Sunday, April 23, 2017

"Emmaus" - April 23, 2017

Txt: Luke 24:13-35

Last Sunday we gathered here to celebrate resurrection.  With lilies and tulips and daffodils, with wonderful music, with joy and fanfare we celebrated Easter.  We read the account from the gospel of Luke.  Early on Sunday morning, a group of women went and found the tomb empty.  In their fear and perplexity, two angels appear and tell them that Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he had said.  They were filled with amazement and joy and ran to tell the other disciples.  But the male disciples did not believe.  The report was dismissed as the wishful thinking of some grieving women.

We continued the reading from Luke this morning, picking up immediately from where we left off last Sunday.  Two travelers are heading away from Jerusalem.  They are on their way to Emmaus.  Why are they going to Emmaus?  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out why.

They had followed Jesus.  They had put their hope and trust, put their faith in Jesus.  But now he had died a humiliating death.  When you are at your lowest, when you have just been crushed, where do you go?  Where do you go for comfort, for reassurance, for healing?  Emmaus is the place you instinctively go to when your heart has been broken and your hopes have been crushed.

Cleopas and an unnamed companion are walking the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  Jesus had been killed, and the prudent thing, the safest thing to do was get out of Jerusalem.  We don’t have the name of the person walking with Cleopas; some have suggested it may have been his wife.  As they walked, they were talking about what had happened in the last week.  What a week.  One week before, the triumphal entry in to Jerusalem.  Since then, Jesus had driven the money changers from the temple.  Jesus had done a lot of teaching, including words of coming destruction.  There was the Passover meal on Thursday and then Jesus’ betrayal and arrest later that night.  And finally his crucifixion on Friday.  The disciples had stayed together behind closed doors, but then on Sunday morning some of the women in the group had shown up with an amazing tale about Jesus’ body missing from the tomb and angels saying that he had risen from the dead.

Cleopas and his companion were discussing all of this when they were joined on the road by another traveler.  The traveler asks what they were talking about.  And they just froze in their tracks for a moment.  They were filled with sadness, and finally Cleopas says, “Are you the only person around who doesn’t know all the things that have taken place?”

The traveler, of course, is Jesus.  And he plays dumb.  “What things?” he asks.  And they proceed to rehash what has happened, telling them about Jesus of Nazareth, and saying, “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel?”

That has got to be one of the saddest lines in the Bible.  “We had hoped.”  These are the words of people whose dreams have been shattered and for whom there seems to be no future.  When you have no more hope, you say “we had hoped.” 

Jesus has been listening to their story but can’t hold back any longer.  “How foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe what the prophets have said.”  And he proceeds to go through the scriptures and what the prophets taught about the Messiah.  About himself.

They arrive at the village and Jesus acts as though he is going to continue.  But it is just sort of a head fake.  Cleopas and his companion plea with Jesus to stay with them, as the hour is getting late.  “Stay with us,” they say.  So Jesus stays and they sit down to a meal. 

If “we had hoped” are three words of great sadness, “stay with us” are three words brimming with hospitality.  Their hearts may have been slow, but their hearts were not closed.  Despite being wrapped up in a world of their own sorrow, these two disciples still had room for the grace to share hospitality with a stranger. 

In many ways, this story is a microcosm of the whole Gospel of Luke.  Like he always seems to do, Jesus is traveling and teaching and eating.  So many significant things happen around meals.  He is at a meal at the home of a prominent Pharisee when a woman anoints his feet.  When there is a large, hungry crowd, he feeds the 5000 with five loaves and two fish, and there is plenty to spare.  He was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton because he ate with common sinners.  He visits in the home of Mary and Martha, where a meal becomes the occasion for teaching about what is needed most.  He told parables about banquets and dinner guests and he had just shared the Passover meal with his disciples.

Cleopas and his companion invited Jesus to share a meal.  Except that at this point they still do not recognize that it is Jesus.  How can this be?

Well, part of the explanation is that we see what we expect to see.  We only see what we are looking for.  Maybe you have had the experience of shopping for a car, and you are interested in a particular car.  You’ve never really noticed this vehicle before, but now that you are looking for it, you see it everywhere.  It’s not that there has been a sudden surge in the number of Mazdas on the road, it’s just that now you notice them because you are looking for them.

Several years ago a musician, a violinist, set up to play in a Metro station in Washington DC.  He wore jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap.  He set up at a station where thousands of federal employees get on and off the subway.  He took out his violin and put a few bills and some coins in his case to prime the pump – seed money, which is always a smart move.  Then he faced the pedestrian traffic and started playing.  It was 7:45 in the morning, right in the middle of rush hour.  

This wasn’t just any musician.  This was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest violin players of our era, an internationally acclaimed virtuoso, a onetime child prodigy who performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 14.  Three days before he had filled Boston’s Symphony Hall, where tickets for merely OK seats were $100.  He was in town to receive the Avery Fisher prize as the greatest classical musician in America.  But now he was a street musician, playing in the subway.  His instrument was a 1713 Stradivarius violin, which he had purchased for a reported $3.5 million. 

