Sunday, November 24, 2013

Christ: Agent of Creation, Agent of Redemption

This last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical season of Pentecost and of the liturgical year is known as Christ the King Sunday. With the beginning of the Advent season, we enter upon a new Year of Grace: Year A in the liturgy’s cycle of Scripture readings.
For many years I’ve found myself resistive to associating the term “king” with “Christ”. He was, in fact, not royalty. He intentionally avoids it, as noted in John’s Gospel: “When Jesus realized that they [the crowds after the feeding of the 5000] were about to come and make him king, he the mountain...” (6:15) Contemporary theologian James Alison suggests that, since what we most talk about these days when it comes to social constructs is culture, not about kingdoms or even nations, it would make more sense to call this “Culture of Christ Sunday”.
Alison has long drawn on the insights of René Girard, a noted cultural anthropologist. Girard sees the Cross of Christ at the center of what reveals to us what our own culture is founded upon: violence and killing. In the cross of Christ we see both the revelation of how we base our culture and how God founds and offers to us the divine culture in Christ: a culture based on Christ's yielding to the violence and killing on which our culture is based, at the same time that he forgives us for it. God has, in fact, brought about a new culture, a new reign: the opposite of murder and vengeance, namely, by forgiving others, even in the face of violence and killing.
The one statement which fairly leaps out at us from Luke’s Gospel text (23:33-43) this morning is: “And the people stood by, watching…” It’s found only in Luke who, throughout his Gospel, shows how “the people” witness virtually every aspect of Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptizer’s father, Zechariah the priest, proclaimed early on (Luke 1:68-69) that God has “looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them”, even sending a messenger to “give knowledge of salvation to his people”. Jesus’ hearers listen to his teaching, praising God for his healing power. The people witness Jesus confronting and criticizing the religious authorities and flock to hear him in the temple, even as he prophesies its destruction. Luke says that “a great number of the people” follow as Jesus is led away to be crucified, and here they are, again, “the people” standing by the cross, watching.
What a contrast with the others at the scene. The people don’t mock or deride Jesus in his desperate situation, as others do. What could their presence here by the cross mean? Are they just curious onlookers, gawkers, craning their necks at the sight of the some gruesome horror or spectacle, captivated, but without any personal commitment or involvement? Or are they, perhaps, like friends and family gathered in vigil at the bedside of a dying loved one, simply offering support to their beloved Teacher in the only way they know how?
Luke’s silence about “the people’s” motives in the Gospel invites you and me to enter into the episode as we “watch” the story unfold. What do “the people” see? What do the hearers hear? or the readers understand? What do we hear and see and understand? 
As Jesus travelled around among the people, he clearly rejected any association between himself and the idea of kingship. Nevertheless, Luke uses some interesting allusions earlier in his Gospel. Zechariah refers to the One who will be  “a mighty the house of [God’s] servant David”. (1:60) The heavenly angel, appearing to the shepherds after Jesus’ birth, confirms that. (2:11) Other allusions include Jesus being referred to as “the Anointed One” [messiah], in the manner of a king, and his entry into Jerusalem, seated on the royal symbol of a donkey, receiving the acclaim of “the people”. (19:35-36)
Despite these allusions, Scripture also hints that this Savior/King isn’t the royalty most people were expecting. Jesus is born in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn”. (Luke 2:7) Jesus’ royal anointing is expressed, not in any military action engaging other powers, but in bringing “good news to the poor...and...proclaim[ing] the year of the Lord’s favor”. (Luke 4:18-19) Finally, Luke presents Jesus, hanging on a cross, outside the walls of Jerusalem, in between two criminals whom, even as he suffers and his life ebbs away, he engages in conversation. Hardly the typical place for a king! Yet, above Jesus’ head hangs the clear inscription: “This is the King of the Jews”.
The leaders”, witnessing the crucifixion and recognizing the irony of a crucified man acclaimed as a “king”, repeatedly scoff at Jesus [lit., kept sneering]: “...let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!…” (23:35), even as the Pharisees had done earlier, when Jesus taught about the dangers of wealth.  “The soldiers” also mock him, continuing the demeaning actions of the “men who were holding Jesus” before his trial. (23:36-37) Even one of the criminals sharing Jesus‘ plight joins in the disdainful chorus, “deriding him”, Luke notes, “...saying ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (23:39)
