today!

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 19.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, October 30, 2016

A rich man asks Jesus, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus speaks of the commandments. The man cites his lifelong faithfulness. “You lack one thing”, Jesus says, telling the man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. The man, crestfallen, cannot part with his earthly treasure. Jesus observes, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven!” The disciples, shocked, believing wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, exclaim, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus says, “What is impossible for mortals I possible with God.”[1]

No, I’ve not mistaken this morning’s appointed gospel text (every preacher’s nightmare!). Rather the story of Jesus and the rich man provides context for the meeting between Jesus and Zacchaeus. Their encounter illumines the purpose of God who sees what mortals cannot see and answers the question, “Who can be saved?” whether asked by the disciples…

Or by us whenever, for whatever reasons, we cannot see our wealth of life and possibility bestowed by God, but only our lack. Whenever we look inside ourselves and see afresh what we work to hide from others, would hide from ourselves, and, though we pray: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”[2], wish we could hide from God. Whenever we recall the times we fell short of our best into the pit of our worst. When we were not loving and giving, but self-seeking, self-serving. When we were beset by fear that we wouldn’t, couldn’t be who God calls us to be or who we want to be. When our dreams of personal fulfillment crashed into the nightmares of our errors in judgment; the shadows of the consequences of which still haunt us. When we can’t lower the volume of that loud, long-playing psychological tape of blame and shame recorded ages ago by the criticisms of others and our self-condemnations.

Can we be saved? If the rich man and Zacchaeus are symbolic reflections of us – the rich man, in the respectability of his obedience to God’s Law, representing how we might like to appear and Zacchaeus, in his disloyalty, selling out to the Roman Empire, collecting taxes from his own people, how we’d like not to appear – then, between the two, Zacchaeus, I believe, answers our question, for his story reminds us that appearances can deceive.

The virtuous rich man wasn’t ready to relinquish his wealth, serve the poor, and follow Jesus. The duplicitous Zacchaeus desperately wanted to see Jesus, shamelessly disregarding propriety, lifting the hem of his robe to his waist, running, climbing a tree, and ignoring the crowd’s derisive pointing, laughing at “little Zacchaeus.”

zacchaeus-in-the-sycamore-awaiting-the-passage-of-jesus-zachee-sur-le-sycomore-attendant-le-passage-de-jesus-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Here, too, is irony. Zacchaeus looked for Jesus, who already was looking for him. Jesus, the proclaimer, the personifier of God’s unconditional kingdom-love, always is looking for anyone ready to receive him.

Yet, deeper still, appearances deceive. Zacchaeus, a tax collector, is assumed to be corrupt. However, though in the English, Zacchaeus says, “Half my possessions, I will give to the poor” the Greek says, “Half my possessions I am giving to the poor.” The generosity Jesus commands, Zacchaeus already does! His liberality is no spontaneous, one-time act, but a constant commitment. Zacchaeus says, “If I’ve defrauded…”, for it’s not a given he has cheated anyone.

Yes, all is not always as it appears. We are not always as we appear to others and ourselves. However, we always are as we appear to God. Thus be assured if ever, whenever we wonder, “Can we be saved?” the answer never depends on us, but always on God, in whom all things are possible and who, in Jesus, always answers, “Yes”!

Daring to believe this, let us dare more, asking, “When can we be saved?” The answer is always “today”!

In Luke’s gospel, everything important happens today

The angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flock, proclaiming, “To you is born today in the city of David a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.”[3]

Jesus inaugurated his ministry, reading Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed”, then saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[4]

The penitent thief crucified with Jesus, said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”[5]

Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

If ever, whenever you and I look at ourselves asking, pleading, “Can I be saved?” Luke, the divine physician, through the Jesus-Zacchaeus story, prescribes an antidote to our wonderment, a remedy for our worry, answering, “Yestoday!”

Today is always the time of God’s salvation! Today is the time of our liberation from fear and all that binds us, so to liberate others who are bound! Today, like Zacchaeus, let us open our eyes to see Jesus and what he is doing around us, in us, through us. May you and I know that whenever, wherever, with whomever we follow Jesus, bear the gifts of faith and hope, love and forgiveness, bring the light of compassion to the least, last, and lost, bestow strength to the feeble and solace to the forlorn salvation comes today!

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus (Zachée sur le sycomore attendant le passage de Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] See Luke 18.18-27 (my paraphrase)

[2] From the Collect of Purity (my emphasis), The Book of Common Prayer, page 355.

[3] Luke 2.11

[4] Luke 4.18, 21

[5] Luke 23.42-43

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a Lilliputian prayer

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Luke 18.9-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016

Sometimes one can be good and inspire intense dislike or bad and dislikable, yet, perhaps paradoxically, useful.

the-pharisee-and-the-publican-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

Jesus tells a parable of two who prayed. One, a Pharisee.

