Sunday, October 31, 2010

Zaccheus and the Verb Tense of Doom!

I got challenged to look at an old story a new way.

I highly recommend it.

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.

To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Luke 19:1-10
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Do you remember the children’s song, “Zaccheus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he…”? I was going to start out this morning’s sermon by singing the whole thing, but that’s all I remember.

But if you’ve been going to church as long as I have (nine months before I was born), you’ve heard the story of this man, Zaccheus. He was, indeed, a wee little man, both short in stature, physically, short in moral stature, because he is a tax collector, and as a result, short in stature in his community.

We talked last week about tax collectors, and how they were, to the people of first-century Palestine, on a level with prostitutes and Samaritans. Zaccheus’ name means “clean” or “innocent,” is clearly neither one – not only is he a tax collector, he is the chief tax collector! And rich to boot, probably by taxing his fellow Jews into poverty.

In the Roman provinces there were three main kinds of taxes: a produce tax on all the crops and goods produced, a universal poll tax assessed every resident, and a toll or customs tax to be paid as goods were transported from one province to another. To collect this last tax, custom booths were located at the border between provinces on all the major highways and trade routes. The tax collectors would often overstate, and thus overtax, the value of goods. Furthermore, Roman law allowed the tax collectors to confiscate and keep goods not declared by the merchant. Here too, the system was ripe for abuse as many tax collectors would improperly seize goods.

You would think that, upon hearing that Jesus was passing through on his way to Jerusalem, Zaccheus wouldn’t have been interested, or would have been intimidated, even fearful. At the very least, we’d expect him to approach Jesus in the same way the tax collector in last week’s reading approached prayer: penitently, on his knees, begging forgiveness and mercy.

Besides, honestly, climbing a tree? Zaccheus is a grown man, for crying out loud! And men in those days didn’t even wear pants!

But things almost never go the way we expect them to when it comes to Jesus. Not only is Zaccheus curious enough about this itinerant Rabbi to climb a tree so he can get a glimpse as the teacher passes by, Jesus notices him – calls him by name – and invites himself to Zaccheus’ home!

And far from being fearful, or contrite, or even embarrassed, Zaccheus is overjoyed! Excited to have Jesus come and visit! It’s almost as if Monty Python had written the scene!

One thing in this story goes exactly the way you’d expect, though, doesn’t it? The crowd is scandalized, shocked, disgusted, angry! Why, this so-called prophet can’t even tell, or worse, doesn’t even care, what kind of man he’s talking to! The nerve – staying at the house of such an evil, vile, sinful… tax collector!

But who’s this story about – Jesus, or Zaccheus? If it’s about Jesus, then we are reminded that Jesus is all about finding the lost, and if you want to find the most lost person in a Judean town, you’re not going to get much more lost than a chief tax collector! And a hyperactive, tree-climbing chief tax collector at that!

If it’s about Jesus, then Zaccheus’ joy at being called down, at being honored by the presence of the Lord of Life in his very own house, makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? It’s the perfect picture of God’s prevenient grace – calling us from wherever we are, drawing us to Christ, inviting us into fellowship with the Triune God. And Zaccheus’ words of instant repentance fit right in! “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” And as a response to Zaccheus’ sincere words, Jesus pronounces salvation not only for Zaccheus, but for his entire household.

And of course I posed a ridiculous question to begin with: Certainly, the story is about Jesus! It’s the Gospel of Luke, right? We are walking with Jesus down this road toward Jerusalem, this road that leads to arrest, to torture, to death… and to resurrection, and to the destruction of the barrier between ourselves and our loving Creator. How could any account, and periscope, any Gospel story ever be about anything but Jesus?

So the story isn’t about Zaccheus, but it’s possible we don’t see everything there is to see about this chief tax collector.

Remember that the New Testament was originally written in Greek. And ancient Greek has as much to do with modern Greek as early English has to do with modern English – and if you ever get a chance to look at a page from a manuscript of Beowulf, you’ll see that early English is a wildly different, dead language. For this reason, when it comes to translating the manuscripts of the New Testament into English, sometimes there are words or phrases, even verb tenses, whose meanings are, quite honestly, debated among scholars. And smack-dab in the middle of this periscope is a hotly contested disagreement.

