*very rough draft ahead*
Expectations vs. Reality
There is a saying by Aesop that says, “Please all and you please none.” Chris Clontz over at Mt. Pleasant UMC here in Thomasville, told a story that he stood up in front of the congregation on his first Sunday and said to them, “I promise I will make all of you happy. Some of you are happy that I am here and some of you will be happy when I leave.” We live in a world that holds high expectations of its leaders. This is a good thing because leadership should be held accountable but other times it can simply be that expectations are too high.
Expectations are always high when it comes to sports. Every sports fan has huge expectations for their beloved team. Every year I want Duke Basketball to be ranked #1 and win it all. Good thing they live up to expectations! Now I am a Carolina fan as well, as long as it is the Panthers and not that other school. The Panthers this year, well, are simply horrible. As Baltimore rolls into Charlotte, they will have a nice scrimmage with a team wearing black and teal today. My other favorite team I have learned to have low expectations for and that is the Cleveland Browns. It seems like in the 80s no matter how much I wore my Bernie Kosar jersey they never could beat the Broncos. The Browns really haven’t won anything in the modern formation of the NFL. There are other teams out there that suffer from huge fan base and every year they don’t live up to their fan’s expectations. Chicago Cubs ring a bell. Until 2004 any Red Sox fans out there felt the pain as well. The LA Clippers are seen as a running joke in the NBA.
For the longest time the New Orleans Saints were seen as the Aints. They came to the NFL in 1967 and had their first winning season twenty years later. Actually in their 43 year history they have only had nine winning seasons and have gone to the playoffs only 7 times. There overall record as a team is 278-378. They have lost 100 more times than they have won. I felt bad for Saint fans as they wore brown paper bags over their heads during games with huge amount of empty seats in the Super Dome. The last year happened. They seemed to have an unstoppable offence and Drew Brees was on fire. Sure enough the finally did the unthinkable and won the Super Bowl last year against Payton Manning and the relentless Colts. It seems that if you are a fan long enough your team will finally live up to your expectations.
Expectations are a good thing to have. Studies have shown that children do better in school if adults have some sort of expectation placed upon them. They learn very quickly that if no one cares, then there is no use in doing anything. Expecting people to do the right thing is always good too. To be treated fairly when you have to take your care in, or when a repair man comes to your house is something we all expect. But we get in trouble when our expectations and reality face off against one another.
As an owner of the combined 30 pounds of fur that call the parsonage home I have learned cats are a prime example of a collision between expectations and reality. When Alycia and I start to get ready for bed we go through our nightly rituals of turning off lights in the house. Usually there are lights on in the kitchen once they are turned off you have the deadly walk back to the bedroom. Even if all the kids toys are put up this walk is still deadly because of the two fur carpets called Kudzu and Willow. The good news is Kudzu will move if you are blindly walking towards her in the dark. Willow on the other hand is attempting to train us over time I think. One night I was walking from the kitchen to our bedroom in the dark. I was attempting to walk as carefully as possible knowing that out there in the darkness was a clawed landmine. I was a little more than half way there and I had a sense of calm. I had done it, I had gotten past Willow tonight. I started to take quicker steps and when I did I squashed a tail, a painful feline scream was heard followed quickly by a long hiss. My expectations of the cat, a nocturnal creature, moving before I step on it in the dark came face to face with the reality that will never happen in Willow’s case. I now nightly travel that road from the kitchen to the bedroom with either some lights on or my cell phone as my flashlight. The reality is I know what Willow is thinking, “I have trained him well.”
Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the Christian year. We end the year reminding ourselves of the reality that Jesus Christ is Lord, the King of all creation. There is no better scripture to remind us of this than the image of Christ on the cross. The cross is our rallying flag as Christians. It is the symbol we point to that explains it all. Why should we forgive others? (point to the cross on the altar) That’s why. Why should we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves? That’s why. Why should we care about the 89% of children at Thomasville Primary School who are one free or reduced lunch, which means that almost 90% live at or below the poverty line? That’s why. Why should we care, minister to, serve the least of these in our community? That’s why. How can we look at all the evil in this world, see all the pain around us, and still have a sense of peace and comfort? That’s why because the cross is the reality but it wasn’t what was expected.
Within these eleven verses there are four instances that Jesus did not live up to the expectations that people had on him. Jesus is there on the cross along with the two criminals. The rulers stood there and sneered at him saying, “he saved others, let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” Then the soldiers mocked him and offered him wine vinegar, saying “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Then there was the sign over his head stating that he was the “King of the Jews.” Finally one of the criminals there started the same thing, demanding that if he was the Messiah to save himself and them.
That is our king. That is the King of the World. He is naked, bleeding and hanging on a cross failing to live up the expectations of the world around him. He is the Messiah but nothing like the Messiah the world expected. I have preached many sermons about what people expected about the Messiah that would come. They wanted a militaristic general who could come down from heaven and wipe out the Romans. They wanted a Messiah who could rule like a king and be respected, feared, and someone worth of their praise. Yet God not living up to our expectations is something that even we modern people do.