The Washington Post had arranged this performance with Bell as part of an experiment.  Would people notice this acclaimed musician?  Even if they didn’t know who he was, would people stop and listen?  Bell played difficult, intricate, beautiful pieces by Bach and Schubert and others.  He played splashy, attention-getting pieces and threw himself into the music.  Some were drawn to the music, including every child who walked by, some of whom had to be dragged away by their parents.  A few stopped to listen, a few put money in the violin case – but just a very few.  Over 45 minutes, a total of 7 people stopped to listen for a minute or more while around 1100 walked on by.  Bell made a total of $32.17 – yes, some people threw in pennies.  $20 of that total came from the one person who recognized who he was.  This is someone who regularly makes well over $100 a minute.

For commuters that morning, Joshua Bell was just another guy trying to make a buck in the subway.  We don’t see what we don’t expect to see, and you don’t expect to see or hear one of the greatest musicians in the world at the Metro station. 

That afternoon, walking to Emmaus, Jesus was the last person Cleopas and his friend expected.  They didn’t expect to see him - and they didn’t.

But then they sat down with this stranger at the table.  Jesus took the bread and blessed it and broke it, just as he had done so many times, and they recognized him.  As they walked along the road, filled with sorrow, filled with pain, they could not see him.  But in the hospitality offered, in the meal that was shared, their eyes were opened.

A meal can often be a lot more than just a meal.  Viktor Frankl was at the end of his rope in the horror of a Nazi concentration camp.  Every possession, everything he valued had been destroyed.  But at his lowest point, someone gave him a piece of bread.  “I remember how a foreman secretly gave me a piece of bread which I knew he must have saved from his breakfast ration,” he wrote.  “It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at the time.  It was the human ‘something’ this man also gave to me - the word and the look which accompanied the gift.”

When we share a meal, when we share food with one another, we share sustenance – we share life.  We share acceptance and good will and blessing.  This is why meals were so important in the gospels, and it is why they are so important to us yet today.  And it is why sharing a symbolic meal – sharing the Lord’s Supper – is an important act of worship for us.

Like Frankl, we need to stay on the lookout for that “human something” when we break bread with another person.  The words spoken and friendship shared may offer more sustenance than the bread in our hands.

Maybe you have noticed, but in the gospel of Luke, this is the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.  On Sunday morning, the women are visited by angels with the news that Jesus is alive, but no one has yet seen Jesus himself.  Later that same day, these disciples walk to Emmaus and it is Cleopas and his traveling companion who first see the risen Christ.

It is striking what they do when they understand that they have seen Jesus, that they have been in the company of the resurrected Christ.  They turn around.  They had been traveling away from Jerusalem, but now they head back.  They had implored this stranger not to travel any further because it was getting late, but when they realize what has happened, they turn around and head back to Jerusalem, immediately.  It would have been far safer to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the authorities in Jerusalem, but they head right back into the thick of it.

When they found the other disciples, they were saying that the Lord had risen indeed, and had appeared to Simon.  And then they told their story, of how Jesus had walked with them on the road and had been made known in the breaking of the bread.  And then later that evening, Jesus appeared to all of them.

One person wrote, “Emmaus didn’t just happen; Emmaus always happens.”  We can find ourselves in this story.  Cleopas’ companion is not named, but you might just insert your own name there for that second traveler.  We all have our own Emmaus, that place we go when we get the wind knocked out of us.  It’s the place where we head when grief and pain make our spiritual compass go haywire.  The road to Emmaus is the road of deep disappointment, and we have all traveled that road.

When we travel that road of disappointment and grief, it is sometimes hard to see that God is there.  It can seem to us that God is absent.  But then there can come that moment of recognition, that moment of revelation, when we understand that God has been with us all along, that Jesus was walking beside us every step of that difficult journey, and it changes everything,

Cleopas and the other traveler were mired in “we had hoped.”  They were stuck on what had been and what could have been.  Memory is absolutely vital to faith and vital to our lives.  But we have to have our eyes open as well to what is and what can be and what might be happening in our midst even now.  The two travelers could not see it at first, but by the grace of God and through the light they allowed in through their hospitality and welcome, they experienced the Risen Christ.

If you are anything like me, there have been those times of grief, or pain, of disappointment, those times when life was just blah.  Those times when we are walking that road to Emmaus.  But then there comes a time when we can look back and in retrospect, God was there all along, even in the difficult moments.

Maybe the challenge for us is to have the faith and the vision to look around us and to see all of the ways God is present with us.  In the beauty that surrounds us, in the care and love and joy we experience, in little things like a smile or a hug or a word of encouragement, in the grace that sustains us through hard times, in bread that is broken and shared. 

It’s interesting that while they did not recognize Jesus on the road, there is this one line in the story.  “Were not our hearts burning within us?”

It is not that they both reached for their Prilosec as they walked on the road.  His companion did not ask, “Hey Cleopas, do you have a Rolaids?”  They did not recognize Jesus, but there was something about him, something powerful and somehow hopeful.  John Wesley experienced Christ’s presence and spoke of his heart being “strangely warmed.” 