When Zaccheus speaks to Jesus about giving half of his possessions to the poor, and paying back fourfold anything defrauded, he uses the present verb tense. Now, if this were English it would be cut-and-dried, but the fact is that scholars don’t know if the meaning of the verb is as in an action to be taken from that point forward, like it is in our reading from the New Revised Standard Version: "…half of my possessions… I will give to the poor…if I have defrauded anyone… I will pay back..." or if it is a statement of present, ongoing activity, as it is translated in the King James Version:

"…the half of my goods I give to the poor,” it says, then “…if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”

If it is the latter, and Zaccheus is responding to the accusations of the townspeople by stating the facts as they are, then he is no longer the man lacking moral stature. Rather, he is someone of exemplary morals, who does the right thing. Zaccheus fulfils far more than what is merely his obligation under the Law of Moses. You see, according to Old Testament law, if a person cheats someone he must make restitution in full and add twenty percent to it. If a person steals from his neighbor he must pay back double as restitution. Further, according to Roman law, a tax collector who wrongfully confiscated goods had to restore double the value. And, if force was used, a threefold restitution had to be made. Zacchaeus’ statement went far beyond the demands of both Old Testament and Roman law; he offered “four times the amount!”

And Zaccheus does this not just when no one around him pays attention, but when everyone around him, even the very people he gives to, the very people who benefit from his generosity, openly hate him!

I don’t know if they still make these, but there used to be plastic, hand-held label makers, where you’d spin a dial to select a letter, press a handle, and as you pressed out letters and words a thin strip of stiff plastic would stick out the end. Squeeze another handle and the plastic was cut off. You’d pull the backing off of the adhesive, and presto! You could label just about anything! You know, every one of us has a kind of label maker. And it’s funny, even with this story of Zaccheus, we humans have our label machines going. We read the story through and label Zaccheus a sinner, a bad man, a thief and a liar who, confronted by the joy and forgiveness of the living Christ, repents, makes restitution, and gets a fresh new “saint” label. After all, that’s the way it’s always told to us.

Yet if we reinterpret Zaccheus’ words to read in the present tense, where he is already acting in a faithful and generous manner with his money and his life, we’re unfairly labeling him, treating him in exactly the same way every resident of Jericho had treated him all his life.

Looking at it from this direction, Zaccheus teaches us more about ourselves than we may want to learn: we are label-makers, and even on the rare occasions where a label is earned, that label does not serve to define. Rather, labels limit, exclude, deny, marginalize. People diappear behind the labels we give them, and behind the ones they give themselves. Lives collapse under the weight of the labels.

But Jesus seeks those who are lost.

And in the face of Zaccheus’ stubborn faithfulness, Jesus does not save Zaccheus from his own actions; rather, Jesus seeks Zaccheus as one lost to those around him. One lost in the labels people have put on him. By seeing him, calling him, staying with him, and blessing him, Jesus declares for all to hear that this Zaccheus, even this chief tax collector, is a child of Abraham...and child of God.

Isn’t it amazing that, any way you look at it, Jesus is seeking and saving the lost. Either way we approach it, Jesus is restoring humankind to God. Either way, when Jesus passes by, nothing is ever the same again.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Of Tax Collectors and Justification

Thanks to Kate Huey, David Lose, and George Elerick for help with this week's sermon.

As always, comments and constructive criticism are welcome.

Joel 2:23-32

O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Throughout the Gospels, and especially, it seems, in the Book of Luke, Jesus has a habit of using characters and imagery which contradict people’s expectations, which upset the societal norms of the day. If we will allow them to, these parables will upset our own expectations as well.

At that time in history, if you wanted an example of what utter faithfulness, piety, purity, and true Godliness looked like, you looked to the Pharisees. In fact, the reason that there are people who can live and worship as Jews today is because of the Pharisees. When the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, it threatened to take with it the cultural identity of the Jewish people. Without the temple, without the sacrifices, without Jerusalem, how could one be Jewish?

