Friday, October 28, 2016

Wee little Man

Luke 19:1-9
Signs, signs everywhere a sign
Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind
Do this don’t do that, can’t you read the signs.
This song by the Five Man Electric Band was a song of protest, but it also is a song about judgement. The first verse says “The sign says Long haired freaky people need not apply. So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why. He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do.” I took off my hat and said imagine that, huh, me working for you!
How often have we let the way someone looks, dresses, styles their hair, affect the way we view them? How often have we let stereotypes about professions, schools, race, gender, religion cloud the way we see someone else?
We all have our own judgements, and some are well deserved.  But when these things get in the way of us hearing the word proclaimed, or witnessing God’s grace they need to be put aside.
Today’s scripture lesson can be difficult to hear when we look at it through cultural stereotypes or even our own stereotypes. The typical interpretation of this story is as follows:
Once upon a time Jesus was going into a city and people were excited to see him. The news traveled to a short man in the crowd who happened to be a tax collector (cue the boos). He couldn’t see the guy everyone was talking about so he chooses to climb a tree.
Jesus was walking past and noticed this strange man up in a tree. He looks up and tells the man to come down and then invites himself to dinner.
People complain that this short guy, probably with a Napoleon complex, isn’t worth Jesus’ time and effort. After all tax collectors are known sinners, bad hombre’s.
Zac hears these complaints and his pride is hurt. Or maybe just maybe he feels a twinge of guilt. He stands up and says to Jesus and the crowds “I will stop sinning right now. I’ll give half of everything to the poor and if I’ve defrauded anyone, (and they can prove it) I’ll pay back 4 times the amount.”
The crowd rejoices, Jesus says mazel tov and now salvation has come to this house. Everyone celebrates and Jesus moves on toward Jerusalem, one more saved soul on his belt.
That is the happy sanitized version, the VBS, Sunday school version. But I’m not sure that really accurate to the scripture we have, and how the Gospel of Luke intends this story to be seen.
Tax collectors traditionally are seen as bad guys. But time and time again in Luke tax collectors are something different. They are with the crowds that are baptized by John the Baptist. When they ask him what they should do he doesn’t say “Leave your profession because you cannot follow God and be a tax collector.” Instead he tells them to take no more than what they are owed. This indicates that tax collectors were not all sinners, there were some good apples in the mix. They just got painted with the same broad brush and so were tainted by association.
Jesus calls a tax collector to follow him. While Matthew does give up his job, he is seen as someone who will be a part of the inner circle. There is no dramatic change of heart, like we see in the Apostle Paul, rather he is called like Peter and responds. Just as he is, good enough for Jesus.
In our text last week Jesus holds up a man praying publicly crying out to God and beating his breast, aware of his sins and seeking relationship and forgiveness. This man is a what? A tax collector. And Jesus calls him justified.
So our first assumption, that all tax collectors are evil by nature doesn’t fit with the way Luke describes this group of people.
Zacchaeus is in the crowd seeking out the master. We are told that because he was short he could not see Jesus. Well, actually, it is intirely possible that he couldn’t see Jesus because Jesus was short. The term could just as easily apply to Jesus’ height as to Zacchaeus’ in the Greek.  SO perhaps that lovely children’s song really should be Jesus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.
In our society however, shortness is a bad thing from a leader especially. The shorter candidate rarely becomes the president, for example. To think of Jesus as short shocks the senses and makes many of us squirm. Well, I don’t know for sure his height, but I do know that those pictures of him with blonde hair and blue eyes are not accurate.
Whatever the reason, Jesus’ hight or his own, Jesus finds Zaccheaus up a tree, unwilling to let any obsticales keep him for seeing the master. In his search to see Jesus, Jesus sees him. Jesus comes forward, calls him out of the tree and invites himself for the evening meal.
