Sunday, April 07, 2019

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, "At the Table with Jesus: Zacchaeus," Luke 19:1-10

Artwork by Ayseluna Hockenbary
Sermon 4/7/19
Luke 19:1-10

At the Table with Jesus: Zacchaeus

I asked you to share about a time when you might have gone to some amount of expense or effort to see someone special - a celebrity or a special guest, or a performer. I’ll tell you about a couple of my experiences, both of which relate to Jesus Christ Superstar of course, my very favorite musical.
I first saw the show when I was in junior high as part of a youth group outing. I think I’ve told you before that I immediately developed a huge crush on the actor who played Judas, and I immediately fell in love with the musical. I worked really hard to be able to see the show more than once a season, even though going from my home in Rome to the big city of Syracuse at the time was a major outing, and buying tickets to the show was costly. But although I would gaze at the actor who played Judas from afar, I absolutely would not go up and speak to him. All the actors came out after the show to greet the audience. I sent my program with my big brother to have him sign, and of course my big brother pointed at me, embarrassing me to no end, but there was no way I was actually going to speak to him directly. I wanted to see him, but I didn’t necessarily want him to see me.
The second experience that came to my mind also relates to Superstar. Not so many years ago, Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the movie version of Superstar, was coming to Syracuse for a special showing of the film. You could get regular old tickets, and see him and another actor from the show on stage introducing the film and sharing some tidbits about their experiences shooting the movie. But they also had some VIP tickets available. For an extra fee of some size, you could be a VIP guest or a deluxe VIP guest. If you were a VIP or deluxe VIP guest you’d get to attend a meet and greet before the showing, get a photo with Ted Neeley, get a special t-shirt and gift bag, and then get to sit near him during the film. The deluxe VIPs got to sit on his right and left side for the film. The other VIPs got to sit in the row right behind him. I wanted one of those VIP tickets. But I intentionally just got one of the regular VIP seats. I wanted to be near Ted Neeley, but sitting right next to him for the whole movie, and having that much of his attention for such a sustained time? I didn’t think I could quite handle that! Who have you longed to see, gone to some lengths to get to see? How close did you want to get?
Today, as we turn again to the gospel of Luke we find Jesus traveling through Jericho. As he’s traveling, a crowd gathers along the way, hoping they can see Jesus. And among the crowd is a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, Luke tells us, is a wealthy chief-tax collector. Remember, we talked about tax collectors a few weeks ago. Tax collectors were considered traitors - they were Jewish folks working for the Roman government. The Romans were the occupying force in Israel, and they were generally hated. And Jewish tax collectors working for the Roman government had a reputation for overcharging - they could keep anything extra they collected in taxes and line their own pockets. And so tax chiefs were considered traitors to their people and their faith.
This Zacchaeus, we read, is trying to see Jesus. We don’t know why exactly. What has he heard about Jesus? Perhaps he’s heard that Jesus has a tax collector, Levi, among his followers. Perhaps he’s heard that Jesus has eaten meals with tax collectors. At any rate, he wants to see Jesus. But Zacchaeus is short in stature, and in the crowd, he can’t hope to even catch a glimpse of Jesus. So he runs ahead and climbs up into the branches of a Sycamore tree so that he will be able to see Jesus as he passes by. His behavior is a little - uncouth - for an adult man. To run, to climb a tree - his behavior is childish. But he just wants to see Jesus, and so he does what he needs to do.
What I can’t figure out is whether Zacchaeus hoped or expected that Jesus would see him in return. But of course, Jesus does. He looks up, sees Zacchaeus, and says to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus is delighted, and he hurries to get down from the tree so he can welcome Jesus. But not everyone else is quite so pleased. Everyone begins grumbling about Jesus, saying, “He’s going to be the guest of someone who is a sinner!”
Here’s where things get interesting: Zacchaeus speaks up for himself. In our version of the Bible, we read that Zacchaeus says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Put this way, it looks like Zacchaeus is making a public act of repentance, vowing to change his ways going forward, either in response to Jesus favoring him by choosing to come to his home, or in response to the crowds, as if to placate their grumbling, to show he’s turning over a new leaf. And then Jesus says to Zaccheaus: “Today salvation has come to this house.” He declares that Zacchaeus, too, is a son of Abraham. And Jesus says that his purpose is to seek out and save the lost. It reads like a great story of repentance and redemption.
