Advent IV

– It is agreed among most Christian denominations that, if we want to be successful in reading the Scriptures as a faith community, as a church, we have to find ways to make it relevant. To make a connection between the Word of God of ancient times and today’s world, to connect God’s story to our story, as people and as individuals.

I have a little “Guide to the Bible” at home and this is what the guide says: “When you read the Bible, you have to apply the passage to yourself“, and in order to do so, there are a few questions you can ask – among them:

– “What does this passage tell me to feel? To love or to hate?”
– “Is there an example I need to follow? A sin I need to confess?”
– “What does this passage teach me about my relation with God?”

And so on.

And all of those are useful tools we may want to use when we read the Scriptures. I know I do. We certainly use these tools when we do Bible study.

One of the things that came up this week, is that indeed, Mary is “God’s servant” as self-proclaimed. And there is certainly a lot we can learn from this example and apply to our lives:

Mary’s humility, her trustful obedience, saying yes to God without full knowledge or understanding of God’s will, Mary’s acceptance of being interrupted, and even disturbed, having to think about her life differently than she did before because she had to admit that God’s plans weren’t her plans, and then of course she had to take risks: the natural risks of the pregnancy, the difficult life of being a single mother – risking even her own life at that time since she was in danger of being stoned to death for having had extramarital relationships as she undoubtedly would be suspected of – or just maybe she had to take the risk to be seen as crazy, telling around this incredible story that the child she was bearing was in fact the Son of God.

And so, there is a lot, right there, from the beginning, that we can find for ourselves in Mary’s story. A lot that can shape a disciple’s life. Among all and probably above all, a sense that we are called to give away something of ourselves and even to give away our own selves – for God’s sake and for the sake of others.

For me, an example came to mind – of something I saw in the news this week, and maybe you saw it too. They interviewed this nurse who was one of the first in this country to have received the Covid vaccine. Her testimony was very touching. This simple woman, simple nurse just doing her job, said that she came to the realization that she had to overcome her own fear so she could be a good example to all, so she could encourage everybody to receive the vaccine as well and by that, finally put an end to the epidemic and allow healing to take place.

I had this passage of the Gospel in mind as I was listening to her. She made me think of Mary, who also, twenty centuries ago says the story, had to overcome her own fear. Her selflessness would be the reason God could find a way into the world and bring salvation.

And that could be enough, right? To me that could be enough to make this passage of the Gospel real and relevant and an example for each one of us. Mary has been on a pedestal for so long, we need to make her more accessible to us, more relevant. This is at least the belief of many scholars and theologians: Mary has appeared so otherworldly in so many ways – her virginity as a sign of complete moral integrity and flawlessness – we need to bring her down her pedestal to be able to actually make sense of her, what she was going through, and follow her on the way to Christmas, on the way to Jesus.

And yet. Yet as I was trying this week to think about all the ways we could relate to Mary, Betty kept sending me by email pictures for our cover page bulletin, all of them so wonderful I couldn’t pick one – which was already a problem in itself – but more deeply, I started to have a sense that something didn’t click. Something didn’t click and probably wasn’t right about “downplaying the scene” to try to make it more accessible and relevant to us. Seeing Mary in all this beauty, holiness and purity – something didn’t feel right trying to bring her down, even for the sake of relating to her example. To me I guess the aspect of the story that I am the most sensitive to is the way Mary knew what was God’s plan for her and agreed so quickly to put it into action. Compared to her story, I feel like I live in a perpetual fog, trying to find God’s will! Even as I try to relate to her, deep down I know this woman isn’t like me and like most people I know.

This woman, in this moment of the annunciation and as we’ll see later in the Gospel in other times in her life, is certainly one of us, but she is certainly unlike anyone of us. And to me this is what all those painters have tried to capture since the beginning and maybe there is something so precious about this scene that we would be fools trying to lose it.

The angel, the light, the flowers, the gaze in Mary’s eyes: Yes, obviously it’s difficult to relate. But maybe, maybe, instead of thinking about it as a problem, maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s the point: To show us something really extraordinary, and something really perfect, something really flawless and maybe we shouldn’t rush in trying to understand how this applies to us or affects us or guides us to do something in the world.

Maybe Luke’s point in “painting Mary” on this perfect day – writing this passage – instead of telling us that it is a story we should reproduce by using it as an example for our lives – maybe Luke is first trying to describe something that we cannot imitate or reproduce in any way, something so unique and so special that, as when we look at those wonderful paintings, the only thing we can do is to contemplate the mystery and let wonder and awe fill our hearts.

How can this be?”

Maybe that’s the words of today’s Gospel we need to let resonate: “How can this be?”

Maybe we are to resist first to find practical applications, trying to find in our Scriptures good moral examples of virtue and obedience, and maybe we need first to realize that we are just invited to pause and contemplate the mystery, rejoicing and marveling at the fact that this is indeed very unique and beautiful and incredible – and that’s the wonder of it. After all, if we could explain it, it wouldn’t be God.

(And we had a sense of that in our first reading. God makes it clear to Prophet Nathan and to King David that God does not want and cannot be contained – would it be in God’s Temple. The king won’t make a dwelling for God but God will make for God a dwelling among God’s people.)

Almighty God will send God’s messenger to a humble young woman to announce to her that God will make a dwelling among humans.

