the kingdom of God is filled
with the maimed—
one hand, one foot, one eye...
who have been through hell,
who would rather live with others
than for themselves,
who are slow and quiet
because they know
life is right here.
Sunday, 1 December 2019
(Sermon for Goochland Baptist Church's Worship on December 1, 2019, Advent I)
An Unexpected Knock
Curt, Erin, and I had all just arrived at my parents’ home for a family dinner together, and we could smell them at the door: my mom’s Christmas sugar cookies, a much beloved holiday tradition. Some of them would have cream cheese frosting and sprinkles on top, some of them would be plain. All of them would be delicious. Suddenly dinner seemed like an obstacle.
Halfway through dinner—halfway en route to those sugar cookies—we heard voices at the front door. Singing voices. It took us a moment to register that these were carolers! Someone asked, “Do we invite them in?” I caught my brother’s eyes, and I could tell we were thinking the same thing: “If we do that, what will happen to the cookies? How many will there be left?” Neither one of us dared speak this covetous thought aloud, but we were worried. In the end, our fears were relieved. In fact, the singers had reversed the age-old caroling tradition. The moment we opened the front door, two children ran up the front steps and shoved a plateful of cookies into our hands and then they were off to the next home. Talk about a double blessing!
Caroling and its ritualized act of hospitality reminds me of another Advent tradition. Las Posadas, which originated in Mexico, also dramatizes the act of hospitality. But Las Posadas gives the act of hospitality teeth. It gives it muscle. Las Posadas is what caroling wants to be when it grows up. It pushes the act of hospitality to the limit. In Las Posadas, two youth dress up as Joseph and Mary, and on the ninth day before Christmas they make a surprise visit to one of the families in the church. They knock on the front door, and when the family opens up, the youth make their plea: “Excuse me, we have traveled a long way and we have no place to stay and my wife is expecting any day now. May we stay with you?”
Now in caroling, the host may invite the carolers inside the front door for a minute to enjoy a cookie or a treat. But Las Posadas models itself after the Christmas story, where the drama is not simply giving God a minute of our time and a cookie but actually opening our heart and our home so that God may be born there. In Las Posadas, Christ is seeking a place to be born. Christ comes unexpected, as a knock in the night, as strangers at the door, as a call to open our homes and offer our hands. According to tradition, the family should invite the two youth into their home and share dinner with them. Oftentimes the event snowballs into a feast and other families from church stop by and join the celebration, eating, singing songs, and sharing fellowship together.
What a witness to the spirit of Advent, to welcoming God in the unexpected. I think back to how my brother and I feared for our freshly baked sugar cookies, and I realize how small our hearts and our homes can be. We were hardly prepared to welcome the unexpected knock at the door.
And how else does God come?
God’s Deliverance—in an Unexpected Way
We all know well the stories of Joseph and Mary, how they received the unexpected call from God on high, how they made room in their lives for the birth of Christ. Less well known is how the public first received Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. Today’s scripture in Luke gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ first reception. According to Luke, the first public appearance of Jesus when he begins his ministry takes place in his hometown synagogue. There he reveals his mission: the good news. His first words make this clear: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news” (4:18). In fact, Jesus is reading from scripture, from a celebrated prophecy of Isaiah, a prophecy that envisions the day of God’s deliverance. For a people who have lived centuries under the thumb of oppressive foreign rule, this prophecy is good news indeed. I imagine that for a Jewish person in the first century, this prophecy was tinged with comfort and joy in the same way that the Christmas story is for us. You know the feeling you get at a Christmas pageant, or at a Lessons & Carols, when you hear those hallowed words, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1)? I imagine that’s how the Israelites felt, hearing Jesus read Isaiah’s prophecy. Yes, they thought, that is the story we all have come to hear. The story of God’s deliverance. That is what we all hope for. God has delivered us before, and we know God will deliver us again.
So Jesus has read this good news, and everyone’s feeling good, and he ups the ante. He makes a bold claim. He declares that today this beloved scripture has come true. He claims to be ushering in God’s deliverance. And his hometown audience loves it, Luke says. They turn their heads to one another and ask, “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy? The carpenter’s son? Isn’t this one of our own? And he’s leading the charge, he’s taking it up against Rome for our deliverance. What a day to be alive!” They’re practically glowing with pride.
I feel so good reading this myself—I’m so happy for Jesus and his hometown—that it almost hurts to read what comes next. Jesus knows just what’s going on in the townspeople’s hearts, and he calls them on it. Doubtless, he says, you’ll be saying to me soon, “Doctor, cure yourself!”—which was an ancient proverb, meaning something like, Don’t neglect your own when you’re doing good things. Cure yourself means something like take care of your own; when you’re off doing great things, don’t forget where you came from, don’t neglect us.