Except for one thing that I didn’t realize until I was doing my research for today’s message, something I missed every other time I’ve preached on this text. When you look at the original language of the New Testament, the Greek, there’s something surprising (to us at least) about what Zacchaeus actually says. He doesn’t say “I will give half of my possessions to the poor and “I will payback four-fold anything people have been overcharged.” The verbs he uses are present-tense. As in, Zacchaeus is saying that he is doing these things already. He’s saying, “I am giving my half of my money to the poor,” and “I am repaying people who have been overcharged.” Huh. If the verbs are present-tense, it seems like Zacchaeus is trying to show how he is undeserving of the criticism of the crowds, or at least letting them know that he’s already been working to mend his ways, to make changes to his hurtful practices. Whether Zacchaeus has always been trying to be an exemplary tax-collector, or whether he has made some recent changes to his behavior, Zacchaeus can’t be so easily labeled by the crowd or by us as a “sinner” or  traitor or an evildoer. In fact, we can contrast him to the rich ruler, who, in just the previous chapter of Luke, was sad and seemingly unready to follow Jesus quite yet if it meant selling his stuff. Zacchaeus has made a significant beginning already. And his very name might be telling. Zacchaeus means innocent.
So, if the point of this text, then, isn’t that Zacchaeus makes a sudden declaration of a new path in life once Jesus invites him to dinner, what is it about? If Zacchaeus was already on the path to trying to do his best, trying to go against the grain of the stereotypical tax collector, why do we need to know his story?
To answer this, I think we have to look at what’s different about Zacchaeus’s story. What makes this story stand out? What’s unique about it, that would make it important enough for Luke to record? Obviously, as we’ve seen over these past weeks, Jesus often eats with folks known as tax collectors and sinners. Why do we care that he eats with Zacchaeus in particular? Well, of course, the other thing that sets Zacchaeus apart is his size. Zacchaeus is short in stature. He wants to see Jesus, but can’t. And apparently no one is making a place for him. No one is giving him a spot in the front row. He’s getting lost in the crowd, and he’s afraid he’ll miss the opportunity. So he makes his own place. Even if it means all the attention eventually gets drawn to him, and he has to embarrass himself enough to be a grown man running and climbing a tree, if it means he gets to see Jesus, he’ll do it.
Zacchaeus’s story is about seeing Jesus, and being seen by Jesus, about seeing God, and being seen by God. David Lose writes, “Perhaps Zacchaeus simply represents the chief attribute of all disciples: a desire to see Jesus and a corresponding joy in his presence.” Zacchaeus longs to see God in the flesh, and will make a fool of himself to make it happen. What will you do to make sure you can get close to God? Are you willing to make a bit of a fool of yourself? To stand outside of the crowd, to take extra measures, if that’s what it takes?
And unlike the crowd who doesn’t notice Zacchaeus when he could use some help getting to the right spot, but notices him when it comes time to dole out grumbling judgment, Jesus sees Zacchaeus right away, and wants to be in relationship with him. As in the other encounters we’ve had with so-called sinful people this Lent, Jesus says nothing to chastise Zacchaeus, or tell him he should change his behavior. He just sees him, speaks to him, and commits to spending time with him. God-in-the-flesh sees Zacchaeus. Do you feel like God sees you? What does God see in you? Do we see each other in the same way that God sees us?
This Lenten season, we’ve watched people see and be seen by Jesus - Levi and the tax collectors, a woman who has a known sinner, and Simon the Pharisee, people seeking out places of honor and people in low places, not making it onto many guest lists, and Zacchaeus, short in stature, but not too small for God’s notice. What we find is not so much a pattern of sinners being called out and held accountable and so moved to repentance, but people being seen for the first time in a long time, after being shoved to the sides, dismissed, and disregarded. And finally being seen, being seen and loved by Jesus, we’ve witnessed that love do amazing things in their lives. Being seen and loved changes everything.
Friends, whatever you have gone through or are going through, whatever you’ve struggled with, whatever labels have been laid on you by people who assume they know all they need to know about you already - God sees you. And God is delighted when you go out of your way to see God. And God is delighted to spend time with you. Because God loves you. And I think trusting in that unwavering love can change your whole life, and free you to be exactly who God is calling you to be.