How can this be?”

Maybe as we let the question Mary asks the angel sit in us – maybe, surprisingly, we will discover that it is actually the way we can relate to Mary. There may have been generations of believers who could not believe in Christ’s virginal birth, or who couldn’t believe that God really took human flesh and dwell among us – but let’s not forget that Mary was the first who couldn’t believe it, the first to ask:

How can this be?”

The Gospel mentions that Mary “pondered” the greeting of the angel and many times in the Gospel this expression comes back around Mary. Mary is not first of all an example of moral greatness, or faithful discipleship – maybe she is first inviting us to pause in front of God’s mystery and be immersed in wonder in front of God’s mystery.

A sociologist said that one of the great sadness of our technological and scientific era is that we have lost all ability to be surprised and delighted – and I am thinking maybe we have also lost our ability to feel “perplexed and confused” as Mary was. Because we can explain away almost anything, or dismiss what we cannot explain, we take so much for granted, we have lost a sense that there is something greater than us we cannot contain and cannot control and we end up living very flat lives in a very flat world. Well, Christmas’ message is that this world is not a flat world after all. It’s a time of wonder, a time when we have to ask ourselves “How can this be?”, when we discover that there is so much more to life than life as we know it – When we are called to experience in our flesh the mystery of the Word made flesh for us.

And so maybe as Christians that’s what we are called to do first to bring to the world the healing and salvation we have found in Jesus: Maybe all we need is to make room for God, that our lips maybe but mostly our lives may to point out to God’s mystery – something like the selflessness I saw in the nurse I was talking about earlier – something so good and so beautiful that it make us all ask, out of awe and not out of incredulity:

How can this be?”

Advent III

As you have probably noticed, when I have to preach I usually go straight to the heart of the matter – to the Gospel. There are different reasons for that, the main reason obviously is that the Gospel is at the center of our faith – the Good news of God in Jesus-Christ, symbolized in church by the solemn reading of the lesson in the midst of the congregation with the sequence hymn, the processional cross and sometimes even the torch bearers – something we haven’t been able to do for a while now! This week, though, it’s the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians that really gave me a pause and so I would like to spend time with you on this passage.

Interestingly, the First Letter to the Thessalonians is believed by most scholars to be the oldest text, the first put down in writing, in the whole New testament, probably around the years 48-52 of our era. The first stories about Jesus and reports of his teaching were oral and probably put on paper (papyrus!) to become the Gospel only at the end of the first century, when the first generation of witnesses was about to pass away. But Paul, as he started his ministry planting many churches throughout Macedonia and many other places, had to find a way to keep in touch with the congregations and so he started sending them letters. And this is what Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”.

Well, when I think about it, I find it very beautiful you know that those words are probably the first ones put down in writing in all of the Christian literature. This first message Paul sent is not about church administration, it’s not about moral living, it’s not about dogma, it’s about having joy in our hearts, being in relationships with God through prayer and being thankful. A message that is still true for us today – and that we need to be reminded of. A few famous philosophers, like Aristotle and Spinoza, said that joy is what happens when we live a perfect life or when we do the right thing, or just what we have to do – when we do our duty. And we may experience some of that. I know for myself I feel joy in my heart when the house is finally clean or when the sermon is done. For most of us, joy comes after the work is completed. And yet, yet, for Paul it looks like it’s the other way around: Joy is not something that comes later for those who have managed to do things well, to do things right, or maybe to just do things quickly, joy is at the root of it all, joy is the place to start, and maybe, just maybe, joy is what enables us to lead a good life, to be faithful to God and loving towards one another. Joy is not something that makes life a little nicer, a little reward that we can appreciate when the essential has been reached, joy is at the root of it all, and joy is the will of God for us.

Joy is the will of God for us. But how often do we think about it?

As Christians, I think, most of us wonder what is God’s will for our lives. We wonder of course, what is the right thing to do, how to be nice people, good Christians, and we also have been schooled to believe that God has a plan for our lives and that we have to discern what it is and to do it. It may be the place where God wants us to live, or the occupation God wants us to have, or the career God wants us to pursue, or the people God wants to bring in our lives: friends, spouses, children. Maybe that’s things we thought about when we were young – I know I did! – maybe we still try to understand what is the next step for us – or maybe we just look back at our lives and wonder if we have gotten in right, if we have done “God’s will”, if we have done what God expected of us. And yet, in the midst of that, Paul today tells us that God’s will for us is to rejoice, and that far from being something that would come after we have done all those things right, it is the place to start.

When I think about that, my first reaction is that it makes sense, does not it? There are different ways to understand God’s will, yet they all depend on the image we have of God. If you think that God is a judge, then the most important is to lead a moral life and to what is right. If you think that God is an architect, the supervisor of the world, then the most important is to find your perfect place in the world, but if you believe that God is love, then the most important thing, indeed, is probably to rejoice. Paul tells us that the God of Jesus-Christ is a God who wants us to rejoice and it makes perfect sense because Jesus called God his “father”, and we know that’s what loving parents wants for their children. Parents may want children to behave when they’re little and then as grown up to follow the right path, to find a good job and to have a family but mostly parents want their children to be happy. If one of your children had the perfect life, did all the right things, but was very unsatisfied or very depressed, how would it feel for you? Yes, exactly – and I think this is the way God feels as well.

