Monday, October 31, 2016

I Am Zacchaeus

Sermon from Oct. 30, 2016
Luke 19:1-10

As we hear this story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, it might help to set the scene.  Jesus is coming into Jericho.  In the passage just before this morning’s reading, he’s healed a man who desperately wanted to see again.  Jesus explains what’s happened by telling the man he’s not just healed but that his faith has “saved” him (Luke 18:42).  It’s the kind of healing that goes beyond healing, the healing that restores our lives to the wholeness God intends – and it makes the formerly blind man join Jesus on the road.  That’s what’s on Jesus’ mind as he makes his way into Jericho. 
And how about Zacchaeus?  What’s on his mind?  Well, first we have to know who Zacchaeus is.  He’s a Jew, but he’s also a “chief tax collector” and “rich,” the story says (19:2).  Basically he’s a traitor, part of the Roman system taxing his people to support the brutal Empire … and, of course, enriching the tax collectors.  You also have to know this man’s name is part of the story – “Zacchaeus” means “innocent” or “clean,” rather ironic given his life and work.  But that’s how he sees himself.
So, this imperial collaborator is looking for Jesus.  He’s heard the buzz, so Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree to see Jesus pass by.  On one level, it’s a practical thing: Zacchaeus is short.  But on another level, maybe Zacchaeus is climbing that tree because he’s used to getting what he wants.  Zacchaeus is the kind of guy who stands in the “premiere” ticket line and sits in box seats at the amphitheater.  When Zacchaeus wants to see, he gets to see.
Oddly enough, Jesus wants to see Zacchaeus, too – not to indict him but to spend time with him.  Jesus has come to town to bring God’s wholeness not just to those who’ve been oppressed.  Jesus wants to see the oppressor made whole, too. 
And you know, I think, deep down, Zacchaeus wants to be made whole.  Sure, he’s used to first-class treatment, but his conscience isn’t dead.  Late at night, trying to fall asleep, maybe he sees the faces of the neighbors he’s defrauding.  Zacchaeus knows he’s lost and needs healing.  And Jesus doesn’t keep him waiting.  “Zacchaeus,” Jesus says, “hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today” (19:5).
I imagine Zacchaeus frozen on his branch, the whole crowd now staring up at him.  But something happens to Zacchaeus in that moment.  Maybe he begins to see those people below him in a different light – shining with the dignity of the children of God.  But he hears something, too – something about himself.  Deep in his heart, Zacchaeus hears a shocking word of grace.  He hears Jesus say, “You are just as worthy as everyone else who’s lost, and I have come to make you whole, too.”  It doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum – the exploited and those who exploit, the excluded and those who exclude.  Zacchaeus is just as worthy of God’s forgiveness and healing as the folks he’s been robbing – because Zacchaeus, too, is a child of God.  As Jesus tells the crowd and every one of us: “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost” (19:10) – all the lost.
This is the Sunday in our stewardship season when we highlight Outreach ministries, the work we do and the resources we give to serve the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the alone, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned.  We know that when we serve others, we serve Jesus himself, down the street and across the sea.  Your Outreach giving provides food for hungry people at the Kansas City Community Kitchen.  It provides food and books for students in Haiti and salaries for their teachers.  It supports a social entrepreneur’s vision to train moms for living-wage jobs and break the cycle of poverty.  It helps kids in Kansas City’s housing projects learn that God loves them and wants to see them well-fed and educated.  It helps women and their kids break free from domestic violence.  Your pledge of time, talent, and treasure supports all that work.
But, you know, our Outreach giving helps meet our needs, too.  I would say our Outreach ministries are just as much about our healing as they are about serving Jesus in “the least” of his brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40).  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  In fact, there’s a lot right with that.  Because, I have to tell you – I am Zacchaeus.  Most of us here are Zacchaeus.  And I’ve had to climb down from my safe perch in the sycamore tree for my own come-to-Jesus meeting. 
