we ourselves can become dangerous, and so it may be better to “shelter in place” in our own ways).

The disciples believed in Jesus (probably more than us!) but they still were stuck, and what they needed was to receive the Holy Spirit (Readings last week: “Stay in Jerusalem until you have received the HS”). If you think about that Jesus’s life and teaching was all about: not enough to believe in God / to live religiously or even to have moral standards (as did the Pharisees) – especially in John’s: You have to keep moving and to receive the divine life and to live out a godly life.

How does the HS get us unstuck?

These days, we see so many books on shelves about how to get unstuck. All authors have their own theories but what comes back again and again is that when we are stuck in our lives, it’s not so much because of our circumstances. We have the power to change circumstances, at least some circumstances. Most of the time we are stuck in our heads. Because of habit, grief, trauma we have set patterns of fear and anxiety (like the disciples) that kill life inside of us: It can be something as simple as low self esteem that paralyzes us, or we got our heart broken and we don’t believe there is anything good left in this world. Sometimes also, we get defensive after being hurt. We believe that “some people are evil”, “money is the answer to our problems”, “or just don’t mention it and it’ll go away”. And so to me what we see is that it’s not even so much in our heads that we get stuck, it’s mostly in our hearts. And this is where the Gospel hits home today and this is second idea I want to share with you:

The most helpful advice to get unstuck is the one Jesus gives us: receive the HS by making peace and do the work of reconciliation and forgiveness. Comes to terms with the ways you’ve been hurt and the way you’ve hurt others (and yourself!).

I love it that Jesus does not just say “Forgive” to his disciples. First of all, HE forgives them, granting them “peace”. He does not come back to condemn them for letting him down at his worst hour. And then he asks them to “do the work”: “Retain the sins”: Yes, the disciples have to grant forgiveness but also they have to ask those who do wrong to repent, to change, ask for justice. Forgiveness in the Gospel is never, never a forget and let go right away. It’s always hard work, with oneself, others and God and there is always a reciprocity (Lord’s prayer: Forgive us as we forgive others). Forgiveness is meant to expose the sins, bring justice and healing, it’s not a “covering up” of wrongdoings. It’s hard and painful work, but it’s done in the hope of a possible renewal.

If we don’t do the work of forgiveness we get stuck: as individuals, as couples and families (a lot!!), as societies and we repeat history: Conflicts, wars, injustices, abuse and so on. I read a great article this week about how racism in America is a never ending problem because white people never actually acknowledged the original sin of slavery. We have to go to the root of the pain and the hurt and deal with it. A theologian I like says that: “Sin is when life freezes”. When we sin against each other, we freeze the movement of life because shame and guilt haunt us and prevent us from being renewed and we get trapped in our patterns. We get frozen in sadness, angry, indifference, terror, hate, resentfulness or self-righteousness, and in the process we punish others or we punish ourselves, we may even end up trying to punish God! We are stuck in sin like a clogged drain with all sort of impurities inside of us. Life cannot circulate in a clogged heart as surely as water cannot circulate in a clogged drain.

– To receive the HS: Examine your heart and do the work of forgiveness. Ask God if you cannot ask the ones who hurt you or the ones you hurt. Sometimes we’ll find out that not only do we have to forgive others and be forgiven by them but we also have to forgive ourselves (for not being as “good” as we would like to believe, for having let others hurt us), we also have to forgive God (Not that God “sins” against us of course, but a lot of us hold well hidden grudges against God for “letting that happen”).

Yet, the promise is that in the end, life will come back rushing trough our veins when our hearts are unclogged. HS will unleash our potential. So it can be anything, really. There are much more than 22 gifts. There are as many gifts as there are people in this world, each our own language, but it’s always a potential to love, a work we do with one another aiming towards the reconciliation of all people, as impossible as it may seems. We don’t receive the HS for ourselves. Pentecost is a communal event.

Ascension Sunday

Ascension, in my experience, is a not so well-known / not so beloved Christian feast.

There is something puzzling about this feast. Well, Easter is puzzling all right but we know what it’s about and what it means for us, Jesus bringing us the hope of victory over death.

Ascension: Resurrected Christ lifted up towards heavens…What does it mean for us? What does it have to do with my life? Most of our lives aren’t about ascending, right? Most of our lives are kind of weighty maybe with actual extra pounds but mostly weighty with health problems, age, worries about finances, jobs, family…The list seems unending of what binds us to our down to earth preoccupations, especially in this time of global crisis.

Yet in the midst of that, today we celebrate Ascension Sunday (Ascension was actually on Thursday, 40 days after Easter)

And so today, I want to say three things about what Ascension could mean for us. I want to talk about Glory, about Joy and about Power – 3 main themes in our readings today.

