Monday, October 31, 2016

A wee little man in the present tense

Sermon for Proper 26 C
Luke 19:1-10

I have mentioned in the past about the childhood Bible that I had, its images still figure prominently on the landscape of my spirit. I can still vividly recall the image of the chief tax collector Zacchaeus up in the tree, the illumined face of Jesus up-turned to him.
Today’s Gospel story is very familiar and it is featured in every children’s bible or comic gospel I’ve ever seen. I suppose that’s because children like climbing trees.
The way that we usually read this story is that Jesus invites himself to sit with Zacchaeus and the mere invitation and meal is enough for Zacchaeus to turn over a new leaf and give half his possessions to the poor and plan to give back four times what he may have cheated out of people. This reading makes sense to us because it fits our normal understanding of how God works in our lives, we confess our evil, repent, and then are forgiven. Jesus says, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." Cause and effect. It makes a whole lot of sense: Zacchaeus, that short man in both stature and social standing, is a sinner in need of repentance.
Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. As we know the tax collectors worked for the empire and could add a little to the bill for their own payment. They were especially hated by the natives probably because the tax collectors themselves were natives. It’s one thing to be the occupying empire, it is quite another to collaborate with them. In the first century the people commonly referred to the tax collectors as sinners, as a group, because for them the activity of collecting taxes was especially heinous; it was a sin against God and neighbor to do what they were doing and they became rich from it. Tax collectors were sinners because their livelihood was enmeshed with their sinful actions.
The usual reading of this passage has Jesus, the forgiver, walking into a sinful life in order to redeem it. I like that reading because it makes sense to me, I have lived that life. I have found myself to be living out of right relationship with God or my neighbor, or even myself, I have confessed and I have felt God’s forgiving love. Haven’t you?
But I don’t think that is what’s going on in the story. And the reason I don’t think so is, unfortunately, for grammatical reasons. I’ll get to that in a minute, first let’s look again at the story.
The passage says that Zacchaeus is short, but the Greek word there (elikia) could mean short in stature, age or time of life, or even maturity. So Zacchaeus could just be young, or maybe he’s grown-up, yet immature! Maybe that’s why this rich, up and coming tax collector, who manages a bunch of other tax collectors sees nothing at all wrong with climbing a tree: he’s young at heart and just doesn’t care what people think. When my kids climb trees they certainly aren’t worried what people will think, they climb trees because they want to!