Three times Jesus is ridiculed and taunted about his being called “The King”, “the Anointed One”, even though Jesus’ whole ministry to the people, not just to his fellow Jews, but to anyone and everyone who came to him, was defined by one thing alone: bringing God’s saving love and compassion to, and sharing it with, every person, regardless of status or condition. Yet, in the human culture of violence which brought about his death, which Jesus had predicted, there were obviously many questions, doubts, and much disbelief about his true identity and purpose.
Luke notes one exception: the other criminal crucified with Jesus. Unknown and unidentified, he’s depicted as a person who sees what’s happening and “gets it”. He rebukes his derisive companion, pointing out that they’re getting what they deserve for their deeds, whereas “this man has done nothing wrong”. He’d heard Jesus say earlier: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Somehow he recognized that the culture in which Jesus, “the Anointed One”, ministered and lived was one of forgiveness and reconciliation, even in the face of violence and murder. He confesses his own failings: “we...have been condemned justly...we are getting what we deserve for our deeds”, and in humility, he asks only that Jesus not forget him in the “kingdom” after they die. Jesus assures him that in his “reign”, in his “culture”, the “criminal” is already forgiven, that the man and Jesus already share the place where evil and violence give way to mercy, forgiveness and love. (23:40-43)  
Luke doesn’t tell us how “the people” who were watching reacted to any of this. We don’t know what they thought about others taunting Jesus about his saving power; or about Jesus’ conversation with the two criminals; or whether, in their minds and hearts, Jesus truly was who he had proclaimed himself to be. “The people” don’t ever appear again in Luke’s narrative.
What of us who also “watch” this story? We do so as the beneficiaries of centuries of thought and discussion about it. Perhaps there is no more eloquent commentary from Scripture to guide us and teach us about the One who ”reigns” with compassion, forgiveness and love, than the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. Paul helps us to understand that the Crucified Jesus is the Cosmic Christ: that, first of all, in and through our baptismal relationship with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, you and I are set free from the violence and evil of allpowers” and secondary “rulers” in the universe; and, secondly, that in and through that baptismal relationship, you and I and, indeed, all that has been created, participates in the reign, the culture of Christ. “...all the strength”, Paul says, “...comes from his glorious power…” (1:11) 
In Christ, the Father has “enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light…” (1:12) Enabled, in Greek means to cause to be adequate, to make sufficient, to qualify. How many times have you and I felt “inadequate” about ourselves? “insufficient”? “unqualified”? Paul proclaims that God, because of Christ’s continual forgiveness and love, we’re always adequate, and sufficient, and qualified. In Baptism, you and I undergo a huge transition: God has swooped us up, “rescued us” from the power of darkness, and put us in a new place, “transferred us”, into the reign, the culture, the life, of forgiveness, redemption, love. We come into “the light”: the place where there is only honesty, clarity, truth and vision. And in this place we’re never alone. We share “in the inheritance of the saints”, the Communion of God’s holy ones who love us, support us, and are, indeed, our true BFF’s...Best Friends Forever!  
As the Agent of Creation, Jesus the Christ, God’s Son, is the icon,”the image”, of the God whom we can’t see here below. (1:15) In Jesus the Christ, however, we do see God. All of creation begins in Him. Paul says, “all things have been created through him and for him all things hold together…” (1:16-17) Wherever we encounter things or human beings speaking to us of what Jesus the Christ is and does -- loving, forgiving, ministering to, accepting -- there we “see” not only Jesus the Christ, but the unseen Father and the life-giving Spirit, and we see the Church, the assembly of “the people” gathered to make Him, who is the Head of the body, present among us.
As the Agent of Redemption, Christ summarizes, encompasses, embodies, the fullness of Who God is. Christ is the beginning, the continuation, and the end of all life. Christ is the “first”, Number 1, in everything: first in origin, first in order, first in priority, first in importance, so that nothing in the entire universe exists outside of Christ’s/God’s domain.
In this “Culture of Christ”, what is God up to? What’s God’s agenda? What’s the bottom line? Two things, says Paul: first, in this beloved Son who is Jesus the Christ, who is above, beyond, and ahead of all that is created, God “was pleased to dwell”; and secondly, “through him God was pleased to reconcile to [God]self all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (1:19-20)
As members of God’s people, the Communion of Saints, we’d do well to think back over this past year, and ask ourselves: what have I understood, seen, heard? More importantly, how has what we’ve observed, dealt with, and heard moved us to respond to Jesus the Christ? “Who do you say that I am?”, Christ continually asks us, and “What have you done, what will you do, to bring into being my culture, the reign of peace, compassion, forgiveness and love?” 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Embracing & Holding Fast Our Hope: Jesus the Crist