God wants us to rejoice. Not because God is nice and that joy is something God would allow us to feel, God’s deepest will is for us to rejoice because God is love. This third Sunday in Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday” – the Sunday where we are call to rejoice – not just as a pause in this penitential time of Advent – but because “Joy to the world” is what God brought to us in Jesus-Christ.

Now how do we do that? If we look around us, the least we can say is that rejoicing is difficult – and it could seem ironic, even cruel to ask of us to rejoice. And yet, as we’ve just heard in our first reading – we see that Isaiah announced joy at a very difficult time for Israel – during their exile – Paul announced joy to the first Christians while they were persecuted – Jesus came to the world in the darkest night during the time of the Roman occupation. In the past as for today, God wants to bring joy to God’s people in their most difficult moments, it’s God’s will. We often think about God’s will as “What God wants us to do” but maybe “God’s will” means first “What God wants to do”. And God sent Jesus, the Christ, God’s anointed one to fulfill the promise of the Scriptures to: “Bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to release the prisoners (…) to comfort those who mourn”.

When Paul asks us to rejoice, he is not denying reality or trying to send us on a guilt trip by telling us how to feel. Paul says that Joy came to us in Jesus-Christ, who still brings us comfort, hope and new life whenever we turn to him. And in those times where rejoicing seem very difficult for most of us, I think this could be a way to find joy: Turning to him, by, as Paul puts it, “Praying without ceasing and giving thanks in all circumstances” (if not for all circumstances). Here’s what we can say about that:

Praying without ceasing does not mean we are supposed to make prayers all day. To me, it states more simply that we shouldn’t stop to pray. It’s easy to stop praying when we are very discouraged or feeling blue. I have a friend who told me once she didn’t call me for a while because she was feeling depressed. Well, it made me sad for her and questioned the relationship. Because she is my friend, I expected she would have trusted she didn’t have to feel cheerful me to be in touch with me. Not only it wouldn’t have bothered me, but maybe it could have helped her feel a bit better! If we feel that way, imagine how God must feel! When we feel sad, or even frustrated or angry, that’s the time we really need to pray, not only for ourselves, but as a church, as a nation. We need to pray for the world. It is with God as it is with a good friend, when you feel that you are not alone, you already feel better, you rejoice in the presence of the loved one and the one who loves you. “Praying without ceasing” may mean that we have to continue the conversation with God in whatever way that seems right to us. To ask God to help us, to support us, to bring us the comfort joy and hope God has promised to us. Not only because it is our desire, but because it is God’s will to do so.

– And then the second thing Paul invites us to do is to be thankful. If you look around you, you’ll notice that the happiest people aren’t those who have it all, rather it is those who are thankful for what they have, who they are, who they are with. Being thankful is what open our hearts to joy. It is not use that God fills the world with beautiful things if we have no eyes to see them. It is the same with joy. God can send us as much joy as possible, if we aren’t open to rejoice then it’s no use. Being thankful is opening up to receive joy. And it’s not only when good things happen to us that we can be thankful. Even in our grief, we can be thankful. Allowing us to feel the loss is a way to acknowledge the gifts that were made to us in this person, this life situation, this ability we cannot enjoy any more. But more than that, more than acknowledging the gift that was once given to us, we will be reminded that God’s will in Jesus-Christ is to make all things new, to rebuild what has been destroyed. As Isaiah prophetized: “[Those who mourn] shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastation, they shall repair the ruined cities and the devastation of many generations”.

We can experience that in the joy of the incarnation, the coming of Jesus among us at Christmas, we already rejoice in the Resurrection and we begin to think, live and act as resurrected people bringing the hope, comfort and healing in a world longing for salvation. I haven’t talked today about our Gospel, but as you’ve heard, it’s about John the Baptist witnessing to Jesus. Maybe you remember that the first way John the Baptist gave testimony to Jesus was by leaping for joy in his mother’s womb? So my question for you today is the following: What is the joy at the root of your being that gives us you energy and desire to live as followers and witnesses of Jesus-Christ?

Proper 29 – Reign of Christ

– Those past Sundays, we have heard several of Jesus’s parables related to his teaching in Jerusalem, a few days before he was arrested and put to death.
Today, we have heard the last of those parables: The parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus’s ultimate teaching on earth. We know how last words are important – it is worth noticing that this parable is only found in Matthew’s – and for Matthew to insert this parable at the end of Jesus’s life is particularly significant.

For some reason those past weeks, as we were going through all of Jesus’s parables, I have been inspired to preach using blessings, and this very parable reminded me of a blessing I use sometimes. It goes like that:

To make a difference in someone’s life, you don’t have to be brilliant, rich, beautiful or perfect. You just have to care”.

In essence, I think this is what the parable is about. In the end for Jesus, and in the end for us, at the Last Judgment, what is going to make a difference is the way we have made a difference in people’s lives, and we do that by caring for them.

We know that people at Jesus’s time were waiting for a political Messiah, somebody who would be strong enough to overthrow the Roman Empire – and in some ways, Jesus was, since the Roman Empire didn’t resist forever the rising of Christianity. Yet of course, it’s about more than that. Something less visible and yet much more powerful.