Maybe like Cleopas and his friend, we need to pay attention to those moments when we feel our hearts being stirred.  It may be a reminder that God is with us.  It may be that God is speaking to us.

And when we have experienced Christ in our lives, our response, like the two on the road to Emmaus, is to turn around, to head back to Jerusalem, back to the place where we can bear witness to resurrection.  Amen
.

Friday, April 14, 2017

“Resurrection is for Dead People” - Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

Text: Luke 24:1-12


I was in grade school when astronauts first landed on the moon.  They brought a TV into our classroom at school so we could watch the coverage.  We had never had a TV in the class before, you knew this was really big.

Those of you around at the time remember Neil Armstrong’s words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  It was an incredible moment.  But it wasn’t that long before we went back to the moon again.  It wasn’t such a big deal this time.  Nobody remembers what those astronauts said.  Since then, we have had a space station and space shuttles and we have put a Rover on Mars.  We have sent Voyager spaceships to send back images from Jupiter and Saturn and Uranus and Neptune.  We have sent spacecraft to explore comets and asteroids.

Now, we have private space flight companies.  Elon Musk announced in February that his company SpaceX will take two private citizens on a space flight around the moon in 2018.  (He didn’t say what the fares will be, but it is safe to say they will be more than a first class flight to LAX).  This is all amazing stuff, but we don’t pay nearly as much attention as we did to that first moon landing.  It was such a huge event because it expanded our idea of what was possible. 

We live in a world with medical breakthroughs, technological marvels, instant communication, easy travel, and all kinds of really cool stuff.  And we have come to mostly take it for granted.  Like that Farmers Insurance commercial puts it, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”  All of this is to say: we have lost our capacity for surprise, or at least had it seriously diminished. 

When it comes to Easter, we have been through the routine before.  We’ve gotten up early and had the big breakfast.  We have sung “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” more than a few times.  There is wonderful music, we have a nice crowd in church, and we feel genuine joy this morning.  This is a great day, but we’ve heard the story before.  We know what to expect from Easter.

But that first Easter—that was another story.

Jesus had tried to tell his followers what lie ahead.  Time and again, as we have read through the gospel of Luke over these past weeks, Jesus would tell them that he must suffer and die.  The disciples did not listen, did not understand.  Or maybe they didn’t want to listen or understand.  We talk about some things being too good to be true.  The notion of Jesus suffering and dying – that was too bad to be true, so the disciples kind of glossed over or denied it.  And when Jesus said that he would not only suffer and die, but then rise again on the third day – well, they didn’t really listen to that either.  It all sounded preposterous. 

And now, Jesus had been killed, executed in a death that was gruesome even by first century standards.  Everything felt up in the air.  Most of the disciples holed up and hid out of fear.  But on Sunday morning, some of the women went to the tomb.  

They arrived and found the stone sealing the tomb rolled away, but no body inside.  If they had felt loss and despair before, now it was only worse.  They were deeply troubled by this turn of events when suddenly two men in dazzling white stood beside them.  They were terrified, as one might expect, and bowed down to the ground, but then the men said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but he has risen.”  And then they reminded the women of what Jesus had said, how he would suffer and die and rise again. 

The last thing they had expected that morning was joy.  The last thing they had planned on was hope.  But there they were, utterly amazed.  They hurried back to tell the other disciples.  The news that Jesus was alive was so incredible, so implausible, so fantastic, so wonderful, that life would never be the same.  

But when Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women report this amazing news to the others, the response is rather disturbing.  The male disciples are dismissive.  They completely discount the women’s story.  It was ridiculous, they said, and they wrote it off as fake news.  For his part, Peter – fresh off of denying Jesus three times – goes to the tomb to investigate for himself.  We are told that he went home amazed by what had happened, but it is not clear what amazed him and what he actually thinks about the whole situation.

Why did the men disbelieve the report of these women?  In the words of those angels, it seems to me that they too were looking for the living among the dead.  They were operating under too small a vision of what is possible.

Today, most of us experience Easter Sunday as bright, happy, and joyful.  This was not exactly the experience of those first disciples.  There was fear.  Uncertainty.  Doubt.  Confusion.  The four gospels have somewhat differing accounts, which is not surprising, as the accounts all come across as chaotic.  This morning, the choir sang about Mary going to the tomb, but that anthem was based on the account in the Gospel of John.  We read from Luke this morning, and in Luke, several women go to the tomb.

The details of the resurrection are a bit murky.  And the fact that everybody doesn’t simply say, “Praise the Lord, just as Jesus promised he has risen again!  Glory to God!”- the fact that the response of the disciples is slow and uncertain rings true.  Even writing 40 years or more after the fact, Luke and the other gospel writers don’t try to clean it up or pretty it up.  News of the resurrection was almost more than they could take in. 

In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:  “No eye can see; no ear can hear; no mind can comprehend the good and beautiful things that God has prepared for those who love him.”  Paul was not simply referring to the resurrection of Jesus.  That was a big part of it, to be sure, but Paul was not simply pointing to what God had done in the past.  He is writing in the present tense. 