I met John while I was doing a summer internship at Presbyterian hospital. He was suffering from congestive heart failure and was recovering from surgery. He was a pistol and was giving the nurses a lot of grief. They called the pastoral care office to see if someone could come up and talk with him and maybe that would help his stay. When I arrived that evening to do my rounds there was a note for me to do just that. So I headed up to his room and introduced myself, not knowing what to expect. Over the next week and a half, every time I came to the hospital I visited with John. We talked about Dale Earnhardt and cats. Then we moved to more serious stuff. He looked me in the eye one day and said that his family is worried that when he dies he’ll “be all dressed up with nowhere to go.” Apparently in World War II he was in a fox hole and told me that the old saying, “there’s no atheists in a fox hole” is untrue. because he was one. In a time of war he looked to God for something and God did not provide and thus for John, there is no God.
John never told me what that something was he was looking for from God but he never found it. This is how many people are in the world. We hold up our list of criteria for God and then when God doesn’t live up to it we believe there is no God. We place expectations upon God and then get mad when God doesn’t live up to them. Is that our fault or God’s?
Jesus hangs on the cross with all the expectations of the people around him and those far away dripping off of him. The King of the Jews would never let people kill him. The Messiah wouldn’t die in this manner. When God is ready to provide the savior for the world he will be white, blond hair, blue eyes business man from a world power, not a tan skinned Middle Eastern man from a poor family.
Today we hold God up to just as many expectations and criteria as they did at his crucifixion. We look at the mockers and the scoffers there at the cross and we believe we are better than them. They ask questions like “if you are really the Messiah than save yourself.” We ask questions like, “If God was in control we wouldn’t be in the financial headlock we are in now.” “If God was God then why is there suffering, poverty, and hunger?” Over and over they yell to Jesus to save himself. Over and over again we tell at Jesus to save us.
Once again expectation and reality don’t mix. While Jesus is on the cross he has a moment of compassion and prays “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” As we cast our expectation upon the cross Jesus is praying the same prayer, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” The truth is as we stare at the cross and we see the pain, the suffering and the sacrifice that is given we miss the point much of the time. In this humble sacrifice Jesus, the Son of God, starts his reign over his kingdom.
He looked down from that cross and saw everyone mocking him but he knew he was doing this because he loved each one of them. He looks at us and our expectations of what God is supposed to do in our lives and he shakes his head and doesn’t do it because he loves us. Yes, if God wanted to he could have come down off that cross at any moment but he didn’t. Yes, at any moment God could solve all our problems. He could place a HUGE check in the offering plate. He could make all the pain of this world go away. But is that his job?
The purpose of the cross was to win over the hearts of humanity not the land of an ancient people. The purpose of us Church is to go out in his name and share his love with everyone. That is the reality. When we have an issue like our finances is that a lack of God being God or the lack of us being faithful followers? When we hear of starving children is that a lack of God being God or is that the sin of greed and the lack of compassion we have for our neighbors? When we point to the cross and what Jesus, the King of Kings did on it do we see a powerful event long ago or a moment when our lives changed forever as well. Expectations demand God does what we ourselves are unwilling or scared to do. When we place expectations on God we are reversing the roles. We need to remember who we are. We are creation. We are followers. We are believers. We are not creators, saviors or redeemers. The reality is we need to know our place and understand our role. We aren’t on the cross, we need to be at the foot of the cross, worshiping the one who is dying for us.
And all God’s people said…Amen.
*caution, rough draft ahead*
Many of you know about the Ironman Race that is held each year in Hawaii. This is a huge endurance race that calls to hundreds of people to participate in. During this race, participants start off by swimming 2.4 miles. Then once they are out of the water they bike 112 miles around the mountains of Hawaii. Then after that they run a marathon, or 26.2 miles. At the end of this race each person will have gone 140.6 miles. Now this sounds crazy to me since if I hopped in a car right now and drove 140.6 miles at the end I would be tired. Chris McCormack was the winner for the 2010 race and he finished with a time of 8:10:37. But this still isn’t the craziest endurance race out there. There is another race called the Badwater Ultramarathon. It is a 135 foot race (no swimming or biking, all on foot) from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney. The race starts at -280 feet below sea level and then ends at 8,312 feet. During this run/walk/crawl you go through three mountain ranges and over the course participants accumulate 4,700 feet of decent and 13,000 feet of accent with temperatures that can reach 120 degrees. Zach Gingerich was the 2010 winner of a time of 24:44:48. This was his third year finishing the race.
Then there is this guy. [VIDEO] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoamIfflJVQ
Dean pushed himself even more and has a new book out called 50/50 where he ran 50 marathons in 50 days, that is 1,310 miles in a month and a half.
People who participate in these races have great endurance. These aren’t runners, these are endurance racers. Endurance, when we think of exercise, is defined as the ability to gather, process and deliver oxygen. It is the process that makes the body keep going. Like the video said, it is the mental ability to look at “a donut running next to you and a taco in front of you and saying, that’s normal.” Endurance is also defined as “the ability to withstand hardship or adversity.” There are people who have great endurance but cannot run a quarter of a mile. These are people who have endured great hardships in their life and who have overcome great adversity.
Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years. He was sent there because he was an adversary of the Apartheid Regime of South Africa. Apartheid was the government system set up in 1948 which segregated the population of South Africa. Each person was given a classification back then. You were either “white, black, colored, or Indian.” Eventually the blacks were all forcefully removed and placed in camps outside cities. They were allowed to come in to serve the whites but other than that they lived in some of the poorest conditions and under some of the cruel treatments you can imagine. There were those who attempted to fight against this regime and they were thrown away in prison if not killed. After 27 years of being behind bars Nelson Mandela was freed and became the first President elected through a multi-racial elections in 1994. In those 27 years in prison he learned a lot. He learned to have compassion for his adversaries and in the end desired to have South Africa be a country as a whole, not just having the black rule. One of the traits that enabled him to go from a prisoner to a president is his endurance, his ability to withstand hardship and adversity.
The scripture ends by Jesus saying “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” In this passage of Luke, Jesus is in the Temple. He just saw a woman putting two small copper coins into the offering and then over hears some other people talking about how pretty the Temple is. The temple was pretty. In 19 BC King Herod started to rebuild the Temple. During this Capital Campaign, the property almost doubled in size. The construction only lasted about 18 months but they were still working on the adornments and decorations well past Jesus’ lifetime, until 62-64 AD. The temple was a beautiful place but when Jesus hears people talking about its beauty he tells them, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another: all will be thrown down.”
This prophecy would not have been taken lightly, nor was it. Remember the Temple was where the Spirit of God was. God’s presence was in the Holy of Holies. The temple, for the Jews, did not only represent the place where they made their sacrifices to God but also where God lived. For many the temple probably was God. Jesus is now telling them that this building, this beautiful, ornate, religious building would crumble. This peaked some people’s interest and they came to him and asked, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sing that this is about to take place?”
Jesus then goes on to answer those questions but in some sketchy language. Many people read this piece of scripture and they think Jesus is predicting the end of time but he is really telling people about the end of the Temple. In reality the author of the Gospel of Luke knows that this really happens because it is thought that Luke is written after 70 AD, when Jerusalem and the Temple were actually destroyed by the Romans. Let’s break Jesus’ predictions down a little.
Jesus states that there will be War and insurrections. The Roman Emperor at the time of Jesus’ death was Tiberius. Between Tiberius and the siege of Jerusalem there were eight Roman Emperors. Because of this high volume of turnover and the struggles that come when a new person takes over the control of an Empire, there were many wars and insurrections.
He also mentions “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Once again this wasn’t supposed to be taken as an ‘end of time’ prophesy but an end of the temple prophecy. While the Roman Empire fought over who controlled what and who was emperor kingdoms and nations fought against one another all the time.
Jesus also mentions earthquakes, famines and plagues. In Claudia in 47 AD there was a massive famine in the land. The second part of Luke’s gospel, the book we call Acts, tells us in the 11th chapter about the famine itself. Then in the 16th chapter we learn about a massive earthquake in Philippi. It was so massive that it shook the foundation of the prison that Paul and Silas were in and set everyone free, although they didn’t escape they merely hung around and worshiped God.
The Jesus mentions there were signs in heaven. The Roman commander Titus had enlisted the help of Josephus, a Jewish Scholar, to try and negotiate with the people in the Temple walls in order to reach a peaceful agreement. He also kept a detailed account of the siege and destruction. During this time he reported a star in the sky that resembled a sword and a comet at the burning of the Jerusalem temple. Everything that Jesus had said came true in one way or another before the Commander Titus destroyed the city and temple. After that they plundered the temple taking the artifacts and anything they could carry all the way back to Rome. In the Arch of Titus there is a carving depicting this scene that is still there today.
I am sure everyone who was standing around look very concerned with Jesus as he says this in the temple courts. Jesus then goes on to tell them that they will be persecuted, hated, and it will tear into the very fabric of their society and family structures. During this time the early Christians had massive persecutions under the Emperor Nero. Nero was well known to through dinner parties and use Christians and his citronella candles to light up his party. Many Christians suffered a great deal for the faith between the time after Jesus’ death and the destruction of the temple. Jesus knows this is coming and he is looking around at his disciples and the people standing there at the temple and he says, “by your endurance you will gain your souls.”
The Christian faith was so fresh then that it would have been easy to dismiss it and move on in life. No one would blame Peter if he would have just kept on denying knowing this guy named Jesus he used to hang out with, especially when things got to the point of life and death. Peter is said to have died during the reign of Nero by being crucified upside down in Rome. This is why the Vatican, the holy city of the Roman Catholic Church is located there.
There were people who walked with Jesus, heard his message, saw his death, and heard of his resurrection as a young person and then lived to witness this prophecy be fulfilled. During a time of trial, a time of persecution, of natural disasters and of civil unrest, faith can easily be lost. But for those who understand the nature of spiritual endurance, for them Jesus says, they will gain their souls.