To their surprise, to our surprise, Jesus, the Messiah wasn’t rich (He didn’t “have a stone to rest his head” Ch 8), and if we believe the book of Isaiah, the Messiah wasn’t either brilliant or beautiful (Isaiah 53: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”), and Jesus was certainly not perfect according to the moral standards of religious people at his time: he didn’t respect the Sabbath strictly, he enjoyed eating and drinking, he made friends with strangers and sinners, he touched the lepers who were impure, he talked back to religious authorities. Yet, Jesus showed us what is was to be pleasing in God’s sight and to lead a meaningful life: throughout the whole Gospel, Jesus showed that he cared for others.

It is interesting that Jesus (identified as the king in this parable we’ve just heard) recognizes his true disciples as those who have “seen” people. It reminded me of a former parishioner of mine who once told me something I found very accurate. She said: Jesus came among us and he saw people. Jesus noticed people, came close to people and responded to their deepest needs: need for food, for healing, but also, of course, their spiritual needs, or maybe just their need for friendship, their need for feeling that they mattered, their need for being seen. Whoever we are, we all need to be seen and to know that we matter. Jesus was not rich, brilliant, beautiful or perfect according to this world’s standards, but he was compassionate.

Last year, as we studied Luke’s Gospel, and I preached a lot about how Luke presented Jesus as somebody who had compassion on people. Yet, I think it’s important to understand what kind of compassion it is.

Sometimes we think that compassion is having pity on poor people. Well, I don’t know how it is for you, but I don’t really like people to have pity on me when I am going through a difficult time! Sometimes when people have pity on you, it makes you feel like you’re not able to cope, that you don’t have enough inner strength or resources to make it. It can make you feel very small, and so this kind of pity is a bit condescending. To me, Jesus was never condescending. He always uplifted people, made them see what they could accomplish. Have you ever noticed that he never said to people that his own holiness or special relationship with God had healed or saved them? No, he always told people “Your faith has made you well, healed you, saved you”. Jesus saw people and helped them see what was precious in them. So compassion is not pity.

But then, sometimes we may think that compassion is feeling bad for those who suffer. Well, it’s not completely wrong. It’s important to have some empathy and to realize that people are in difficult situations and let ourselves be touched by it. Yet having compassion does not mean sitting at home, watching the news and being horrified by what’s going on in people’s lives. It’s not helpful to anyone and it is not event helpful for us. It can lead us to be powerless and useless or even worse, depressed and desperate.

But in our parable today, Jesus shows us what compassion is really about, what it means to care: it means to do something about the suffering, it means to help those who are in need of help. And what’s interesting is that Jesus does not seem to ask us to do huge sacrifices, but just to be there for those who are around us and in need. Jesus does not ask us to save the world, he asks us to give something to drink or to eat to those who are hungry and thirsty, and to clothe those who have nothing. Jesus does not ask us to free the prisoners, or even, in this parable, to heal the sick, but he asks us to visit them. Compassion translates itself in small acts of kindness, not only to our own but to anyone around us. Not everybody, but this person standing next to us who is in need and whom we have the power to help.

How do we manage get there? Well, I think the parable responds to this question as well. If we want to move from pity / from feeling sorry for others or feeling bad for people to have this empathy, generosity and willingness to act Jesus had, we have to learn how to see others. To notice them, but also to see who they are in God’s eyes. Isn’t it significant that, as today we celebrate Christ the king, that Jesus tells us he is present in all those who need help? It means not only that Jesus is with them, loves them with a special love, but it also means that they share in his kingship, they are kings and queens. Does it often occur to us that the man on the street or the woman in jail are royalty? And yet, this is what Jesus is telling us. You see, we often say that Jesus came to save sinners, and indeed that’s what he did, but he saved them by seeing their majesty, by seeing them as children of God, he didn’t see them as total wretches (even if it is what we sing in one of our most famous hymns!). Jesus had hope in them and for them.

So to me, this is what Jesus is asking us today – not to do everything, but to do our best where we are and to whomever he sends us. We know that Jesus didn’t say: You have to love the whole world. But he said: You have to love your neighbor. And you neighbor isn’t necessarily your friend. The neighbor is the one who shows up in your life needing help, and you way of loving isn’t only by showing affectionate feelings, it is by helping them. To Jesus, this is what faith is all about.

Isn’t it interesting that in this parable, Jesus does not mention any religious rite? Jesus does not tell us that to be his sheep we have to go to church, to confess our sins, to take communion or to read the Bible – Jesus tells us that belief in him is believing he is present in each person and the way to honor him is to honor each one of these persons. It does not mean that “doing good” is the way we’re going to redeem ourselves – only Jesus can redeem us – but “doing good” is our way to be in relationship with God, whether we know it intellectually or not (The sheep and the goats didn’t realize what they were doing, the difference is that the sheep lived in love and the goats didn’t).