I started climbing down was when Ann and I lived in Iowa City and I volunteered at the local food pantry.  Now, mind you, I didn’t actually serve hungry people at the food pantry; I stocked shelves.  It was a start, but I only climbed a couple of branches down the sycamore tree.
When we went to seminary in Austin, I got involved in the student-run feeding program. Actually the word “program” dresses up the effort too much; it was more like a guerilla campaign.  We would make burritos for about 100 people, load them into a rusted-out pickup, and drive to the storefront where day laborers came to collect their pay.  There, we gave the laborers burritos, bananas, and oranges until the food ran out.  It was one of the best parts of seminary for me, talking with actual hungry people.  They’re much more interesting than the abstraction of “hunger” I imagined when I stocked shelves at the pantry.  They’re also more complicated.  What do you do when a hungry person doesn’t appreciate the burrito you gave him?  Or what do you do with the reality that all the burritos in the world won’t do a blessed thing to change the system that keeps the day laborers wondering whether they’ll even get work the next morning – and a system that will never pay them enough to live on.  Asking those questions, I climbed a few more branches down the sycamore tree toward Jesus.
Here at St. Andrew’s, it’s been our partnership with St. Augustin’s School in Haiti that’s made the biggest difference in helping me climb down and meet Jesus on the road.  I’ve been blessed to share time and meals and Eucharist with people like Pere Colbert, and the school’s headmaster Samuel, and the other teachers – people we’ve come to know.  Through those relationships, our congregation has empowered kids at St. Augustin’s to learn, despite hardships I can barely fathom.  But that’s not all.  Through those relationships, I’ve begun to know salvation, along with Zacchaeus. 
Here’s how that healing works for me.  Even at the pantry in Iowa City and at the day-labor office in Austin, I could see there was a disconnect between my reality and the reality of the people being served.  I couldn’t really frame it, but I knew it was there.  I might now frame that disconnect, and my need for healing, in terms of privilege.  I am tremendously privileged.  I am American.  I am white.  I am male.  I am straight.  I come from a family that sent me to college.  I start the game with the ball at midfield, while others are starting buried deep in their own territory.  So, when I hear Jesus calling Zacchaeus to come down from the tree and change his point of view, I hear him calling my name, too.
But Jesus isn’t just yelling at me for my complicity in a series of broken systems.  He’s asking me to see them and change them as best I can – helping to educate kids in Haiti, supporting training for women to find living-wage jobs, encouraging you to see the injustices that hurt God’s heart and then act to change them.  But Jesus is also calling my name because he loves me and wants me to be made whole, too.  He’s trying to help me see him in people I wouldn’t truly see otherwise.  I can’t know what it’s like to be Haitian.  I can’t know what it’s like to be a women at the Grooming Project.  I can’t know what it’s like to be a kid at Gordon Parks Elementary, who can’t tell you where he lives but only where he stays.  I get to start from the 50-yard line.  I live in privilege I’m only beginning to see. 
But Jesus asks me to climb down from my sycamore tree because he wants me to find the healing that comes from taking the journey with him.  He wants to make me whole by bringing me into relationships I’d never know otherwise.  Every step we take toward the other is a step toward seeing that person’s full humanity.  Every step we take toward the other is a step toward honoring that person’s God-given dignity.  Every step we take toward the other is a step toward building God’s beloved community.  Every step we take toward the other is a step toward our own healing, healing at the hands of the One who comes to seek and save the lost – like us.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Do Thankful