Which is a very natural thing for the townspeople to be saying. Tomorrow morning when Curt and Erin board their airplane to return to Richmond, they’ll hear the steward tell them that in the case of a loss of cabin pressure, masks will drop from overhead, and that they should secure their own before assisting their neighbor. Cure yourself. It’s the logic of our world. Look out for number one. Treat yourself first.
But Jesus makes it clear that the good news is much bigger than the townspeople desire, much greater than they expect. In quick succession, he rattles off two stories about Israelite prophets, one who ministered to a foreign widow, another who ministered to a foreign leper. There were widows and lepers in Israel, Jesus said, but these prophets tended not to them but to the foreigners.
And in an instant, the parochial goodwill that had welled up in the hearts of the Nazarenes vanishes. That good feeling they all had—similar to when we hear the Christmas story read—that good feeling is capsized into bitterness and anger.
As Much as a Threat as a Promise
So while Mary and Joseph show us the right way to receive the unexpected word of God, visited upon us without warning, the synagogue in Nazareth shows us the opposite. It shows us what kind of welcome Jesus got from the first religious crowd he addressed.
It’s an instructive story and one that we see play out time and again in the gospel. Those religious folks in Nazareth are not the only ones to reject Jesus. You might remember the story of the rich, young ruler, who turns away saddened because he loves his money more than the good news. You might remember Jesus’ confrontation with some of the Pharisees. (And Pharisees, to be clear, are not the bad guys we sometimes think they are. In fact, the Pharisees were like the model churchgoers of the ancient world. They knew their scripture backwards and forwards, went to synagogue in the middle of the week, and were models of faith.) But some of the Pharisees reject Jesus because they love their religious truth more than the good news. You might remember Jesus’ encounter with the authorities of his day, both religious and Roman. They reject Jesus because they love power more than the good news.
The common thread becomes clear. Jesus has come with the good news, but in fact the good news is a threat as much as a promise for many who hear it. This good news is not what they expected: it’s not military victory for the nation of Israel, it’s not righteous vindication for the pious, it’s not the prosperity gospel. No, this good news is bigger than these expectations. It’s good news for the poor. The rest of the world might write them off as lazy or foolish, but God loves them and desires that they share abundant life with the community of God. This good news is freedom for the captive and the oppressed. The rest of the world might say they deserve it, they did the crime and have to pay the time, or that their behavior invited the tough consequences, but God loves them and desires that they share abundant life with the community of God. The good news is for the widow and the unclean and the foreigner, for all of those who have no claim to status or favor with God. God loves them, Jesus says, and desires that they share abundant life in the beloved community of God.
Hope Cannot See
The good news is so much bigger than sugar cookies. It’s so much bigger than the little town of Nazareth had envisioned. What today’s scripture reveals to us, is that quite often we confuse selfish desire or expectation with hope. According to Paul in Romans, “hope that is seen is not hope” (Rom 8:24). What we foresee for ourselves is not quite the same thing as hope, because hope cannot see what it hopes for. Hope is too big for our vision. It’s beyond what we can see.
There’s a funny old mystic theologian from the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, who liked to say that Christians often love God the same way a farmer loves his cow—for the milk! In other words, our faith is often hijacked by our ego, by the desire for personal gain or benefit.
The invitation and challenge of Advent is to relinquish this selfish desire that passes itself off as hope, because the truth is that with this counterfeit hope, we may in fact miss Christ when he comes. So it was for that synagogue in Nazareth, and for the rich, young ruler, and for the religious folks who grasped after purity and power.
They all knew the beloved scripture from Isaiah that Jesus read, the scripture that gave them that good feeling of comfort and joy, just like we know and love the Christmas story beginning with the decree from Caesar Augustus. We all hear in these scriptures our own deliverance. But the good news may be bigger than we bargained for. Indeed, that is what genuine hope is all about. A good news that we can’t see coming. An unexpected knock in the night, strangers at the door, a call that is uncalled for.
Christ overturning our world. And dwelling with us, if we would welcome him.
God of deliverance,
Whose good news
Is bigger than our expectation:
Purify our hope this Advent
That we might not
Expect too narrowly,
And so miss your coming;
Instead expand our hope
To beyond what we can see,
That we might be ready to embrace
Your unimaginably good news,
Come in the most unexpected ways.In Christ, who comes as one unknown. Amen.