Desmond Tutu became a bishop in the Anglican Church during Apartheid. He then moved to become the Secretary General of South Africa’s Council of Churches. He became the central church figure in the fight against Apartheid. After Apartheid ended he was also the person in charge of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. During this commission he heard thousands of stories of people being tortured, families being killed and all the pain and suffering that went along with Apartheid. He heard this from the victims and from the perpetrators. In it all he saw the good in people and was able to speak to the notion that good will always win over evil. In the most recent Time Magazine he is quoted as saying, “God is not evenhanded. God is biased, horribly in favor of the weak. The minute an injustice is perpetrated, God is going to be on the side of the one who is being clobbered.”
With the mindset that God is on your side, knowing that as Jesus says, “not a hair of your head will perish,” it is possible to live through such horrible things. Only through the faith in Jesus Christ is it possible to look evil in the eye and know for certain who will come out the victor. Tutu also said in the article, “The texture of our universe is one where there is no question at all but that good and laughter and justice will prevail.” He is known as the laughing bishop because his infectious laugh. But that laugh is rooted in the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, God always wins.
We currently are living through some tough times and there are many people suffering in our town and in our nation. We have to continue to endure. We have to keep breathing, keep pumping the oxygen of faith through our system. We don’t know how long the run will be. It could be a simple couple of miles or it could be fifty marathons in fifty days. When the temple fell so did the faith of many people in that holy city. As we look at our lives and some of it crumbles we have to know that things may not get better, they may get even worse, but with God we will win. We may die but the ultimate defeat is that of sin and death because that battle has been won already by our Lord Jesus Christ.
And all God’s people said…Amen.
While reading the commentary, Feasting the Word, about this week’s Gospel text, I stumbled upon this website that lists 15 ‘messiahs’. Each of these messiahs defied Rome between 4BCE and 70CE (there are more but these stick in Jesus’ time frame). Jesus is actually named as one too, stating that he died in 30CE.
I thought it was interesting to learn this as Jesus tells us “for many will come in my name and say ‘I am he!’ and ‘The time is near!; Do not go after them.” I knew there were false prophets but to now have names to them makes them more real. Looking at this list makes me think of Mighty Pythons Life of Brian with every other person claiming to be the Messiah. It is interesting there are actually names and written accounts of these ‘false leaders.’
God of the Living
I wrestled with this text this week. We could have celebrated All Saints Day last week but it was Halloween and since the official day is November 1st I thought it wasn’t quiet right. I could have picked one of the lectionary texts from the All Saints group but I didn’t, something told me to head to this section of scripture in Luke. I made the decision. I committed and as I dove into it I thought I would have to commit myself. To preach this text feels a little funny because we came here to remember those who have gone before us; our loved ones, our fathers, our mothers, our spouses. We come here to remember but now I have to preach about this insane question about marriage in heaven? Yet as I dove in I realized the power of this discussion between a Sadducee and Jesus. There is a lot of hope and joy in Jesus’ response and promise but it takes a while to get there.
I’m going to walk through a large chunk of history and I have given you these words up on the screen (the picture above) to help guide you through this case and to help you see a little about what I am talking about. I hope they help.
In the 20th chapter of Luke Jesus is asked some questions to trap him in order that the religious rulers can turn him over to the proper authorities. They want to get rid of him because he rode in on a donkey with palms waving and came into the Temple of Jerusalem and kicked out all the money changers. Now he was teaching to the people of Jerusalem and the religious leaders were getting very nervous. They sent teams of them to try and trap him with questions about his authority and paying taxes. Jesus can see through these and astounds everyone there with his answers.
Then you get a Sadducee who comes up for his turn. Now a little explanation about who Sadducees were. They were religious leaders of the time, similar but opposite of the Pharisees. the easiest way to think about it is that the Sadducees were like a different denomination from the Pharisees. They believed in the same God but they came at it in different ways. The main difference between these two was their belief in the scripture. Sadducees believed only what was in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. That was it. Pharisees believed in updating the written Torah with some of the oral or modern traditions. They wanted to include some of the prophetic writings that were being written down and these new writings called the Psalms. So one of their differences was where their scriptural authority came from.
Another key difference is the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. How do we know this? Well Luke tells us in verse 27. “Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question.” Because these Sadducees only believed what was in the Torah, which has no direct scripture on the resurrection, they didn’t believe in the resurrection. Pharisees on the other hand did believe in the resurrection because of the Prophetic book Daniel. In Daniel 12 there is a reference to the resurrection and because of the Pharisees inclusion of this prophetic book they believed in the event described by Daniel, where he says “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
What is funny is a Sadducee comes up and asks Jesus a question about the resurrection, something he did not believe in. This tells Jesus, and us, right off that the Sadducee is only looking to prove how dumb Jesus is and to embarrass him in front of everyone. It is kind of like asking the question, “Can God make a rock so big that he cannot pick it up?” This is simply and purely a trap. The Sadducee asks, “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
This idea comes from Deuteronomy 25 and Genesis 38. If a husband dies and leaves a wife, it is the brother-in-laws duty to marry her and produce offspring and take care of her. If not, as a woman back in that time, she would be an outcast in society and would be pushed out into the fringes to take care of herself, which back then would be almost impossible. As the Sadducee asks this question he also gives Jesus the parameters of the question. The section of the Law that is quoted is from the Torah only. For the answer Jesus decides to play the Sadducees game and stay within the Torah as well but in his answer he sides with the Pharisees in their belief of the resurrection.