We may be tempted to think of Easter as the conclusion, as the ending.  And in some ways, it is.  Way back when, on the first day of March, we began the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday.  We have been looking toward Easter for several weeks now.  We had our cantata last Sunday that pointed us toward what would come on Easter.  We gathered Thursday evening to share the Last Supper with Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room and to remember the heartbreak of the cross.  And now, it is Easter!  Now, we celebrate resurrection!  Easter is the pinnacle as far as Christian faith goes – it’s the absolute high point of the year.

All of this may be true, but it is not the whole truth.  To say that Easter is the conclusion is in some ways to get it all wrong.  In a much larger sense, Easter is not the conclusion; Easter is the beginning.  And the real question this morning is not so much, “What happened on that first Easter 2000 years ago?”  The question is, “If Christ is risen, what does that mean for us?  What does it mean for me, today?”

After the resurrection, things do not return to normal.  Until then, normal had been “looking for the living among the dead.”  Until then, normal had meant having one’s vision limited by the resources and the powers and principalities and the track record of the past.  Normal had meant being realistic, keeping expectations in check, acknowledging how small we are relative to the powers that be around us.

But the resurrection wiped that kind of normal away.  After the resurrection, everything changed.  There isn’t even a new normal.  Instead, there is a world of possibility.  Suddenly, there is an outbreak of hope.  Now, we cannot even count on death.  As David Lose puts it, “All we know for sure is that a risen Savior is on the loose.”

Toward the end of the Vietnam War, a shell came in and exploded a young man’s body.  The only thing left were his dog tags.  They sent those dog tags back home to his grieving parents and a memorial service was held.  Their only child had been killed.  They couldn’t come to terms with it, especially since there was no body.  The grief just wouldn’t go away.

It wasn’t long before the war ended.  Soldiers started to come home and the prisoners of war started to return.  One day, the telephone rang.  The woman picked it up, and the voice on the other end of the line said, “Mother, it’s your son.”  Her heart stopped.  “Is this some kind of cruel joke?” she asked.  “Is this some kind of a hoax?”  “No.   It’s really me.  I’ve been a prisoner of war, and I’ve just been released.  I am calling to let you know that I am alive.”

A loved one who has been killed is suddenly alive.  The word “amazed” doesn’t explain the rush of emotions one feels.  Joy and shock and love and disbelief and gratitude and fear and astonishment and much more.  That is the amazement and unexpected joy of Easter.

For us, Easter can become so commonplace, so routine, that it loses some of its power.  But resurrection is something that we deeply need.

Earlier this week, a couple received a phone call from their son who lives far away.  The son said he was sorry, but he wouldn’t be able to come home for a visit after all.  “The grandkids say hello.”  They told him that they understood, but when they hung up the phone they didn’t dare look at each other.

Earlier this week, a woman was called into her supervisor’s office to hear that times are hard for the company and they had to let her go.  She cleaned out her desk, packed away her hopes for getting ahead, and wondered what she would tell her family.

Earlier this week, a woman suffered a miscarriage.  It wasn’t the first time, and she can barely hold it together.  Earlier this week, a man received a terrible diagnosis from a physician.  The tests had come back and it does not look good.

Earlier this week, someone else heard the words, “I want a divorce.”  Someone else received a call that her son was in jail.  Earlier this week, someone had to decide whether to buy groceries or buy medicine.  Earlier this week, someone’s hope was crucified.  The darkness that human beings can face can be overwhelming.

We’re not really ready to experience Easter until we have spent time in that place called Hopelessness.  Easter is the last thing we are expecting.  Easter is about hope beyond hope.

Death is not just what happens at the end of our lives.  We face all kinds of deaths along the way.  Dreams die.  Hopes fade. Relationships fall apart.  We can struggle with health.  We can struggle with meaning.  We can feel despondent over the meanness and cruelty and coarseness that seem so present in our world.  We can truly worry for our children and grandchildren.

We can experience all kinds of death in this life.  But here is the Good News: resurrection is for dead people.  Resurrection is the amazing power of God that we can experience right here and now.  

That Easter morning, those women at the tomb felt fear, and confusion, and terror, and then pure amazement, sheer joy. 

The message of Easter is not that we will be able to avoid pain.  The message of Easter is that God is present in our pain and that even in the midst of what can sometimes be the awfulness of life, there is hope.  The reason we celebrate Easter is not simply because of what God did 2000 years ago, but because of what God wants to do in our lives right here and now.

Jesus’ resurrection gives us the hope and the assurance that new life is possible, even in those moments when we are so filled with pain and hurt and grief that we cannot see it or believe it.

Maybe what we need to relearn this Easter is the ability to be amazed.  Life is amazing.  God’s grace is amazing.  God’s love is amazing.

A number of us met together over these past weeks and discussed Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow.  She says that these are the three essential prayers – crying out to God for help, expressing gratitude for blessings, and truly experiencing awe.