And friends, one piece of who God calls us to be is to be someone who sees like God does! To begin to see like God does, at least. It’s life-long work. Who is on the outside? Who’s on the margin? Who has been ruled out of bounds? Whose unseen generosity and faith would surprise us? Who is trying to find a spot where they can see Jesus, that we could let to the front of the line? Who has climbed up a tree, hoping to be noticed? Jesus sees so clearly. And the closer we draw to Jesus, the more clearly we will see too. Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, "At the Table with Jesus: Table Talk," Luke 14:1, 7-24

Art by Ayseluna Hockenbary
Sermon 3/17/19
Luke 14:1, 7-24

At the Table with Jesus: Table Talk

We can sometimes get the impression that the lawyers and scribes and Pharisees, the interpreters of the law, the religious leaders and scholars of the day, were enemies of Jesus. Certainly, Jesus saves his most challenging words, his harshest criticisms for these religious elite. And some of them seem to be more actively plotting against Jesus. But Jesus, as we saw last week, also spends time in the home of Pharisees as their invited guest. He directs a lot of his teaching at them, and we might conclude that it is with hope that they will hear and act on his words that he spends a lot of time speaking to them about their behavior.
Today he’s again at the home of a Pharisee, and Jesus is spending the sabbath there. Before the part of the text that is our focus for today, a man with edema appears at dinner, and Jesus heals the man, and then tries to engage his guests in conversation about healing on the sabbath. Perhaps having heard about how adept Jesus is at challenging their understandings of scripture, the Pharisees and other leaders stay silent. They can’t figure out how to argue with Jesus and win. And then we move on to three back-to-back teachings Jesus shares over the meal table that all have to do with customs and practices in just such a setting. Let’s look at each of these vignettes in turn.
First, Jesus addresses seating dynamics at wedding banquets. We’re not as starkly structured by economic class today as folks were in Jesus’ day - at least not overtly. The rules are much more flexible - social etiquette in most settings is not so rigid. But in some places still today, we are remarkably unchanged over 2000 years. If we think about weddings and awards banquets today, we’ll find some of the same “seating” issues that come up in Jesus’ first of three teachings. At many weddings today, folks are still assigned to a specific table to sit at. And to some extent, some seats are perceived as better than others. The head table is for the most important people - the wedding party. The tables nearest them are usually full of family and close friends. And if you don’t know the newlyweds well, you might be on the outer edges of the reception hall. It is one of these settings where we’re awkwardly aware of how we “rank” compared to others in attendance. Were we an integral part of the big day? Or did we just barely make it on to the invite list? Movies and TV shows often find wedding receptions ripe with material for laughs, depicting funny situations about the wedding couple trying to figure out who should sit where, or someone getting stuck at a table with unpleasant meal companions, or someone accidentally ending up at the kid’s table.
In Jesus’ day, too, the closer you were to the host, the more prestigious your position. Remember when the disciples James and John ask Jesus to sit on his left and right-hand side at the heavenly banquet? They know those are the very best seats there are. As Jesus is reclining at the table during this meal at the Pharisee’s home, he notices that people are seeking out the best places they can secure. They all want places of honor. So Jesus gives them a little advice. “When you’re invited to a banquet,” he says. “Don’t pick the best place. What if someone more important than you is coming to the celebration? Then the host will have to come and ask you to move, to give up your seat, and you’ll be disgraced. Instead, start at the lowest place. And when the host sees where you are, the host will come and call you Friend and tell you to move close, to a better seat, and then you’ll be honored in front of everyone.” Jesus condudes, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus’s conclusion is one oft repeated in the gospels, but I find the build up a little confusing. In his parable, Jesus seems to be saying that the reason we should take a seat of less honor is in hopes of being moved up to a better seat by the host. Is that humility? Or just pretending to be humble? But Jesus moves on quickly to his next lesson:  
When have you invited a bunch of folks to your party knowing they would never be able to afford to throw one in return? When have you treated someone to dinner who could never treat you back? Or when have you been someone’s guest to a meal when you knew you couldn’t return the favor? As I shared with our Wednesday night study group, what springs to mind for me is when I first started attending Annual Conference, our denomination’s regional yearly business meeting, when I was in high school. Now, our meals are included in the event, but back then, folks would go out to eat for every meal. It was rather expensive. Well, my pastor not only let me tag along with him and his colleagues to every meal, but he also paid for every meal without question. I never could have afforded it - my mom couldn’t have sent me if it meant sending me with an extra $100 for meals at restaurants. But my pastor paid for everything, knowing, of course, that I wouldn’t be paying him back later - at least not for many years!
