Give us grace to heed their warnings

A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee the wrath to come?”

john-the-baptist-el-grecoI love John the Baptist. Not because of his haircut and wardrobe.  He was known as a prophet, and indeed he was. But let’s get clear what that term “prophet” means. Biblical prophets were not guys who sat in a room with Ouija boards and made predictions.  They weren’t predicting the stock market or the outcome of the Super Bowl. When the prophets spoke, they were holding people accountable to God. They pronounced God’s love for God’s people. They reminded the people, especially the rulers and the wealthy, that God’s love included justice for all the people God loves. The prophets pointed out that God was not there to protect the gains of the proud, the privileged, or the wealthy, but rather God protects and heals those who have suffered and lost, and is with every person in their grief.  When the prophets pronounced the judgment of God, it was with the ferocity of God’s love for justice for all people.

So that’s what we hear from John the Baptist this morning. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.”  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” What John was doing was calling people to repentance, to a change of heart, a change of how they lived their lives, and he baptized people as a sign of that repentance.

So it says, “the people of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him.” It was quite a trek, going out there into the desert by the Jordan River, down a steep mountain trail, from the hills down almost to sea level. It was almost like going out into the Nevada desert to attend Burning Man.

And, like going to Burning Man, it became a pretty fashionable thing to do. If you wanted to show off that you were really pious—head out to the Jordan, get baptized and then everyone will know you are the real deal.

So John looks up and sees a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees—that is to say, the religious establishment. They were there to receive baptism and demonstrate that they had ticked off every possible box of pious behavior, just as they had been doing all along. So John says to them: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” A prophet can be harsh. Certainly that’s how John came across.

What does this have to do with pronouncing God’s love? The key thing in John’s presentation of the word of God was Repentance. That is to say, a change from how you have been, a transformation of life. A transformation into the compassion of God—this is why John is pointing toward the one more powerful than himself, to Jesus who is the compassion of God, incarnate. The thing about being pious and religious is that we have a tendency to get comfortable and complacent; patting ourselves on the back for observing one respected practice or performing an act that will gain approval from all the other pious folks.  Sometimes, even the term “faith” or “love” becomes a check box for the complacent, a way to defend against the need for transformation, the need for repentance.

In the context of first century Judea, John says to these people, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our ancestor.’” Today he might say, “Don’t presume to say that you are a Christian, or that you say you have faith, or that you have received the sacraments of the church duly and in order.”

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

What fruit? This sounds complex and out of this world! No. It is quite simple. The fruit of repentance is humble respect for others, it is compassion that gives up on being self-interested and takes up being interested in the well-being of others instead, it is generosity that seeks not return, it is good news to the poor—that they are respected—not as objects of charity—but as the true children of God, from whom we learn of God’s Kingdom.  Repentance. Transformation into a life of compassion happens throughout our lives, we are constantly called back, because heaven knows, we are constantly tempted to turn inward to self-interest and complacency.  John the Baptist reminds us that no one is entitled to be smug, no one can dismiss the dignity of others and claim to be righteous. Everyone is called to be transformed into the generosity of Christ.

Our lesson from Isaiah describes the ideal king of Israel. It was written at a time of difficulty—invaders had conquered and taken away much of the population—it was a time of desolation. The image is of a stump of a tree that has been cut down or destroyed. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Life emerges from that desolation, hope in the midst of discouragement.  But this prophet then explains what the characteristics of that new hope, that anointed king, that Messiah, will be: “He shall not judge by …what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity FOR the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”  Justice, equity, for the meek, the poor, the powerless. And that same justice is fierce judgement against the wicked—those who profit from exploiting those with no power for their self-interest.

Advent is a season which is focused on the judgement of God, the final coming of God’s kingdom. Some people think that it is separate from Christmas, but I don’t think so. We are preparing for that season where God came into this world, not just as a human being, but as an infant in a poor family. Before he could properly walk, they became refugees in Egypt, because of the violence of a powerful king. It is in him, that we are called to transformation, to respect those who we might dismiss and to live in generosity in every season.