Who you ate with was a big deal in that culture, as we’ve discussed before, it was much like the junior high lunch room where who you sit with denotes how well liked or popular you are. Jesus is going to the house of a tax collector, who the common world judges based on his occupation and relationship with the Roman oppressors as sinful.
The crowd murmurs, grumbles, complains as they watch these two walk off together. Finally Zacchaeus can take it no longer. He stops and cries out to Jesus and to the crowd still listening.
Before I go into what he says, I want us to pay attention to his body language. What does he do to speak? Does he throw himself at Jesus feet like the repentant have done throughout Luke? Does he beat his breast like the Tax collector from chapter 18? No, he stands there. He stands in the presence of God, and the crowd. This is not a stance of repentance. This is a stance of defiance.
And what does he say? Well if we read from the NRSV or the NIV we hear him say “ I will give half of what I own. I will pay back 4 times what I’ve taken.” But these translations are honestly just bad.
I am not a Greek scholar, even though I studied Greek in seminary. I do however know some Greek scholars and have read the works of many scholars and as lot of them feel this is the worst translated verse in the scriptures. There has been an entire tense in ancient Greek created to be used in this one verse. It’s not used anywhere else in the whole of scripture.
The Common English BIble does a much better job with it. It reads “ Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
Not I will, but I am doing, its present tense, not future perfect, present as in ongoing. This is not a new promise. This is a declaration of what he is already doing.
And what he is already doing is way above what the law required. The law said give 10% away, to God to care for others. He give 50%. The law said if you defraud someone, pay them back twice as much. He is paying back four times as much.
Zacchaeus, who has been painted with the brush of sinner, is really going above and beyond God’s call. He is doubling what is required of him.
Jesus proclaims that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house not for Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus already believes in Jesus as lord, remember he wanted to see the master, a term not used by non-believers in Luke. No, these words are for the crowd to hear. This man, the one you ostracized, is a Son of Abraham, a child of God, a member of my flock. In your presence I say he is one I came to find and he is one I love.”
This is not a story about Zacchaeus’ salvation, this is about his restoration to the people of God. This is Jesus once again showing us that God is at work in places and people that we would never expect. This is the kingdom of God breaking out into the corners of the world that human beings thought were too corrupt to see hope, truth, let alone salvation.
Transformation happens in many different ways. Some have a Saul/Paul experience, a radical change that is life altering. Some have lives of faith that are lived quietly, without fanfare and hoopla, but still faithful.
Two questions arise from this view of Zacchaeus’ tale for me. One, Who do I grumble about? Who is it that I see and think, why would God offer them anything? They are too short, too tall, too big, too skinny, too rich, too poor, too famous, too insignificant, too, so many things.
How often do I let someone else’s outside keep me from valuing them inside?
But the second question is this, what am I doing that is causing grumbling?
Jesus welcomed someone who was unpopular and the crowds complained. Am I showing the radical, inclusive love of God in a way that might make the crowds complain? Am I standing up and saying that God’s love is big enough for all of us, even those that some people think are undesirable? Am I offering good news to all humankind, like the angles offered the shepherds?
This question is the most important to me personally. If I’m really extending God’s grace, there are some who won’t like it. But am I letting fear of their dislike or grumbling keep me from proclaiming the truth I hold so dear?
Jesus issues the invitation to discipleship to all, the invitation to a real relationship. The invitation to wholeness. The invitation to salvation. It is open and available to all. It is not something that we deserve; it’s not something we can earn! It is a gift, a precious gift given because of who God is, not because of who we are!