In the second, short section of our text today, Jesus turns to the host and says, “If you’re throwing an event, don’t invite your friends and relatives and rich people who you think might pay you back, invite you to something they are hosting next week. If you do that, you’ll be repaid, and that’s that. Instead, invite the poor, the lame, the blind - people who (in Jesus’s day in particular) have no chance of repaying you. Then, you’ll be blessed, because your repayment will come at the resurrection of the righteous.” Again, I wonder - if we’re inviting dinner guests who can’t repay us just because we’re looking for a heavenly reward, is that really any better than looking to get a return gift in this life? Or does it just demonstrate more patience - we can last longer and wait for the better reward? But again, Jesus presses on.
In the last vignette, Jesus again talks about someone throwing a great dinner party. Have you ever thrown a party and had nobody show up? I still remember my birthday party in sixth grade, which I had at the Delta Lake State Park. I had a really hard time in fifth and sixth grade with kids teasing me. I had some good friends, thankfully, but I couldn’t let go of wishing the popular kids would like me - that I could be one of them. Some days the popular kids were nice to me, and I held on to those moments. I invited everybody in my class to my party, and I really believed they would all come. After all, a party was a party, right? Everyone liked birthday parties.
But they didn’t come. None of the “cool” kids came. I had maybe three friends that did come - people who were always kind to me, always there for me. But I could only focus on my disappointment. I told myself, “No one likes me.” But what I meant was, of course, that the popular kids didn’t like me. I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate my actual friends who had shown up very much in that moment. It was a long time before I learned to value true friendship.
The party host in our parable doesn’t seem to struggle like I did. He had invited a great many people - people of some measure of wealth and property. And they’d accepted the invitation. They’d RSVPed yes. But when the time actually came and he sent his slave out to call everyone to the party, suddenly, everyone had better things to do.
The host was angry - but he didn’t sit around moping. Instead, he figured he could find plenty of people who would be happy to share in the feast he’d prepared. So he sent his slave out - first to the streets and lanes in town, with orders to call the poor, crippled, blind and lame (in other words, folks who weren’t usually on anyone’s invitation list) and then to the roads and lanes, where one would find folks even more separated from the community. This host would invite as many people as it took to fill the table at his party, remarking to himself how everyone who had refused was missing out on the feast he’d prepared.
What do we make of all that Jesus says over this meal? Is he just giving us advice for shrewd behavior, navigating the social mores of our society to position ourselves best in the eyes of God and neighbor? That seems a little unlike Jesus, doesn’t it? So what’s happening here?
I think, piece by piece, Jesus is upending the whole system of honor and shame, reward and disgrace. Each vignette seems to pull back another layer. We’re at a party, and instead of trying to get the best spot, Jesus encourages us to take the lowest place. Who would we see there, do you think? Think about a gathering you’ve been to recently. Who was on the fringes? Who was sitting alone? Where was the spot no one else wanted? What if you sat there?
Even as we agree with Jesus that we can sit there at the lowest place, because now we’re sure that the host will soon be asking us to move up higher, Jesus changes things again. Now there is no one of high status at this party at all. The whole guest list is made up of people who are normally on the fringes. The places of honor go to those who will never offer a return invitation to the host. Can we take the lowest seat at this gathering too? A whole gathering of people who don’t normally even get invited - do we even want a seat at all?
Jesus suggests that many won’t even bother to come to the feast, once they realize the kinds of parties the Host of all his stories throws. The host of the last vignette has so much room, so many seats available, and pushes the boundaries beyond even the “second tier” guests to people probably not considered fit for polite company at all. Do you still want a seat? Many, Jesus suggests, aren’t interested in being part of the feast after all.
Are we? God is inviting us to be part of God’s reign on earth. But week after week Jesus pushes us, reminding us of who else is invited. Tax collectors, enemies of the people, known sinners with bad reputations, snooty self-righteous Pharisees who think they’re better than everyone else, people who are dirt poor, people who need to be carried in, people who are diseased, people who you’d find just standing by the roadside, up to no good: these are the kinds of people Jesus wants at his table. This is who God is inviting to the great banquet. And you. You’re invited too. It turns out, God thinks you fit right into that mix of people somewhere. Will you accept the invitation? When you realize who else is invited, maybe it doesn’t matter anymore where you’re sitting. Maybe places of honor and places of disgrace have gotten all mixed up so that to be humbled is to be exalted and vise versa.
So, will you take a seat? Will you make conversation with everyone else at your table, and stop worrying about how they made it on to the guest list? Or will you suddenly remember that you had something else to do? Jesus says the party must go on, and God will keep inviting until the whole house is filled to the brim, overflowing. What will you do? I think it sounds like a party we don’t want to miss. Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sermon, "At the Table with Jesus: At Simon's House," Luke 7:36-50