Let us once more pray our collect for today:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Salvation is nearer to us now

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

sawtooth

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

Today is the first Sunday of what?

… It can’t be Christmas shopping season, because that started at least two weeks ago. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and in Advent the church looks forward to the coming of the Lord… not to the coming of the Christmas tree and presents, and not really to Christmas at all, even the “real Christmas” that some people say is under attack. Advent points to the ultimate coming of the Lord, as the collect for today says:

“That in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal…”

We think of that day as Judgment Day, a scary and dark time for anybody who has anything to be afraid of. Of course, most of those who really deserve to be scared think we are talking about somebody else. But this season we look forward to the final reckoning, when God’s justice is established–of course we want some details on that: who, what, where, WHEN?

Of course, religious folk turn to their Bible, and what does Jesus say? Nobody knows. “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” That’s such a disappointment—because you know, if we just knew exactly what was going to happen, then we would have so much power—we would know when to invest in the stock market, or when to take vacation so that the storms would hit somebody else …

There are plenty of people who think that that is what religious faith is supposed to do—give you magical powers or special knowledge that take you outside of the ordinary difficulties of human life. It is easy enough to see Christians who completely ignore what Jesus has to say today. They make pronouncements about the future of the world, or the future of the church, or their own personal future, somehow alluding to hints in scripture, or similarities of some political event with some surmise about an image in scripture, or perhaps to interpreting God’s promises in such a way that God has to give them specifically what they want right now.

Jesus says to be watchful, now and every day—the day of the Lord can be here at any moment. We often think that we know what will happen, or even what is happening. When I was a teenager, I was particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking: a good word from a teacher or a good result in a musical performance and I was going to be a tremendous success—maybe I would be a star at the Metropolitan Opera or President of the U.S. And if something went wrong, my life would be over, everything was a failure. As we grow up and mature, we get a bit of a handle on our expectations, but still the temptation is there to project that recent events will follow in straight lines… /  up  … or \ down . Or we look around us, and assume that possibilities are limited to what was, and things can never change.

But the real world is not like that. When something new and creative happens everyone’s expectations are turned upside down—no one predicted Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, neither could anyone envision that the most amazing music of the baroque period would be produced at its very end, by a conservative named Johann Sebastian Bach. The Day of the Lord overturns our expectations, our grandiose self-serving expectations, and our demoralized and discouraged expectations. The Kingdom of God comes, not when we want, or when we think the preparations are done—two women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken and one will be left… a baby is born of a teenage mother, and the universe is changed. When the pride of the powerful is at its height, their plans collapse. And in the midst of collapse and discouragement, love and sharing are set free to change the world.

I believe in the Day of the Lord, which we focus on in this season of Advent. The specifics, I do not know, any more than Jesus did… but that Day brings life and new things because God’s people are prepared in humility and joy to follow him into new possibilities.

In today’s lesson from his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says:

“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

Today you will be with me in Paradise

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost, The Feast of Christ the King, November 20, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”

Today is the last Sunday of the Church year. Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new year, our expectation of the coming of Christ into the world. This Sunday is often called the Feast of Christ the King and on it we celebrate the kingship of Christ.

Christ the King.

“When they came to the place that is called the Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals.”

crucifixionA somewhat different kind of coronation than one might get at Westminster Abbey. He was picked up and tied to the cross by soldiers, and was helpless as they lifted him up to die of torture and suffocation. The sign said, “This is the King of the Jews.” I’m sure the Romans got a laugh out of that. And they taunted him, because he did not have the power that went with what they meant when they talked about a king.

Jesus was indeed in control, but his kingship was never like that. He never looked to the power of the sword, or yet to some divine magic power to overcome the power of the world. The robber said, “Save yourself and us!” Like the rest, for him it was all about us and what we can seize, how we can use power and escape the consequences of how we have lived our lives.

