Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16
I have to tell you, this morning that I was very tempted to begin my sermon with Donald Trump and all the controversies he drawn to himself during the last few days. And then I said to myself that you probably already have enough of this nonsense, racism and attacks against… everyone… even babies. Instead, let us begin on a more positive note with a clip from the movie “Despicable Me”. For those who do not have children or grandchildren in your lives, it is the film that gave us the Minions. Basically, it is the story of Mr. Gru who is plotting the biggest heist in the history of the world. He wants to steal the moon. To achieve his plan, he uses three little orphan girls as pawns and, after he is done, he sends then back to the orphanage. Later, the evil Viktor kidnaps the girls and Gru realizes he made a mistake.
By the way this is the best movie about adoption ever made. We have heard often the expression a leap of faith. This is Pixar’s version of it. The girls are confronted by a difficult decision. Can they trust a man who let them down? Without any new data, they have to choose between relying on past experiences or believing this time Mr. Gru really means what he says. Interestingly Gru also has to take a leap of faith. He has to put his life in jeopardy by walking on a wire and jumping to catch Margo, literally without a safety net. Both are saved by Minions who also put their lives on the line. This is not how the rescue operation was planned. Still, it worked because everyone decided to trust each other. Despite all the odds and evidences at their disposal, they chose to have faith in one another.
This morning’s passage from the letter to the Hebrews addresses the question of faith. Some of us struggle with this concept because of the ways it is repeatedly used in our churches. Too often, faith is presented as a synonym of orthodoxy. The faithful (meaning the good Christians) are those who do not question the existence of God, dogma, the Bible or even the minister. For them, faith is following the party line and accepting what they are told. Period. If I may, I believe they are wrong, because this is not faith. Faith is different from theology which is the attempt to organize, structure and reason a belief system, like the New Creed we said a few minutes ago. Faith is also different from religion which is about rituals, sacraments, prayers and hymns. I am not saying that one is better than the other. All serve their purposes. It is just that faith is something else, something a little more messy, chaotic, intermittent and sometimes full of surprises.
The 11th chapter of the letter to the Hebrews tries to tackle this eluding concept by presenting a long list of biblical characters who can be considered great examples of faith. The most prominent member of this Hall of Fame is Abraham who one day left behind his extended family, his home and his security to set out for a land which God promised to his descendants. Abraham had no idea what awaited him. He had no guarantees regarding the multiple challenges he would face. Yet, despite all appearances, lack of certainties and anything else telling him to run in the other direction, Abraham believed in God’s promise. He accepted to jump into this adventure that defied common sense because somehow deep down he knew that God would not leave nor fail him.
This sort of gut feeling is hard to define for most of us. We often prefer to use examples and share stories of real people who had an influence on us. We might think of those who helped us in the past to become more than we believed we were. We might think of parents, grandparents or other role models who loved and challenged us at the same time. We might think of all of those who worked hard to be the people of God and invested time and energy so the next generations could continue their endeavours after they would be gone. All those individuals are the embodiment of what we call faith.
Even if it is difficult, the author of the letter to the Hebrews attempts to define faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is not knowing, touching or analyzing the results of a scientific experiment. Faith is a hunch. Faith is a maybe. Faith is a journey that has no beginning or end. Faith is the absence of assurance, poofs or certitude. In the words of Mark Twain, “faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.” It is believing there is something greater than us. It is believing that promises not yet fulfilled are still meaningful.
But faith is not easy. It requires a considerable amount courage, determination and risk taking. I am sure it is easier to be cynical, to trust only in self or accepting only what can be touched and seen. Sometimes faith requires to rely on someone who could deceive us. Sometimes faith requires to let go of our desire to control everything around us and to trust in the decision of others. Sometimes faith requires to strive for the best in the worst of times. Sometimes faith requires to believe that God’s blessings will outnumber the stars in the sky. Most of us struggle to remain faithful when we are really confronted with difficult situations. Yet, with faith, we can remain confident that eventually everything will be okay.