In today’s Collect we pray: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ...” This is why the Church’s liturgy proclaims the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the Bible, to you and me at every celebration of the Eucharist.
We’re to hear them, opening our minds and hearts with willing receptiveness. We’re to read them, either quietly in personal prayer or aloud in the liturgy, distinctly and coherently, so as to convey that we understand the words in context to others. We’re to mark them. Perhaps you’re a reader like me who keeps a pencil or pen handy to literally mark words and passages, but more important is the marking of the Word indelibly on our hearts and on our daily actions. Through the hearing, reading, and marking we’re meant to learn something, not simply to let the words pass through one ear and out the other.  And we’re to inwardly digest them, to chew on them, to ruminate on what’s read or spoken, exactly like a cow chewing its cud to promote good digestion of food. 
The Collect further notes two reasons for this very defined and thorough process: 1) that we may “embrace”, i.e., wrap the arms of our being around “the blessed hope of everlasting life,...our Savior Jesus Christ”, and 2) to “ever hold fast” to this blessed hope. In a way, that’s the very thing Bishop Beisner’s Bible Challenge to us this year is all about. Isn’t it ironic, though, that you and I would have to be “challenged” to do something which one would naturally expect of people who claim to follow Jesus the Christ in their lives? In any case, hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture, as you know, is by no means always easy.
Unfortunately, difficulty in reading and gaining understanding from Scripture is complicated by rampant misinformation perpetuated over at least the past 100 years. What I mean by that is summed up in an oft-seen bumper sticker: “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” Marcus Borg, who teaches at the University of Oregon, finds that many of his students these days have a very negative view of Christianity, which they commonly express in 5 adjectives: literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted. In large part, they’re reacting to many radio and TV televangelists, or to campus students devoted to “converting” others to conservative Christianity, or to people in the so-called “Christian” ranks of the political Right-wing. What all these groups seem to have in common is claiming that they alone possess God’s truth in one book: the Bible. What they and many well-meaning people forget is that the Bible is not one book: it’s a whole library of books, written over countless millenia, by a multitude of writers, human beings, most of whom were not “Christian”, and all with varying agendas and motivations. 
The fact is that the bumper sticker’s way of seeing the Bible, is really quite new and recent, and certainly not the “traditional” teaching of the Church. Biblical ideas of literalism and inerrancy appeared first around the 1600’s and were taken up by some Protestants only in the 19th and 20th centuries. Literal/factual biblical interpretation arose only in the late 17th-18th centuries, as a reaction to thinkers and writers of the Enlightenment era.
If we go back to the truly ancient, the truly “traditional” sources of Scripture, to the writers and thinkers of the first several generations after Jesus, what impresses us are two things: 
  1. a way of seeing the Bible, and the Christian tradition which has been handed down to us, as historical, metaphorical and sacramental.