But Jesus, as soon as he was crucified, prayed: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He died as he lived, bringing the mercy of God to all people, including those who did not realize that in seeking comfort with the powerful and security in their violence, they were killing the King of Glory, the true king who can bring comfort and security. Jesus was praying for the soldiers, the politicians, the religious leaders, the mob, and for the two criminals who died with him, on either side of him.  Even for the one who wallowed in self-pity, the one who lashed out at Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah?” … “Father forgive them.” The king is the king of mercy, whose courage allowed him to not save himself, but to be there to bring God’s mercy. The other criminal had the courage to face the truth—“Do you not fear God?” “We indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds…”  The pain of crucifixion did not make the first one repent, I doubt that it made the second one either more courageous or honest; yet right there he did recognize the blamelessness and truth of Jesus.

Our reading from Colossians says of Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things…” Reconciliation is often used as a cheap word. As if it simply means being nice and accepting whatever will avoid conflict. Reconciliation requires trust on both sides, and to achieve that requires both honesty and humility in all parties. For Jesus, reconciliation is anything but cheap—he faced the violence and the hatred, and he was killed, tortured to death—there is no reconciliation without facing that truth, there is nothing cheap in accepting the truth and courageously owning up to it.

St. Paul continues: “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death…”  The mercy of God and reconciliation in Christ are not cheap, both require repentance and courage to accept the truth. And the criminal who had the courage to accept the truth about himself also had the courage to say to the King: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It is in no way cheap to acknowledge deeply your own place in the violence and injustice in this world, as this man did. It takes courage to be humble enough to accept those hard realities about yourself. But reconciliation requires a further step—the man turned toward Jesus and his Kingdom—the Kingdom of life, of justice, of costly reconciliation—the Kingdom of the God who resurrected Jesus Christ from the dead.

And Jesus said to that man: “Amen, I tell you. Today you will be with me in Paradise.” In Paradise—the image is of a garden. God’s garden. The garden as it was before the humans seized a fruit before it was ready, thinking that they would have the power of gods, the power that is only God’s. The image of Paradise is an image of life as it should be, as it might be from the point of view of God, in Jesus who was a man from God’s own point of view. Jesus extends a welcome into that garden, to that man beside him on the cross, and to all of us who seek his Kingdom. The cost is high, but it is within the grasp of each of us. The cost is mercy, honesty, repentance, love and the courage to persist in following Christ when the temptation is high to join the scoffers.

Last Thursday night, one of our own passed from this life. Jacqueline Johnson was a gentle and quiet person. One who always sought the good of others. She was over one-hundred-and-two years old, but her mind was sharp until she went into unconsciousness about a week ago. She was one of those people who practiced graciousness as a way of life. The last time I had a good conversation with her, though she really didn’t feel like eating, she still assured me she had two cans of Ensure each day and ate whatever was given her. “I just eat very slowly,” she said. She was beginning to depart this life, but she was still more concerned about others’ feelings than her own needs. A faithful person, she has passed through her struggles, from death to life. Please join me in remembering her and turn to page 499 in the Book of Common Prayer. The congregation’s words are in italics.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints,

Where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

Surely it is God who saves me

A sermon for the 27th Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

As one who always writes out his sermons in full, this gives me pause.  Is Jesus really saying don’t prepare in advance? And how does that fit together with our collect for today, “Grant us to so read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest [the Holy Scriptures] that we may ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life?”

First, we should really look at the scriptures, especially the one in which Jesus says this. Jesus is in Jerusalem, talking with his disciples about the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was there, actually pretty new and solid looking—it had been rebuilt by Herod the Great, just a few decades before. Jesus said not even one stone would be left in place—utter destruction.  This section of the Gospel of Luke is a picture of chaos, violence, and fear.

By the time the Gospel of Luke was written down, the scenes in this lesson were actually happening to Christians. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, and Christians were sometimes finding themselves dragged in front of magistrates and others, imprisoned, persecuted or beaten. Even St. Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament, wrote some of his letters from prison.