1 – About Glory

Ascension is first of all about Christ’s glory. Easter to Ascension: 40 days, a period that is still an in between time of Jesus “hanging around” showing himself to the disciples, continuing the teaching (In Luke, explaining the meaning of the Scriptures). On Ascension Day, Jesus is reunited with the Father “sitting at the right hand of the Father” (Nicene Creed)

Sitting at the right hand of the Father” is an image / like our psalm today “He subdues the peoples under us and the nations under our feet”. Jesus ascending, often represented in paintings with his feet hanging in the air, is “lifted up” that’s what it means: Not so much an actual “lifting up” in a “heavenly elevator”, it means that Christ is given all authority, the earth is his footstool (and expression that is used a lot in the Bible). “Having the world at your feet” is an expression of kingship.

It’s an image important for us to remember, especially in times of suffering. Growing up as a Catholic, I was often taught that in times of suffering, you need to remember the cross. That’s right, but come to think about it, it’s been more helpful to me to remember the cross when everything is fine in my life and I start to become a little to self assured, arrogant, forgetful of others, selfish. But in times of suffering, when we feel crushed, I think it is important to be reminded of glory. That Christ has ultimate authority, not so much that he controls everything but that he will have the last word, a word of forgiveness, resurrection and blessing (as in our Gospel of today) Through his flesh, our flesh (=human life) (and, in my mind, all flesh, all creation) is sanctified and manifest also his glory. We can see ourselves as beautiful and significant. Beyond all the sufferings and humiliations (of the cross/of our lives) there is this beauty and majesty that comes from God, beauty and majesty that cannot be destroyed and will shine forth in the end.

And it’s not only something that brings us comfort, it is an ethical way of living, to be able see others and to be able to see creation as glorious / the footstool of Christ glory. Not seeing this glory in each other and in each creature is cynicism, nihilism (= seeing void in everything) and it’s the root of all evils: social injustices, racism, abusive relationships, animal cruelty, pollution and so on.

2 – About Joy

Seeing glory/majesty/beauty/ significance in ourselves and in others, even / especially in times of suffering, can enable us to feel joy even if it appears “out of context”.

Indeed, there is something surprising in our Gospel about Jesus leaving and then the disciples being left full of joy and praising God. It’s a very different experience of loss than the usual grief/ sadness/despair or even trauma. The disciples experienced trauma at Jesus’s death because it didn’t make any sense at all – but now Jesus explains the meaning of his life, of Scriptures, of every human life – and the meaning is to be reunited to God beyond suffering and death.

I heard once that human beings are actually more looking for meaning than looking for happiness. To me, I think that when we have meaning, we can experience joy even if circumstances are tough. Sometimes, Christian are too quick to assign (specific) meaning to (difficult) circumstances, and it makes it even more difficult (we hear a lot of horrible things today about the meaning of this pandemic). To me it’s enough to believe that, if we are willing, God will use all circumstances to conform our lives to Christ and to give birth to our glorious, beautiful, eternal selves. Meaning is different for each one of us, as individuals but also as communities. The common feature it that when meaning is present, there is joy (if happiness is not always possible). Jesus used the example of a woman giving birth: Sufferings are quickly forgotten and leave room for joy when her child is born, she understands that her sufferings has led to something incredible. In the same way, Jesus assures us that our sufferings are not in vain so we can find joy inside of us knowing that.

We often see joy as coming from the world, from people around us, from events, but you cannot receive joy in anything if you don’t have an ability to receive joy inside of you (and you know that there are people who are never happy, never satisfied!) Joy may not be to be found inside of us like a “thing” placed there, but the ability to be joyful surely is surely inside of us, as surely as we have the ability to talk, laugh and sing– believing (knowing!) that we are enough, beautiful, worthy of love, discovering not only that life has meaning but that we mean something (to someone) is the key to receive the joy that life brings to us / the joy we can build in this life. The source of joy is inside of us, and we can praise God for that, because indeed God made all things beautiful and worthy of love. Only our “brokenness” “breaks” this vision, but Jesus assures us that forgiveness is given and it frees us to receive joy.

3 – About Power

The joy we receive from our lives in Christ will bring us Power. All our readings today are about power, and not only God’s power, but the promise that we will be made powerful.

Interesting to notice b/c we often think of Christian life as renouncing power. But real power is not control, coercion, or even persuasion. We are called to renounce control, coercion and even persuasion (in my opinion!), but we are not to renounce power. God wants us powerful. Power is freedom to exercise our own abilities that are the gifts of the Holy Spirit (and we’ll talk about that next Sunday for Pentecost). Power is the ability we are given to be our best selves and let shine forth the glory of God that is inside of us / to see glory in others.