But to understand Jesus’ answer we have to reach back to another popular thought or belief that was discussed back in Jesus’ time. There was an Ancient thought on angels and what they are like in heaven. There were many Jews who believed that when people died and are resurrected they acquire the eternal nature of angels. This theology comes from the book of 1 Enoch. It is not in our Bibles and it isn’t even in that extra stuff in the Catholic Bible called the Apocrypha. Actually there is only one denomination out there that has it in their official canon; they are the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which derived from the Ethiopian Jews who also saw Enoch as a holy book. Enoch is actually quoted in our Bible, in Jude 1:14-15, but that is all our Bible mentions of it. In this book it explains that God did not give angels wives because they are eternal and did not need to procreate. Because they live for eternity they don’t need to create more angels because if they did God would have a population crisis going on.
With this in mind, if we then believe humans, at our resurrection, put on the eternal nature of angels then we become eternal ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we turn into cubby babies with bows and arrows with little wings. We don’t turn into angels, but we do put on their eternal nature. What this means is that we put on eternity. We move from mortal lives to eternal lives. We believe that when we die we, the believers, move into an eternal relationship with God. At a funeral I usually quote from Romans 8, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Our perishable bodies put on imperishability. In death our mortal bodies put on immortality. This is why Jesus answers the Sadducee, “But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” With believers, those who are considered worthy enough to take part in the resurrection, they no longer can die so they are like the angels.
Because we are like angels in the resurrection, because we now are clothed in eternity, there is no use of the mortal constructs. There is no need for marriage anymore, which answers the Sadducees question. In death we are freed from life. This is where the hope and freedom come in to Jesus’ answer. Now some of us, learning that there is no marriage in heaven, might break out in a “Praise Jesus” moment, others might be disappointed. In eternity we don’t need the framework of marriage to work on loving others like Christ loves us, because we will be in the midst of Christ and know and understand this love first hand. We will know each other in heaven and we believe we will reunite with our loved ones who go before us. But the human and mortal systems here on earth pass away when we do. Death is the end of some things but not everything.
Think about the woman in the question the Sadducee asks. She is only seen as property. What do we do with this woman? Everyone she marries dies and the next brother in line willing takes her on, even though I am sure by time the 5th or 6th one says I do, they know they are signing their death sentence. She, like most women back then, see themselves as only property. They are a commodity that can be bartered and sold for the sake of the men in their lives. If you are this woman how much hope do you find knowing that Jesus says that earthly bondage doesn’t not exist in heaven. In heaven, in the resurrection, you are free because you are a child of God.
The God we worship is not a God of the dead. He is not a God of those who have those who have lived long ago but a God of those who continue to live. God is not a God of the dead but a God of the living. God is one who looks at us, his mortal creation, and allows us to put on immortality. Jesus throughout his ministry makes it known that there is great hope and freedom in the God of the living. In the age to come we are seen as equals to one another. We are made whole in the resurrection. All of the sickness that muddles up our lives is gone. The blind will see. The lame will walk. Women won’t be property. Slaves will no longer have an earthly master. We will be free. Free from all the junk that holds us down and bogs down our earthly lives.
Today, as we celebrate All Saints day, we remember those who have gone before us. We celebrate that they are made whole in their resurrection. We celebrate the foretaste of this heavenly banquet they are already feasting on. Because they have gone before us and we can trust Jesus when he says, “they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” we have great hope today. We can bask in this freedom God offers us all. We can have assurance in the future because as we will sing after communion, we are “standing on the promises of Christ the Lord, bound to him eternally by love’s strong cord, overcoming daily with the Spirit’s sword, standing on the promises of God.”
And all God’s children said…Amen.
“Someone once asked Daniel Boone, ‘Were you ever lost?’ Dan thought it over for a while, then replied, ‘No, I was never lost. But once I was a mite bewildered for five days.” Growing up I would ask my Dad as we drove around searching for a certain location. “Dad, are you lost?” “Jimmie, I’m never lost, it just may take me a while to find out where I am.” Sure enough we would eventually find out where we were or where the place was we were looking for. Some of us are born with that inner compass within us. Let’s test it right quick. Everyone stand up and close your eyes. Now, without looking or cheating from your neighbor, I want you to point North. Now open your eyes. North is actually in this direction. See some of us are born with that inner compass and some aren’t.
