Transforming Love

“One possible moral of this story is to realize that salvation does not require, nor result in, perfection. Salvation in this lifetime is a process – the healing and reconciling that is needed for creating right relationships within which compromised, impure, and sinful people – like us – can live within, in response to, and toward, the realm of God.” -David Ewart

Zacchaeus. Just his name is enough to elicit a grin. We remember him as a kind of cartoon character. As children, we even sang a little ditty about him; who remembers how it goes…  “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.” I’m not sure we would use the term “wee” to describe an adult man any more, I’m sure that’s not PC.  But we might say he was “vertically challenged” even as we drew pictures of  this “smaller-than-life” character in Sunday School.

So the story of Zacchaeus climbing that tree to see Jesus will forever be viewed as a loveable Sunday School.  And yet…  I would like to challenge that notion this morning and suggest that this is one of the most provocative and powerful narratives in all of scripture.  It’s powerful because it introduces the very radical notion that God will stop at nothing less than the total transformation of who we are. And it’s provocative because it challenges us to become more loving, more compassionate, more generous, than we could have ever imagined!

 Before we can apply this text to our world, however, I think we need to take a careful look at Zacchaeus and the world he lived in. Jericho was awesome. An oasis of date palms and balsam groves, it exported its products all over the known world.  It lay along the great caravan routes, and was a beehive of commercial and human activity. There was even a day when Mark Anthony had presented Jericho as a gift to Cleopatra.  The only problem one can identify is that they were not independent; Jericho was under Roman rule.

And it’s within this context that find Zacchaeus.  He was the chief tax collector for the Roman government in this prospering city. Actually, he probably had a staff of collectors, and he was, very possibly, the most hated man in all of Jericho. He worked for the occupying forces and, as I said last week, he would have been regarded as a traitor to his own people. He and his cohorts could stop a person in Jericho and assess duties on nearly everything in his or her possession. A cart, for instance, could be taxed for each wheel, for the animal that pulled it, and for the merchandise that it carried.  Zacchaeus would then send in a portion of his collections, and anything over that amount he was free to keep. So it’s no surprise that the system was ripe for abuse, and as our passage states: “Zaccheaus was wealthy”  as if that were some kind of indictment, and as a matter of fact, it was.

He had accumulated his wealth in service to the invaders and at the expense of his countrymen, and he was regarded as human filth. Zacchaeus, whose name meant, ironically,  “the pure one” had turned his name into a sneer on the lips of his fellow Jews. He was a standing joke. The mention of his name evoked not a grin but disgust.The money was nice, to be sure. But to live as an outcast among your own people, with no one to call a friend…no social life…no involvement with others except those who wanted to use you for their own ends.  It had to be a lonely and depressing existence.

 But then, along comes Jesus.  A different kind of Messiah.  He comes into town with a reputation for being comfortable with those on the fringes of society; children, women, and those rejected by the trends of culture found in him a listening ear and a warm reception. For someone like Zacchaeus, Jesus was worth checking out.

Now, that was easier said than done. Zacchaeus, as I said before, was very short and seeing over the crowd was a real chore. Trying to squeeze through a crowd to the front was no sure thing, either. So his only hope was to skirt ahead of the crowd and find a sycamore tree, with its low, spreading branches that afforded a ringside view of the way Jesus was to come. And that’s what he did. He waited there in that tree, probably not quite knowing what to expect, as Jesus came into view.  Then, the most amazing thing happened…Jesus stopped and looked up at him. Luke says he saw him and said simply, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” And of course Zacchaeus jumped at the opportunity.