So when Jesus says:

“But before this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to congregations and prisons and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

…the readers of the Gospel of Luke knew that it was not just a flight of rhetoric. There were real things to be afraid of.  Throughout this election campaign and continuing this week after the election, many have been afraid, and with real things to be afraid of. The emotional intensity of this Gospel reading isn’t more than how many people feel right now.

So Jesus said to the disciples, to the Christians of the late first century who were facing arrest and persecution: “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare a defense in advance.” Jesus had empathy for all these people, that is, he knew and felt how they felt. He took them seriously. But he wasn’t so sympathetic with their desire to be let off the hook, to escape the reality that was facing them. They were afraid, but Jesus addressed them as his disciples, not just students or followers, but as people formed by the discipline of Christ’s love, of the values of his compassionate courage, as people whose character is growing into the love of God—love not for self, but for all of God’s creation, especially those who are vulnerable.

When he says “don’t prepare your defense in advance,” what I believe Jesus is saying is that this is not about defending yourself at all, it is not about a plausible speech, it is about presenting yourself as Christ presented himself—an offering and sacrifice to God. The truth of God’s compassion does not make us any less vulnerable, it does not make the truth hurt any less. We are accountable for being Christians, for standing for the truth in compassion, for insisting on respect for the dignity of every person. This is in no way partisan. Every Christian is equally required at all times to stand up with compassion for peace and against indignities against anyone, particularly when the tide of group emotions is running toward scapegoats and victims.

In the earlier part of the lesson, Jesus warns the disciples, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘the time is near!’ Do not listen to them.”  It is so easy to grab hold of plausible rhetoric, and people who promise the world, or even eternity, if you only follow them.  We certainly have seen that. As Christians, we follow Jesus, and Jesus alone. So how do we distinguish following Jesus, from accepting the word of some bearded guy standing behind a lectern?

Please join with me in a simple exercise of discernment. Don’t tell me what you are thinking, but reflect on these questions in the privacy of your own heart.

In this time of fraught national transition, what is God calling you to do?

Now. What is fear calling you to do?

Finally. What is love calling you to do?

In the long run, as we grow into Christ, who is the love of God, our discernment of where God is calling us to go, and what love is calling us to be will converge into the same thing.  And perfect love casts out fear, as real as the fear may be—but that might take a while. That’s OK—the love of God is bigger than all of us.

So, it says, right here in the Bible: “Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. … You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

In conclusion, let’s join once more and read today’s canticle, the First Song of Isaiah, together in unison:

Surely it is God who saves me;

I will trust in him and not be afraid.

For the Lord Is my stronghold and my sure defense,

And he will be my Savior.

Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing

From the springs of salvation.

And on that day you shall say,

Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;

Make his deeds known among the peoples;

See that they remember that his name is exalted.

Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things,

And this is known in all the world.

Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy,

For the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.

For the saints of God are just folk like me …

A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

 

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 

st-james-saintsToday we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. So what do we mean by Saints? The word “saint” means “Holy” as in holy people. Popularly that’s sort of understood as meaning that saints are some kind of Christian super-heroes, totally divorced and apart from anything that ordinary people could be, or would want to be. I’ll talk more about that later. But in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, the saints are all of the holy people of God, and every one of them is made holy, not by being some sort of hero, but by the action of God who makes all of us holy through his Son Jesus Christ.

The Gospel lesson today is for and about those saints, ordinary people, living ordinary lives. It is the beginning of Jesus’ teaching: in the Gospel of Matthew it’s called the Sermon on the Mount, but here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has come down from the mountain to a flat plain—maybe it’s a sermon to California’s Central Valley? Anyway, this part of it is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.

So why does it start “Blessed are the poor?” Who are the poor? — They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or might lose.

Likewise, those who are hungry. They don’t have enough to eat—they have to seek out that food—and really, in this world, sometimes people do not find it. It is for them that Jesus is concerned—in the Kingdom of God they will be satisfied.

And in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus emphasizes these things by pronouncing woe on those who are the opposite: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”  For those of us who are well-fed and not poor, that can be difficult to hear.