These past weeks, we have been doing a lot of thinking and talking about Jesus’s parables, but today, now all is said and done, Jesus is inviting us to action. Where is your heart leading you today? What could you do concretely for somebody? As for me, I know that this quarantine has made me more aware of what it is to be isolated and lonely. For several months, I just kept remembering those incarcerated, for whom it’s even more difficult. But you know, as I was studying this parable, I realized that Jesus didn’t want me to just feel sorry for them. This kind of compassion isn’t helping. Jesus doesn’t say: “I was a prisoner and you felt bad for me”. Jesus says: “I was a prisoner and you visited me” so I have decided to become a pen pal for someone in prison. It is not much, I have to write a letter once a month (much less than writing a sermon every week!) but maybe this is the one little thing that I can do to respond to our Gospel today. I have put more details in the bulletin if you are interested in joining this program which I think is something easy we can do now, as most of us are stuck at home. But let me know what this parable inspires you to do in the weeks to come, not to save the world but just to help somebody / this one person in need. Not because Jesus expects us to do “good deeds”, not because we’re going to save the world, he saved the world and he saved us, but because, as Jesus came to be among us showing what love means, we also decide to love as he did, and in this we show and experience that we belong to him.

Proper 28

– Today, we’ve heard the second to last parable Jesus told in Matthew’s Gospel before he was arrested and put to death.

Last week, we’ve heard the “Parable of the ten bridesmaids”
This week: The famous parable of the Talents
Next week: The sheep and the goats.

As I have already mentioned, they are known as “Parables of Judgment” – Judgment because they talk about the end of times but also just because indeed they sound to our ears judgmental and scary – we don’t know really what to make of such a God presented by the last slave as a: “Harsh man, reaping where he didn’t sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed”(= demanding and maybe a little bit unfair).

I am wondering if this parable isn’t especially difficult to hear in our culture where there is a lot of pressure to succeed, to make something of ourselves, to not be idle, where there is this widespread idea that if we don’t “make it” it is somewhat our fault. It would add a lot to the pain of being poor, having a difficult life where we struggle with many things, to think it’s our fault and even worse – that it means that we have been reject by God. And we know that at Jesus’s time, there was this idea that the successful where blessed and the poor / sick were cursed.

Yet it would be difficult to use this angle to understand the parable, if we remember that in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said exactly the opposite: that the poor were actually the ones being blessed (Sermon on the Mount). I am also glad that we can read the Gospel in the light of Paul’s writings today where Paul reminds us that “Our Lord has not destined us for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ”!

So we have to dig a little deeper to understand that this Parable is not about God asking us to make money or to be successful, otherwise we’ll be doomed to Hell.

– How can we read this parable?

As I noticed last week with the parable of the ten bridesmaids, a lot of commentaries have tried to figure out what the oil in the lamp stands for, when actually the most important was to understand what the oil does (= It brings light, and that’s what the disciples are called to do). In the same way, it can be tempting to get ourselves caught with the symbolism of the Talents / trying to hard to figure what the Talents stand for but it won’t get us very far: We would have to interpret the story as God wanting us to be rich / wanting us to be successful. As I have just said, it does not seem to be the specific message of the Beatitudes (we heard them recently on All Saints’ Day) or, for that matter, the overall message of the Gospel!!

If we do a little exploring though, we realize that a Talent was not any kind of money. It was a huge, huge sum of money. One talent represented 15 years of an average salary. So when the Master gives to his salves five talents, two talents and one talent, he basically give them money to cover the expenses of a life time: 75 years, 30 years, 15 years.

Having that in mind is very important if you think that it means that the Master gives them enough to “cover their debts” because we know this is what Jesus dying on the cross does for us: He covers our sins / our debts for a lifetime. The Master is getting ready to go on a journey, and it’s probably that Jesus was thinking about his own journey trough death to resurrection. The gift Jesus gives us / the Master leaves to his slaves is Redemption. Now this may seem a bit abstract, but think about it only as life. Jesus gives us Life (John: I came so that they might have life) – and the question is: What do we do with it? What do we do with this incredible gift?

– Well, the first answer given by the parable is that what we do with our lives varies according to individuals, but I would say it even varies based on times of our lives, or even based on whether we have a good day or a bad day. As I read this parable at least, I had a sense that some days I am the first slave – I get a lot done and I am very excited about it, other days I may feel like the second slave – I just do what I have to do and I feel contented, but some days I also feel like the third slave, I just want to hide and don’t feel like doing anything / don’t feel like it’s worth doing anything – Feelings a lot of us can relate to I guess in the midst of this pandemic! Now as you can imagine, as you probably know from your own experience, the days we want to hide, to bury our Talents in the ground aren’t the days we feel the best about ourselves, about the world and about God. And I am wondering if this isn’t a key to understand our parable.

– My question is the following: Do you think the third slave feels good about himself? Not in the end of the parable but even at the beginning? One thing is sure: he does not feel good about his Master. As mentioned earlier, although the Master made him a huge gift, he is suspicious of it, he thinks there is a trick and that he will probably end up being punished. If he feels that way, it’s probably because he does not feel good about himself to start with, guilty or maybe ashamed. He does not trust his Master, does not trust himself, and certainly does not trust the process (of investing) which I take for meaning he does not trust life.

– Those feelings happen to all of us, I guess – especially when we struggle with depression or other health challenges, family issues or financial insecurity. But I don’t think this is the kind of distrust that Jesus is addressing. Remember that these are the last parables Jesus teaches and he teaches the parables in Jerusalem, he is specifically addressing the religious leaders, people who – because deep down in their hearts they don’t really love God, trust life and don’t accept who they truly are – are so afraid of doing anything wrong they end up doing nothing at all. They want so bad to be good that they end up paralyzed, trapped into their law and their moral code, and even deeper, trapped into shame, guilt and fear – defiance towards God and really – towards anyone. They can’t recognize God in Jesus because they don’t believe that God is loving, acceptant and forgiving. They believe God is like “Harsh man, reaping where he didn’t sow and gathering where he did not scatter seed”. Their religion is not an expression of love towards God, but of distrust! They want to have al their bases covered because they think God is unmerciful!