Now, this had to be a bitter pill for the townsfolk to swallow. What kind of so-called Messiah would even acknowledge, much less eat with the most notorious sinner in town? Luke says they began to murmur, to “grumble” among themselves, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

We finally don’t have all the details about what happened at Zacchaeus’ house. But we can see are the results, and those results tell us a great deal. Zacchaeus made a two-pronged pledge: to give half his yearly income to the poor and to return any stolen funds four times over.  But this is where things get really interesting.  Did Zacchaeus repent, as the version of the Bible we read here today implies, or is generosity the norm for Zacchaeus?  Interesting.  In Greek, the original language of the New Testament, it could be understood either way.  It could read “I will give  half my wealth to the poor and I will pay back four times what I stole.”  Or it could read ” My habit is to give half to the poor… my habit has been to pay back four times.  It makes a big difference, doesn’t it?  The whole episode could be taken as Zacchaeus’ restoration with his community or it could be taken as a story of repentance on the part of Zacchaeus.

So which is right?  Well, since we can only guess at Luke’s intent when he penned these words, I think it’s appropriate to consider both translations as correct.  Jesus was restoring him to his community and since Zacchaeus had made mistakes like everyone else, he stood in need of forgiveness like we all do.  In the end, either way of looking at it, leads us to conclude that this is finally a story about Transformation. A transformation that came for the love of God. A transformation that lead Zacchaeus to be generous to the poor and to those whom he had cheated.

And this is important for us as well.  Whether it was repentance or restoration, something in that encounter with Jesus transformed the way Zacchaeus saw the world.  Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house that day, and he was forever changed.

As a pastor, I’ve observed it time and again. When Christ takes up residence in a life, the individual cannot help but become more generous. Somehow an encounter with God loosens the grip on our wallet, frees up some of our time, leads us to share our talents, and fills up our hearts with compassion and forgiveness and respect and love for our fellow human beings.  And when that happens, when we let Christ in, giving becomes an opportunity, not a requirement.

And this brings us back around to old Zacchaeus.  In this story Jesus invites us to  remember Zacchaeus as something more than a mere children’s story. Christ’s actions and Zacchaeus’ proclamation remind us of God’s call to live generously. It challenges us to see that generosity is more that giving money.  Friends, generosity, true generosity, comes when we drop our defenses, scrabble up the nearest tree, and give from the center of our being.  Generosity finally is an opportunity to practice our faith.

Prayer  Let us once again be in an attitude of prayer…O God, we too need you to redeem our past, to transform our present, and to redirect our future. Call us out of the places we sit today and show us how to be the people you would have us be. In the name of Jesus Christ our Savior, we pray. Amen.

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Changed From a Taker to a Giver.  Reflection on Luke 19 by Rev. William G. Wilson (DayOne.org 2004)

Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4; David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds:(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) pgs. 260-365

Giving and Receiving Hospitality, Donna Hanby. (Cleveland: John Hun, 2010), pgs. 17-18

Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: Year C.  Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) pg. 469

 

 

 

 

How to Throw a Party

One of my all-time favorite films is called Places in the Heart.  You may not remember this 1984 film, but you may remember a well-known incident associated with it.  In 1985, Sally Field won her second Academy Award for her role in this film.  In her now-famous acceptance speech for her Oscar, Field said, “You like me, you really like me!” I think she really deserved that award because Places in the Heart was a wonderful film. Set in Texas during the 1930s, it’s about survival in the face of very difficult circumstances.  Sally Field’s character suddenly becomes a poor widow with small children when her husband, the town sheriff, is accidentally shot by a young black man. As you might imagine, there was no trial. The young man was beaten, lynched, drug behind a truck, and his body discarded in the front yard of his mother’s house. After both funerals are over, Sally decides to take in boarders to help make ends meet.  Her two borders are a blind man, played by John Malkovich, and an African-American man, played by Danny Glover.  Glover is also her farm hand and farm manager and faces overt racism from Field’s white neighbors, especially considering who killed her husband.

Now, I bring this film up today because “Places in the Heart” is one of the most theological Hollywood films ever made.  It deals with grief and loss, racism and reconciliation, faith, healing and hope.  AND, in the final scene of the movie, the camera moves to the interior a church.  AND as Communion is being distributed, the camera pans the congregation.  There, pictured all around Sally Field’s character, are all the people who are or have been important in her life, both living and dead.  The most touching part to me however, is when the deceased husband passes the communion tray to the young black man who took his life. This final scene a portrait of the heavenly banquet, the communion of saints, if ever there was one.

