Month: October 2016

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.

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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.

Do not lose heart

A sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Jesus is a story teller. In most of these stories the characters and places are not specific, rather they illustrate things we know to be true. They are seldom allegories, most of them tell about human interaction. You often hear this parable referred to as “the Parable of the Unjust Judge,” because the first character who appears is a judge, who in principle, is not just.

First—this is not an allegory about God. Nothing in the story refers to God. Second—the story is not about the judge at all. This is the story of the Persistent Woman. The Judge represents sort of a worst-case scenario. The woman’s persistence could have the same result with a number of people and in a number of circumstances—but let’s just suppose that the judge was as corrupt, arbitrary and self-interested as one could imagine. Susceptible to bribes or cronyism, disinclined to go to the trouble to make or enforce judgements in favor of the poor, the widowed, or anyone else who didn’t matter. How frequent, or where, or who such judges might be, is not the issue, it is the context where Jesus puts the widow in this story.

The woman is a widow. Widows were the most vulnerable of all people in that society. They had lost their means of income and often most of their assets when their husbands died. And without power, they were vulnerable to further injustice and exploitation. It could be discouraging. Exhausting to resist. So Jesus tells of a woman who kept coming for justice. She wouldn’t lose heart, she kept coming though the judge was the most hopeless source of vindication you could imagine. And she kept coming.

Why? Why didn’t she give up? It was certainly hopeless.

persistent-widowThe woman persisted because she believed in justice. I don’t see evidence of desperation or panic in her story.  An unjust judge who has no respect for anyone would notice desperation and conclude that a little more harshness and callousness would break the supplicant and make her accept his decision. To have justice was the widow’s deepest value. She knew that she deserved justice, and she was not going to give up on that. She was not going to give up on the truth, or on justice and her case was just, no matter how the judge tried to avoid giving it to her.  She persisted, even when tempted to give up heart, to walk away.

It wasn’t until someone pointed out to me recently how this is a story about a person and her deepest values that I was able to understand how it fits with the introductory sentence: “Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”  It certainly has nothing to do with haranguing God incessantly about the pony you want, or whatever outcome you desire. Jesus is telling a story about what is deepest, what is the most valuable—and never giving up on what is at the center of your heart. In truth, prayer is finding the center of your heart in God and trusting God and remaining there, no matter what happens.

For this widow, that manifested itself in the value of justice. Each of us is a bit different, the deepest and most essential values come from different perspectives and express themselves in different ways. Take a moment, and consider, listen to your heart and visualize what it is that you, yourself would be so persistent to hold onto—that you value so deeply –like this persistent woman before the unfriendly judge.

I won’t ask you to tell anyone—the answer and the value is yours, there is not some right or Christian answer to that.

However, as a community we also have values—the deepest ones are the ones that bring us here and keep us here, they are values that we share and hold together. Some, of course, are shared by all Christians: the love of God and our fellow human beings in Christ. Yet each congregation, each community is in its own situation with its own passions and deeply-held values, as distinct and individual as your own personal most deeply-held values.  Those values become clear in conversation and sharing. At this time of transition for St. James, you have answered a survey which is the beginning of a conversation about what is most important to you in this particular church at this time. The survey itself is not the conversation, but a way of focusing the questions about who we are together. Life as a community requires the kind of persistence that we see in the widow in today’s Gospel. Canon Andrea McMillan will be leading a discussion with us about the results of the survey in Martin Hall after this service. There is much food for thought, and her presentation will start a conversation which I expect will continue here long after her visit is over.  The conversation is about how we live as Christians and pray always and never lose heart. The lesson for today ends, “Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Persist in what is true, what is good—those values that God has planted within you and there will be faith in this place, long after all of us are gone.

 

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you

A Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Of the ten lepers that Jesus healed, nine of them went to the priests as Jesus told them, and the other one was a Samaritan who came back to Jesus, praising God. Jesus commended the Samaritan.

Now the Samaritans were a large minority group in Palestine in Jesus’ time. They shared a common heritage with the majority Jewish population, but there were religious and cultural differences and the two groups had almost nothing to do with one another. If you asked around, most would tell you that the Samaritans were lazy, dirty and dishonest and that their worship was idolatrous. Of course most had virtually no contact with Samaritans or their religion, and didn’t know that it was based exclusively on the observance of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Samaritans were foreigners in their own country, and not to be trusted.