I think that Jesus is really mad that God gave all these goods things to his people – especially religious people as God gave them the Temple, and the Torah and the assurance of God’s blessing throughout History– and these people they just bury it in the ground!

As a side note, it’s very interesting to realize that this parable does not praise morality as these religious people understood it. God as the Master and the good disciples as the two first slaves don’t appear like good religious people, they actually do something that was forbidden in the Law: Invest money with the bankers! I think Jesus uses use this message to tell them there is something more important beyond their rites and their laws, and it is to trust God enough to dare live this life!

– What does it mean for us? Well, there is a quotation I love that says that: “God created us because He thought we would enjoy it”, or if you prefer “God gave us life because He thought we would enjoy it” – and to me, this what the parable is all about. The two first slaves enjoy the gift, when the last one does not even open it. To me, God gave us life, not because God wants us to be wealthy or successful, but because God wants us to rejoice in it – and as I’ve noticed before, a prisoner in his own shame/guilt system, the third slave isn’t happy, he does not flourish and he does not contribute to anything in the world. More than being rejected by his Master, he condemns himself to his own hell by believing his Master is not a good Master, that he cannot trust the process and his own abilities.

More than anger, I think there is much sadness in God when we behave this way. I watched a movie this week, and it was the story of a woman who has a son dealing with addictions. Each day, she goes to his house, in fear of finding him passed out, and then she opens the windows, brings him food, tries to talk him into finding a job or just checking himself into a hospital, and each day he rejects her and tells her to go away. This is so heart breaking for this woman that all her friends tell her to give up, to leave him be, but of course each day she comes back because he is her son and she cannot give up on him. She gave him life so that he may enjoy it, she gave him life so that he may flourish – didn’t she?

I think this is the way God looks at all of us. God gave us life so that we may flourish and, as Paul reminds us, so that we may encourage and build up each other, “each according to our ability” as the parable mentions.

– I would like to finish with a prayer from Teresa of Avila I often use for blessing at the end of the service, because to me it could really be a way to decipher the parable. The prayer goes like that:

May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received,
and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing that you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones,
and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.

The last slave isn’t at peace and certainly does not believe he is where he is meant to be, he forgot the infinite possibilities that are born of faith, didn’t use the gifts he has received or pass on the love that has been given to him. As for us, let us be content knowing that we belong to God and that God loves us, trusting this deep down in our bones and letting this belief set us free to do whatever we want to do to praise our Maker and our Redeemer whether to sing, dance or just live this life in love.

Proper 27

As we’re heading towards the end of the liturgical year, we’re wrapping up with Matthew’s Gospel and as of this week, we find ourselves in Chapter 25, the last discourse Jesus gave to his disciples – before he was arrested and put to death. This passage of the Matthew’s Gospel is also known as the “Olivet Discourse” (because Jesus gave it on the Mount of Olives) and it contains three parables about the end of times:

– The parable of the ten bridesmaids we have heard today
– The parable of the talents we will hear next week
– The parable of the sheep and goats we will hear the last Sunday of Pentecost.

All these stories have a common theme: They are often referred to as “Parables of judgment” because they give us a picture of what will happen when the bridegroom (in this parable) / The Master (Parable of the talents) / The Lord (Parable of the sheep and goat) – all Christ figures – will come back to judge the earth.

Most scholars believe that those stories have been developed and integrated in the Gospels as the first Christians were starting to long for Christ’s return. Mostly, these parables want to teach us how to be prepared until this day: by bearing the light (The parable of the bridesmaids), by putting our skills to work (Parable of the talents), by sharing what we have (Parable of the sheep and goats).

After the week we have had, I would like to say that those parables want to teach us how to wait – yet this wait has not much in common with the waiting we’ve been doing in the past days. It’s not an anxious waiting – fearsome for some of us – a waiting made of uncertainties and worry for the future, rather, it’s a waiting of spiritual growth, it’s about how to prepare our hearts and souls to receive Christ at the end of times – which, as Paul underlines in our 2nd reading, could mean the end of this world or the time of our death. As I see it, it can also points to those moments in our lives, when for some reason, Christ makes himself closer to us, asks us for a specific work or vocation, or draw us closer to reach out to one of our neighbors. We have to get ready to meet Christ in many ways and circumstances.

To tell you the truth, those stories about being prepared are often hard for me to hear because most of the times in my daily life I feel like I am not ready for whatever is coming up. I am this type of person who can pack endlessly for a two days trip, checking the forecast several times, always wondering if I should bring an extra sweater or another pair of shoes, and no matter how much time I spend packing I always, always leave home with the feeling I have forgotten something important.

And so my question is this: If I can’t manage to be prepared for a weekend out of town, how can I say I would ever be prepared for the Day of The Lord?!