  • historical: i.e., the library which we call the Bible emerged from two ancient communities: ancient Israel and the early Christian community just after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Scriptures are the responses of these people to the God who was revealed to Moses, and about whom Jesus had taught his hearers. It’s their witness to how they continued to relate to God in Christ. As such, this response is culturally conditioned and very much influenced, as ours is, by their unique time and place in human history. 
  • metaphorical: i.e, the Bible is, as Marcus Borg notes, “more-than-literal”, “more-than-factual”. Thomas Mann describes it as “a story about the way things never were, but always are.” Someone else puts it this way: “The Bible is true, and some of it happened”, very similar to the spirit of the ancient Native American account of the tribe’s story of creation: “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.” The Bible asks: “Regardless of whether it happened this way, what does the story say? What does it mean for our relationship to God, here and now?” 
  • sacramental: i.e., the Bible encompasses the sacred. Just as the Prayer Book describes a sacrament as an “outward and visible sign[s] of inward spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace”, so God’s Word in the Bible, written or spoken, enables, mediates, the Holy Spirit’s presence in us, giving us sacred wisdom and life.
2) a way of seeing the Christian life as relational and transformational. 
  • relational: i.e., the Bible enables us to live as Jesus did, enjoying a vibrant, personal relationship with God here and now, rather than expending our energy simply on beliefs and doctrines, or on qualifying for “rewards” after death. It helps us to see that we are the “beloved of Jesus”, even as he is the “Beloved of the Father”.
  • transformational: i.e., by immersion in Scripture the Holy Spirit leads us to what Marcus Borg calls “the hatching of the heart”: i.e., opening our heart and every aspect of our life to God; no longer being close-minded; no more deceiving ourselves; or being ungrateful; or insensitive to wonder and awe; but being other-oriented and compassionate, invested in justice for all human beings.
So, how can we apply our hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting to today’s Scripture passages,? What can you and I take with us to help in the week ahead? In the first reading, the Hebrew writer, called “Third Isaiah” (65:17-25), pictures for us God addressing a people who’ve returned from captivity in Babylonia in the late 6th century BC. The harsh reality of what it will take to rebuild their city and their lives begins to sink in. Theirs isn’t a unique situation, because earlier chapters about returning exiles who’ve also faced many hardships indicate that, rather than being faithful to the Covenant with God, they responded by resorting to sorcery and the gods of the underworld. Others, in the very midst of their fasting, quarrel and fight, oppress their workers, and complain to God. Nevertheless, God’s promise of blessing  on them is unconditional. If they repent and choose God’s way, the Creator is about to gift them with such newness that all their former troubles will be forgotten. Similarly, the circumstances of our own lives aren’t always pleasant. On many occasions you and I may find ourselves trying to rebuild our lives against great odds. The temptation to take the easy way out is always there. Can you and I open our hearts and expend the effort needed to allow God’s promise of newness be realized for us? In this connection, all of us have surely been confronted by the sobering reminder this week in the aftermath of devastation in the Philippines. What might we do, small as it may seem, to reach out in solidarity and address the needs of these sisters and brothers there? 