It was the Pharisees who, though their extensive knowledge of the Law and long experience with cultural practices, were able to make sense of the Jewish faith apart from the Temple. They were, to the Jewish people at the time Christ walked among them, the picture of holiness.

By contrast, tax collectors personified everything that was wrong with the nation of Judah. You see, the reason Rome conquered so many lands and people was chiefly so that the Roman government could get its hands on the treasure of a given country, and tax its citizens. Thus the tax collectors were as much a symbol of occupation and oppression as the Roman soldiers who made up the occupying army. These tax collectors were Jewish, but not only were on the payroll of the pagan Romans, but used their power to bully and overtax their fellow countrymen, profiting on the backs of their fellow Jews.

And, in any case, was anything the Pharisee in his prayer untrue? He wasn’t, as a matter of fact, anything like that tax collector. He wasn’t like the thieves, rogues, or adulterers either. He worked very hard to be faithful. His group followed, more strictly than any other person in first-century Palestine, the absolute letter of the Mosaic Law. He indeed fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of his income. Rev. Kate Huey writes, “For the Pharisee, God seems to live right inside him. His prayer is more of a Shakespearean soliloquy, praising himself and his works and his own goodness. He has it all figured out, and things add up rather nicely for him. Perhaps he comes out looking better than even God does! It helps to have the tax collector nearby for stark contrast, because the Pharisee far outshines him in his virtuous works. To this religious leader, God is benevolent and has surely noticed how good the Pharisee is. Actually, there isn't much need for God to do anything in the life of this Pharisee except to agree with him.”

The problem, of course, is obvious, and Luke explains it in the very first sentence: the Pharisee was comfortable in his righteousness. What’s more, he had constructed that life of righteousness under his own power, had attained doctrinal purity through his own efforts alone.

By contrast, the tax collector knows he has no claim to righteousness. He has, in fact, done everything he could to offend the Mosaic Law and oppress the people of God. He must rely, completely and solely, on the mercy of God, and he knows this to his core. Because of this fact, and this fact alone, the tax collector found forgiveness and justification in the eyes of God.

It’s easy to read through the parable, see the Pharisee as the bad guy, the tax collector as the good guy, lesson learned, be like the tax collector, Judy plays the piano, we pass the plate.

But here’s a strange contradiction for you: the moment we begin to thank God we aren’t like that Pharisee, being all braggy about how un-self-righteous we are and all, we become… like… the Pharisee. “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble.”

The biggest complaint Jesus had against the Pharisees was that they had lost the point of all that righteousness they worked to attain. The keeping of the Mosaic Law in every point had become the focus of their existence. Rather than using the Law as a tool to serve God, they had let the Law become their god. And make no mistake, any time we let our doctrine become the focal point of our righteousness, rather than the lens through which we see the Living God more clearly, that doctrine has become an idol, and must be pulled down.

In this parable Jesus teaches a lesson for us about God's mercy in justifying the abject sinner, the tax collector, instead of the apparently holy Pharisee. If we come before God in humble openness and fervent trust in God's goodness – and, honestly, how else would we be forgiven but for God's goodness? – we make room for God to work in our lives.

More than all the good works we can manage, all the doctrines we can perfect, all the church services we can attend, all the sermons we can preach, it is approaching God as a benevolent and loving Parent, as the wellspring of mercy and grace, which produces righteousness.

Charles Cousar writes, “Prayer is the occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity about others.” Honesty flows from openness: an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation. For Luke's audience, learning to be Christians in those early post-Resurrection years, “Prayer was not a last resort when all the plans and programs and power plays had failed; prayer was, rather, the first and primary task of Christians.” Prayer helps us to discover who we are, and who God is: merciful and loving and just.

This is why the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, left from his prayers a justified man. Going back to the quote I read from Rev. Huey, it could be argued that the Pharisee wasn’t really praying as much as he was bragging. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t ever feel particularly close to someone who spends all their time telling me how awesome they are.

So is the only proper context of prayer to be sobbing, breast-beating, and begging? Is our only prayer the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner?”