And yet. Yet one of the things I’ve learned with all the trips I took in my life is that, whether I feel ready or not, is that the trip happens anyway and in the end, even I always forget something useful and always bring a lot of useless things, one thing is sure: the only thing I really needed was my passport or my ID.

This example may sound silly but I think this was this serious question the first Christians were molding on over and over: How can we be ready? How can we ever be prepared the right way? How can we know what it is that I really need for the Christian journey towards the end, because we believe it will happen, in one way or another, and it’s impossible for us to anticipate when and how it will occur.

What is the one thing we’re supposed to bring along in our spiritual journey, what is the one thing we’re supposed to pack? What is the passport to the eternal banquet? What is the ID with which Christ will identify us as his own?

To this question, the three parables of the Olivet discourse give answers and today, the parable of the bridesmaids makes it pretty clear that what we need to bring along is the oil.

How can we understand that? Throughout centuries of commentaries of the Scriptures, theologians and scholars as well as priests and pastors have tried to understand what the oil stands for, and the oil has been seen either as the Holy Spirit (because of the anointing), as faith, as love, as charity – and of course all Christians need those things, but I must say I don’t feel it is very helpful because the list goes on and on and the suitcase for the Christian journey just seem heavier and heavier and harder to carry.

So instead of focusing on what the oil stands for, it could be all sort of things, maybe we should focus on what the oil does, and to this the answer is pretty obvious: the oil brings light, and the bridesmaids are the bearers of the light in the long night of waiting for the groom.

Well, as I see it, that’s really what we are called to do as Christians in this world even – and especially when – it gets darker. To be bearers of the light. Bearers of the light that keep us going in the darkness and that will enable us to identify Christ in the midst of all things unseen and unknown, and will give access, open the door to a new life in him. Christians are supposed to be bearers of the light, and it can happen in many, many different ways in our different walks of life, vocations and occupations. As we see in the parable, we cannot give this oil to others, because it’s not something we can decide for another Christian – we cannot tell them the way to witness Christ – each one of us has to figure out what they are called to do and shine their own light to the world as we wait for his return. And I think it’s not only true for Christians – all people are called to be a light in the world in their own way by witnessing to joy, hope and healing.

In these times were darkness seem to grow thicker – literally with the shortening of days and in many other ways too – I want to ask you this question today: How are you a bearer of the light? What is it that you do to enable this world to know Christ? You see the bridesmaids, they weren’t asked a lot – it wasn’t one of those crazy weddings where you have to do so many things you can’t reach the bottom of the list and end up completely stressed out – those bridesmaids, they had only one job: to light the path for the bridegroom – to make him seen and known – and so is our vocation as Christians (If you remember, it was also Isaiah’s and John the Baptist’s vocation, to prepare the way for the Lord). We will see in the weeks to come how the preparation is also about putting our skills to work (Parable of the talents) and sharing our goods / taking care of one another (Parable of the sheep and the goats) which are other ways of bearing the light / giving testimony.

This can be scary too, and also a bit overwhelming. Yet one of the things we can also remember from those parables Jesus told his disciples before he left this world, is maybe that the important thing is to have a willingness to be prepared, even if we don’t really know how to do this. If you pay attention to the reading we had from the book of Joshua, it’s quite surprising isn’t it, the way Joshua asks the tribes of Israel again and again if they are really willing to serve the Lord, if they are sure that’s something they really want to do? We wonder is Joshua is not trying to scare them off in some way! Well, to me I think Joshua asks these questions not in order to discourage the people, but to help them relinquish spiritual arrogance and get a sense that they maybe aren’t quite ready and that they will have to learn, and grow, and yes maybe suffer – not because the Lord wants to do them wrong – far from that – but because the Lord is holy and they will too have to grow in this holiness. To get prepared, we need first to realize that we are not ready.

In the end, I think this is really what makes the difference between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids. The wise aren’t that wise because they have it figured out all, but because they have the humility to try to prepare, to serve and to be helpful to the groom – mostly they want to see him, to recognize him in the dark – when the foolish bridesmaids don’t even question whether they will be ready or not for the party and don’t remember the one job they’ve been asked to do. In this sense, the story reminds us of this other parable about the party at the wedding where one of the guests does not even put on the white robe. I think what Jesus expects from his disciples is that they have to put in a little effort – not that we can save ourselves by these efforts but because it’s our way to respond in love to his invitation. To tell him, in a way or another, that we long for him and that in this wait we anticipate in joy the day of his coming.

All Saints’ Day

– You probably have noticed that, this Sunday, we have left aside the readings from Exodus and Deuteronomy – The story of Moses and the story of the journey of the Hebrews throughout the wilderness – to turn to the New Testament, more specifically to the book of Revelation that gives us a picture (if not a description) of the end of times.

We spent quite some time during Bible Study this past Tuesday talking about this text in Revelation, and we also spent some time exchanging ideas about how we think heaven looks like / will look like – an appropriate theme for All Saints’ Day! In this time of anxiety about many things – both for us as individuals and also as a nation – I found it very comforting to think about God’s promises. It reminded me this prayer by Sir Francis Drake I sometimes use as a blessing at the end of the service:

“(…) Disturb us, Lord, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore. Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity, and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim. Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask You to push back the horizons of our hopes; and to push into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love”

Of course, it may seem paradoxical at first to think that God can “disturb us” with a comforting vision of heaven, and yet this is how I felt on that day: Disturbed from my anxiety by the comfort of the promises God make to his people – not only in Revelation but also in the Beatitudes (our Gospel for today), and I started to wonder when I had, why we had “allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim”. “Falling in love with life” as the prayer puts it does not necessarily mean loving life with a generous love, like when are called to love God and our neighbor (our Gospel last week), sometimes “being in love” with this life (as “being in love” sometimes goes) rather means being infatuated, fascinated, under the spell of what’s in front of us – and then being so focused on and obsessed with something right here, right now that we forget the wider seas and lose sight of deeper dreams.