As we go through life we will get lost at times. We will venture off and head in one direction and before we know it we be lost. Now according to my Boy Scout Handbook, I dusted off from my bookshelf, there are proper ways to handle getting lost. Actually it say, “The best way not to get lost is to know at all times where you are.” It goes on to say that as we travel we should always be alert and looking around. We should notice where the trail is going and what landmarks we see on a map and in our area. But there are times when you do get lost and in those cases there actually is a right way to be found and a wrong way to be found. The wrong thing to do is to start running around like a crazy person. If you panic and run, you will never be found. The Boy Scout Handbook says that if you get lost, “Stay calm. Sit down and have a sip of water and a bite of food…Quietly review how you got where you are.” If you don’t calm down and review you will not be able to judge what to do. Most of the time if you know people are looking for you the best way to get found is to stay still and let them come to you.
Many of us are familiar with this story in Luke’s text. We know the children’s song that I sang during the children’s time. Zacchaeus was the local tax collector in Jericho. This means he was the Jew in charge of collecting taxes for the Romans. He was basically the Biblical IRS agent, except their taxes were even worse back then. Zacchaeus was in charge of collecting these taxes but if he wanted to make any money all he had to do was take a little more and then keep the overage for himself. Apparently that is exactly what he was doing because the scripture describes him as ‘wealthy.’
Zacchaeus apparently had heard about Jesus and heard the buzz in the community that he was heading his way. He really wanted to see this guy so he headed out to the main road to take a look. Now the scripture tells us that he was also a short man and he could not over the crowd. Either that or the crowds pushed him to the back of the line because they hated this Chief Tax Collector. Zacchaeus had to find another way to see Jesus so “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 the tree.”
You do not have to be a scholar of Luke, you only would have had to read through it once, to know that in this Gospel rich people don’t do well when Jesus comes to meet them. In Chapter 6 Jesus gives a section of scripture called the Blessings and Woes. It is like Luke’s Beatitudes. In the Woe section, the not so good ones, Jesus says, “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” Not a good impression of the rich. Then in chapter 12 Jesus tells a story of a Rich Fool. In this parable a farmer attempts to build bigger barns to store even more of his crops. He places his own stuff in front of God and is called out for it. Then in Chapter 16 Jesus tells another parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. They both die and the rich man is on the wrong side of the afterlife and things are so bad in hell that he requests that Lazarus, the beggar he ignored in life, could come over and dip his finger in water to cool off his tongue. In Chapter 18 we get Luke’s version of the Rich Ruler story. Here a rich man comes up to Jesus and asks how to receive eternal life. When Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor the rich ruler just leaves.
I mention all this to point out that now Jesus is in the presence of another rich man, Zacchaeus. I bet as Jesus eyes him in the tree and starts to head in that direction his disciples already knew what Jesus was going to do. This was the moment Jesus was going to read him the riot act. It was in this moment that the people of Jericho were going to see this Savior, this Messiah show no mercy to the man they all hated. Yet, Jesus goes against his previous persistence. He doesn’t do what he did in all those other stories and meetings with other rich people. Instead he tells his wealthy scum that tonight he is going to eat at his house. The people’s mouths all drop open and they are shocked, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’” But this is so Jesus, always keeping us on our toes.
But what made Zacchaeus different than all the other rich people in the Gospel of Luke? The truth is Zacchaeus was willing to be found. He could have simply went home after he realized he wasn’t able to see Jesus on the road. But instead he climbed up in a tree to get a look and the meeting that took place while he was up in that tree changed his life.
What continually shocks me about this story is the awesome presence Jesus had. When he met people who were really seeking him, not just in person but also in their heart, all Jesus had to do was meet them, come face to face with them, and their lives changed. Every time I come to this story I think that Zacchaeus changes his mind at dinner with Jesus. It is after opening his house to the Savior of the world and sharing a meal with him that he then says, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” But it isn’t. The scripture says it is when he jumps down out of the tree and stands up that he says this. It is the first meeting, the greeting, that Zacchaeus’ life is transformed. Why? Because he was willing to be found and transformed.
For any real change to happen in your life you have to make the conscious decision to do it and be in the place mentally to be willing to be transformed. If you want to quit smoking, lose weight, get out of debt or whatever it is you are seeking to do; the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t is simple. Those who truly want to be transformed mentally know that where they want to be is worth the sacrifice it will take to get there. The moment a person realizes that the feeling of losing 10 pounds is far better than the taste of that bowl of ice cream, he will start to lose weight. Once a person is mentally in that place where the rush from saying no to that next cigarette is better than the rush of smoking it, she will stop. But until then, until that mental moment, true transformation will not come.
When Jesus meets the Rich Ruler in chapter 18 Jesus knows he is not ready to be transformed. Jesus shows him the way, points him in the direction he has to go to get to where he wants but the Rich Ruler is unwilling to go through that type of sacrifice. In the next chapter Jesus meets another rich person, Zacchaeus, but this meeting is different. Zacchaeus was already willing to be transformed. He was willing to take what little pride he had left and hang it on a tree. The fact that from that moment on he will always be remembered as the ‘wee little man in the tree’ didn’t matter because he was meeting Jesus.