She writes,

Even though I often remember my pastor saying that God always makes a way out of no way, periodically something awful happens, and I think that this time God has met Her match – a child dies, or a young father is paralyzed.  Nothing can possibly make things OK again.  People and grace surround the critically injured person or the family.  Time passes.  It’s beyond bad.  It’s actually a nightmare.  But people don’t bolt, and at some point the first shoot of grass breaks through the sidewalk.” 
We don’t always get instant miracles.  We don’t always get quick, dramatic change.  We don’t always get angels and empty tombs and dramatic announcements.  But what we always get is God’s love and presence and goodness, and if we are paying attention, countless things are happening that can elicit a response of Wow.     

As it dawned on those women at the tomb what they were experiencing – the reality that the one they loved, the one who had been crucified, was in fact alive – their prayer and their testimony was truly, Wow.  The resurrection was the ultimate Wow. 

And maybe that is where resurrection begins to touch our lives, when we can look around us and say, Wow.

Seeing a tiny baby, with perfect tiny fingers and toes, one can’t help but give in to the amazement of life.  Seeing the renewal of the earth, with green leaves and flowers blooming and new shoots on trees, really seeing it, one can’t help but be amazed.  Looking back on one’s life and realizing that God’s love and care and grace has been there, surrounding us, sustaining us, one can’t help but be amazed. 

And looking to Jesus, looking to the cross, and then looking to the empty tomb, we stand with the women, amazed.  And we know that because of Easter, we indeed have hope.

Christ is Risen!  Christ is Risen Indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen!



“Crowd vs. Zacchaeus” - April 2, 2017

Text: Luke 18:31-19:10


Zacchaeus.  Just hearing the name can put a smile on your face.  To hear the name conjures up images of childhood Sunday School classes, of singing about a wee little man, of a grown-up climbing a tree to see Jesus passing by, which was an awesome thought for a six or seven year old.  Or, let’s be honest, for a 60 or 70 year old.  When was the last time you saw a grown-up, and a public official at that, climb a tree?

This is one of those stories that is a kid’s story but it is actually a lot more than a kid’s story.  Now, we have been in the gospel of Luke since the first of the year.  Since Christmas Day, really.  And one of the recurring themes is that people are not always what we might judge them to be.  Jesus sees people differently than most of us do, and both his interactions with others and the stories he tells tend to have an unexpected twist. 

Last week we looked at the story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus.  The unnamed rich man dies and winds up in the place of the dead while the poor beggar, Lazarus, is not only known by name but finds himself in the embrace of Father Abraham.  Nobody saw that one coming.

We are a couple of chapters farther along in Luke this morning.  In the intervening chapters, we read about Jesus, in his mercy and compassion, healing ten lepers.    Only one of the ten returned to say thanks.  And that one was – guess what – a Samaritan.  It’s like we have heard that record before.  There is a Pharisee and a tax collector who offer prayers to God.  The Pharisee with flowery, self-congratulatory public prayer and the tax collector confessing his sin and pleading for God’s mercy quietly, off to the side by himself.  God accepted the prayers of the tax collector. 

Then there were people bringing infants to Jesus.  His disciples wanted to shoo these people away, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto me.”

And a rich man comes to Jesus, asking about the road to eternal life.  Jesus asks him to give away his wealth and follow him, but we read that the man was saddened because he was very rich, and walked away.  And Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 

In our first reading today, we have Jesus telling his disciples that he must suffer and die, and they do not have a clue what he is talking about.  And then he heals a blind beggar, a man who may have had more vision than his neighbors who wanted to stop him from crying out to Jesus.

Today we are at the end of what is sometimes called the travel narrative in Luke.  He has been touring the countryside, preaching and teaching and healing.  From this point, Jesus heads to Jerusalem, and the rest of the gospel will mostly play out there.  Reading Luke as a continuing story, it strikes me how nearly everything Jesus says and does is not what people expect – this goes all the way back to his inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue where he speaks highly of foreigners while being critical of religious leaders.  Folks were so mad that Jesus nearly got himself killed before his ministry could even get started.

Now Jesus comes to Jericho.  And true to form, Jesus is predictably unpredictable, still ruffling feathers, still shaking the foundations.

Jesus has come to Jericho and is passing through the town.  Jericho in the first century was described as “a veritable Eden – an oasis of date palms and balsam groves, it exported its products all over the known world.”  Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector for the Jericho District.  If you are top dog of tax collection in a rich area, you are doing very well.  Of course, Israel was an occupied territory.  Taxes did not go to Jerusalem; they went to Rome.  Zacchaeus was working for the enemy. 

The way it worked was that tax collectors had a set amount that they were to collect.  Anything beyond that, you could keep for yourself.  With Roman soldiers around to enforce collection of taxes, it wasn’t too hard to overcharge and to make yourself rich.  Tax collectors were pretty well universally despised both as being cheating bloodsuckers and as traitors who collaborated with the enemy.

Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector.  He presumably had others working under him.  He may have been the most hated man in town.  His only possible friends were other tax collectors, but remember, he was the boss.  The gig paid well, but friends and self-respect were hard to come by.