There is immeasurable value in the prayers we say when there is nothing left to say, of course. But prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of praise, hymns sung as worship, all of these are just as valuable, because it is the attitude of the person praying, more than the content of the prayer, which is important.

The shelves of the local Christian bookstore are stuffed full of books on how to pray. I hate to say this, but most, perhaps, all of these books are completely useless. The question is not so much what are we praying, but why are we praying? Is it to remind ourselves of the righteousness we have attained through the good things we do, through believing the right things, through supporting the proper causes, through saying the right things? Or is the reason for our prayer to communicate and grow ever closer with our God, who loves us and has redeemed us through the blood of Christ?

Are we righteous under our own power, like the Pharisee? Or are we made truly righteous by God, like the tax collector?

Righteousness isn’t a commodity we can earn, or a goal to be attained. Just like every good thing that comes from God, it is a gift. And isn’t that a wonderful thing? How exhausting it must have been for the Pharisee, to have to work so hard every day to make sure that nothing he said or did or even thought was contrary to the letter of the law!

By contrast, in Jesus Christ God has emancipated us from the need to seek out righteousness through good works, through right thinking and right practice. Rather we are set free to seek mercy, receive righteousness, and find rest in grace.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Nicea, and What We Say About God

This is actually a recycled sermon, first preached June 7, 2009. I don't like doing this, and won't bore you with excuses; I'll just say that in it I get to use the Nicene Creed and talk about a very important piece of church history (for better or worse, depending on your outlook).

Some of my less theistic friends may take offense at what I say; please know that this is not meant to be a "turn-or-burn" kind of sermon. Rather, what we believe shapes who we are, and if one is to be a Trinitarian Christian, one should certainly know what this means.

In any case, please read and offer comments/criticisms, and by all means take advantage of the open invitation to come hear it live!

Jeremiah 31:27-34
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD. In those days they shall no longer say: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?"
"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

I have to confess to you that I used to think the Nicene Creed was just an expanded version of the Apostle’s Creed. Somewhere along the way, someone had either decided to expand on the Apostle’s Creed, or that the Apostle’s Creed was made when someone decided to edit down the Nicene Creed into a bite-sized format. I came to find out over the years that the Nicene Creed is, in fact, the first truly definitive statement of who the Triune God is, and how that God interacts with humanity.

What we say about God matters. It’s easy to get bogged down in talking about the Holy Trinity.

It’s easier still to dismiss Trinitarian theology as the stuff of scholars and seminarians, of no real significance in the lives of ordinary people. But what we say about God matters enormously in our lives.

When we sing my favorite hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we sing, “God in three persons, Blessed Trinity…”

…because it makes a difference whether a person says, for example, “I believe in God, or maybe something of the sort; well, I mean, there must be something like that out there, so I suppose we can call it ‘God’”, or whether one says, “Yes, I believe in God, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Counselor; that is, I believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

It makes a difference whether you believe in God as an elemental spirit or you believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. What we believe about God makes a difference to the way we live.

What we say about God is so important, in fact, that if it weren’t for the courageous Christians who forged the Nicene Creed in the fires of controversy, persecution, and excommunication, not only would you and I most likely not be celebrating Trinity Sunday today, but we may not be having church at all. Certainly, whatever we did here would be far different from the worship we are accustomed to.

The year was 325AD. Thirteen years before, prior to a decisive battle in his struggle to unite the Roman Empire (under himself), the Emperor Constantine had seen a vision of a cross in the sky, and the words, “By This Sign Conquer.” He won the battle of Milvian Bridge, according to some reports converted to Christianity, and with the Edict of Milan in 313, made Christianity legal at last in the Roman Empire.

Now, skeptical types look at the legalization of Christianity as a ploy by Constantine to further solidify his authority and strengthen the newly reunited Empire under a common faith.

He certainly thought of himself as the one responsible for making sure that God was properly worshipped in his empire. Of course, even Constantine agreed that what proper worship consisted of was for the Church to determine.

And herein was a problem, because though Christianity had enjoyed only a decade or so free from persecution, it had been in turmoil for some time over the question of who, exactly, Jesus is. If the Emperor wanted a religion that was a stabilizing force for the Empire, it seemed he bet on the wrong horse: Christians were even rioting over this question! People had died over this question!