Artwork by Ayseluna Hockenbary
Sermon 3/17/19
Luke 7:36-50

At the Table with Jesus: At Simon’s House

At our Lenten Study this week, we spent some time thinking about whether or not we had ever been in debt, and had our debt forgiven, or whether or not we’d ever had someone in debt to us, and then forgiven their debt. We talked about parents and children - children are often in debt to their parents, aren’t they? Sometimes this happens in specific ways - a parent steps in to help with bills or help with a surprise expense. But often, parents give a little here, a little there in so many uncounted ways. Thankfully, most parents aren’t keeping track - they are constantly forgiving these debts, constantly making what would be debts into gifts instead. They act out of love, not counting what is owed. I shared with the group that that is not always the case - as I was sorting through my late Aunt Joyce’s papers, I came across a legal contract between her and her parents. She borrowed money from them for a down payment on her home, and my Great Uncle Lloyd was known for being - well, I’ll keep it nice and say “careful” with his money. He wasn’t about to lend money without a contract, terms, even to his only child. But I’d say his approach wasn’t typical. Parents are endlessly forgiving debts large and small for their children, not even really counting them as debts in the first place, as they act out of love.
We also talked a bit about the costs, the debt of higher education, both in the broader sense of getting more than we pay for through our education, and in the specific sense - tuition and room and board and student loans. Anyone still paying on student loans in here? I can still remember my first year in undergrad all of us taking out student loans had to come to a meeting where we would sign our promissory notes. And the folks leading this time - they were so serious. The message I left that meeting with was: “You are making a promise, and if you default on your debt, we will find you, we will hunt you down, and we will make you pay, or we will throw you in jail.” At 18, and about to take out several thousands of dollars in loans so I could go to college, the weight of that debt felt enormous.
I had good scholarships that covered most of my undergrad tuition. But I still found myself in the last weeks before I was to graduate with a remaining bill of about $1500. It might as well have been $15,000 for the ability I had to pay it, me or my family. There was no extra money. And if I couldn’t pay, I wouldn’t graduate. And if I didn’t get my diploma, I couldn’t start seminary a few months later. I was overwrought. Thankfully, my academic advisor was also the university chaplain. I shared with him my dilemma, and shortly thereafter he told me simply that my bill was no longer an issue. My balance was paid in full. I could graduate. When I look back on it now, I’m not sure that in my relief I expressed my gratitude as fully as I meant to - but the weight that had been lifted off of me was enormous. Have you ever had a significant debt forgiven? Have you ever been able to offer the gift of forgiving someone’s debt to you? How did that feel?
We’re continuing our journey through the Gospel of Luke today, as we focus in on the meals Jesus shares with people, who he eats with, and what he does when he comes to the table with folks. This week, Jesus is eating at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. While folks are at the table, a woman appears at the house. Houses weren’t private in the way ours are today, so this in itself is not unusual. The woman is known as a sinner. We don’t know more specifically what that means, what sins she’s committed, but as I mentioned last week, someone with this label was someone thought of having a blatant disregard for God’s law. So, this woman, a sinner, appears at the dinner, and situates herself near Jesus. She takes an alabaster jar of ointment and weeping, she bathes Jesus’s feet with her tears, and wipes them with her hair. She kisses his feet, and anoints them with the ointment - a more costly item than oil, which would have been regularly used as part of folks’ hygiene rituals. Her actions are intimate. It would often be slaves or folks of low station who were responsible for such tasks, or something you would do for yourself. She’s making herself extremely vulnerable. She must know what people think of her.
Indeed, when Simon sees the woman anointing Jesus, he says to himself that if Jesus really was a prophet, he would have known about this woman and her reputation. In response, Jesus tells a short parable. “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Seemingly reluctant, Simon answers, “I suppose the one who had the greater debt canceled.” Jesus tells him he’s judged rightly. Jesus points out that this woman, a known sinner, has demonstrated much more hospitality - a highly cherished value in their society - than Simon, the actual host did. Simon didn’t even provide water for Jesus’s dusty feet, didn’t greet Jesus with a kiss, and didn’t anoint his head with oil. But the woman offered Jesus ointment, tears, and kisses to his feet. Jesus concludes that her many sins have been forgiven, and feeling the assurance of that deep in her heart, she responds with great love. But, Jesus concludes, “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He says to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