Jesus does not allow us to take comfort in our complacency or to fail to respect those who are hungry or poor just as we respect ourselves.

This is not to say that we should not rejoice in the good things that God has given us, and when we lose important things or people who are dear to us that we should not mourn. “Blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh.” There is no one who does not lose: friends, loved ones, and hopes that are deeply valued—we are blessed during our tears by the compassion of God.  We mourn and we hurt. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts and giving mercy. Our Christian spirituality takes seriously the losses of everyone; of every person. Laughter and derision because we are not the ones who are in pain or loss—that kind of laughter brings woe. It is not of the Kingdom of God.

And the last of the beatitudes: “Blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you or revile you…” This completes the Christian spirituality that Jesus is presenting—it is so easy to fall into presenting ourselves in ways that will get a positive response, regardless of whether it is compassionate, or truthful. Insisting on respect for all people; regarding the poor and hungry as the same as the rich, the powerful, and the popular; doing those things openly can be frightening, they can trigger all sorts of responses, even hatred.  Just ask Jesus. But believe me, Jesus is not the only example.

How do we live our lives as Christians? He says, “Love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” In the New Testament, and especially in the Gospel of Luke, Love is not about how you feel. How do you love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you. Seek to improve the world around you, don’t be deterred by the scoffing of others. As we struggle to find just a little bit of justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.

Jesus invites us all, not to some sort of heroic sainthood, but to a holiness of life that values his kingdom above all else. Many of the saints we remember were martyrs—St. Sebastian is one and, more recently Archbishop Oscar Romero, are a couple who come to mind. Not all saints, however, died for their faith, the word martyrs is a translation of the word “witness” or “confessor.” We often think of them as somehow having religious superpowers. But in reality they were not superheroes—they were Christian people. There are many that you run into each day that are just as good, just as faithful. The real characteristic of saints is that they continue to seek the kingdom with Jesus—even when, to put it in down-to-earth terms—they had a really bad day. And, because of the circumstances of their holding fast to their faith in a time of great trouble, or because they were such eloquent witnesses to the faith—or both—they have been enshrined through the ages.

But what does all this mean to us in our church here in our present-day world?

I often think about the small Episcopal Church I attended when I was a kid in Idaho. This church had no important programs, no fine choir, not much to brag about. But we did sing out of the hymnal, and it was that music, as poorly performed as it might have been, that sustained my spirit through the years. One of my favorite hymns in my childhood was the one we just sang for the gospel hymn. Perhaps the text may seem limited to early twentieth century England, but for me the images emphasize how ordinary people participate in that great cloud of witnesses that is the communion of saints: “for the saints of God are just folk like me and I mean to be one too.”

Together, we are the community of Jesus’ saints. Not superheroes or champions. Every bit as scruffy and in need of support as the homeless, the hungry and the infirm who we might encounter. Together we worship God. Together we serve the saints, and even serve those who scoff at the saints. Each of us, may from time to time be hungry, impoverished, unable to love, or be devastated by loss. At St. James, we live the Gospel, in all the real-world messiness that entails. This small assembly in the communion of saints upholds one another, welcomes the stranger and is blessed by God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.

This Sunday, our stewardship committee has asked all of us saints to commit ourselves to the support of this community where Christ accomplishes his blessing far more than any of us would be able to do individually.

After the announcements we will begin our offertory by asking each person or family to bring forward your pledge card and put it on the altar. Each person’s financial circumstances are different. We are all blessed in our poverty and in our generosity. As we all offer what we have on the altar, we are blessed by God.

 

He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner

A sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, October 30, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

There are two things we know about Zacchaeus: he was rich and he was short.