After Zacchaeus profess to Jesus the changes he is willing to make we get this tag line at the end that doesn’t make much sense. Jesus says, as the New Revised Standard Translation puts it “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.” What does seeking and saving the lost have to do with this story? That just seems to be out there and something that Luke added to make this scripture sound more Luken. But it has a lot to do with the story. Jesus is telling those standing there watching this interaction take place that he came to seek out and to save the lost. He is there to find those who are lost. Zacchaeus was lost. He was consumed by his position of power and his greed. He knew on some level that there was a better way of living and he knew that Jesus could point him in that direction. He was willing to put himself in a tree in order to see Jesus and in order to be found.
In our own sinful nature we cannot be transformed. I don’t care what the newest and trendy self help books tell you. We cannot do it on our own. We can only go so far before we need help. We might be able to do a lot on our own but if we want true transformation we will need Jesus. We may have the ability to lose weight or get out of debt on our own but if we don’t invite Jesus in and ask him to transform our whole being we are only sin swapping. If we think we can do those things on our own then we are swapping the sin of gluttony, or greed, for the sin of pride. If we want a whole body, whole being transformation into the person God is calling us to be then we need to get to the place where we realize we are lost and we want to be found.
I know you all know people in this community that are lost, you may be one of them. There are people that can see their lives unraveling right in front of them. They are trying to hold it together but the tighter the hold on the messier and scarier it gets. They are starting to panic and do what our guide book tells us not to do when we find ourselves lost. We aren’t suppose to start running around and trying to get found on our own. The lost can’t do the finding. The lost can only be found.
So if you are lost this morning, may you be willing to do what is necessary to be found. May you climb a tree and be still. May you be so ready to be completely transformed that you are even willing to put your pride behind you and be still. May you be still as the Lord, the Savior of the world, walks by and looks up.
And all God’s people said…Amen.
Sight vs. Seeing
My Mom has gotten really good at Thank You notes after birthdays or Christmas. It seems sometimes the Thank You note will beat us home. We stop and get the mail as we are pulling into the driveway and there is a Thank You note. It is a little annoying. She made me write Thank You notes for my birthdays and Christmas gifts. It is a good habit to have and it demonstrates, in written form your appreciation for that person to think of you during that time. When I was a teenager I thought the quickest way of dealing with these after celebration nuisances would be a form Thank You note. I got on the computer, typed out my message and left a blank for the name and gift. What I didn’t realize is how ungrateful a form Thank Note really was.
We know when people are being honest with their gratitude. You can tell when a child receives something they don’t really want but then their parents force them to say thanks. Say a little boy is walking through a line at a cafeteria and the person behind the counter slaps some broccoli on his plate, the most hated vegetable of all children. The little boy crinkles up his nose and gives his mom a silent ‘yuck’ face. The mom looks down at the little boy and says what every mom says, “What do you say?” The boy looks up at disgust at the server and still with the crinkled nose, says thank you. That is a thank you that is not heartfelt but it was polite.
Now take that same boy and go to Christmas. Everyone is around the tree and then he opens the gift he had been asking for since February of that year. The boy opens it and sees the gift and you all know what he does. He jumps up with excitement runs over to his mom and dad and wraps his arms around him, does four running circles around the living room and drools over this toy that he has always wanted for the next week and a half. Now that was a heartfelt, joyous and uncontrollable thank you.
Ten lepers meet Jesus as he comes into their village, during his trip to Jerusalem. They yell to him to have mercy on us, and Jesus does. That’s it. They yell to Jesus to make them well and he does. Wow, if only we had a pill that would do that! Then Jesus sends them away to go see the priest so they can be made clean again. You see, lepers were the outcasts of the biblical society.
Leprosy is a horrible disease, which in the late stages of it basically rots the body away. You have open sores that go numb. You smell of rotten flesh. This is why you had lepers who lived together in communities. They would be kicked out of their homes and villages and the only place they could find a place to live with others with the same disease. The only way they could be let back into regular life is if the priest found them to be clean. The priest would have to stamp their passport to be able to come back to normal life again. That is why, Jesus says, go and show yourselves to the priests. And on their way to the priests, the lepers were healed.
But then something weird happens, when one of the ten sees that he is healed he turns back and praising God with a loud voice. He comes back and throws himself at Jesus’ feet thanking him for healing him of this horrible disease. The even bigger catch is that this man is a Samaritan. And if you are not aware of the whole Jewish and Samaritan relationship, these two races didn’t get a long AT ALL!!!! These two types of people hated one another. A Samaritan with leprosy was probably the outcast among the outcasts. The fact that Jesus goes on to praise this person for coming back and thanking him really adds to the surprise of this story.
Jesus praises this healed man because out of everyone he was the only one to return. He has an attitude of gratitude and is physically demonstrating that to the Son of God. But what does Jesus say to him? He asks him a rhetorical question, Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? Isn’t it appropriate to give God thanks in this type of moment? Isn’t being healed from a flesh rotting disease worthy enough of a face to face thank you? Where were the 9 other lepers?