“The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” That seems like such a weird statement for Jesus to make, when we take it apart. Jesus seems to be saying that if we live a life that is as blameless as possible, we have less capacity to love than those who have racked up a great many sins? Can that be what Jesus means? And if that’s the case, why would we bother to try to be good? If we can love better if we’re sinning so much that we need lots of forgiveness, why are we working so hard to avoid breaking God’s law?
As usual, though, our questions for God reveal things about the thoughts of our hearts that need attention. It seems like we think that if we could, we’d rather disobey God’s law. Like we’re only trying to follow God’s plans and walk in Jesus’s footsteps because of the rewards we thought we might get out of it, not because we actually believe that living in the way of Jesus brings us life abundant, a deeper contentment than we could ever get by living without regard for others. And if that’s the only reason why we’re “following the rules,” whatever that means to us, then our hearts aren’t actually so pure as we’d like to think! And also, our questions assume that we don’t have a lifetime of racking up debts, that we don’t have a lifetime of ways that we’ve sinned against God and neighbor, that we haven’t hurt others, let people down, ignored people in need, been selfish, caused pain. I hope, of course, that we’ve tried hard to minimize the hurt we cause, that we are trying earnestly to follow Jesus in all that we do. But, like we talked about last Sunday, if our trying hard to follow God leads us to feel superior to others, like we’re not in need of a savior, or at least not as in need as the one we call a sinner, we’re missing the mark. The debt that we “owe,” if God were keeping track, is pretty big! We like to think we’re doing so great, compared to others. But it’s like we’re bragging about only owing $1 million dollars to someone else’s $2 million. If we’re counting sins, we aren’t debt-free. I think of the prayer of confession that is a part of our full communion liturgy in our hymnals. Would you read it with me? : “Merciful God, We confess that we have not loved you with our whole hearts. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
I’ve been reading a book called Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley Hales. Maybe Gouverneur isn’t exactly the suburbs, but I resonate with a lot of what Hales says anyway. She says that when we buy into the myth of self-sufficiency - this idea that we don’t need anyone, that we can do it all ourselves, we become people who are unable to receive. We can’t truly receive from God and we can’t receive from one another. She writes, “We’ll take our house, our talent, and our well-paying job with a side of Jesus - provided he works within our schedule. But our inner lives are stunted ...  We repay every offer of help and every cup of sugar borrowed. When we grasp tightly onto our own self-sufficiency, we turn our backs on the rich, generous, openhanded life [of God]. We cannot be generous people until we first learn to be joyful receivers.” She continues, “We must receive God’s kingdom … with open hands, with tears in our eyes, and a desire not to earn the Giver’s favor, but as a response to all we’ve been given.” (119-121) “A life of generosity is the natural overflow of a repentant and grateful heart. As our lives are increasingly shaped by generosity … We give things away. We value people. We sacrifice for others. We look to meet needs. We bring others along. This is how we live with open hearts.” (123)
We aren’t debt free, not in the spiritual sense. God has given us immeasurably more than we could ever pay back. But thankfully, mercifully, God is not a parent who has written a legally binding contract with us so that God can make sure we pay God back for every sin we’ve committed, for every debt we’ve incurred, for every infraction we’ve accrued. Thankfully, God is constantly transforming debts we owe into gifts God has given. God forgives us. Forgives everything. Cancels everything we owe. And Jesus embodies that forgiveness in the world, and calls us to live in the same way with each other - seeking reconciliation. When I think about it like this, and I feel the weight and the strength and the constancy of God’s love, this woman who is a “sinner” - her actions no longer seem so strange to me. Of course she wants to lay at Jesus’ feet and anoint them with kisses and tears of love. How can she feel anything but overwhelmed in the presence of this one who embodies God’s grace in a tangible form, who is the forgiveness she experiences personified, who has turned her debt owed into a gift given? Of course she wants to do anything she can to show Jesus how thankful she is for the gift of forgiveness that God has given her.
Don’t we want to do the same? Hasn’t God transformed your debt owed into a gift given? After the prayer of confession in our communion liturgy, we share in this assurance - will you join in these responsive words? “Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God's love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Glory to God! Amen.”  