I thought of “Places in the Heart” when I read today’s gospel lesson.  In it Jesus is describing God’s heavenly banquet, one which will include everyone, not just the wealthy and friends and relatives, but also the poor, the outcast and discouraged, the lame and the blind. This story is typical of Luke’s Gospel.  Luke often pictures Jesus eating and drinking from calling Matthew, the hated tax collector, to be his disciple over supper through his Last Supper Passover meal with his disciples.  The Jesus of Luke likes to eat and drink.  He likes to attend dinner parties. And this is key! Luke’s Jesus always has an open table for his dining.  Welcome at Jesus’ table is for everyone, rich and poor, men and women, all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations.[i]

And in our text for today, Jesus offers his guidance on how to throw a party while attending one himself at the home of one an important person, a well-connected and wealthy person. The kind of a party where all the “right” people were in attendance.  Like one of those Hollywood red carpet shindigs.  BUT it was right in the middle of this high-end gathering that Jesus said, “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing!”[ii]

But he doesn’t stop there. Jesus goes on to share a parable. A parable about the ultimate party. A party that’s being thrown by God.  And what does this party look like? Well, when God throws a party, the protocol isn’t anything Emily Post would recognize. When God throws a party, there’s no thought given to inviting only the elite, only those who can return the favor. When God throws a party, a diversity of people are invited. People who have nothing in common except they have accepted the invitation. When God throws a party, the invitations are issued without a hint of proper attire because it’s a come-as-you-are event.  You don’t have to look or act or think like everyone else. There are no airs to be put on.  AND When God throws a party, you never know who you’ll end up sitting next to. The mutual fund manager may be seated next to a homeless person, a store owner next to the person he just fired, or like Places in the Heart, a white police officer may be serving communion to a young black man.[iii]

And here’s the best part! Notice that I didn’t say “a party that God is going to throw sometime in the future.” God’s party is going on right now. The Kingdom of God, the present Reign of God, the kin-dom of God’s people IS an on-going party that started with the birth of Christ and continues up to and beyond today.

 

This is an important thing for us to understand. It’s a key point that we need to wrap our minds around. Because if God’s party is on-going it up to us to issue some invitations. But a question still looms in the background, who should we invite?  In theory and in the front of our brains we say “everyone” of course. But does the reality match up with ideal? In other words, as the Church, Church with a Capitol C, the universal Christian Church; do we practice what we preach?

Author and pastor Tony Campolo tells a story of an experience at dinner in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, some years ago. He was checking on mission programs that his organization carries out day in and day out in Haiti. He wanted to see how the workers were surviving emotionally and spiritually. At the end of a long day, he was tired and “peopled out,” so it was with great relief that he sat down to eat a good dinner at a French restaurant in the heart of Port-au-Prince. He was seated next to the window so he could enjoy watching the activity on the street outside. The waiter brought a delicious looking meal and set it in front of him. Tony picked up his knife and fork and was about to dive in when he happened to look to his right. There, with their noses pressed flat against the window, staring at his food, were four children from the streets. They pressed their faces right up against the glass; they were staring at his plate of food. The waiter, seeing his discomfort, quickly moved in and pulled down the window shade, shutting out the disturbing sight of the hungry children. The waiter then said to Tony, “Don’t let them bother you. Enjoy your meal. [iv]

On this World Communion Sunday can we truly enjoy our meal? Who’s on the outside looking in? What faces are pressed up against the stained glass?  Who do we “pull the window shade down on?” What barriers prevent some people from feeling truly welcome in the fellowship of God’s people?