St. Paul, in his second letter to the Christians of Thessalonica (3:6-13) , notes that some in the community are "living in idleness", selfishly disregarding the fact that they’re burdening the community, presuming that they have a "right" to rely on them for support, and claiming that "the day of the Lord is already here", as if that excuses them. Paul himself had given the community an example by his willingness to pay his own way and to work for necessities. The tendency of those who refuse to be part of the common effort is to become "busybodies", using their free time and energy to stir up trouble. Paul’s directive to the community is: "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat". 

In today’s context, that might generally be understandable, but we have to be very careful in suggesting it. Commentator Lance Pape writes: “Several years ago, I watched a lay reader break down in angry tears as he tried to choke out the words of this lection. He works daily with people who are so disturbed and oppressed by the consequences of bad luck and/or bad decisions that they are not able to hold down a job. Christians should not let such people go hungry. It is an irresponsible distortion of the gospel we preach to allow a text like this to be read in the assembly without comment—especially in light of the self-righteous rhetoric about the evils of "entitlement" that characterizes so much of our political discourse. The key point is that this is a word against those who are able to work but, for whatever reason, refuse to do so.” 

As to Luke’s Gospel passage (21:5-19), remember that Jesus had died c. 30-33 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, and Luke wrote this passage, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, some time between 80-90 AD, 10-20 years or so after the destruction of Jerusalem. The setting is near the Temple treasury where Jesus is standing with his disciples. Someone starts commenting on the beauty of the temple, its stones and gifts dedicated to God. Jesus the prophet demonstrates that he’s aware that, not only all the grandeur of these buildings, but the whole present order of human things, all human projects into which we pour our energy and which vie for our loyalty, all are going to soon pass away for something unexpected, new, undefined, which God has in store for them. In a very concrete way Jesus notes at length what some of the alert signals will be: general confusion, questioning, the appearance of false Messiahs, wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famine, plagues. The disciples can expect to be harassed, persecuted, arrested, imprisoned, tried and sentenced. As you, throughout your lifetime until now, have looked at what goes on in the world, in this country, in the Church, in your community or school or workplace, in your family, in your own life: do any of these signals sound familiar? We deal with the same sort of things which the ancient communities of Israel and the early Church dealt with, only in a slightly different way. How do we cope? How do we make any sense of it all? What bearing does it have on the way we live? 

 In the closing verses of Chapter 21 Jesus reassures the first Christians and us of a way to ensure that “not a hair of your head will perish” and that “by your endurance you will gain your souls”. Jesus says: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is getting near...when you see these things taking place, you know that the reign of God is coming...Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not go away...Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life...Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things...and to stand before the Son of Man.” 

Fr. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, college professor, spiritual writer and guide, who died in 1996, writes: “For many years I had read, reflected on, and taught the gospel words in Luke 3 in the story of Jesus’ baptism, but only in my later years have they taken on a meaning far beyond the boundaries of my own religious tradition... ...As a Christian, I am firmly convinced that the decisive moment of Jesus’ public life was his baptism, when he heard the divine affirmation, ‘You are my Beloved on whom my favor rests.’ In this core experience, Jesus is reminded in a deep, deep way of who he really is...” “...God’s words ‘You are my Beloved’ reveal the most intimate truth about all human beings, whether they belong to any particular tradition or not... (Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith, HarperOne, 2006, p.28) “...From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are...That I am always searching for God, always struggling to discover the fullness of Love, and always yearning for complete truth, tells me that I have already been given a taste of God, of Love, and of 

Truth...” (p. 33)  Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do...” (p. 34) “...What I am trying to say is that God has written us a love letter in the scripture, the written word. The written word points to the Living Word, which is God incarnate in the person of Jesus. In both the Living Word and the written word, God continues to speak--personally and in a quiet voice. We speak the word of God to each other out of the silence of listening to God...Or, to put it in another way we encounter God in the word through the disciplines of obedient listening, sacred reading, humble speaking, and spiritual writing.” (p. 101)

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Challenge of Faith

The liturgy which we celebrate today reminds us already that three weeks from today we begin the season of Advent. In Advent we will prepare for the coming of Christ in our hearts, in the feast of the Nativity, and at the time when Jesus comes to take us into eternal life.

In the Collect we prayed to God “whose blessed Son came into the world that he might...make us children of God and heirs of eternal life...” And we asked God: “Grant that, having this hope...when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom.

The prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, lived and preached in the 6th century BCE. The people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon to their homeland in 538 BCE. It was necessary for the two prophets, especially Haggai, first, to encourage and to motivate the people and their governor to rebuild their Temple, and, secondly, to urge the priests to purify their practices of worship. In the first reading today from Haggai (1:15b-2:9), this is God’s message: “Yet now take courage...take courage, all you people of the, for I am with you...My spirit abides among you; do not a little while...I will fill this house with splendor...and in this place I will give prosperity...” 

In the Epistle (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5; 13-17), St. Paul reminds us that we are sisters and brothers “beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth...” It is important, says Paul, to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions” which we have been taught.” We can do this because God our Father and the Lord Jesus have given us “eternal comfort and good hope”, and strength “in every good work and word.