Maybe the greatest manifestation of faith in our life is having children. I am serious. When we think rationally about it, no one with an ounce of sanity would do it. It is estimated that it cost $200,000 to bring a child to the age of 18… and you have two of them now. This is on top of all those hours of sleep that you will never see again, the endless hours of arguments on the most trivial topics or all the time spent running from one activity to another. It does not make sense and yet we do have children. We love them deeply. We hope they will grow up, develop all sorts of gifts and abilities, and become great people. We have faith that despite all the problems ahead of us, we will manage and it will be okay. And as you brought your child to be baptized this morning, our congregation also takes a leap of faith. Like I said a few minutes ago, no obligations are put on you or Mia-Lee to come back here ever. There will be no coercion, shaming or reproaches. We just made promises to each other and we will hope that Mia-Lee will find her own path and remember what has been done this morning. We will all live in faith.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It is what helps us to see the truth hidden sometimes beneath appearances. Faith is going beyond what we may know in order to discover new possibilities. Faith is the ultimate promise made to all of us. This morning Mia-Lee might not have understood a word we have said, but nevertheless she receives the assurance that God loves her unconditionally and in the most difficult moments God will be there to tell, ‘You can take a step further. Hold my hand. We will take this leap together. You can have faith in me because I will never abandon you’. Amen.
Luke 12: 13-21
Last weekend I was at a gathering of an improv company I created with some friends 30 years ago and still exists today. Some of us talked until 2 in the morning. Through our conversations we were stupefied by the audacity of our group of 16 year-olds who knocked down obstacles on our path and drove this dream of ours across the province of Quebec and eventually even in Europe. We also shared how these years shaped us and led us where we are now. Of course, some were surprised to learn I became an ordained minister, like a real serious minister. Then they figured out that writing every week an original 15 minutes’ reflection and delivering it in front of an audience make sense. Among those present there was Renée who told us about her interior decoration business and how some of her clients who are among the wealthiest people in Canada are completely neurotic, disconnected from reality and afraid to lose everything. My friend Martin who lost his mother last November shared with us his struggles with his brothers regarding the succession, how it has been weeks since the last time they talked to him, how he is working almost day and night to avoid thinking about it.
With all those stories in mind, I came back on Monday to work on today’s text from the Gospel according to Luke, the parable of the Rich Fool, and I said to myself, ‘Well, I guess the book of Ecclesiastes is right. There is nothing new under the sun.’ Our passage begins with Jesus being approached by someone in the crowd who says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Of course, Jesus could have easily quoted some Jewish texts explaining how to handle the issue. Instead, he replies by telling a parable about a rich man who owns a farm that produces an abundant harvest. He wonders where he will store his crop since his barns are too small. So he decides to build bigger ones. Then he will be able to enjoy his good fortune. “Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Unfortunately, God shows up and tells him, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Traditionally, in our churches the moral of this story is to beware of greed. It is the root and source of all evil. We often say to the people in our pews, Don’t spend your life accumulating wealth because you will not be able to take with you in the afterlife. We might even tell the old joke of this dying man who asked his wife to be buried with all his money. When the moment came, when it was time to put his body in the ground, his widow writes a check, throws it in the grave and says, ‘Here’s your money dear’. No. Don’t be greedy. Do not hoard your money. Be humble and generous instead. In fact, give all your money… to the church… or your minister…
We know that money cannot buy love. Experience has taught us that the abundance of possessions does not necessarily bring happiness. Sometimes it is the complete opposite. As I am stating these simple and eternal truth, I am convinced that most of you agree with me and nod your heads in assent. Maybe you even have names that come in your mind. And yet, once we walk out the doors of this church, it seems that all of us suddenly feel this urge to sing a different tune. We feel this compulsion to run after success and profit. Sometimes we are not even aware we are doing it. Sometimes we cannot help it; it is stronger than us. Sometimes we just go along with our society. We live in a world where the value of an individual is measured in dollars and cents. We live in a world where material possessions represent security, power, status, enjoyment, self-esteem… So we work very hard to earn money to the point we barely have time to spend with our children and grandchildren, we suffer from a heart attack or we install security systems and transform our houses into a fortress because we are afraid to lose it all.
The worst part of it is that, usually, regardless of how much we make, it is never enough. If our income is $20,000 a year for example, we probably think we would be happy if only we could make $30,000. But those who make $30,000 a year could also think they would be happy if only they made $50,000. And even people who make $100,000 a year may think they need an extra $100,000 more, and so on. On some days, we fantasized about receiving a windfall of money and how it would make us feel relieved and secured. This morning I will not ask how many of us may have bought a Lotto Max ticket, dreaming of winning part or all of the 60 million jackpot. Deep down we know that it would not free us from our worries. And yet, we give in to the seductive promise of a “good life”. We come to believe that the latest gadget, a flashier car or bigger barns will make us happier. We constantly look for another “golden calf” out there that we imagine will make our lives complete.