This invitation is open to all persons, in all places, at all times! Praise be to God that there is no LIMIT to the grace of Christ! There is no person who will be passed by. Isn’t that amazing! I ask, no I beg of us this morning that we not be like the crowds that try to keep people from coming because they are too young, too old, to short, too rich, too fill in the blank. But that we would be like Zacchaeus, so desperate to see the Lord that we would literally go out on a limb for the chance of that contact! All praise and Glory be to God, who is and was and is to come. Amen

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Just Keep Praying

Luke 18:1-8
How many of you have seen the show “Big Bang Theory?” Or perhaps watched the movie Finding Nemo? This particular passage reminds me of Sheldon Cooper and Dory. Sheldon is the beyond socially challenged nerd, and dory is the lovable forgetful fish. This passage of Scripture I think could easily be their favorite, if Sheldon believed in God, which is a whole different discussion.
I can see Sheldon, when he finally decides to pray going: knock knock knock, God. Knock knock knock, God. Knock knock knock, God. Or hear Dory singing out the refrain, “Just keep praying, just keep praying, just keep praying.” Too often this is all we glean from this passage of scripture. Keep asking for something and eventually you will get it, even if for no other reason that God will get tired of you.
But my friends, that simplistic view of this passage is completely messed up. That view equates God with the judge in this parable, and as the Judge neither feared God, nor respected people, I don’t think God would take too kindly to such a comparison.
So, where does that leave us? Let’s look again at this passage a bit more closely.
Jesus has been teaching about the kingdom of God in these passages. He has answered questions about faith and is giving his followers glimpses of the present, not yet kingdom of God all around them.
He tells this story about a widow. Our ears should perk up a bit at this point. There are certain things that we should know about widows in biblical times. They were without the protection of a husband, so they would rely on the next closest male relative to help them. This could be a son, a brother, or a brother in law. Far too often however, the closest male relative did not want to take care of a widow. There are many stories in the old testament that tell us about widows and their brother-in-law’s, take Tamar for instance, in which the brother-in-law is of no help whatsoever.
This attitude was so prevalent that early on thin the history of the chosen people they are admonished to care for widows and orphans, these marginalized people who were the most susceptible to abuse or neglect because they had no one to stand up for them, legally or otherwise.
We hear of this widow and all of the historical cultural background should come to our minds. She is begging for justice. Chances are she is not able to do this in an actual court, as she has no actual legal rights. More than likely she is following the judge out and about to the market place, to the town center, even to his home. She is crying out day in and day out for justice, possibly justice against those who were to be her protectors.   
This is also the book of Luke, and widows in Luke take on an additional role. Early on in Luke we have the widow Anna. You remember her, the woman who sat day in and day out in the temple for 80 years waiting to see the Messiah. She rejoiced to see Jesus as a baby brought to the temple by Mary and Joseph. Luke calls her a prophetess. Luke also mentioned the widow of zaraphath, the one who helped Elijah during the famine. The one whose son was brought back from the dead. And speaking of that, there is the widow of Nain, to whom Jesus returns her only son after her has died.
In Luke widows bear not only the image of poverty and need, but also the prophetic voice that reminds others of their calling to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
It is not a stretch to see her calling out for justice, not only for herself, but for others who likewise need justice.  She cries out to the judge who refuses to listen.
This judge is not like God at all my friends. I honestly think he’s much more like most of us. He has a job to do and it is important. This widow woman is just getting in the way. She won’t leave him alone. She shows up protesting at his office. She post’s memes about him on Facebook. She even blows up his twitter feed with demands to be seen and heard. He’s ignored her for years, but she refuses to go away.
Eventually he is battered and bruised enough to give in, if for no other reason than he is tired of her. He gives her the justice she has been begging for all of this time.
Too often we think of justice as revenge. That is not the case. Justice according to the words and actions of Christ is very different.
Justice is following the greatest commandments, Loving God and loving neighbor. One way we show our love of God is by respecting and loving others. We do this by recognizing the child of God within all of humanity. God asks, and expects us to do this very thing. By treating people with respect, with human dignity we are also reminded that we have a responsibility to ask others to do the same. This isn’t being overly sensitive or “politically correct” it is really living out the greatest two commandments, it is living out justice for our neighbor.
The judge in this story not only has no respect for neighbor, he’s not a respecter of persons or of God. This person could not be farther from the character of God. Yet even he eventually manages to do what is right and offer justice.
When we recognize the humanity of others we can really begin to offer justice, not revenge, not reparations, but justice, the viewing of others as children of God. But how do we do that in a world that seems so vastly separated? How do we do that when vilifying one another is business as usual? Perhaps we take a small que from the people of the middle ages.
About this time of year, well actually on All Hallows eve, people would go souling. We do a much more self-serving version of this in our own country called trick-or-treating. Souling was not about begging strangers for candy. It wasn’t even really about poor people hassling the rich for food.  The poor of a town would go from door to door and offer to pray for the souls of departed family members and in exchange they were given food to eat. It had to do with over turning the social order that persistently kept people hungry/powerless and others well-fed/powerful- even if that over turning lasted only one evening.
It reminded both rich and poor of their relatedness to one another and of the fact that everyone had the potential to be a conduit of God’s grace- whether the gift of grace came in the form of food or in the form of prayers. In a very real sense, the annual practice reminded everyone of their call and ability to be conduits and stewards of God’s gifts of life.[i]
Friends, each of us has the opportunity to be the judge, to hear the complaints of the other and respond with justice, if for no other reason than we want them to be quiet. But we also have the opportunity to go with the widow to seek justice from others. I wonder how long it would have taken if she had not have been by herself? What happens when others rally around and speak out against injustice? What happens when we together tell the world that all of God’s children matter? Might we find the good things God offers; the kingdom, justice and love, even faster?
An African American preacher once summed this passage up in one sentence “Unless you have knocked at a locked door until your knuckles bled you don’t know what prayer is.”
Friends, are we seeking justice with that intensity? Are we seeking God’s intervention in this world so passionately, with such intensity that our knuckles bleed?  Are we standing with our brothers and sisters, fellow children of God and demanding they be seen; that they be heard, that they be loved?
This passage as Luke says is about persistent prayer. And Jesus asks “When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on this earth?”
As long as there are those crying out for justice alongside those saying “How long O Lord”, as long as we are willing to add our voices to help those without voices, as long as we are willing to love those we are called to love there is hope. There is hope that faith, even the faith of a mustard seed will be found. There is hope that one day those words we pray “Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” will come true.