Now, I realize that these questions may come off as a little harsh. They’re intended to be startling. But let me qualify them a bit. When I pose these questions they are intended to challenge the whole of post-modern Christianity.  Because there’s two sides to every coin. You see, World Communion Sunday is the only time of the year when all Christians are invited to the table as one.  But the loudest voices seem to excluding those who think or act or live differently.  How many Christian denominations allow only members or those deemed worthy by the pastor to partake of the sacrament? How many people are excluded from church because of class, race, or sexual orientation?

Now, you might answer my charges here with, “But that’s not our church. We’re an inclusive church; both our local congregation and the United Church of Christ. And you would be right. But, Jesus issues an interesting challenge to us progressive Christians in this text.  “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.” (14:23b NRSV)

We are called, my friends, to “compel” people to come in. Other translations of the Bible say “urge” them, “make” them … in one case even to “drag” them in.[v]  Now, this might seem a bit extreme or even hyperbolic, but does speak with some urgency for us to imitate to the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry.  To make sure that our voice is heard as well. Some churches do exclude some people. But that’s not us. And we must be bold in our proclamation, our invitation, our extravagant welcome to all people. As we say in our communion liturgy, “all people are welcome to share in this sacred meal, no exceptions.

That’s the crux of Jesus’ message in Luke 14 as well.  All people are welcome into the company of God, no exceptions. And when we’ve all been invited and when all the invitations have been issued and accepted, what a party it’ll be! May it be so.  Amen.

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[i] Gonzales, Justo. The Story Luke Tells, Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2015 pg. 77-91

[ii] Peterson, Eugene.  The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing Group. 2005 Luke 14:12b-14

[iii] Copenhaver, Martin B. Room to Grow: Meditation on Trying to Live as a Christian. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2015 pg. 132 – 133.

[iv] Campolo, Tony.  Stories that Feed your Soul. pg. 104-106.

[v] The Precise Parallel New Testament. John R. Kohlenburger III ed.New York: Oxford University Press, 1995 pg. 398-399

Called and Recalled

There’s an old Hebrews tale of a Rabbi living in a Russian city a century ago.  Disappointed by his lack of direction and purpose, he wandered into the chilly evening.  With his hands in his pockets, he aimlessly walked through the empty streets, questioning his faith in God and his calling as a Rabbi. As a matter of fact, he was so enshrouded by his own despair that he mistakenly wandered into a Russian military compound. A place that was off-limits to civilians.  But he snapped out of it when the evening silence was shattered by the bark of a Russian soldier. “Who are you” and “What are you doing here” were the questions. “Excuse me?” replied the Rabbi. “I said, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’” But after a brief moment of silence the Rabbi asked a very strange question. He asked the soldier, “How much do you get paid every day?” The solider responded, “What does that have to do with anything?” But the Rabbi persisted, “I will pay you that same sum if you will ask me those same tow questions every day: Who are you? And what are you doing here?[i]

Now, I’ve been at this pastor thing for quite some time now, about 16 years or so, and I’ve served and continue to serve on the Division of Church and Ministry working with and reaching out to other UCC pastors in our Association; and I can tell you, we’ve all been there.  We’ve all, at one time or another, wondered if we’re on the right track.  If we’ve heard God’s call correctly. This call to preach and teach and serve as a leader in the Church? There’s a point in every clergy person’s tenure, probably more than one actually, when we ask ourselves and our God these very same questions.  “Who am I?” And “What am I doing here?”

These are two of the great existential questions of humanity, aren’t they? “Who am I?” And “What am I doing here?” I would even go so far as to say that these questions lead us to very heart of theology and philosophy.  They’re foundational for helping us to discern our place in the in this world: to discover our calling.

I would be willing to bet that these same questions crossed the mind and perhaps the lips of Paul as well.  In the very first words of the Epistle that we have before us today, Paul affirms his own calling to be an Apostle for Jesus Christ.  But if we were to walk with Paul through all the triumphs and tribulations, the joyous moments and the times of great suffering, I can imagine that he may have longed for answers like our distracted Rabbi.