Why? Because the answer to the question of who Jesus is would define exactly how God interacts with God’s people – and how, or if, God saves God’s people.

One group of Christians, led first by Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and later by the bishop Athenasius, understood Jesus to be God, of the same substance and being as God the Father, and coeternal with God.

Another group, who found their voice in an Alexandrian priest named Arius, believed Jesus to be a created being: the most perfect of all created beings, perhaps, and perhaps of similar substance to the Father, but created and thus not eternal. Divine, perhaps, maybe a kind of demigod… but not God.

So Constantine called all the bishops in the Empire together for the first council of its kind, and somewhere between 250 and 318 attended: men still bearing the marks on their bodies of years of horrible persecutions, missing eyes or limbs, scarred from being burned or beaten or bitten by animals.

The discussion took a month. Creedal statement after creedal statement was proposed, many of which were loosely worded enough the Arians would have signed on with no problem, controversy resolved, which way to the lunchroom?

What nobody had counted on was that Bishop Alexander had brought Athenasius to the council, and Athenasius could not fathom compromise with those who would deny that Jesus was both eternal and God! Athenasius knew that what we say about God matters!

Over the centuries, a lot has been made of the fact that, when it came right down to it, the whole Christian world was in turmoil over one letter of the Greek alphabet: the iota. The Greek word for “same substance” is “homo-ousius.” The word for “similar substance” is “homoi-ousius.”

So what was Athenmasius arguing about? After all, it’s just one letter, and the smallest in the Greek alphabet to boot, so what’s the big deal? Doesn’t seem to be much difference between “like substance” and “similar substance” anyway, really, right?

Wrong. That one letter makes all the difference! What we say about God matters, because what we say about God is a reflection of what we believe about God, and what we believe about God will govern how we live our lives.

Put in that iota, and the “homoi-ousius” God becomes depersonalized, a distant entity, who interacts and communicates by proxy. This God doesn’t come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, but builds a Jesus and sends him to Earth, thus corrupting or canceling the idea of any kind of redemption through his blood, because a Jesus who is not quite God cannot quite save! Moreover, carried to its extreme, it could be argued that if Jesus was a created being who was made divine, there’s nothing keeping other people from becoming equally divine. Thus Jesus is not only not God, he’s not unique. Thus Christianity stops being a faith journey toward deeper relationship with a loving, personal, active God, and becomes a project, a cause.

You cannot really experience love with a project or cause. You can have love by some definition for a cause, or love doing a project, but you can’t have a relationship with a project or cause, because a project, a cause is not a living thing.

Making God a project or a cause has profound negative implications in, for example, the way we are governed, in our attitude to the environment, and in the way we treat each other in families and personal relationships.

But look again at the Nicene Creed: “…one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance” – homo-ousius, no iota – “with the Father, by whom all things were made.”

We believe that God is not distant, is not a project or cause, but a living, loving, active God who cares about the world. What’s more, we believe that because God cares, God sent Jesus – begotten, not made – to us to form a new and everlasting relationship with us, and we believe that God comes to us personally in the Holy Spirit.

What we say about God matters, and we say that we believe in God, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Counselor; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And while it is true that however we say it, we cannot fully comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, it is also emphatically true that, because we know that God loves us, has redeemed us, and is active and present with us always, we will never be without the hope, joy and love which are ours through:

“God in three persons... Blessed Trinity!”

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Tenth Leper: Falling In Love

I love preaching about lepers. There are, after all, so many "lepers" in our society. But this sermon turned out to be about (CLICHE WARNING) being in love with Jesus.

Yes, it's cheesy. Yes, it's been overdone. Doesn't make it not true.

Thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor, Kate Huey, and Lindy Black's delightful website "Sermon Nuggets."

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

2 Timothy 2:8-15
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David-that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful-for he cannot deny himself.
Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, "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?" Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

This is the Word of the Lord.

On the dusty road that winded its way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples topped the hill and trudged down into a cluttered gathering of houses, shops, and animals. People clustered around the gate of the village, of course; everywhere Jesus went, a crowd was sure to be waiting, hoping to see a miracle or perhaps get a free meal.