So Jesus spots him, Jesus looks up to the see the small Zacchaeus. Jesus is able to spot Zacchaeus because Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. It seems that this is the first lesson of this passage; Jesus will always find those who seek him. If you want to find Jesus, you will find him.
Anyway, Zacchaeus accepts Jesus’ invitation to invite Jesus over for dinner and as soon as they get inside, once they get through the crowd that is scandalized that Jesus is eating with such a sinner, Zacchaeus announces that he will give half of his things to the poor and he will pay back four times as much to anyone he may have cheated.
Except that’s not what Zacchaeus says.
I know that what the text says, but that’s not what it says.
You see, as part of my weekly discipline, to  actually pray with the scripture, I have to force myself to read slowly, and the best way that I have found to do that is to read it in Greek, and  because my Greek is not nearly as good as it used to be; I have to look words up. So to read and understand these ten verses it might take me a half hour of slow, plodding, yet revealing effort.
What I found was that Zacchaeus doesn’t say that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and that he will pay back those who he has cheated, instead what he says is that he gives half of his things to the poor, he pays back anyone he has cheated. It’s all in the present tense. In fact in the grammatical structure of Greek what Zacchaeus says is called the iterative-present, he has been doing those things in the past and he is doing them in the present.
In the version of the Bible that we almost always use in this church, the New Revised Standard Version, the translators have decided to place Zacchaeus’ statement to Jesus in the future tense, he will do these things. The implication is that because of his encounter with Jesus he will change his ways. He is having his Ebenezer Scrooge moment, he will change.
The notion of whether Zacchaeus is doing the good deeds in the present or will in the future, to me is crucial. Once I discovered that the Greek used the present tense, I did a quick online search and found that 6 out of the 24 most used translations of the Bible in English use the future tense, and the remaining 18 use the present tense. Zacchaeus says, “Lord I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I find that I have cheated anyone, I pay them back four times as much.”
Who cares? Why does all this matter? Why does all this comparison and grammatical rigmarole matter?
It matters because if Zacchaeus has this encounter with Jesus and then promises amendment of life, well that’s actually a really good thing. But if we see that Zacchaeus has been giving to the poor and making right with those he may have accidently cheated all along, well that’s a whole other kettle of fish. If we hear the past and present activity of this sinner, this person who the entire community reviles, if we see that he is in fact more than simply just, that he is living a salvation-life, well then we have a problem.
You see, when we read Zacchaeus as promising some future event, then when Jesus’ statement that “Today salvation has come to this house,” we read that as centered on Jesus only. Now, that’s not bad, and I’m no heretic, as you may have noticed, I am a huge fan of Jesus.
But when we read the Zacchaeus has been just and giving all along, we find that Jesus is in a place of discovery, he exclaims, perhaps loud enough for those who are outside and wouldn’t be caught dead with someone like Zacchaeus, “Wow! Salvation has come to this house! Here is a son of Abraham!”
Indeed the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost, but Zacchaeus’ lost-ness has more to do with the fact that his community and the system in which they are forced to live has made them all take up sides. In Jericho the people could not even conceive of a situation whereby a chief tax collector could be anything other than a sinner, a traitor, and a collaborator.
Most of us who know this story from of old might think of Zacchaeus as a sniveling little miser who finally got right with God. But the story actually shows this very righteous, good person who is also very hated by his community. Jesus then is the bystander in the story who recognizes the wonder that God has been at work even in the evil system of taxes, military occupation, social stratification, and judgement. Jesus is there to recognize and declare that salvation is there, that God seeks people through whatever boundaries a society has set up.
Jesus then is the one who accepts the invitation to witness to God’s work in the most intractable, divisive situations. And since that’s what Jesus does, then you can bet that that is precisely what we are meant to seek: God working in unlikely places.
Now, if only we were, I don’t know, engaged in a sharply divided political landscape. If only we had an economic situation that pits us against them, where we judge each other harshly. If only we had a system in our city whereby we demonize certain groups with zero sense of history or even common sense.
It’s simple folks: Who is your enemy? Who is the one that you know is sinful? I’ll give you a sec to figure that out. Who is sinful, who, in your mind, is clearly working against the purposes of God? Now, invite yourself over to their house. I can guarantee that God is up to something in that person’s life, and you will get the joy of discovering it just as Jesus did.
Jesus knew exactly who and what Zacchaeus was: a rich, chief tax collector. He had every right to dismiss Zacchaeus as less-than. But he decided to see what Zacchaeus was all about, and he discovered that God was already at work.
Are you brave enough to be like Jesus, to be willing to enter the life of the one our community knows is oh so very sinful? Are you brave enough to listen for God even in dark corners?
Don’t be surprised by the way if you find that someone else thinks you’re the sinful one.
You don’t have to actually go over to their house, but you might. Enter their lives, see what they are about, above all listen. Look for God, and just as Zacchaeus looked for Jesus and found him, you too will find God.
Y’all we need this right now. We need this. Our community is hurting just as much as Jericho was hurting 2000 years ago. The election is not going to fix our problems either, in fact I think it will make things worse. The only thing that can heal our community is if there are a great many sinners going out and looking for Jesus, looking for God at work in each other’s lives.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Temptation, Revelation, Anger: an Installation Sermon for Rev. Suz Cate and Holy Trinity, Clemson