It’s interesting we are back in Luke’s Gospel today (in year A, we mostly read Matthew). You may remember that from last year when we were reading Luke, I told you so many times that Luke is the Gospel of the little ones, the poor, the women and the children, the strangers and it’s the story of Jesus’s compassion for all those people. Yet Jesus’s goal is not to keep them powerless, it is to be bring them strength, to “raise them up”, spiritually and existentially, to show them/ reveal to them and lead them to experience themselves as beautiful and loved.

Jesus does not feel “sorry” for all those people! It’s not what compassion is about – it’s about seeing God’s glory in all. Jesus sees God’s glory in everyone, especially the overlooked.

How about us? Do we just feel sorry for ourselves, or are we in touch with our inner strength a life of prayer / adoration / relationships with God bring us? In the same way, do we feel sorry for the poor, those we see as “the little ones”, or do we see their strength and resilience and just help them to be reminded of their power by being kind, attentive and mostly encouraging and fair?

Conclusion on Jesus’s ascension

He leaves his disciples and leaves them his legacy – a legacy of love. Not so much the “power of love” than the power to love. Jesus sends out the disciples “to the ends of the earth” to receive and share the love he has shown to them. The way he remains with us…Each time you feel far from God, try a little act of love and you’ll realize God is closer than you think, not up in the sky but inside of you.

Glory = Kadov / Weight in Hebrew. Not the weight of being stuck on earth. It means that you matter / each one matters therefore we should care.

“I don’t believe that life matters because it continues. I believe that life continues because it matters. If it doesn’t continue, it still matters. We love each other imperfectly, yet love remains. My mother’s love for me did not begin or end with her. She could love me because others loved her, they could love her because they had been loved, and so on. Her love is with me now. And it will continue, through me, through everyone I love, through everyone they love, long after we are all forgotten. Whether I actually see my mom again, in the specific way I anticipate, doesn’t change that. As love, we live forever, we always will have lived.” Karen Teel Credit (Christian theologian)

Easter IV

This Sunday is known as “Good Shepherd” Sunday – a well-beloved image of Jesus and we have just heard a passage of John’s Gospel, how about Jesus is the shepherd for the sheep in the pen.

The passage reminded me about a folktale I use to read when I was a little girl. A folk tale from the South of France: “Mr Seguin’s goat”. And it is the story of a man, a farmer, who is very unlucky with his goats. He’s had had seven goats and, although he takes the best care of them in his comfortable little farm, there invariably comes a time when the goat escapes, runs away to the hills, gets lost and ends up in the stomach of a wolf.

The story begins when Mr Seguin is very discouraged after his seven attempts. Yet he decides to give it another shot, purchases a new goat and makes her at home in his farm. The story says that this one goat is really super sweet – her name is “Blanquette” which means both something like “Pretty little white thing”, but it’s also the name of a famous dish (So you get a pretty good sense where the story is headed).

Anyways, at the beginning, everything is fine, Blanquette likes it at the farm, she has a nice little pen, the farmer pets her and brings her good food, often reminding her of her good fortune. Yet at some point, the story tells us, Blanquette gets bored. She keeps looking at the hills and the green pastures over there and can’t help imagine how life would be like over there, and so on one day, in spite of the many warnings given by the farmer about the wolves, Blanquette escapes from the farm.

She has a wonderful day in the hills. It’s the South of France so it’s very pretty: all kind of flowers, vines, olive trees, the scents of rosemary, lavender. The sun, the pastures, the streams, so it’s all very exciting. She even finds herself a little flirt.

The thing is, of course, at some point, the sun sets down on this beautiful day. That’s when Blanquette realizes, a bit late, that she’s lost and on her own. And as if it wasn’t enough, she hears the wolves from afar. She also hears Mr Seguin, starting to worry, calling her from the entrance of his farm but she decides not to go back to a life she cannot bear anymore and resolves to be brave. That’s when the wolf shows up, but after a long night of fighting, Blanquette finally surrenders and gets eaten by the wolf.

And that’s it – end of the story. You would expect that, after seven goats making the same mistake, things would turn out different, but they don’t and there is no magic, no miracle for Blanquette – They don’t open the wolf’s stomach to retrieve her. No redemption for the one who disobeyed and longed for freedom.

And so – it’s a very useful story you want to tell when you want people (children) to behave, right? My mother used to tell me – in case I missed the point: “See, Blanquette is like you when we go to the store” (I used to love getting lost in the supermarket) But that’s the insight of the story, right? Either you stay put and you’re safe, or either you roam and have a little adventure and then something terrible happens to you.