He wasn’t just rich; he was a chief tax collector. There are quite a few references in the Gospels to tax collectors, but this is the only reference to a CHIEF tax collector. It’s like Zacchaeus was the regional manager of tax collectors. In those days, being a tax collector was a good way to make a lot of money, because it was a franchised operation, working for the occupying Roman government, but it was not a great way to make friends among the population, who had no fondness for taxes and really did not like people who made their money by collaborating with the Roman occupation. So with his money, Zacchaeus had a lot of privilege and with his position, he had protection, since the Romans would allow no one to mess with the way they governed. But Zacchaeus was also short. That is to say, very noticeably not tall. This is important, because even though it may not be a good thing, it often affects how people see a person, and the kind of respect they give him. Of course, it’s unfair, just as the extra privilege accorded to the rich and powerful is unfair in the other direction.

The image is that here comes this well-known healer and prophet, Jesus, walking down the main street of the town— “who knows, maybe he’s the messiah or something, maybe he’ll restore righteousness to Israel, maybe he’ll take the place of John the Baptist and start baptizing people in the Jordan (which wasn’t far away from that town of Jericho), maybe he’ll pick up where John left off when he was arrested, and show Herod and those Romans a thing or two…” The crowds were out, expecting something … and this short guy, this sinner Zacchaeus was there wanting to see him as well. But he was … not popular; a sinner; regional manager of the Tax Collecting Corporation … and besides he was short. So they turned their backs on him and closed ranks, and kept him from seeing the street. But, somehow, Zacchaeus really

Sycamore Tree in Palestine

Sycamore Tree in Palestine

wanted to see this Jesus guy. Being resourceful and determined, Zacchaeus saw a sycamore tree down the road—the

variety that grows in Palestine has big branches that spread out, starting pretty close to the ground—so he ran ahead and climbed up in the branches.

The crowd was expecting something special from Jesus, but they weren’t expecting what happened: “Zacchaeus come on down here! I have to stay at your house today!” Those were the words of the prophet Jesus, and Zacchaeus accepted them with joy; he scrambled down out of the tree and welcomed him. So they’re walking off toward Zacchaeus’ house and everybody has an opinion—it’s not just the Pharisees and other religious leaders this time. Everybody is saying that this Zacchaeus is obviously a sinner—look at all the money he makes, and besides, he’s short. Jesus, of course is a great disappointment, not living up to our expectations, hanging out with short people … I mean … obvious sinners. While people are grumbling, Zacchaeus stops and explains to Jesus how he lives: “Look, Lord, I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I may have defrauded someone, I make fourfold restitution.”

One of the problems with the lectionary is that sometimes parts of the Gospel story are skipped over. In my Greek New Testament, there is another story that runs parallel to this, the story of the rich ruler. The same basic story occurs in the Gospel of Mark, so it was read last year, so it’s left out of this year’s cycle of readings. In that story a clearly devout and prominent man asks Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus lists off the essentials of the commandments, the man affirms that he has always followed those, and Jesus says, “just one more thing—sell what you have, give to the poor, and come follow me” … the man goes away sorrowful, for he was very rich. In the Gospel of Luke, these two stories are only separated by Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and the healing of the blind beggar—one page in the Greek. Zacchaeus, who is also rich and powerful does not go away sorrowful, but welcomes Jesus with joy. Though no one notices or believes him, he dedicates himself and his property to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God takes priority over everything.

Jesus said: (to put it in very literal translation) “Today, therefore, it is necessary that I remain in your house” –it uses the same formula that he uses when he responds to Peter’s confessing that he is the messiah by saying “it is necessary that the Son of man undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed and on the third day be raised.” Dwelling in the house of this notorious sinner brings in the Kingdom of God. (flip one more page and you are at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem). Zacchaeus is an ambiguous character with a complex life—not unlike many of us, I would wager—he has plenty of privilege, and yet he’s also marginalized and despised. He is in no more likely situation to respond to Jesus than the rich ruler, and he’s in no less difficult situation to take this man into his house than we are. Jesus sought out Zacchaeus and brought salvation to his house, just as he seeks us out, to bring his healing and his Gospel in this town.