The crowd began to call out to him as Jesus neared. Anyone else would have found their cries a reason for cynicism – always wanting a miracle, a sign, bread from heaven, proof that he was the Messiah. Even out here, in the “no man’s land” between Galilee and Samaria, news of Jesus feeding the five thousand, healing the sick, and raising the dead was a hot topic of debate.

Then, the crowd fell silent, and the disciples heard a new noise. An unwelcome noise in that day and age. Bells tinkling, and weak voices calling out, “unclean! Unclean!” The crowd around the shabby gate didn’t so much part as it recoiled in horror at the sight of the ten lepers, swathed in rags, raised their hands in unison and began to cry out to Jesus, “Master, have mercy on us!”

The hot wind swirled dust around the feet of Jesus and the disciples. After a few minutes, even the lepers fell silent, waiting to see what Jesus would do. Finally, Jesus spoke: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”
The lepers barely paused before turning and trudging off toward the synagogue on the other side of the village.

The disciples felt the weight of the crowd’s disappointment. They had hoped to see something astounding, and the whole incident passed with nothing. The grumbling had already begin, an undertone to the sound of Jesus beginning to teach.

The crowd didn’t see what was happening just a few yards behind them. The lepers had stopped, stock-still, staring in shock and joy at one another’s faces and hands – the scars and open sores of the leprosy were gone! Their skin was a healthy brown, not a mark in sight! At a dead run, nine of them tore off toward the synagogue, already shouting for the leading rabbi.

No one is exactly sure what Biblical leprosy was. The 13th chapter of Leviticus describes several different diseases, including forms of psoriasis, and the text appears to lump some forms of mildew into the mix when discussing leprosy. What we understand today as leprosy, or Hanson’s disease, is curable with multiple drug therapies. According to the World Health Organization, the number of people affected by the disease is steadily falling.

But the problem with leprosy wasn’t simply that the people who had it were sick. No, the real horror of leprosy was that the people who suffered from leprosy were believed to be cursed by God, to be suffering punishment for their sins. They were instructed to wear rags, to cry “unclean!” wherever they went, to live apart from the community, and excluded from worshipping God. They were feared, hated, loathed, despised.

The Jewish Law instructed the leper who had been cured to go to the priests, to be inspected, and to make an offering of thanks. Everyone knew this, and the lepers dreamed of the day they could go and be pronounced clean, and rejoin their families and their community. Stories circulated of this one or that one who had been pronounced clean, but no one seemed to have firsthand knowledge of this happening – always a friend of a friend who lived three villages over, that kind of thing.

Then the lepers began hearing about a traveling rabbi who had done the impossible, touching a leper and healing him instantly! Could it be true? The same man was said to have brought sight to the blind, cured the lame and even cast out demons. Surely if these things were true, he could even make the unclean pure!

When the news came to the band of lepers that Jesus was coming, they decided it was high time they took a chance on this teacher – perhaps he was a prophet, perhaps he could cure them as he had others. When Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priest, they turned and went, because if you learned anything from the story of Namaan, it was that when a prophet gave a leper an instruction, you did whatever you were told.

So, from one perspective, the fact that the nine went on ahead wasn’t wrong. The Law clearly instructed them to go to the priest, and Jesus himself had told them to do just that. They needed to get their certificate, after all. Be pronounced clean, get the stamp of approval, all that. But not the tenth one. He turned back.

And not just turning back, no, running back, shouting praises at the top of his lungs, falling flat on his face at Jesus’ feet, lost in the joy of the gift of life and wholeness he had been given.

Why? Why him, and not the others? What was the difference?

One argument might be that this man was a Samaritan. Despised, hated, and an outcast even when he wasn’t eaten with the sores of leprosy. The priest might have pronounced him clean, but that wouldn’t have made any difference. He still wouldn’t be a part of the community. He was an outsider by birth. But if that’s all there is to it, why make such a spectacle of himself? He was healed, perhaps he could have waved at Jesus as he strolled back over the border to Samaria.