Faith and life belong together. But genuine faith is much more than simply believing in a teaching, a creed. Faith is a way of life, a complete attitude towards life. Someone might be very religious, but that person may not have much faith. Such a person is like a man who always claims to be confident and in control, but, whenever he travels by airplane, he always sits near the emergency exit, while also wearing a belt and a pair of suspenders! Sometimes, people who appear to be very religious have very little true faith.

The passage from St. Luke’s Gospel (20:27-38) gives us a practical example from the life of Jesus. The Sadducees, a very religious group, approach Jesus with a phony theological question. Sadducees were descendants and followers of Sadok, a president of the Jewish Sanhedrin in the 3rd century B.C., whose name means “righteous”. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. They asked Jesus their ridiculous and insidious question, not because they expected or wanted an answer, but because they wanted Jesus to display his ignorance regarding a problem for which they had no answer. Jesus confounded them with his divine wisdom.

Even now, some people who do not believe pose questions to faithful Christians, not because they want to learn from them, or know what they believe. They ask questions to see if they can confuse or ridicule people who believe.

The gospel, rather than speaking about the resurrection of the dead, speaks of the survival of the living. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob continue to live in and with God. In this world we live in God and with God, in the midst of the distractions of life. After death God will be our only point of reference. We shall live with Him forever, without any kind of distraction.
The "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" is the God of the Exodus that spoke to Moses, the God of life, who heard the cry of oppressed people and freed them from the slavery of Egypt. It is God who gives us life and who calls us to give life to others, starting with the poor and oppressed. In dying we join a divine community, final and eternal, to which we are all called and of which we are already part in the Communion of Saints. As we are reminded in the burial liturgy, in dying we change our dwelling place. We pass over to live in the presence of the Risen Christ. When we die, we leave our body here, our "boat", as the song “The Fisherman” says. With it we have navigated through life, sometimes in the middle of depressions and storms, and in dying we go to another sea, the sea of eternity with Jesus.

Death is only a temporary separation. After death, when we are "embedded" or united with God, things are going to be very different from how they are in this life. It is difficult to imagine how things will be, as Sacred Scripture says: "No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor does anyone imagine what God has prepared for his own." There will be complete love toward all people, without any natural limitations. Relations between people will be similar to those of the angels, free and perfect love. Our body, will be like the glorious body of Jesus after his resurrection.

One of my favorite parts of the Mass is the acclamation of the celebrant said just before the Communion: "The gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith and with thanksgiving". All life, including spiritual life, the life of faith, requires taking a risk. Faith means letting go of the known and reaching out to the unknown.

That is why the early Church celebrated Baptism by submerging the candidate in water, so that the person was “out of his or her depth”. In Baptism you and I are reborn through the risk of faith. Faith enables us to have a wider vision. Faith helps you to see that, while 1/3 of the world’s people overeats, 2/3 of the world’s people go to sleep aching from hunger. While religious people offer one another the Peace of Christ, each day brings us news of conflict, war, brutality, and oppression in the Third World, in Afghanistan, in the airport of Los Angeles, and in the streets of Santa Rosa. Faith helps us to notice that, despite the happy, smiling faces of friends in the coffee hour after the service, other people may stand, bearing a silent burden or worry or an illness, or feeling unwelcome. 

The Sadducees of today’s Gospel came to Jesus with an idle debate about religion, but they went away, challenged to choose between life and death. We have come to the church this morning, perhaps for just a quiet, peaceful hour of prayer and singing. Perhaps we will leave, challenged by Jesus, going out from here to minister to others by our words and actions of faith, hope and love. And, by the way, we should leave our spiritual security belts and suspenders behind!   

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Little Man Who Got Found

Zacchaeus, in Greek = Zakchaios, from the Hebrew meaning pure, was, Luke tells us (19:1-10), a superintendent of customs, a chief tax-gatherer = publicanus, at Jericho. Tax collectors were hated by many of their fellow Jews, both because of dishonesty in their profession and because they were seen as collaborators with the Roman Empire. Since Jericho was the center for a lucrative production and export of balsam, Zacchaeus' position would have made him both important and rich, which Luke also mentions.
A popular children's song captures the main gist of Luke's story:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
And a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree,
For the Lord he wanted to see.
                   And as the Savior passed that way
                      He looked up in that tree
                  And He said, “Zacchaeus, you come down!
                     For I’m going to your house today,

                    For I’m going to your house to stay.