Feast of St. Luke
I just got back from a week at the beach. It wasn’t all fun and games, it was actually a little soul-wrenching and head-checking because I was there for the Credo Conference. Credo is a ministry of the Episcopal Church, namely the Church Pension group. The idea of Credo is to assess the health and vitality of your life in the areas of spirituality, mental and physical health, vocation, and financial. I was there with 22 complete strangers, all of whom are now friends. We came from all over the church with all kinds of interesting and creative ministries. I’m happy to report that the Episcopal Church cares very much for her priests.
You see, being ordained, being a deacon or a priest, or a bishop, is strange work. It is so integrated that sometimes us collared folk lose sight of where we end and the church begins. It’s tough work. Like the bishop says in Les Misarable, the novel, which is actually a wonderful piece of Christian literature, he says, “Just as the coal miner emerges from the mine covered in the soot and grime of his work so too does the priest.” This happens to everyone of course, but priests get an especially high dose of the highs and lows of human experience, and it can be jarring spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
So this Credo conference is all about best practices for living a healthy life and they offer desert at every meal and late night snacks. I actually think that the folks who run Credo just put this stuff out and when they clean up they take note of what is left to gauge whether we are all listening to the health recommendations. On one of the final nights I was staying up late with several of my new friends playing a game. As we played we were all in close proximity of a tray of cookies. Now, I’m no bastion of self-control obviously, in fact I had had two cookies already, but as the game went on the chocolate and toffee in these cookies were assaulting me. Others made mention of the wonderful cookies. Finally, I reached over, grabbed the tray, and offered them to everyone. One person said, “No! Get behind me Satan! I a planned the work and I’m working the plan! No thank you!” Others chimed in too that they were trying to be healthier. Encouraged by their self-control, I abstained and the desire for cookie goodness evaporated. It passed.
Temptation. It’s tough. But having others around to help you through it, that’s the key. Have you had that, have you had a moment of temptation and then just the smallest of nudges from someone else brought you on the right path immediately? Perhaps for you it was a time that you were about to bad-mouth someone and throw them under the bus and then the person you were with said something good about the one you were about to malign; and you stood down. Perhaps you were about to break your sobriety but chose a meeting instead. Maybe you were tempted to cheat at school but decided to just do your best and let the chips fall where they may.
I’m talking about this because today’s gospel reading, chosen for the feast of St. Luke could not be better for this occasion, and it has something to do with temptation. It’s the story of Jesus going home to Nazareth and reading in the synagogue. He reads this passage from Isaiah. “The spirit is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the prisoners, give sight to the blind, liberate the oppressed and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then Jesus says, “This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He is saying that what Isaiah was talking about 250 or more years before Jesus was born is happening right then and there in that synagogue and it is centered on him.
And for us, since it is centered on Jesus, that means through our baptisms that this activity, these reversals: sight to the blind, freedom to prisoners and oppressed, and good news to the poor, since we are baptized into Jesus, this is our life and work too. Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Israel, he is the Year of the Lord’s favor he is the release to prisoners and he is the sight of the blind.
That’s us, that’s our work. And on this occasion tonight, where we celebrate the beginning of a new relationship between a priest and a parish, I cannot think of a better choice of a person to continue to lead you into the work and life of Jesus. Suz, who I have known for about 8 years, is a person who walks closely with Jesus taking her cues from him and not much else. This is who the church needs, a person dedicated to Jesus Christ to the exclusion of all. That doesn’t mean she won’t care for you and the various ministries of this parish, it actually means that she will love you and the ministries of the parish more deeply than she could have on her own. But it also means that with her powerful commitment to Jesus she will sometimes be critical of the activities of this parish. She will ask good questions. She will call attention to every elephant that a room can hold. And it will be uncomfortable. But it’s good because she is, in her questions and her leading, bringing you closer to Jesus who brings good news to the poor and release to the oppressed, and then you will do that work too.
Which brings me back to the temptation. You see, this passage where Jesus asserts that God’s way of doing things has been most revealed in him comes right after Jesus’ time in the desert, where he is tempted by the Devil. So this great revelation, this wonderful expression of what we are about, about our work and mission comes right after temptation. Now, what follows tonight’s passage is a scene where Jesus criticizes some of those in the synagogue and they get angry, real angry, like run-out-of-town-on-a-rail-and-they-tried-to-throw-him-off-a-cliff angry.
Revelation of God and the purpose of our life and work sits right between temptation and anger. It’s a narrow way too. In Luke there is more room and real estate given to the temptation story and the part about Jesus making everyone mad than to this great proclamation that God has come powerfully in Jesus. The work we do and the abiding presence of Jesus sits cozily between temptation and anger.
Here’s what I mean: I will now talk just to this congregation. Suz, plug your ears.
Friends. She’s the real deal. That’s really good. But it will sometimes get on your nerves. She will poke you where it hurts, where you are tender. She will be looking for Jesus in the most unlikely places and you need to join her in this. But sometimes you will be tempted to hold on to your pet project, your little fiefdom. Don’t fall into that temptation. Sometimes you will though, and you’ll go right from temptation into full on anger because this Jesus is threatening the way things have always been done.
Now, Suz. I want to talk to just Suz, so you all plug your ears. These folks are the real deal. And that’s really good. But it will sometimes get on your nerves. They will squeal when you poke them where it is tender. But they will also show you where Jesus is in this place and in this city. But sometimes you will be tempted to start your own pet project, or not listen very deeply. Don’t fall into that temptation. But sometimes you will, you’ll go from temptation into full on anger because Jesus is threatening the way you think things ought to be.
Ok, ears unplugged. I said ears unplugged!!
Here’s the thing. You have each other to help you through temptation and anger to keep on that narrow path between them, staying with Jesus and his work of release and Good News.
Just like my new friends were able help to be strong against the temptation to stuff my face with cookies, so too will all of you together be able to see temptation and anger when they arise, confront and deal with it in love, head-on so that this community can become more true to God’s call in this city.
The good relationship between a rector and her parish is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t just happen. A healthy church is one where people realize and own their strong feelings of involvement and mission. I’m not telling you to become indifferent to your projects and missions, to the way things are done here, that is all important, vital even, but it must be tempered with the fact of Jesus Christ: that God’s favor has come powerfully among you all and that you have work to do, work with each other and work with those who you haven’t met yet.