The other nugget we have about Zacchaeus is what we all know from that song we sang as children: he was a “wee little man.”  Interestingly, Zacchaeus is the only person in the entire Bible describes as being short.  That doesn’t make him the shortest person in the Bible, but he is the only one of whom the writer felt it was important to point out how height-challenged he was.

Interestingly, the Greek text says that he was short in stature, and the word for stature can also mean maturity or character.  So he may have been 5 feet tall, but it may have been that he was short on maturity, that he was lacking in character.  To be the chief tax collector, a person pretty well had to be.  Corruption was rampant, and a tax collector became wealthy by impoverishing others.

So maybe it was height, maybe it was character, maybe it was both.  You can imagine Danny DeVito playing Zacchaeus in a movie.  Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus.  Apart from the issue of height, he did not fare so well in crowds.  Imagine him trying to make his way through the crowd so that he could see.  When folks realized that it was Zacchaeus, they might “accidentally” swing an elbow or step on his foot or spill something on his back.  Zacchaeus said “No, thanks,” and he headed for the sycamore tree.

I suspect that Zacchaeus was a climber of more than trees.  In all likelihood, he was a social climber who knew every political and economic ladder in town.  Zacchaeus knew how to get where he wanted to go.

But I’m wondering this morning what it was that led Zacchaeus to want to fight the crowds, that led him to climb a tree to see Jesus.  Maybe it was the stories that had circulated.  Maybe it was the rumors about Jesus – that he was a friend of sinners and tax collectors.  That would seem to be just a crazy rumor – how could a religious leader actually be a friend of tax collectors? – but for Zacchaeus, perhaps it was worth finding out.

So Jesus passes by and sees Zacchaeus up in the tree.  Zacchaeus was hoping to see Jesus, but out of all the people in the crowd that day, Jesus definitely saw him.  He says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”  (Jesus wasn’t shy about inviting himself over.)

For Zacchaeus, this was almost unimaginable. People did not want to be seen with him.  He was not exactly a social magnet.  Yet here was Jesus, whom anybody in the crowd would be glad to have over to their house, choosing Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus was thrilled, but the crowd was definitely not.  They may have snickered at it at first – Jesus didn’t know any better than to invite himself to the home of a man that nobody in town would be caught dead with.  But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and people started grumbling, saying that he was going to the home of a known sinner.  This was not at all what people wanted or expected – but if they had been paying attention to Jesus all along, this was exactly the kind of thing he made a habit of doing.

And something about Jesus requesting, insisting upon, really, spending time with Zacchaeus awakens something in him.  As the hymn says, Zacchaeus is “rich in things and poor in soul,” and he knows it.  For some reason, he had been drawn to Jesus, and this encounter with Jesus completely transforms his life.

Zacchaeus promised not only to turn over half of his money to the poor but to pay back, four to one, all the money he had extorted and defrauded from people.   And Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Something happened to Zacchaeus that day.  Jesus had chosen him.  Jesus had accepted him.  To Jesus, he was not contemptible.  He was not a short, sleazy tax collector.  He was a child of God.

There are two main characters in the story.  And the most important one is not Zacchaeus.  The fact is, this story says more about God than it does Zacchaeus.  “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Why would Jesus choose to visit Zacchaeus?  The answer is because Jesus, thankfully, is not like us.  God is in the seeking and saving business.  God is about bringing salvation, bringing wholeness and healing and peace, right here and now.  To people like Zacchaeus, whose lives seem small and meaningless, and to people like us, when our lives need hope and meaning.  Jesus wants to come home with us and tell us that we are loved, we are accepted, we count, we are important to God.  And that realization is salvation.  It can save our lives.

Several years ago a school teacher who worked with children in a large city hospital received a routine call asking her to visit a particular boy.  She took his name and room number and was told by the teacher on the phone, “We’re working on nouns and adverbs in class now.  I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn’t fall behind.”

It wasn’t until the visiting teacher walked into the boy’s room that she realized she was in the burn unit.  No one had prepared her to see a boy horribly burned and in great pain.  He obviously was not in any condition to study, but she felt she couldn’t just turn and walk out, so she stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher--your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.”  That was about it and she left.

The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?”  Before she could apologize, the nurse interrupted her and said, “You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed.  He’s fighting back, he’s responding to treatment...it’s as though he’s decided to live.”

The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw the teacher.  It all changed when he came to a simple realization.  He expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”

How important it is to know that someone believes in us.  More than anyone, God believes in us.  Zacchaeus made the effort to see Jesus, but the initiative in the relationship really is with God.  God is about seeking and saving.

Despite who Zacchaeus was and what he had become, despite the grumbling of more respectable people about Jesus’ choice of companions, Jesus had chosen him.  And that changed his life.  Jesus had said that it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, but through the love of Jesus and the grace of God, Zacchaeus had apparently threaded the needle.

It was Jesus’ acceptance that enabled Zacchaeus to change.  This morning, we need to know that it is not just Zacchaeus.  It’s you.  It’s me.  It’s all of us.  What a difference it makes to know that someone believes in us.  But to know that God believes in us--that can make all the difference in the world.  Whatever you have done, wherever you have come from, wherever you may find yourself, God loves you and accepts you and welcomes you.  And through God’s welcome, we can experience a power that can absolutely change our lives.  Amen.