I think perhaps Barbara Brown Taylor has found the key. She agrees that the nine were fulfilling expectations and doing their duty by obeying the Law. She writes that “[Nine] behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love.”

Jesus had done something for this Samaritan, this leper, that no one else had ever done, that no one else could ever do. Jesus had given this leper life! For this he knew that no priest, no synagogue, not even the Great Temple on the mount in Jerusalem would do. The Samaritan must go to the source of his life – the feet of Jesus.

Martin Luther was once asked to describe the true nature of worship. His answer? The tenth leper turning back.
Wonder is the basis of worship. Worship is response, worship is acting out our beliefs. While it is true that we are here in this place at this time for the purpose of worship, the things we do here are not all there is to say and feel and experience when it comes to worship. Worship, for the person who is daily growing in relationship with Christ, is lived every moment of every day. It isn’t a ritual, it can’t be taught. You can't really tell someone to be thankful, you can’t really instruct in a life of worship. That would just be putting on an act. Thankfulness, worship, comes from within.

Birds don’t sing because they’ve learned how. Birds sing because they have a song. The tenth leper didn’t worship at Jesus’ feet because he was told to, he worshiped because he was in love.

May God grant that you and I realize that we, too, have been given our life as a gift from Jesus Christ, and may we, too, spend our days falling in love.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

There Is No "Kid's Table"

This is the sermon for World Communion Sunday, and I am addressing one of those passages in the New Testament that has always scared me. As a result, I'm only including that text with the sermon; however, if you'd like complete readings for the service, you can add Isaiah 58:3-8 and John 6:1-15.

Did you know the first meal ever eaten on the Moon was Communion?

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.

This is the Word of the Lord.

When I was growing up, we’d spend Thanksgiving with Mom’s family in Shelbyville, Tennessee. The whole family would be there at Helen and Clay’s, driving in from Atlanta, Huntsville, and who knows where else. The kitchen table would be groaning from the weight of the food, and by the time Thanksgiving dinner was served, the smell had driven us half crazy with hunger. Then it would happen: the grownups would sit at the nice table in the dining room, and all us kids would have to go and sit on the carport! At the Kid’s Table!

Don’t get me wrong, now. It was an enclosed carport, and it was warm, and there was plenty of food, and I really enjoyed spending that time with my cousins and all my extended family. But every year, I’d be jealous of that dining room table. The Grownup’s Table. Oh, how I’d dream of the day when, at long last, I was finally old enough! Old enough to sit at the grownup’s table.

Funny thing is, as we all got older, we found that we didn’t really want to sit at the grownup’s table. We preferred sitting out on the carport, where we could talk about the things that interested us. Sure, one or two of us tried the grownup’s table, but we always ended up back down on the carport.

The years have passed, and we don’t go to Shelbyville anymore. We gather in Huntsville, and the kids’ table is for our kids, and the grownups’ table doesn’t have to be as large as it was to hold us all. But we’re all there, still the same cousins, at the table with our parents and aunts and uncles, the same conversations, same jokes, same massive amounts of food.

And yes, the children who sit at the Kids’ Table still dream of the day they’ll sit at the Grownup’s Table.

I start here because I think, though Paul never sat at the kids’ table for an American Thanksgiving meal, he understood the feeling of close, familial fellowship – the familiarity, comfort, and joy among those who share a common bond of blood and history. He understood this, and what’s more, he saw that this level of familiarity, love, and the bonds of blood and experience was an integral part of the Christian worship experience.

If you think about it, we can trace the history of Christianity through Christ to the earliest experiences of the Hebrews becoming a nation by way of meals. The night that the Angel of Death visited the Egyptians, passing over the Hebrews because of the smeared lamb’s blood on the doorposts, the soon-to-be-freed slaves ate a final meal in captivity. As they sojourned in the desert, God fed them with manna. As they entered and settled the Promised Land, their calendar was populated by feasts and celebrations.

And Jesus used the unleavened bread and the wine of the Passover meal to start a new food-centered tradition, Communion, Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper.