As this church that has been walking with Jesus all along joins hands with Suz who has been walking with Jesus as well; my hope and prayer is that each of you will allow the God of release, sight, liberation, and Good News to anoint you for the work of God. And when you receive that anointing anew, well: brace yourselves.

Friday, October 14, 2016

God and Gasoline

This past Monday I departed Charlotte on my way to the Credo conference. Credo is clergy wellness conference that the Church Pension Group sponsors. The idea is to assess all areas of our lives: physical, mental, spiritual, vocational, and financial so that we can continue to be healthy, happy, productive people for God. Now, I had some concerns about this conference because it was being held at Salter Path NC, on the Atlantic coast, hurricane Matthew was in that very spot a few days prior to my departure. On Sunday I received a call that the storm had passed and it was all systems go for the conference.

As I left Charlotte and approached the small hamlet of Hamlet NC, I noticed that there were lots of people in line at the gas stations: lots, like maybe a ¼ mile of cars lined up. I called the conference center to ask them if anything was wrong between Hamlet and Salter Path, “Well, no, things are fine, we all lost power for a few days but I guess people are now able to get out. You know, some folks panic.” So I kept driving on, eventually I myself needed to stop for gas and stopped near Whiteville, the first three gas stations I stopped at had no gas or power. All of them had signs on the doors with my new least-favorite words “No gas, cash only.”

Once I drove through Whiteville by way of some back road, dodging giant oaks that were partially in the road and driving carefully across inches deep water, I noticed that the entire city was without power and was indeed in great crisis. I decided to just keep moving, to get on 74 East and hope for the best. 74 was closed by police in either direction. I asked the police how to best get to Salter Path, they didn’t know, they weren’t local. So I let the navigation software do the work, I found an alternate route and got going. 

Soon after leaving town I found that the road I was supposed to take had turned into a river, a very large active river. I made a note of that on the navigation software and pulled over to consider my options. I called my wife. She basically became Houston to my Apollo mission. She checked and called for places that had gas. We found one in the next town, Clarkton, just a few miles to the north. My gas was really low at this point but Clarkton looked to only be about 8 miles away; I’d limp there as much as possible and then perhaps need to walk if I ran out of gas. I can be a little slow on the uptick so it was then that I realized that Hamlet was basically my last chance for gas many miles ago, indeed I had been in a trap for a long time before I even realized it.

About three miles out of Whiteville I ran out of gas.