And so today I am glad because the Gospel reminds me of the story, and in the meantime, it does not remind me of the story. The story of the sheep pen, it looks like the story of Mr Seguin’s goat but it tells another story – as often in the Gospel.

So let’s unpack that a little bit.

Jesus talks about the sheep being in a sheep pen, with the shepherd looking after them, and isn’t it the way we so often think about religion? A flock of people, together, under the pastor’s supervision. And you know, hopefully the pastor is very nice and takes good care of you, and also he will tell you what to do, what is good for you and what is bad, or dangerous. And that’s right, that’s the way a lot of our churches are today, but it’s also the way religion has been for a long time – at any rate, that’s how things were at the synagogue. This passage of the Gospel comes right after Jesus is blamed by the religious leaders for healing a blind man on a Sabbath day, because the religious leaders know how to care of the sheep and can tell God’s will and can tell right from wrong.

And so Jesus tells this story to his disciples. A story that is about the sheep pen, but a story that has never been about praising the life inside the sheep pen, a story that isn’t at all about comfort and safety.

Two important things need to be noticed in the passage:

– The danger comes inside. Thief and bandit climb in. From that, we can gather that Jesus wants probably to say to his disciples that life is not about being safe and comfortable, not only because there is more to life than that, but also simply because this is actually not as safe as it seems. There is something about this life that can destroy us.

– Jesus sees himself as a pastor, a shepherd – That’s perfectly right, but another image as important to remember is that Jesus sees himself as a gate / a door. He is not here just to watch over the flock. He leads them out to their longing: green pastures, streams, etc. (Ps 23)

Three commentaries I want to make:

1 – Life in quarantine teaches us one thing: We’re not meant to live like that (even if it is what we need to do right now). We’re not happy / fulfilled in a narrow life, stuck within the walls. It’s not only when we are in a physical sheep pen, it’s the narrowness in our minds and hearts (of our religion) that can kill us.
Jesus asks his disciples to open up and follow him outside. He takes them from a narrow life to a bigger life / narrow understanding of God to a wider one. Being a follower is about being open to change and willing to take risks. Especially when you want to know about God, and you be curious and open, whatever your age or life situation.

2 – Jesus leads the sheep out. He doesn’t expect the disciples to stay put. Quite the opposite, he often opens a breach in our lives. It can be a painful or difficult journey. We have to climb the mountain before we get to the green pastures. Starting our journey may feel like being lost: “Valley of the shadow of death” but Jesus tells us he is our guide…

How does Jesus guide us? They are a lot of lost sheep in the Gospel, and we all feel lost at some point. As a priest, I am very often asked to pray for healing, but right after that the thing people ask me more often is to pray for guidance. We want to know what we are supposed to do…I often pray: Just tell me what to do and I will do it…

– Yet my experience is that if God can do what God wants, God is more interested in what we want to do. In what’s deep inside of us or what we just do naturally / what our love for others bring us to do. My father taught me when I asked him for guidance that maybe the most important thing is just to do something: Make a decision and do something and as you do you learn, even if you make mistakes.

– We experience that God talks to us through our journey. Yes, it’s often hard to hear God’s voice…Maybe a first step is trying not to listen to other voices that don’t come from God. A voice that comes from God we believe is not so much a verse taken from the Bible (often we can twist it in any direction), it’s a word that lift you up, bring joy and freedom. We often assume God wants just obedience by leading a well ordered life, but we realize with the story that obedience is actually hearing the shepherd and following him towards something new.

3 – If you follow Jesus: You will also become a pastor and a gate for others. The story is about going into the world, reaching other horizons, but it’s not like now we dream to leave our houses to go shopping or to the restaurant! And it’s not about getting out to have a little adventure for ourselves. It’s about meeting others, to be there for them and to experience a more meaningful life with them as we experience God in a life of love, compassion and forgiveness.

As a conclusion, I would say that the sad thing about that tale I read in my childhood is not that the goat disobeys, it is that the farmer in the tale never goes to be with her. Jesus leads his sheep out and shows up for them (cf the story of blind man, Jesus sees those who are unseen). Jesus looks for his sheep when they are lost and we know that in the end, Jesus also “opens the wolf’s stomach” by claiming us from our graves.

So don’t be afraid to make a friend, show love, go and meet people were they are, physically and on their journey. I know for now we have to stay home, but there are many ways to be here for one another, to leave no one feeling lost or isolated or left behind. People get lost sometimes just because nobody never shows up for them.