Notice that Luke's account begins by purposefully telling us the "Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it..." Jesus' ultimate destination, as Luke emphasizes all through the Gospel, is Jerusalem where, as we know, he’ll die at the hands of the Roman occupiers, egged on by Jewish religious leaders. 
Luke describes Zacchaeus as "short in stature", short enough, apparently, that, along with his well-known professional position and wealth, it was a problem. In addition to that, for Zacchaeus to try to mingle in the crowd, even if it was up front where he could see, was fraught with danger. Predictably, you can guess that he would have had some enemies...on several counts. It wasn't unusual in his time for assassinations to be furtively carried out by sticking a knife into someone in the midst of a crowd. There were, in fact, people known as Sicarii, from the Latin word sicarius = dagger-man, or assassin, Jews whose intent was to use a concealed dagger or sica to eliminate Romans from Judea in this way. Luke says that Zacchaeus "ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree", which, by the way, bears no resemblance to the American sycamore. It was, instead, a variety of fig tree. "Trying to see Jesus", Zacchaeus hovers there, camouflaged by the leaves.
When Jesus reaches the spot, he stops and looks up into the branches, addressing Zacchaeus by name. Imagine what that must've felt like to a man accustomed to the usual scorn and derision, or worse, by his fellow-citizens. "Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today." Before Zacchaeus can think of anything to say, the onlooking crowd is utterly shocked! "What?!... he's going to be the guest of a sinner!!", they grumble. Luke uses the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word used in Exodus when the people obstinately complain; grumble; murmur against God and Moses.
In contrast to the crowd, Zacchaeus "hurried down and was happy to welcome [Jesus]".  Zacchaeus then announces: “Look, Lord! half of my possessions I’ll give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I’ll pay back four times as much.” This resonates with Exodus 22:1-15, which spells out the restitution required when one is responsible for the loss of another's property. Restitution ranges from straight replacement for negligence, increasing up to two, four or five times replacement for various thefts. Exodus 22:1 says, "When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters or sells it, the thief shall pay...four sheep for a sheep...The thief shall make restitution..." King David also applied this rule in 2 Samuel 12:6 when he said, "And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity."  
Zacchaeus chooses a generous recompense. He places himself on the guilty side of the spectrum outlined in Exodus, and intends to begin anew in complete obedience to God.
Seen by Jesus, personally named by Jesus, accepted unconditionally for who he is by Jesus, Zacchaeus himself is touched by divine grace. "Today salvation has come to this house", says Jesus, "because he too is a son of Abraham..." The one who was lost. The one whom Jesus came to seek out. This one has been recognized, acknowledged, found.
According to Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromata, Zacchaeus was surnamed Matthias by the apostles, and took the place of Judas Iscariot after Jesus's ascension. The later Apostolic Constitutions identify "Zacchaeus the Publican" as the first bishop of Caesarea.
In the Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Churches, the Gospel account of Zacchaeus is read on the last Sunday preceding the liturgical preparation for Great Lent, and thus is known as "Zacchaeus Sunday." It was chosen to open the Lenten season in order to highlight two things: God's calling us to humility, represented in Jesus' call to Zacchaeus to come down from the tree; and God's calling us to repentance, exemplified by Zacchaeus' actions.
Many see the story of Zacchaeus as illustrating Jesus' words: "Blessed are the pure of heart, For they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). Zacchaeus whose name means pure, climbed up a tree, similar to the cross, and was symbolically crucified with Christ, enabling him to see God in Jesus. 
 The verses of an old hymn gives you and me something to reflect on and to pray about this week: 
 I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me. / 
It was not I that found, O Savior true; / 
no, I was found of thee.