It really boils down to the difference between the ability of sight and the seeing. In his book, An Anthropologist on Mars, neurologist Oliver Sacks tells about Virgil, a man who had been blind from early childhood. When he was 50, Virgil underwent surgery and was given the gift of sight. But as he and Dr. Sacks found out, having the physical capacity for sight is not the same as seeing. Virgil’s first experiences with sight were confusing. He was able to make out colors and movements, but arranging them into a coherent picture was more difficult. Over time he learned to identify various objects, but his habits–his behaviors–were still those of a blind man. Dr. Sacks asserts, “One must die as a blind person to be born again as a seeing person. It is the interim, the limbo . . . that is so terrible.”
The 9 other lepers did see what was happening. They did not have the ability to see God in their midst, during their joyous transformation. The truth is we are the same way. When God removes our stumbling blocks, answers our long await prayers, and gives us great joy we tend to not return too. We are like the 9 other lepers in this story who didn’t come back because of many possible reasons. One might have wanted to see if the cure was real and another wanted to wait to see if it would last. Another thought he would see Jesus later and another decided that he never really had leprosy to begin with. One gave his glory to the priest and though that Jesus would get the memo. One said, “well Jesus really didn’t DO anything” and another though “any rabbi could have done this.” While yet one may have been thinking, “I was feeling better anyway.” No matter what the reason is, it is only excuses not to thank God for the miracle they received. Yet this also could have been because they did not see God in this gift either.
Then Jesus says to the foreigner, Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.
That is the part that stuck with me as I read over this passage. That is what I couldn’t get out of my head. Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well. What? Huh? What is the deal with this idea of faith making you well? What does faith have to do with feeling better? As I thought more about this I got a little nervous because this is usually the text that Christian Scientist head to when they point out that there is no need for medical attention. They believe that their faith heals them and that a person who is sick just needs to have more faith. That is a scary road to walk down and truly all of us can point to people in our lives and in this congregation who get sick and who have a strong faith. Plus we know that illness doesn’t pick people out, the flu will infect anyone no matter their religious beliefs and whether they showed up for church on Sunday. I knew there had to be something else to this statement, there had to be something else to this story.
What I found out is that the verb in the Greek that gets translated, made well, could also be translated, to be saved. So the last verse of this scripture could read, Get up and go on your way; your faith has saved you. Well that sounds different. Now I can connect those dots, I can see how faith can save you. This is key because all ten of the lepers were healed but only one was saved. Only one turns back and sees God in his midst and sings his praise.
See if you can follow me here. “The Lord be with you.” (And also with you) “Lift up your hearts.” (We lift them up to the Lord) “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” (It is right to give our thanks and praise). It is right to give our thanks and praise. It is right. It is the right thing to give thanks to God who gives us everything in our lives. This is something we profess every time we get ready to have Communion because we understand that in this act, we should be faithful. Yet this is the attitude we should have throughout life. We should always thank God in everything we do.
This is harder to do than you think though. Not every moment in life seems appropriate to give thanks to God. We see professional athletes give a shout out to God when they make a play. When a baseball player hits a home run, he could hit is chest and then point to the sky. When a defensive lineman breaks through the offensive line and sacks a quarterback, he gets up and points up to the sky. When we are in the doctor’s office and we receive good news instead of bad, it is easy to say, “Thank you God.” But there are times when we don’t thank God and we probably should.
Imagine you are surrounded by your friends last, sipping a beer, enjoying the warm air and sun, smiling and laughing. What would that feel like? What would it be like if then someone looks around and says, “Thank you God for this moment of fellowship and friends.” That person would probably get some looks like he was crazy but it is the perfect time to thank God for the gift you are enjoying. Imagine you are laying in the hospital room frustrated because the surgery didn’t go as well as you hoped. You are mad that the doctors couldn’t do what they promised. What would that feel like? What would it be like to thank God in that moment? What would it be like to sit there and say “Thank you God for being in my midst during this hard time, for carrying me because I don’t feel like doing the walking right now,”? That is the perfect time to say thank you to God.
That is the difference between having sight and seeing. We can go through life and see what life gives us, or we can go through life and through our faith see God in our midst everywhere we go and in everything we experience. It changes our perception on life. It changes our attitude when bad and good things happen to us. The centurion at the cross witnessed Jesus’ whole crucifixion. He was the only one recorded to look up at that moment and praise God. The disciples didn’t. The ladies there at the foot of the cross didn’t. It was a Roman soldier who did it. If we learn to take time and see God in our midst we will usually run over and say thank you.
Kimberly Bracken Long wrote, “in giving thanks in all things, we find that God, indeed, is in all things.” We have to move from sight to seeing. We have to move beyond ourselves, that disease of self-centeredness and self-righteousness, and see ALL the work God does in our lives. The good news is that God is always with us. In every moment of elation, of desperation, of tragedy, and of great joy, God is there. Even if we think we think we have to stand away from him and call out to God, have mercy on me, God is still there. We have to learn not to be like the other 9 lepers and who run off past God excited about what he did for us. Only one’s faith saved him and that is the one who was able share his heartfelt gratitude in the moment. It was the one who realized that God is in all things and so he gave thanks in all things.
And all God’s people said…Amen.