I am not trying to tell you that money is evil and we should be ashamed if we have some RRSPs or investments. Rather, the question raised by today’s parable is what if today would be the last day of your life? What would we see if we looked back at all we have done up this point? Would we be proud of ourselves or somehow feel embarrassed? If we calculated on what we spent our time and energy during our lifetime, what would be the end result? How much time have we spent nursing old grudges, fighting with our loved ones, being anxious about the performance of the markets or afraid that we might lose it all? Would we be able to recognize moments when we used our gifts and resources to help others to achieve their dreams, accomplished small deeds that had an impact on the lives of individuals or shared our joy and good fortune with the people we love? Would we see the story of someone who has been worried all the time or able to enjoy the fruits of our abundance?
Ultimately money comes and goes. What really stays with us is our values, beliefs and ideals. Yes, it is wise to set aside some money. We need to have dreams, projects, goals and objectives, but not to the point we become paralyzed by worries. We need to learn to look forward without being afraid of all the possible outcomes we might imagine. We cannot control the future. We can only control what is going on here and now. This where we live. This is where we can have an impact. This is where we can make a difference. Worrying about what tomorrow might bring won’t really change a thing in the present, except maybe making us more miserable. One of the biggest disappointments people usually have is not how much more hours they could have worked at the office, but the opportunities not seized, words we regret not saying when it was time or the affection we haven’t given to our loved ones when they were still with us. We are invited to live our lives as fully as we could. We are invited to pursue what really matters for us and makes our existence meaningful, without being distracted by worries we often create for ourselves.
Today’s parable from the Gospel according to Luke confronts us with simple but challenging questions. What is a worthwhile life? How do we define a meaningful existence? What makes our life rich and full? Do we want to spend our time fighting with family members over inheritance? Is making money the sole driving factor of our lives? How much is enough? Why do we worry so much? Maybe this morning we are called to unlearn to put a price tag on everything and storing up resources just in case it might be useful in the future and starting to live this day to its fullest. Maybe we are called to invest in what truly makes us alive, like sharing our resources, playing with our children and grandchildren, helping a neighbour or staying up late and talk with old friends. Amen.
2 Kings 5: 1-14
I have a clip for you this morning. Don’t worry. It is not the press conference about P.K. Subban’s trade. It comes from the movie Up in the Air in which George Clooney plays a man whose job is to travel across the United States to fire people. That’s what he does. He flies in, gets to the office of some company, fires those who has to be fired, and he flies out to his next assignment. In the following clip, the character explains to his new assistant, and potential love interest, one of his ultimate goals in life.
I have 10 million miles. I got my Ph.D. in astrophysics from Harvard. I was named the volunteer of the year in 2005. I am in charge of my company’s sales department. I was the chair of the Planning & Agenda Committee of the 41st General Council of the United Church of Canada. Those kinds of statements regularly pop in our conversations because we live in a world in which position, status, diplomas and titles give a sense of worth to an individual. Usually, when we meet someone new, these are the kind of information we exchange first. We know they do not tell the full story of a person. And yet, we find these facts very important and we value them. One reason for this might be that our accomplishments give us small perks here and there. They make us feel special and unique. We like the prestige and credibility that come with them. They make us feel powerful, different and, let’s be honest, a little better than the rest of the people.
In today’s reading from the second book of Kings, we meet Naaman. Naaman was the commander in chief of the army of the king of Aram, one of Israel’s major enemies at that time. This general was a big shot, surely a respected celebrity because he fought and won many battles for his people. All his accomplishments made him a powerful man. Naaman was highly favoured by his king. I would not be surprised if they were on a first name basis. He was also a rich man who did not travel light. For his trip to the kingdom of Israel, we are told he brought with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten full sets of sumptuous garments. It is always difficult to calculate in modern terms just how much all this would be. Let us just say the 6,000 shekels was the equivalent of 150 pounds of gold and the ten talents of silver must have weighed some 750 pounds. So, you can use your imagination.
Naaman had everything for him: power, fame, wealth, a wife… The only thing missing in his life was health. The great warrior was a leper. We always have to be careful when we read the words leper and leprosy in the Bible, because they translate a Hebrew concept that includes several skin diseases, some of them being incurable. Regardless of Naaman’s real affliction, skin disease is an embarrassing condition because it is very hard to hide. It is not like diabetes. It is in your face all the time, quite literally sometimes. No wonder when Naaman learns that a prophet in the town of Samaria can heal him, he decides to look for this Elisha. After all, he could afford the best cure possible. What is the point to have all this power and wealth if you cannot pull one string or two so you can obtain what you need?