Historically, Pharisees haven’t fared well. “Pharisaical” is a synonym for the hypocrisy of outwardly doing of all the right things, but inwardly being less than true to the values the actions symbolize.

All Pharisees weren’t bad. Indeed, their “job” in Judaism was to know and do God’s Law – all 613 ritual imperatives of Sabbath observances and feast days, dietary rules and tithing. They were to be embodiments of the heart of the Law: love for God and neighbor. Yes, Jesus condemned the Pharisees as legalistically obsessed with externals; more concerned about correct conduct than love or justice.[1] Nevertheless, their role in the life of the community was important, for all of us need outward and visible, at times, living symbols of the values we cherish if we are to know and remember them.

All said, Pharisees were respected, admired, but not well liked. Hard to like someone who rises above us and perhaps looks down on us.

The second actor in Jesus’ two-person drama is a tax collector. A despised collaborator with the hated Roman Empire. A desecrator of the Law, taking money from his own people on behalf of the enemy. A thief who often levied higher amounts than were owed, pocketing the difference.

Tax collectors, seeking to repent, came to John the Baptizer, asking, “What should we do?” John said, “Collect no more than is due!”[2] Zacchaeus, a tax collector, overwhelmed with gratitude that Jesus would come to his home, joyously declared, “If I’ve defrauded anyone, I’ll repay fourfold!”[3] Clearly, tax collecting was profitable; the prosperity often the spoiled fruit of the misery of others.

Nevertheless, the disrespected, despised tax collector was useful as one who falls beneath us and perhaps upon whom we can look down.

So, the Pharisee. In his prayer, his hubristic litany of self-praise, he saw himself as morally superior to the tax collector. And he hadn’t lied. He had done everything he said. But he hadn’t lived the Law. He hadn’t loved. Thus he fulfilled Paul’s sad commentary on a loveless life; blessed with ability and achievement, but lacking compassion for others: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels…if I have prophetic powers…understand all mysteries and all knowledge…and faith…but do not have love, I am nothing.”[4]

The tax collector, in his contrite confession, had gotten nothing right, but everything real, for he hadn’t fallen prey to the temptation of comparison. (Whenever I measure myself against another, I know the risk. Whenever I, by my standards, look for some lesser mortal over whom to exalt myself, I will find that person. Yet inevitably I also will stumble into shadows cast by giants whose Brobdingnagian achievements by comparison make my accomplishments appear Lilliputian.[5]) The tax collector, judging himself only by himself, found himself lacking, compelling his cry for mercy.

As we interpret this tale, it is good for us to remember that Jesus was an intuitive story teller who taught in parables because he wanted us to think for ourselves. I believe Jesus ended the story with the tax collector’s plea: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Luke, writing a generation after Jesus, added the moral to the story, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” I guess Luke didn’t trust us with our own ruminations.

I think this because the ethical line that Luke draws is too solid and too straight. The Pharisee, outwardly righteous, inwardly flawed. The tax collector, outwardly flawed, inwardly righteous. Nothing in life or human experience is that clear!

So, taking up the story where I believe Jesus left it calls us to recognize that a Pharisee and a tax collector abides within each of us.

Like the Pharisee, we, at times, compare ourselves with others. The cost is that our self-perception and esteem can rise or fall in relation to how we view others. At the same time, we need to claim the pharisaical promise that we are “not like other people”. Each of us is created wonderfully, differently, uniquely, individually. Therefore, there always is something each of us can give to others and receive from others.

Like the tax collector, we earn much of our profit, yes, our material treasure, yet also the wealth of our personalities at the cost and through the giving of others. Therefore, forgetting that, we always are in danger of believing somehow we did it ourselves and, thus, need to remember to pray like a Lilliputian, in gratitude, always in mind and heart of our need for mercy.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: The Pharisee and the Publican (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). The Pharisee (left), as described in the parable, “standing by  himself”, his bearing erect, hold his hands aloft in prayer. The tax collector or publican (right) also stands alone and, “far off”, his posture abject, leaning against a pillar for support, his head bowed in his hand, unable to “look up to heaven”, his other hand grasping, “beating his breast”, all signs of contrition. (Note: publican was a title given to a public contractor who served the Roman Empire in a variety of roles, one of which was tax collection.)

Footnotes:

[1] See Matthew 23.1-36 and Luke 11.42-44.

[2] Luke 3.12-13

[3] Luke 19.8

[4] 1 Corinthians 13.1, 2, my emphasis

[5] A reference to peoples, respectively great and small in size, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).