Sermon from Sunday, Oct. 9
2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Luke 17:11-19

This has been a week of sadness for many of us in the St. Andrew’s family.  We gathered here yesterday to celebrate the life of our friend Deacon Peg Ruth, who’d been part of this parish for more than 62 years as a member, staff deacon, source of wisdom, and bearer of love.  As we proclaimed our faith, and her faith, in the power of resurrection, we also shed several tears.
In addition, this week brought us news of Hurricane Matthew and its devastating effect on southwestern Haiti, home of our ministry partners in Maniche and Les Cayes.  We don’t know the full scope of the damage, but it’s no stretch to say our friends there have lost more than we can imagine, their fragile homes, their crops, and their possessions literally scattered to the winds.   
When I prayed about Haiti this week, the image that came to mind was the offertory at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Episcopal parish in Les Cayes.  As you may remember, when we returned from Haiti in the spring, I talked about this amazing offertory procession, with people dancing their way down the aisle to bring their first fruits to God’s altar:  bananas, mangoes, and corn; beans, rice, and peppers; even goats and chickens – all of it brought as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord who had provided it in the first place.  At this point, our friends in Haiti have precious little to bring to God’s altar, and their struggles will only intensify with the disease and deprivation we know will come in the storm’s wake. 
But Haiti is one of those thin places between heaven and earth, a place where our lives and the kingdom of God intersect in surprising ways.  Our friends in Haiti need our prayers and our ongoing support, but I have absolutely no doubt that before long, they will once again be bringing their first fruits to God’s altar.  It’s just what they do, because they know God will call new life into being there.  And they’re right.  That’s just what God does.
Offering first fruits to God is a pretty good description of Peg Ruth’s life, too.  Peg gave her loving presence here so generously – one of those parishioners who does nearly everything there is to do at church and does it with a servant’s heart.  Whether you’d known Peg for 60 years or, like me, only a decade or so, you couldn’t help but be moved by the generosity of her spirit.
A few months ago, Peg was interviewed in the Messenger about why she put God first in her life – why she offered her first fruits.  She said, “I simply wanted others to have the faith I knew to be very real.”  So she packed up neighborhood kids in her car and brought them to church along with her family.  She served on a million committees, including the Vestry.  She led the Altar Guild.  She said “yes” to God’s call and pioneered the way for other women to serve in ordained ministry.  She supported St. Andrew’s and its ministries financially.  She visited you in the hospital; and whether you were a friend and neighbor or a patient with AIDS, she would take off her sterile glove, and hold your hand in hers, and pray that you would know Christ’s healing love.
Each of those gifts Peg shared with us was a first fruit.  It’s a concept with a long history, one deep in our DNA.  Our spiritual ancestors, the people of Israel, would come to the Temple in Jerusalem every year to offer the sacrifice of their first fruits, the produce they’d inherited when they came into the Promised Land:  wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, dates, wine, and olive oil.  It sounds like that offertory procession in Haiti.  Those gifts supported the Temple’s operation; but more important, they were an antidote to amnesia.  They helped people remember that the land and its produce was God’s gift, not something of their own doing.  And those offerings helped the people remember their side of the Covenant, too:  As God provided land and blessing, the people offered fidelity and thanksgiving.
Here at St. Andrew’s, we’re beginning our season of stewardship this morning.  For the next five weeks, you’ll be hearing from clergy and parishioners about what it means to put God first, to honor God through the offering of your first fruits.
But in another sense, this season has been underway for months already.  Think about the stories you’ve read in the Messenger and the bulletin about members of this church family putting God first – Morgan Olander, Dr. Stan Shaffer, Audrey Langworthy, Bob West, George and Carolyn Kroh … and Deacon Peg Ruth.  Each has his or her own story of what it looks like to live a generous life in terms of time, talent, and treasure.  All of them are pledgers to St. Andrew’s, but that certainly isn’t the only mark of their faithfulness.  For Morgan, generosity has looked like mentoring Boy Scouts.  For Stan, it’s looked like building partnerships in Haiti.  For Audrey, it’s looked like years of public service in the legislature.  For Bob, it’s looked like civic leadership in universities, libraries, and health care.  For George and Carolyn, it’s looked like ministry in education, community gardening, and Haiti.  And for Deacon Peg Ruth, it’s looked like a life of servant ministry and servant leadership.  As Peg said, “Being a Christian is sometimes a tough road to travel, but choosing the easier path is not what the Christian life is about.  Jesus said, ‘Take up the cross and follow me.’  I can’t say, ‘No, wait, it’s too heavy.’”
            Can we follow those models of faithfulness?  Can we follow the lead of the people of Haiti who bring their first fruits to God’s altar despite the risk that their homes might be destroyed in a few minutes’ wind and rain?  Can we follow the lead of Deacon Peg and the others we’ve been profiling?  Can we live a generous life despite the temptation to see scarcity everywhere we turn?  
            I believe the answer is simple and yet simply astounding, and here it is:  I will, with God’s help.  It’s our answer to the five questions God asks us in the Baptismal Covenant:  Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and the prayers?  Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  And will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?  As Stan Shaffer said in his interview, those promises of the Baptismal Covenant capture the Christian life in microcosm:  Sacrifice.  Forgiveness.  Celebration.  Service.  Respect.  That’s our job description as followers of Jesus, and we can’t let his call scare us away.  After all, if we’re followers, that means we’re on a journey.  We can’t expect to walk it as faithfully today as we will tomorrow.  But still, each day, we can take a good next step, following his lead.
            How?  I think the key is the practice of thankfulness – the active, outward, concrete, sacramental practice of thankfulness.  Not just being thankful, but doing thankful.  Now, this may not exactly come naturally to us.  Think of the examples in our readings today.  Naaman, the Syrian leader with leprosy, was angry that he didn’t get enough personal attention while God miraculously healed him.  In the Gospel, the nine Jewish lepers didn’t bother to say thank-you to Jesus for their healing; only the outsider, the Samaritan, lived out his thankfulness by coming to the place of blessing at Jesus’ feet.  We’re not so good at “doing thankful.”  We need God’s help, and we need practice.
That practice of thankfulness happens across the scope of our lives, as we’ve seen in those profiles in the Messenger.  It’s about time and talent and treasure because God blesses us with all three.  God asks for our first fruits not as transactions of blessing but as tokens of blessedness.  The Israelites gave God their first fruits not to purchase good fortune but to help them remember where their Promised Land had come from and what faithfulness God expected in return.  We need the same memory aid to remind us that we cannot live for ourselves alone but for him who died for us, and rose again, and now uses our hands to hold the world in love. 
In the next few days, you’ll be receiving information on how to “do thankful” here at St. Andrew’s through pledges of time, talent, and treasure.  All three are equally important – prayer, and service, and financial gifts – because God doesn’t just want the first fruits from your wallet.  God wants first place in your life, as Peg Ruth modeled.  As she said in her interview, “I’m trying to live the message, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” 
She could say that because Peg knew who she was and whose she was.  She knew God’s claim on her life.  She knew the costs that faithful living brings.  But she also knew the joy that comes in the morning, the joy that comes when the storms clear, the joy that comes from putting God first.
            So do you.  So do I.  But we need help, sometimes, to remember.