In the Book of Acts and through his own writings we experience Paul being imprisoned, almost drowned at sea, struggling with illness… a thorn in his flesh he calls it.  We are invited to travel with him on long missionary journeys and to witness his disappointment and sometimes anger against the churches he planted on those long, hard treks.  So it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that he might throw up his hands and wonder “why”

But here’s the thing.  Paul also gives us, I don’t know, the formula if you will, on how to take a step back from these questions and refocus on what’s truly important.  To capture the big picture rather than lingering in the moment.  The writings about Paul and by Paul challenge us to remember that it’s finally more important to discover what God is doing through us rather than for us. God’s calling for Paul and for all of us doesn’t proclaim to be easy.  The road that lies before us maybe more of a Damascus road than smooth highway.  And if you gain nothing else from the teachings of the Apostle, please understand this: Paul wants us to know that God is God and we are not God.  Even though these questions may haunt us sometimes, they’re finally just one of many paths that lead back to God.

But these questions aren’t limited to characters in the Bible like Paul or even clergy.

Someone once shared a particularly powerful memory of something that happened when he was attending summer church camp as a child. At the closing campfire, the leader suggested that perhaps during their time together some of the campers may have heard God’s call to service.  And those who had were invited to come forward.  The first boy approached the leader and whispered in his ear.  The leader then gleefully announced, “Michel has received the call to become a pastor.” The leader then vigorously shook his hand and said, “Congratulations Michel!”  A girl came forward next.  She whispered something to the leader and again he was almost giddy. “Susie has heard the call to become a missionary! Congratulations Susie!” Then the leader asked if there was anyone else who wanted to come forward. A final boy cautiously approached and he too whispered in the leader’s ear.  But his time the leader simply patted the boy on the shoulder.  Then the boy went back to his seat without another word being said.  Now, the person telling this story was that boy, now a middle-aged man, successful in business.  But there was still some hurt in his voice when he asked the question, “Can you guess what I whispered in the leader’s ear?” I told him that I was called to teach math.”[ii]

As I read this story I couldn’t help but feel sad that this man’s calling was never confirmed. It wasn’t confirmed because the leader at that summer camp maintained a common misconception about calling. That God’s call is only to the ministry. That’s simply not so.

As a matter of fact, the word “call” itself shares a root with the word “vocation” making them essentially interchangeable.  So our vocation then is by definition a calling. God calls math teachers, carpenters, nurses, office managers, as well as, stay-at-home parents, soup-kitchen volunteers, gardeners… whatever, you fill in the blank.  Every person has a vocation of some kind, a calling, an invitation to use her and his gifts in a variety of way to meet the needs of others. Frederick Buechner give us a compelling definition of vocation.  He says that “…God calls us to the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In other words, God calls us to a vocation, a place or occupation where our deep gladness, where a deep sense of satisfaction and belonging are cultivated.  And it’s a place where that call is intertwined with and used to connect us to the world’s deepest longings; a hunger, a hunger for both spiritual and physical foods.

As we leave this place today, sisters and brothers, and as we ponder those deep existential questions; Who am I? What am I doing here? may the answers we receive lead us, call us,  into an ever-deepening relationship with each other and with our Creator. Amen.

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[i] Cordeiro, Wayne. Doing Church as a Team Ventura CA: Regal Books, 2001 pgs. 32-33.

[ii]Copenhaver, Martin B. Room to Grow: Meditation on Trying to Live as a Christian.

Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2015 pg. 151-158.

 

 

 

Welcome to Birchwood Blessings

Hello. Welcome to Birchwood Blessings an on-line archive of recent sermons, various articles I have written over the years, and a few random thoughts about God and life that I long to share.  Oh, by the way, I’m Pastor Phil.  I serve two small congregations in the beautiful Northwoods of Wisconsin.  Cable United Church of Christ in Cable Wisconsin and St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Delta Wisconsin. I hope you enjoy this site and as always, please know above all else that God Loves You! Peace. Phil.