We are not ones to whom little has been forgiven. We are ones to whom everything has been forgiven. So let us respond with great love. Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sermon, "At the Table with Jesus: Levi and the Tax Collectors," Luke 5:27-39

Sermon 3/6/19
Luke 5:27-39

At the Table with Jesus: Levi and the Tax Collectors
(artwork by Ayseluna Hockenbary)

There’s a genre of movies that are all about life in high school, and although the plotlines might differ, there are often some common elements. One of them: cafeteria scenes, with an emphasis on the angst of who sits where. In many of the movies, great pains are taken to show that students sit with other students who are like them, usually grouped by some broad stereotypes, and that there’s not much social mobility - no moving between tables - until, of course, the hero or heroine of the movie somehow shakes things up. So “nerdy” types sit with each other, and the popular kids, football players and cheerleaders, all sit together, and the band kids sit at another table, and so on. I don’t know what your high school experience was like, but even though the movie-versions of the cafeteria take things to extremes, it wasn’t that far off. I certainly remember that almost everyone sat at the same tables every day. There were very few people who moved from place to place. What kind of table did you sit at in high school? Did you have a regular group? Did you move from place to place?
We don’t exactly lose our penchant for habit when we get older. Those rhythms we learn in our school days stick with us, and when it comes to mealtimes, we’re mostly creatures of habit. We tend to sit in the same places and eat with the same people. Not all of us, of course, and not all of the time. But most of us, most of the time. And even when we do eat in different places with different people, we’re often still sitting down to the table with people who share a lot in common with us. Economic class, for example. There are not very many situations where the poor and the rich are dining at the same table.
Jesus’s eating habits in the gospels, then, are striking for the way they step outside of our norms. Apparently nothing much has changed in 2000 years, because the religious leaders in Jesus’ day just couldn’t get over how many customs Jesus was always breaking when he sat down to eat with folks. What Jesus says at meals and who he eats with, and what others say about his choice of meal companions, and about what he teaches at the table - that’s our focus this Lent. Each week, we’ll look at another story from the gospel of Luke, and see what we can learn about Jesus and his habits at the table.
Today we start with a scene from Luke 5. We’re still near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry here. Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the desert happen in the two chapters before this one, and after the time of fasting in the wilderness to prepare for all that was before him, Jesus begins in Chapter 5 calling some disciples to follow him, to be part of his ministry. First he calls Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, and then he calls Levi, a tax collector. We have no idea what makes Jesus choose Levi, or any of the disciples, really. Jesus had just finished healing someone, and then he goes out and sees Levi sitting at a tax booth. He says to Levi, “Follow me.” And Levi does - he leaves everything, and follows Jesus.
And then Levi throws a banquet for Jesus at his house. In Jesus’s day, it was common to have “symposiums” - a banquet matched with a time of community learning. And so it isn’t surprising that the meal includes both eating and teaching. But what seems to be surprising, at least for some, is the guest list. Levi, naturally, has invited a large crowd of tax collectors. He’s been a tax collector until just a few verses ago. His friends are tax collectors. And he invites them to hear Jesus. But there are also some scribes and Pharisees - interpreters of the law of Moses - in attendance too. How they all end up at one gathering, I’m not sure. But the religious leaders don’t think the tax collectors should be there. They complain to Jesus’s newly named disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinner?” And Jesus answers in his way, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
In the midst of tax season, we chuckle. Who likes tax collectors? Just ask our own Dede Scozzafava about the kinds of jokes she hears as a Tax Commissioner in New York State. But the role of tax collectors in the gospels is a bit different, and the reaction to them is thus more intense. Tax collectors were viewed as traitors. They were collaborating with the enemy. They were Jewish people who were collecting taxes for Rome, the hated oppressive government, able to take some financial gain for themselves at the expense of their neighbors. They had to collect a certain amount for Rome, but they could collect anything beyond that they wanted and pocket it for themselves. So - they were seen as working for the enemy, getting rich, making extra money by hurting poor neighbors with whom they shared faith and ethnicity. They were really disliked. They were considered ritually unclean. Their practices went against interpretations of Jewish law. Traitors to the faith, the people of God. Who even compares in our society today? Who is someone we feel is akin to a traitor to our nation.? A cheat, a swindler, a traitor?  