“Rich Man vs. Lazarus” - March 26, 2017

Text: Luke 16:19-31


I watched a panel discussion on an alarming and disturbing trend in American culture: the growing gap between the rich and the super-rich.  While the super-rich are becoming phenomenally, absurdly wealthy, the mere rich are being left behind.

One panelist noted that the average investment banker can only afford one boat, while the super-rich might have 6 or 7 boats.  You’ve got to have a decent yacht to live comfortably, he said.  Another person on the panel personalized the discussion by disclosing that he himself was from a rich background.  He said that it was difficult growing up -- his family had to share a tennis court with some other rich families, and they did not have a waterfall in their swimming pool like the super-rich kids did.  He felt locked in behind the gates of his gated community, safely out of sight of the super-rich.

One panelist blamed the rich, saying they were just too lazy and unwilling to work.  He said that some people had to vacation at Martha’s Vineyard – not everyone could go to the Riviera, and that was just the way the world was.  Another disagreed strongly with this “blame the rich” mentality and said that the government needed to respond – what we really need are tax cuts to help the rich, who need a boost up.

Well, you may have guessed that this was a story that came from one of our favorite news sources, The Onion.  But it did serve to shed light on the differences and gaps that exist in our culture and the attitudes we have that often go unexamined.

A more real-life story comes from a PBS Independent Lens documentary on Park Avenue.  The neighborhood along Park Avenue on the Upper East Side is New York City’s wealthiest neighborhood.  This is where the upper crust, those at the very top of the economic ladder live.  Over the past thirty years, they have enjoyed phenomenal economic gains that they have used to buy mansions, jets, and luxury cars, but also to buy political power.  They have benefited enormously from a system that they increasingly control.

But all you have to do is drive north along Park Avenue and cross the Harlem River, and there is an entirely different reality.  Suddenly you are in the South Bronx, in the poorest congressional district in the country.  Just 5 minutes from the height of American power and wealth.  Over those same thirty years, wages have fallen for this part of Park Avenue while unemployment, rent, and the cost of living have dramatically risen.  40% live below the poverty line.  All this in the shadows of the other Park Avenue.

Of course, we don’t have to go to New York City to find the disparity between the haves and the have nots.  It is as close as our own community, and as ancient as the pages of scripture.  We need look no further than our scripture for the morning.

Just a few verses before this story, Luke speaks of those who were lovers of money.  To get their attention – and ours – Jesus tells this story.  There was a rich man – he dressed in finery and ate gourmet meals every day.  He apparently lived in a gated community, because a poor man named Lazarus lay outside his gate.

Lazarus’ life was just the opposite of the rich man’s: he wasn’t covered in purple and linen, he was covered in sores – in fact, it says that dogs would come and lick his sores, which is a detail we all probably could have lived without but it says something about how low Lazarus was.  He would have been thrilled to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.  These two men lived in close proximity but they lived in completely different worlds.

Jesus gives us this information and then says that the two men died – one was taken by the angels to Father Abraham and one was buried and went to Hades, the place of the dead.  But as is often the case with Jesus’ stories, there is an upside-down quality to it that his hearer’s may not have expected. 

There was a strong feeling in Jesus’ day that wealth was a sign of God’s favor and poverty was a sign of God’s punishment.  Not surprisingly, this philosophy was especially popular among the rich.  And they could back it up with scripture.  Deuteronomy 28 promises fertility, prosperity, and victory in battle to those who love the Lord.  Proverbs 13:21 reads, “Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the righteous.”  This was a fairly common sentiment. 

God’s favor was linked with prosperity, which worked out really well for those who were doing well.  It meant that the rich could enjoy their riches, and it also meant that they could pass by the poor beggars they came across with no feeling of responsibility.  Both the rich and the poor had been placed where they were as a reward or a punishment from God, and who were they to interfere?

Now of course, such a belief required ignoring other passages of scripture, like “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11) or “Those who oppress the poor insult their maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him” (Proverbs 14:31).  But these were not the kind of verses that rich people memorized.

I don’t have to tell you that the Prosperity Gospel, the idea that God will bless the righteous with health and wealth and success, is alive and well today.  And as much as we may take issue with TV preachers who peddle that message, we have all been influenced by it.

We have all done things to protect ourselves from the pain of those around us, to pin their poor fortune on themselves so that we don’t have to worry about it so much.  If only she hadn’t dropped out of school.  If only he had quit smoking.  If only she hadn’t had so many babies.  If only he would stop drinking.  If only they would learn more English.  It is just human nature to try and explain why people are the way they are and why circumstances are the way they are.  It helps us to get along with the business of being the way we are without too much of a drag on our consciences.

The Health and Wealth gospel may be appealing, but it’s not really the gospel.  I was once contacted by a reporter from the Daily who told me that an ISU professor had done a research study showing that people with strong faith tend to live longer, and what did I think about that?