Running out of gas is one thing. Running out of gas in a disaster area is quite another. I was no longer a tourist passing through and gawking at the damage, safely ensconced in my security. I was now a local. I didn’t know what to do and I could feel myself panicking. A very long convoy of fire trucks rolled past me on the way to Whiteville. I got out of the car, breathed. I prayed for Jesus to be with me, a prayer practice that I do daily: Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner. I love this prayer, it has saved me so many times. Mercy of course means to have compassion and presence. Jesus be with me in this moment. I was safe, mostly. I had breath and heartbeat. I weighed my options and stuck out of thumb.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever hitchhiked before. It’s interesting. You can make eye contact with people as they drive past. Here I was, nice chubby guy in Costco slacks, brown leather shoes, gingham button down shirt, and Ray-Bans. No one stopped. But after a couple of minutes an older black man in a 1992 Cougar (I learned all this about his car later) stopped and asked if I was out of gas. “Yes.” “OK, you want to come with me to Clarkton and get gas?” “Yes please.” He was driving in caravan with his son-in-law so he grabbed his son-in-law’s gas can and off we went. First off I realized that Clarkton would be no quick drive, the road that lead directly there was closed due to flooding. We had to take many detours.

The man who stopped is named Kenteny. I learned a lot about him. I learned that his son in law is a preacher. I learned that Kenteny is unemployed. He is a strong believer in God. His wife caters weddings and events. He smokes. He also was in Whiteville helping a friend there and was on his way home in Clarkton, he was hoping not to run out of gas. He called me Preacher Man after I told what I do for a living. After a half-hour of driving we made it to Clarkton, walking would have been disastrous.

There was a very long line at the gas station. We got in line and waited, it would be a long wait. 

I kept thanking him, knowing that I was pressing my luck with him. He certainly didn’t anticipate all this. As we waited I scoped out the situation, went into the gas station. They had power but the internet was down and so was the phone so that meant no credit cards: cash only. No problem, I’ll just use the ATM: “broken cable,” on account of the internet I suppose. I went across the street knowing that cash was the only option. Strike two. There was a bank, last option. Praise be unto Jesus! It worked. Cash in hand I went to the Subway to get me and Kenteny lunch. They were sold out of almost everything so I got us steak, the only meat left. Cash only of course.

We ate in the car. Talked. Watched funny things happen like this young man and his horse. 

He was showing off for a while but then he started taking kids on rides. There was a young white kid who stuck his head in “our” car and chatted us up for an hour. He was obviously very poor and his accent was so profound it almost sounded British. I looked around at this scene and sincerely wondered if I were in heaven.

Two hours. Two hours in line for gas. I filled the fuel canister and bought Kenteny gas and we were en route back to my car. On the way there he became very emotional and said that he had never had a full tank of gas in that car and that I had been a blessing to him. I replied that I could never had been a blessing to him if he had not first been a blessing to me. He asked what he supposed to do, just leave me on the side of the road? Jesus made him stop. We both spoke, we both thanked God for the kind of life that allows us to live these Jesus-lives. It reminded me of the book of Acts when it talks about the apostles going along the road giving praise to God. But I also know that I was living the Widow’s Mite and the Good Samaritan because this man had given out of his poverty  and also I was being treated as a neighbor.

We got back to the car and put the gas in. We exchanged phone numbers and Kenteny said that he would escort me to a further town that was in good shape and I could fill up there. I told him he had done more than enough already and that he should just go his own way. He refused, saying “We got you this far, let me see you on your way, you need to make it to that conference because they need your voice and testimony!!” Ok.

We drove about 40 minutes to another town close to the road I needed to take. We only had to wait about 20 minutes for gas, I tanked up. I thanked Kenteny profusely. This is him at our last stop. 

He asked that I call him when I got to my final destination. That’s not right, he kept saying, destiny. “Call me when you get to your destiny.” I really like that.

Kenteny is not an angel and he is not Jesus. He a man who has allowed God’s loving life to penetrate his own, to mold and shape him. Kenteny is a man who has sinned against God and neighbor, without a doubt. And while he is a sinner he is also a saint, a life that recognizes that the things that matter most in earth and heaven is relationship and reaching out to those in need. I was in need and he reached out. Thank you my brother. I’ll do my best to do the same for someone else.

I can't help but wonder and mourn over those relationships that I have lost out on because I was too secure, too strong, too scheduled to allow to emerge. Thankfully, sometimes God is an empty gas tank and he forces the issue.