Naaman finally arrives at Elisha’s house with all his horses and chariots. But surprisingly, the prophet does not come out to meet his guest. Instead Elisha sends a simple messenger to tell the renowned military officer to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman is not particularly happy by this apparent lack of respect. After all, he might be a leper, but he is still Naama, the great general, the nightmare of his enemies and the first among his own people. This so-called prophet could have made an effort. He could have come out of his shack and do something, I do not know, like calling upon the name of his god, wave his hands over his scars or utter some magical mumbo-jumbo in a strange language, anything that would be impressive, dramatic and appropriate for a man of his rank. But, no! Go soak yourself in the nearby muddy river, as if there is no rivers back home, as if he never washed his body before. Naaman is not staying there and being humiliated further. He has spent too long building his reputation for greatness, too long accumulating his vast wealth to be treated like this.
Today’s adventure could have easily ended here. Naaman would still be considered a leper. The kingdoms Israel and Aram would once again be at war due to this diplomatic incident and who knows what would have happened to Elisha. However, the dramatic fulfilling of this story does occur through the interventions of all the small and unnamed people we hardly notice when we read of this text. They are the ones who move things along. Without a young slave girl, Naaman would never have heard of Elisha and look for him. Without Elisha’s messenger, he would not know the cure for his disease. Without his servants, Naaman would never be cured. They are the ones who understand the possibility that the moment holds. They are the ones who coax their master Naaman into forgetting his own importance and going for what will really matter. They are the ones who point that Naaman would likely stand on one foot for a day or recite sacred texts backward if the prophet asked him. So what is the big deal with a quick wash in a small body of water? What does he have to lose? At the end of the day, the ones who live their lives in the shadow of power and magnificence are the main reason for the materialization of transformation and renewal.
Too often most of us assume we are not smart or important enough to make a difference in the world. We believe it is a privilege reserved for those who are rich, powerful or holding prestigious offices like a president or a prime minister. We believe history is written by famous individuals and families after whom buildings will be named in the future. We believe that people like you and I cannot influence our world. We cannot do anything because we are not in charge. We do not have any power, prestige or credibility. We do not have 10 million miles in our account, a Ph.D. from a prestigious university or an award that would give us name recognition.
However today’s story teaches us otherwise. After all who makes things happen? Who are the real heroes? Who has real power? Yes, power. Power is often not what we imagine or assume. It can take many shapes, be found in diverse places and is accessible to most of us. For example, there is real power in the courage of speaking up against the unjust redistribution of resources in our society. There is real power in the perseverance of writing regularly letters denouncing the violation of human rights by repressive regimes. There is real power in the determination to raise money to bring families of refugees in Canada. There is real power in the hope of our prayers for a just and peaceful world. In the long run, nobody will probably know what we have done. Nobody might remember our names. But it does not matter. We used our power to change our neighbourhood. We use our power to create a better world for all God’s children. We use our power because it is what God calls us to do.
Like it happens so often in the Bible, the story of Naaman is a clash between the famous and the nameless, between those who have privileges and those who can see beyond them. We are reminded that we can indulge ourselves in our resources, assets and titles to the point they become a goal in itself, to the point they distract us from what is really important for us. On some days, we need to open our minds and listen to those who have the power and the wisdom to see the opportunities surrounding us. On some days, we need to stop hoarding our points and to use them to do something meaningful. Amen.
1 Kings 19: 1-4, 8-15
Last week I was in Montreal for a course on Ministry of Supervision, in order to become an accredited supervisor for internships and field placements with the United Church. I am not done yet. It was just the first leg of my training. More will be done in the coming months. We had a great group of ministers from as far as Red Deer and PEI. We learn much about the theory of effective supervision and we tried to apply it through role playing and case studies. During the whole week we gave feedback and affirmations to one another and one question popped over and again: Where was God is all of this.
Where was God in all of this? Our group did not coin that phrase. Many have asked the same interrogation before us. Some wrestled with it two weeks ago after the horrible murder of 49 members of the LGBTQ community in Orlando. For others, this question came to them as it came to Elijah in today’s text. In this morning’s passage, the prophet is once again a hunted man on the run, hiding from Queen Jezebel. Elijah is one of those characters of the Bible that are always in the middle troubles or controversies. However, his eventful life finally caught up on him to the point where he is ready to simply give up. He is so exhausted and desperate that he tells God that he wants to die. Under a solitary broom tree, he begins to speak to the Holy One. ‘All that I have done so far seems hollow. Oh, I love you God. I worked hard as a prophet. I told the truth. I put my life in jeopardy. And for what? Sweet nothing! The other Israelites are not even trying to come back to you. They have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets. And yet, to be totally honest, the worst part of all of this is that I am disappointed at you, God. You left me alone. You sent no one to help me. You remain silent in my struggles. If only I could have met you face to face, maybe it would be different. But… pfff… Whatever…’
God hears Elijah’s plea and tells him, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” I can only imagine Elijah running outside and, remembering the stories of the past, expecting to encounter the Holy One in a big and spectacular manifestation of the divine. And we have to admit that Elijah was an expert on this matter. Up to this moment, he already predicted the beginning and the end of a three-year drought. He also raised a dead child back to life. Then he defeated alone 450 prophets of Baal, the god of the Philistines, by calling down God’s presence in a fire which burned up the entire altar he had made with cut-up bull, stones and all. Now that is big and spectacular!