It is a person like this - a traitor - that Jesus sees in our text for today. He sees Levi - clearly a tax collector - he’s sitting at a tax booth, no mistaking his profession - and what does Jesus do? He says, “Follow me.” And then he goes to dinner not just at Levi’s home, but with a bunch of other tax collectors too. And sinners - a term used in the gospel to describe folks who showed “blatant disregard for God's law.” Jesus sits at the table and shares a meal with these folks. When was the last time you shared a meal with a group of people almost everyone thought of as an enemy of the people?
When the religious leaders criticize Jesus, Jesus responds that it only makes sense for him to spend time with the folks that need him most. A doctor attends to the sick. And Jesus calls those to repent who are going in the wrong direction - sinners. If you are so well, so righteous that you don’t need anything from Jesus, then his focus will not be on you. I wonder - when we think about it like this, are we bold enough to include ourselves among the righteous - those who can claim we are set right in all our relationships with God and one another? Or might we be in need of a physician? Might we need Jesus to call us to repentance?  
Jesus’s call to repentance, to turn our lives around and head toward God instead of chasing after whatever else we’ve been following - his call to us doesn’t come in the form of judgment, though. If Jesus spends time at the meal telling the sinners and tax collectors to change their ways, to give up their professions, to behave, we don’t hear it. In the text we have, he never once says, “Don’t do that anymore.” He never once says, “What you are doing is wrong.” What Jesus does with these folks is sit down and get to know them. He  sees them. That’s what it says about Jesus calling Levi - “Jess went out and saw Levi.” He invites Levi to follow him. He shares a meal with Levi and friends. He builds a relationship with them. Whose words and actions do you think leads to folks drawing closer to God? Jesus, or the Pharisees?
Jesus knows what he says and how he lives and how he calls us to do likewise is a challenge - to the scribes and Pharisees, and to us too. He compares himself to new fabric that we try to sew onto old clothing, or new wine, that we want to pour into old wineskins. That doesn’t work so well. Instead, Jesus calls us to be made completely new in him - new clothing, new wineskins, new lives, redeemed by God’s love and grace.
Jesus comes calling sinners to follow him. Friends - that’s you and me. Some of us don’t realize we are the sick, in need of a doctor, because we have decided we’re “righteous,” at least more righteous than those other people over there. We’re not tax collectors, after all. We’re not traitors. We’re not enemies of the people. Compared to them, we’re pretty righteous, right? But if we’re not sinners, Jesus can’t help us. Jesus can’t get close to us, because we’re not really inviting Jesus to our table. But people who know they need healing? Jesus wants to pull up a seat at our tables.
When we’ve committed our lives to discipleship, to following in the ways of Jesus, we need to model ourselves after Jesus. Who does our society count as traitors, enemies, sinners? How are we building relationships with the very people who have never been invited to the cool-kids-table at the cafeteria? With the very people we barely even want in the same cafeteria as us? We have a bad habit of trying to “fix” people, happily pointing out all the faults we find in them. We’d prefer to fix them rather than be with them. But people aren’t dumb - they know whether we’re looking at them as a project or as a person. They know whether or not we see them. Jesus transformed lives by loving and caring and compassion, not by judging and chastising. Usually, he saves his chastising for the religious leaders. If we want to be at the table with Jesus, we better be sure to remember that he’s set a lot of seats, and invited a lot of friends to join him already. If we want to be in the company of Jesus, we better start taking a good look at the company he keeps.
Jesus sees you, friends. He’s asking you to follow. He’s got a seat waiting for you - new garments to wear, a new wineskin from which to offer you life everlasting. And got some people for you to meet, who like us, are longing for healing. Won’t you come take a seat?