[i] Radical Gratitude Tanya Barnet & Tom Wilson

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Obedient Thanks

 Obedience. On a week when most preachers are opening up this Gospel reading and preaching gleefully about grace and gratitude, I'm thinking about obedience. So why am I seeing obedience in this passage? Well... it has something to do with the passage that comes right before it, the passage I preached on last week. Remember that here we have a collection of sayings of Jesus. In this last bit Jesus shares a parable about slaves and the duty expected of them, that they will work all day and then attend to the feeding and care of their masters before attending to their own needs, doing all this expecting no thanks in return. He then suggests that this is a model for Christian discipleship, we are to do whatever we have been ordered to do without expectation of reward. No matter how difficult (forgiving), no matter how wearying (forgiving the same person seven times in a day), we are to do it. Why? As was suggested last week, we are to be obedient because we are grateful, grateful for all that has already been done for us in Christ.
Now, I know that our minds are very capable of objecting to this message, this message that so much has already been done for us in Christ. Some of us are thinking, sure, easy for you to say” or “If I've been forgiven, why am I carrying around this lead weight of guilt that just seems to get heavier every day? If I've been healed, why am I in constant pain? If I've been provided for, why am I barely scraping by month to month, why am I in the position of picking and choosing what bills I'll pay and which ones I won't even open, why am I always having to say 'no' to my kids? If I've been protected, why have I been so hurt?" Or perhaps you're thinking “I’ve worked hard for the good things in my life. God doesn’t want us to rely on him too much. We’ve got to pull ourselves up by our boot-straps. God’s got little to do with my life.”
So, if we're not sure that we have much to be grateful for, it's not likely that we'll be terribly inspired to be obedient, especially to the most challenging teachings of our faith. We might be more inclined to pick out the teachings of God in scripture that suit us best and let the others slide. We might not even bother to try to know what God requires or hopes of us... why should we? We'll just do whatever we want in this world; convinced as we are, on some level, that we're more or less left on our own.
Let's consider the 10 lepers in our story today. Here we have 10 people who have been suffering for an unknown length of time, suffering from skin conditions, potentially very serious skin conditions, but also suffering from alienation, exclusion, and estrangement. By law they were cast out of their communities and forced to live only with people like them. They had to scream out that they were unclean anytime they came near anyone; they could not touch nor be touched. We meet them today in a borderland, on the edges of two regions- between Galilee and Samaria. They are on the margins of their societies in every sense of the word.
If ever there were a group of people who would seemingly have a case for giving up on God, for lacking motivation for obedience, for feeling far from grateful- I think we can all agree these folks would qualify. However, they approach Jesus, though respectfully keeping their distance, and how do they name Jesus? They call Jesus, Master. Master... as slaves would call their owners... master. And so it is that we are reminded of the previous parable. But lest we think of them as passive and content with their lot, listen to the passion of their plea "HAVE MERCY ON US!" They were weary of their existence; they wanted change.