Elijah is outside his cave and witnesses a great wind, “so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces”. Personally, as a good United Church minister, my first inclination would have been to say, ‘Wow! Let’s explore the presence of God in this manifestation of nature and pray for and with that wind.’ But, as the text says, “the Lord was not in the wind.” After the wind there was an earthquake. The metaphor about God is fairly easy here. God is this strong force that shakes us outside and inside. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire. Fire can destroy but it also creates new spaces to build something different. Death, resurrection, that could work. But the Lord was not in the fire either. In all the mighty visible forces of nature Elijah experienced, the Holy One was not present.
Where was God in all of this? God was in the sound of sheer silence, says the text. Some of you might have understood that I am an extrovert. I know. It is hard to believe… Well, if it is true, if God can only be found in sheer silence, I just want to say please kill me right now because I am unable to sit still in silence for only an hour. I guarantee you I will go totally berserk. Ok. I would grant you I went a bit far with my last statement, but I believe I am not the only one who feel that way. We live in a world where the busyness of our lives and our myriad responsibilities leave little place for calm and silence. Between the ringing of the morning alarm and the spoken words on the late night news, we are surrounded by noise that wants to attract our attention. For many of us, silence is a void that ought to be filled with activities and projects. Standing still and doing nothing else than listening could be viewed suspiciously. We feel we have to do something, anything, as long as it produces some sounds to covert perceived emptiness.
A few months ago I read this wonderful article about stunts performed by ministers to attract new members in their churches and I said to myself that I should keep this because it might be useful in the future. Did I keep it? Of course, no. But I can still remember the story of this minister in the U.S. who would hold a worship service in an arena and then immediately turn into rodeo mode and ride a real bull. There was another minister who stayed at the top of a pole in front of his church for 30 days, not 30 hours, 30 days. Maybe you have also heard of this Roman Catholic priest in the Philippines who rode a hoverboard during his Christmas Eve mass. It went viral on YouTube, especially after he was suspended by his bishop. In our congregations, we might not be ready to go to these extremes, but many of us believe that if we publish beautiful and catchy ads in the local newspaper, start playing jazzy music during worship or organize dynamic and interactive Bible studies on Facebook we would fill our pews. If only we could do something to attract people’s attention, they would come to our youth and adult programs. The world would be able to see our close relationship with the Holy One if only we could develop the perfect sound bites, like the ones politicians and advertisers use to get our attention. Some of us have tried. However, despite our best intentions, with time we inevitably have discovered that God is not in any spectacular stunts nor catchy sound bites.
Where can we find God? Is the Holy One exclusively accessible in pure and total silence? I do not believe this is the message here. I would like to invite you to think of your garage or the garage of someone you know that is completely filled with objects. You can visualize this? In all that stuff, some objects are useful while other are simple junk. On some days, when we are looking for something specific, all we can see are the few huge objects. Sometimes we get frustrated because there is so much clutter in this garage we come to believe it is almost impossible to find anything. Well, our lives and our congregations are somehow like this. Our existences are often filled with so much noise and activities that we only notice the headlines, those who speak the loudest or the great tragedies of our world. We are frustrated because we cannot find the presence of God.
Sometimes, like Elijah, we have to learn to be patient. We need to look beyond the spectacular events and tragedies surrounding us. We need to find the courage to shed and let go of everything that belongs to the past, and start to clean up and organize our lives. Usually, we discover during those mundane moments that God is speaking to us. In fact, we discover that God never ceased to speak to us, but we were unable to hear because of all the clutter, because we were not paying attention, we were looking for spectacular and magic solutions or because we let ourselves distracted. But, when we allow ourselves to create empty spaces and silent moments, we can discover that God was in front of us all that time, just waiting for us to connect and be in a relationship.
When we wonder where is God in all of this, we are invited to recall the prophet Elijah who, at one point, felt discouraged, alone and forsaken by the Holy One. And if God cannot be found in the big, the spectacular and the noise, we called to remember that the Holy One is revealed in ways we often expect the least. We need to find the courage to proclaim that regardless of the events, how horrible and puzzling they could be, God is present in our world and will never be shut down. Thanks be to God and amen.