So Jesus asks, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Perhaps Jesus is being a bit mischievous here. The other nine did do as Jesus told them. They did what was prescribed by the religious commandments and had a priest verify that they were healed. Jesus upset everyone’s expectations by praising the person who did not do what he told him to do. Everyone’s expectations and everyone’s descriptions of the Samaritan notwithstanding, Jesus told the Samaritan: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” The example of healing, of new life, of glorifying God and of faith, is the faith of this foreigner and outcast. God is free, and is not captive to our expectations.

Our Old Testament lesson is from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was usually very critical of the rulers and aristocracy of Jerusalem and Judah. Sometimes they imprisoned him; they even tossed him in the bottom of an underground cistern for it. The words he conveyed from God criticized their pride and their complacency. He criticized their assumption that God would preserve them from their enemies no matter what.

Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and destroyed it. And he took away with him the rulers and aristocracy of Jerusalem and Judah into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem and he wrote them the letter that was read this morning.

The expectation of those proud people was, that if God did not save them and Jerusalem from the power of Nebuchadnezzar, they would be a people that was destroyed and humiliated; that they would have no life or prospects. They expected if God was real, their prosperity would be ensured, and things would stay the same as it had been.

Jewish captives with camel and baggage on their way into exile. Detail of the Assyrian conquest of the Jewish fortified town of Lachish (battle 701 BCE) Part of a relief from the palace of Sennacherib at Niniveh, Mesopotamia (Iraq)

Jewish captives with camel and baggage on their way into exile. Detail of the Assyrian conquest of the Jewish fortified town of Lachish (battle 701 BCE) Part of a relief from the palace of Sennacherib at Niniveh, Mesopotamia (Iraq)

But Nebuchadnezzar had prevailed and they were defeated, their houses and their temple were plundered and they were led away to a far-off foreign city.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote them this letter. The word from God was that it was God who sent them into exile, turning their expectations upside down. Their humiliation was not their death or the end of their people. Quite the opposite. “Build houses and live in them.” “Plant gardens and eat their produce.” “Take wives, have sons and daughters, have them marry and bear grandchildren.” In the reality of their desolation, God called them out of their self-absorption and self-pity into hope. Into life, even abundant life. Rather than worrying about the city that they had lost, God called them to seek the welfare of the city where they had been sent. In all this they did not lose their identity as the people of the God they had worshiped in Jerusalem, rather they became God’s people even more, they became that people even more richly.

Sometimes church people confuse their own expectations with the will of God. In fact, it is not that uncommon for people to conclude that when things are not going according to long-held expectations that somehow God has ceased to be there. A couple of weeks ago the Episcopal Church released an annual summary of statistics. Some might be surprised to learn that most of the indicators, such as church membership and attendance, were down, church-wide. Others might be aware that this has been the trend since about 1965.

So what do we say of a church that is half its former size and growing smaller by the year? Perhaps our leaders or our members could have done better, been more competent, and been more serious about their faith and commitment to support of the church. I could give you a list. But if everyone on that list did exactly as they might have, they would simply be like those nine lepers who Jesus healed and they went away to the priests—not like the Samaritan who returned to glorify God in Jesus.

Perhaps God is just not here, perhaps God is not giving us what we need.  Which is to say, what we want and have come to expect.  Certainly when I was on the East Coast, I was at places that clearly showed that at one time, not that long ago, Episcopalians comprised the rulers and aristocracy of America. Episcopalians quietly interpreted their well-being and the well-being of their church as the sign and condition of God’s presence and favor. But like the aristocracy of Jerusalem that was taken to Babylon, God is not finished with us yet. Indeed, he is just beginning. God’s love and faithfulness is not shown in comfort and wealth. It is shown in life and hope. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” Do not look back at what was or might have been—be God’s servant, God’s hands, the voice and touch of the respect of God for all God’s people, especially the foreigner or the ones so unlike yourself that you never expected to know or care for them. Build houses and plant gardens—and in living on their abundance, glorify God by living a fearless life of thanksgiving.

Listen to how today’s psalm ends:

Bless our God you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard;

Who holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip.

For you, O God, have proved us;

You have tried us just as silver is tried.

You brought us into the snare; you laid heavy burdens upon your backs.

You let enemies ride over our heads; we went through fire and water;

But you brought us out into a place of refreshment.