I told her I could understand the results, that a strong faith contributes to a positive outlook on life, which can be important for health.  But I also said that if a person really takes one’s faith seriously, it can get you in trouble.  Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero had strong faith but it got them killed, and Jesus’ faith did not help him live a long life.  We think of Jesus as being righteous – without sin, even, but he was definitely not a person of wealth.

We can find all kinds of ways to tune out the cries of the poor, the needy, the suffering.  But Jesus will not have it.  In all the parables of the Bible, this is the only story with a character with a name.  We have parables about sheep and shepherds, widows and coins, unjust judges, farmers, wayward children, travelers on the road, on and on.  But in every story the character is identified only by a description, not by a name.  A prodigal son.  A certain Samaritan.  A sower went out to sow.  No names are given.  The parable that we read this morning is the only exception.


What is there about this story that the poor man needs a name?  


People with means are almost always known by name.  The Rockefellers, the Kennedys, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates – we know their names.  The gardener and the maid always know the name of the rich person, the one who signs their checks.  


In this parable, the poor man almost certainly knows the rich man’s name.  The poor man lay at the rich man’s gate – no telling how many times the rich man had passed right by without stopping.  Maybe he thought, “There’s that lazy beggar again.  Why doesn’t he get a job?”  


But in this story, Jesus finally does the poor man justice.  He is not a category or a label.  He is a person.  He had hopes and dreams.  He had needs.  And he had a name.  


In life, the rich man had not recognized Lazarus as a person, as a human being, and in death, he still doesn’t.  “Hey Abraham, why don’t you send that Lazarus down here to bring me some water to col my tongue?”  Did you catch that?  “Send that messenger boy Lazarus.”  Even on the far side of death, he still does not recognize Lazarus as a human being – he sees him as Abraham’s gofer - somebody to deliver water and messages.

But Abraham says, No.  Your days of having others wait on you are over.  And there will be so special messages brought back by the dead to warn your brothers.  They have Moses and the prophets, the same as everybody else, and if they won’t listen to them, then not even a messenger from beyond the grave is going to help.

Now you might hear this story and think, Wow, Jesus has it in for rich people.  He really lets them have it.  But that is not the case.  In fact, he tells this story for their benefit.  Jesus wants people with means, with wealth, with opportunity, with options, to live abundantly.  He wants them, and all of God’s children, to live fully and joyfully.

Barbara Brown Taylor summarizes their situation well – and perhaps ours too:

Jesus could not stand the way people loved the things they could get for themselves better than they loved the things God wanted to give them.  They were satisfied with linen suits and sumptuous feasts when God wanted to give them the kingdom.  They were content to live in the world with beggars and (messengers) when God wanted to give them brothers and sisters.  They were happy to get by with the parts of the Bible that backed up their own ways of life when God wanted to give them a new life altogether.
The rich man wants to warn his brothers to not make the same mistake he made; to not waste their lives on chasing wealth, power, and comforts at the expense of other people.  But he can’t warn them, and Lazarus is not going to do it either. 

While the rich man winds up in the place of the dead and the poor man is in the bosom of Abraham, this is not a story about the afterlife per se.  (And in fact, the words heaven and hell are never used here.)  And while the story says something about money and generosity, the real point is deeper than just that.

Jesus’ story is really about seeing all people as people of worth, as children of God.

It is interesting that Father Abraham tells the rich man that a great chasm had been fixed between them.  Who do you think built that chasm?  How did it come about?  By shutting out Lazarus, by shutting out the cries and the needs of the poor, by ignoring human pain, he had built that chasm – and in the end, he was the one who suffered from it.

When we fail to see others as brothers and sisters, we are the ones who fix a great chasm.  When we see others as less worthy of compassion than we ourselves are, we are fixing a great chasm.  And we are the ones who suffer for it.

Look around at our world.  It is a world of haves and have-nots.  It is a world of gross disparities.  We comfort ourselves by saying that we are not rich, that we don’t have much.  We might compare ourselves to those people on Park Avenue – the Upper East Side Park Avenue – and see ourselves with Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham.  We can do mental gymnastics to justify wherever we find ourselves in life and diminish our responsibility for others.

But if you earn $32,000 or more, you are in the top 1% in terms of the world’s wealth.  If you have access to clean water and dependable electricity and if you can drive a car, you are fabulously wealthy by the standards of much of the world.  We can spin it any way we like, but chances are we actually have more in common with the rich man than we do Lazarus.

The point is not to feel guilty, not to feel bad about ourselves.  And it is not to pity people like Lazarus.  The point is simply, to see others as children of God.  To have empathy.  The point is not so much to see someone like Lazarus as a person in need, but to simply see him as a person, period.

It is a terrible story that Jesus tells, really, with hunger and abject poverty, with dogs licking sores and flames and torment.  It is not a pretty story, but maybe the best thing about this story is that it isn’t over.  Lazarus couldn’t bring us the message, but Jesus sneaked it out for us.  It’s not too late for us. 

We still have a chance.  We still have a choice.  Rather than seeking the things we can acquire for ourselves, we can open ourselves to the gifts that God wants to give us.  Amen.