Does Jesus come over and touch them? Do they experience dramatic, on the spot, healing and reintegration? Is their plea met with instant satisfaction? They ask for mercy and receive... a command. "Go and show yourselves to the priests." If they had been healed they would need to show themselves to the priests, this was what the law required if they wanted to be reintegrated into society. But they weren't healed. They asked for mercy and received a command.
And how do they respond to this command? Do they yell at Jesus in anger and resentment? Do they slouch away discouraged and dejected? No. They simply obey. The master commands and they obey. They may not see much point in their obedience, suspecting that they'd get to the priests and be sent away, rejected again, but... the master commanded, and they obeyed. Jesus said "Go" and they went.
And somewhere along their journey to the priests, a potentially long journey, a journey on which they surely continued to call out "UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!", they are made clean. They obeyed even before they had much to be grateful for and along the way they receive the gift of their hearts' desire, in the midst of their obedience they receive the grace that inspires gratitude.
Surely all 10 lepers were grateful. I can see them doing the gratitude dance all the way to the priests. I can hear them shouting praises to God as they continue on their way. But... by continuing to go to the priests they were continuing to be obedient- both to Jesus' command and to the demands of Jewish law. They were exercising a double obedience if you will.
But one of them, an outsider among outsiders, a Samaritan, saw that he was healed and his gratitude dance sent him twirling right around and heading back from whence he had just come. He had asked for mercy and he received a command, but when he got the mercy, he went back to say thank you. Perhaps because he was a samaritian, an outcast, someone who would not have been welcomed by the priest, he felt a stronger pull of gratitude. His obedience was extravagantly interrupted by gratitude- a gratitude that led him to shout praises to God and kiss the ground at Jesus' feet.
Jesus wants obedience; he made that quite clear in last week's reading. But this week's reading complicates that a bit for us, or deepens it a bit for us. Jesus seems disappointed that only one came back- the other nine were simply following his command and after last week we'd think he'd be grateful for that, but he certainly seems disappointed. "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?"
It seems to me that while Jesus desires obedient disciples, he does not desire lifeless disciples. While Jesus wants us to follow the path he has traveled, while he wants us to live into his teachings more and more fully as time goes by, he doesn't want this to be a matter of simply going through motions, or of mindless drudgery. He knows that sometimes, even, our obedience might appear to be disobedience when we get spun about by gratitude. He wants our obedience to be infused with gratitude. He wants us to be joyful and lighthearted and able to turn on a dime and give thanks- a thanks that involves our whole selves- our voices, our bodies, our hearts, souls, and minds.
What he wants are disciples so committed to him, so in love with him, that thankfulness and obedience become intertwined. Where they compliment one another day in, day out. What he is offering is more than just cleansed bodies, he offers cleansed beings. Hearts, souls, spirits renewed through the faith in the faithful one! He seeks a relationship with us, as a people, and as individuals. A relationship with a master whose mercy is so great we call out for it even at a distance. A master whose mercy is so true that he gives it before we even begin to kneel at his feet. This is the God we worship! This is the God we know and love. Remember his words of healing and wholeness! Remember his words “Rise, my child, your faith has made you well.”
This thanksgiving, this obedience, this faith. They are all intertwined. Our lives should be full of them all in order to experience the life of a disciple of Christ.
We had a study of Ann Voskamp’s 1000 gifts last Spring. In it Ann speaks of the eucaristic life, a life lived in thanksgiving. Giving thanks to God in all situations, in all things, at all times. Living a life of thanksgiving leads to a life of faith and obedience that we cannot begin to describe.
These do not guarantee perfection. They do not guarantee a life lived without struggle. Instead they allow us to walk through the struggles of life understanding that we are not the ones in charge. Understanding that the great God we love and serve holds all of us in hands that love and care. It is sometimes hard to see. This week with the horrors of Haiti and the devastation of the South East Coast after Hurricane Matthew it might be hard to picture a provident, caring God. But that does not mean God cares any less for God’s creation. I see God at work in the amazing preparation efforts that saved countless lives with advanced warnings and evacuations. I see God’s mighty hand moving through the recovery efforts already beginning again, even in places like Haiti who feel all they have done for the past decade is recover. I see God in this small denomination called the CP church already beginning efforts to help their fellow children of God in Haiti by planning mission trips and providing funds to aid those in need.
And in seeing God’s actions I am moved. I hope I am moved to gratitude, but perhaps I am first moved to obedience; to follow the call Jesus issued to “love thy neighbor.” May we all be moved to obedience and gratitude, to living lives that are full of both so that we may live lives of the faith that makes us whole.