This month we are talking about stewardship, and next Sunday we will bring our pledge cards to the altar. Stewardship is about everything we do with our lives and the gifts we have received, not just about what we give to church. We live our whole lives in the Kingdom of God. But as we consider our pledge, please envision how it is that we welcome Jesus into the home we share together, and how with along with other sinners, like Zacchaeus, we are welcomed into Christ’s kingdom.

Let us pray once more, the collect for today:

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service; Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

They were righteous and regarded others with contempt?

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…”

When we hear today’s parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector, praying in the temple, it’s enough to make us think, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not a Pharisee!”

So who were the Pharisees?

They were the devout. They were those who were regular in attendance at worship. They observed pious practices and sought to purify their lives in accord with the commands of scripture. (The most likely derivation of the word “Pharisee” is from the word for “pure”).

The Pharisees pledged and paid their pledge. They attended parish meetings and volunteered for committees. They really cared about their religious faith.

They were just like us.

Christians sometimes miss that. As St. Luke introduces this parable: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Regarded others with contempt. There is nothing further from Christian values than to regard others with contempt. Any time that we baptize new Christians we all promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Without that respect, there is no growth in a Christian church, no matter what anyone says. It is tempting to regard others with contempt, particularly in the current political climate of our country.  So how is it with the Pharisee in this parable? He says, “God, I thank you…” That part is good—all good is from God and we should always live our lives as thanksgiving and give voice to God in thanks as much as possible. He continues, “… that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers …”

Hmmm. He is NOT like other people. And he makes a long list in ways he’s not like other people. Included in that list are behaviors that most of us agree are bad behaviors such as theft, unrighteousness and adultery. So that makes the Pharisee irreproachable—because he’s not a thief, unrighteous or an adulterer.

Fair enough, but now, the parable tells us that the Pharisee mentions the man standing next to him with contempt. That man, the tax collector of the story, is standing there and what is he saying? Unlike the Pharisee, he isn’t separating himself from others or categorizing others by their behavior. He says: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”

I look around our country, and what I hear is people defending themselves by accusation, of categorizing others according to their sins or imagined sins. I myself have been angry from time to time, and in that anger characterized others as the unrighteous and myself and my friends as the righteous. That does not lead to healing or the resolution of the situation. For me, healing only comes through reaching out to others in compassion, hearing the pain and complexity in their lives, and encouraging others in the abundance of God’s mercy.  That’s usually a long process if trust has been broken between people. It also doesn’t mean that we have to give up on our deeply-held positive values.  In some situations where trust has really been broken, the life of compassion has to be developed elsewhere, with others, not directly and quickly with those we have been in conflict.  But it is not through accusation that we find the truth, but through sharing in the mercy of God, of trying to understand the struggles and suffering of others.

praying-aloneThe tax collector was well aware of how things were in his life. It wasn’t just that others despised tax collectors because they were associated with the Roman rule and got substantial income and privilege from their work. The tax collector also knew of the pressures and temptations to extort from some and play favorites with others that characterized the somewhat chaotic Roman system of tax farming. Getting along in that job often ended up meaning that a tax collector went along with, and practiced things that went beyond his ethical boundaries. The truth could be devastating—and the picture in this parable is of a man facing that truth.

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…” There’s no easy answer in this story. But even so, the tax collector could receive God’s mercy because he was trying to live in the truth.

How common is it in our lives that we are tempted to avoid acknowledging the truth? How common that we fib to make ourselves look better? And how common is it for people to pretend that they don’t need mercy? That they don’t have to ask for forgiveness, because they can’t remember any wrong that they have done?

Jesus is here to give mercy and to welcome us into the truth.

Today happens to be the feast of Saint James of Jerusalem, the patron of our church. He was the leader of the Church in Jerusalem during the early days of the church, working along with and in discussion with, and sometimes in conflict with St. Paul and St. Peter on the relationship between Gentile converts and Jewish Christians. We know from the writings of Paul that sometimes these became partisan battles, and James was key in resolving these conflicts in a way that the mission of the church moved forward.

The collect for this feast is a fitting ending to this reflection. Let us pray.

Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.