For a lot of us, today, including myself!, “being in love with this life” could mean being caught in the anxiety of our times, spellbound by fears, obsessed by the troubles our own mind anticipates.

To this anxiety, the Scriptures respond today with the vision (And what John describes in the book of Revelation is very literally a “vision”) of heaven. To this anxiety we may feel when looking in the here and now, and when we look ahead to the days to come, the Scriptures respond with inviting us to look beyond to a time when people will “hunger no more, thirst no more (…) and God will wipe out every tears from our eyes”. In the Gospel, Jesus makes also a lot of promises to the people gathered around him – listen to what Jesus says to the people:

They will obtain the Kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will be filled with good things, they will receive mercy, they will be called children of God, and their rewards will be great in heaven.

Who can surpasses these kind of promises? Certainly not any of our candidates to the elections!

Jesus and the author of the book of Revelation today remind us on where we should set our eyes on. Yet we know that we don’t do it, at least we don’t do it very often. Most of us don’t think a lot about heaven, and in the Episcopal church, we almost never teach about it, right? In many ways, we “allow our vision of heaven to dim” and I am wondering why.

– To me, one of the biggest problems and one of the main reasons why we have, individually but mostly as a church, “allowed our vision of heaven to dim” is that we sometimes assume that thinking of heaven is not helpful and could actually make us forgetful of the suffering around us and unable to deal with what’s going on in the world. By bringing us reassurance, thinking of heaven could lead us to become more indifferent to oppression, injustices and personal failures. Interestingly, this is what Karl Marx described when he famously said that “religion is the opiate of the masses” – by this, he meant that people dreaming of heaven, of an after world of peace, comfort and joy, were willing to endure all kind of sufferings in this world, and as a consequence weren’t proactive to change anything about their condition and they let more powerful people take advantage of them. This is a very serious problem of course. We know for example how the Bible has been used to justify slavery and patriarchal systems. Oppressed people were asked to disregard their sufferings as if they didn’t matter in light of Eternity. And maybe even for us sometimes, when we feel too unhappy, we think we’d be better off in heaven with God.

In those conditions, thinking of heaven could be dangerous, right? If we dream, if we long for the reality to come, maybe we won’t be able to live well in the here and now and in this world, comforted by the vision and the dream, we won’t act upon our reality.

– And yet. Yet if you notice the passage of the beatitudes, you see that Jesus, in the same time that he makes promises for the future, invites the people to do something, and even more, to be something / a new kind of person (The be-attitudes): To be humble, to be meek, to be merciful, to fight for righteousness and to testify to the truth. The promises Jesus makes are an encouragement, a motivator for people to act according to a reality that is yet to come in its fullness.

Jesus encourages people to act conforming themselves to a reality that is yet to come in its fullness for us and for this world, and as they do so, as they act in the spirit of the Kingdom of Heaven, they can start to live into this reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And to me, this is the key. Yes, when all we do is dreaming, when we use our dreams, even our religious dreams, to escape, it’s very hard to act. And yet just think about the way Martin Luther King’s dream sent people out into the world and on the streets. They shared a vision of people united, reconciled and equal in God’s eyes. And so we learn that it’s also very hard to act if we don’t have a dream, a desire, a vision of something better. Karl Marx was actually in contradiction with himself because if he downplayed the Christian ideal as a way of dismissing a painful reality, he still had to create the vision of a new and better society to incite people to launch a revolution and change their lives.

The thing is we cannot do anything if we stop dreaming of something better and if we don’t have hope. And we will act according to what our hopes and dreams. If we dream of a lot of money, maybe we’ll spend our lives working very hard or just gambling! But as Christians, if our dream is heaven – heaven not as a comforting fantasy but as the Book of Revelation paints it with people being reconciled, united and equal – I think it should make us want to start reconciliation now, it should make us want to treat one other fairly.

And so today my question for you is what is your dream and what is your vision? And how can it inspire you to act today? To me, I often imagine that every person I meet I will meet again in the afterlife, in the presence of God – and it often leads me to think very differently about my relationships. Maybe it’s different for you but the trick is not to think about heaven just to make us feel better in the here and now (even if we sometimes need it!!) but it is to make us be better (people) in the here and now! It is about our way of being with God, with our neighbors but also with ourselves. Seeing what we are meant to be in our glory and not just only in our anxiety.

This may be what it means to be a Saint. It does not mean to be very holy, always doing the right thing, doing it perfectly. It may just mean that we let God’s spirit inspire us. Jesus promises us the best and so we have to give our very best. As Sir Francis Drake puts it may we “ask Him to push back the horizons of our hopes; and to push into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love”.

Proper 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 21

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

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

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

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

Jesus gives up, sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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