It was a common practice among many cultures to begin a meal with a ceremonial breaking of bread, and to conclude it with a ceremonial offering of wine. Since Jesus had done the same thing with the Seder meal, beginning with the bread before supper and using the Cup of Blessing afterward, it made sense that the Lord’s Supper be celebrated as part of what came to be known as the Agape Meal.

The idea was that the church, which met in those days in the houses of believers, would break the bread of communion, then sit down to a common meal, sharing food and familiarity, telling jokes and stories and singing songs around the table, growing in love for one another through the language of food and drink, and conclude with the sharing of the Cup.

Well, that was the plan, anyway. In the church at Corinth, things got a little out of hand.

We aren’t sure what all was going on, but it seems to have started out innocently enough. Like I said before, these churches met in the homes of believers, and usually these were the homes of the rich folks. The homes would have been built with rooms opening out into a courtyard, and the main dining room would have only been large enough for perhaps 20 people. The rest of the church would have gathered at tables in the courtyard. It was simple logistics, you see.

Now, either everyone at the Corinthian church was expected to bring their own food, or the food was being served first to the people in the main dining room – and, of course, in a society where class mattered, the friends and affluent associates of the home’s owner, the elite, the preferred were the ones seated in that room. Those in the courtyard would have been much poorer; in fact, many of them would have been slaves. If they were to bring their own food, there would have been little or none; if the food was being provided by the homeowner, by the time it got to the poor folks there was none left. Either way, you see, those with the influence, money and power were gorging themselves and drinking too much while the poor could only look on. The common loaf, which was to break through the barriers of race and class and gender and privilege, had been thrown aside in favor of the status quo of Corinthian society. The common cup, meant to be the lifeblood of community, of love and support and a common history, had been kicked aside while the privileged people became drunk, and the marginalized felt their throats parch.

Seeing this, Paul knew that this was no more the Lord’s Supper than a snow-cone in July is Thanksgiving dinner. His words were harsh, because they needed to be harsh. They were frightening because the Corinthian elite needed to be scared into seeing, perhaps for the first time, just how far they’d come from the pure joy of fellowship into the seedy loathing of class envy.

I have to tell you that, even knowing all of this, Paul’s words in this passage have always scared me. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.”

I’ve always worried about what it meant, in our context, to eat the bread or drink the cup in an unworthy manner. How is it we are to discern the body? Does God require perfection before we can approach the Table? And what does it mean for the person who stands behind the Table to officiate the sacrament? Surely there is no way that I am worthy to do this thing!

Of course, there isn’t any way I am worthy. There’s no way any of us can be perfect enough to “deserve” the sacrament. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? The Lord’s Supper isn’t about being worthy – it’s about being family.

I’ve been in churches all of my life. I’ve seen the Lord’s Supper performed as an ordinance and a sacrament, I’ve been welcomed to the Table and, in some churches, excluded. I’ve seen plates passed around as we sat, I’ve stood in lines and I’ve knelt at altar rails, I’ve drunk from the little cups and from a large common cup, I’ve had grape juice and I’ve had wine, I’ve dipped communion wafers and chunks of French bread and sections of pita bread into a cup, I’ve had communion with Ritz Crackers and Dr. Pepper once. I’ve even seen a church run out of bread and juice, but the elders scrambled to find more so all could take part.

I have never, even once, seen a Kid’s Table. I have never, even once, seen the “in” group take communion while others sat in the courtyard, hungry. Even where I was not allowed the elements, I was able to receive a blessing from the priest, which was, in its own way, taking part in the sacrament.

On this World Communion Sunday, we gather at this table as a family, and we gather in the presence of the Body of Christ. Not here, in these elements, but here, in this gathering. We are the Body… and not just us, but every church in every city in every country on every continent, as the bread is broken and the cup is passed in whichever way that congregation chooses to do it, all of us, every one – we are the Body!

In the ancient cathedrals of Europe, we are the body. In the mud huts of the Congo, we are the Body. In the sleek, modern churches of suburbia, we are the Body. In the cinderblock home churches of the inner city, we are the Body. In the well-known churches that broadcast their worship services, we are the Body. In the underground churches in China and the Middle East, we are the Body.

And there is no Kid’s Table, no benches in the courtyard. All are welcome. All are family.