Sunday, 3 November 2019
(Sermon for May Memorial Baptist Church's Worship on November 3, 2019, Proper 26)
Zacchaeus the Leprechaun
For many of us, the story of Zacchaeus summons up sentimental memories of Sunday School: the song we sang about a “wee, little man”; the comical, coloring-book images of a short man scrambling up and down a tree. I still remember the year that the lesson on Zacchaeus followed immediately after St. Patrick’s Day. We children drew the natural conclusion. This short man who had a lot of gold obviously was a wee leprechaun!
What’s Wrong with Having Money?
The story of Zacchaeus contains within it a lesson about money. But it was not the first lesson about money that I learned.
The first lesson I learned was simple: to get what I wanted, I needed money. As a young child, I thought getting money was as simple as walking into a bank or punching buttons on an ATM. Only later as a teenager would I learn that getting money involved a bit more. And so I became motivated to do things like mow the neighbors’ lawns, rake leaves, and shovel snow.
It was around this time when I was learning the value of money that my youth group at church read the story of the rich, young ruler. And the story frightened me because it challenged my very motivation for life.
It’s a familiar story. A ruler asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. Jesus reminds him to follow the commandments, to which the ruler responds, “I do all of these things.” In other words, this guy knew his Bible just like I did, and he tried to follow the rules just like I did. This was a guy with whom I could identify. He seemed alright. Then Jesus tells him he lacks one thing still. He invites him to sell all that he has and give his money to the poor and to follow him, which makes the man sad. In truth, it made me sad too, because to have a lot of money was a good thing as far as I could tell. Isn’t that why I was mowing lawns and raking leaves? What was wrong with having a lot of money?
Building Block or Stumbling Block?
What followed, however, frightened me even more. Jesus exclaims that it’s easier for a camel to thread the eye of a needle than for someone with wealth to enter into the kingdom of God. I found myself asking the exact same question that the crowd Jesus asks, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus responds, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God,” which was mysterious enough to leave me unsettled.
Thankfully the leader of our Bible study came to the rescue with a host of reassuring interpretations. First, he said that Jesus’ invitation to the rich man is not necessarily Jesus’ invitation to us. Rather, Jesus knew that the man’s riches were his prize possession and thus potentially an idol. For you or me, it might be something else: a relationship, a job, a dream. The important thing, my leader said, is that we are willing to give it up for God. (And notice that willing to give something up does not mean we actually give it up in the end. God is merciful, after all.) Then he continued. The eye of the needle, he said, is actually a reference to a gate in Jerusalem that camels could pass through if they relinquished all their baggage. In other words, it is possible for a camel to make it through the eye of the needle. Finally, Jesus’ reminder that what is impossible for us is possible for God means that ultimately it’s not about what we do or don’t do, but rather about what God does for us. Even if we hold onto our money, or whatever it is that we need to relinquish, God can still help us through.
If I’m being honest, these interpretations did not reassure me. They felt like excuses, like escape clauses that Christian lawyers had drawn up for our eternal benefit. What left a greater impression on me were not these reassurances but the words of Jesus himself. His words haunted me. They upset the balance and order of my life, suggesting that money was not the building block of life but rather a stumbling block. I could not escape Jesus’ suggestion that camels have a better chance walking through a needle’s eye—or today we might say, pigs have a better chance of flying—than a person with wealth has of entering the kingdom of God. So I was left with the crowd’s question: “Who then can be saved?”
A Tale of Two Rich Rulers and the Impossible
Jesus’ answer to that question—“nothing is impossible with God”—is a throwback in the book of Luke. You might remember it. Mary asks the angel Gabriel how she could possibly conceive; Gabriel responds, “Nothing is impossible with God.” Shortly after that, Mary sings a song of joy, a song that celebrates lowly persons such as herself lifted up and the powerful brought low, a song that imagines the poor filled with good things and the rich emptied out. In other words, the impossibility that God overcomes in Luke is not just the laws of physics. It is the impossibility posed by human hearts, hands, and habits. It is the impossibility of a new world and way of living, a world where the lowly are lifted up and restored to community and the hungry are filled, where the powers that be who lord it over others and preserve the status quo are emptied of their prestige and possessions.
It’s a little disheartening to me that this impossibility that God overcomes, is not overcome in the story of the rich ruler. Here the rich man is not emptied, nor are the hungry filled. Here the powerful are not brought low, nor the lowly lifted up. But the story does not end here. Just one chapter after Jesus insists that with God nothing is impossible, we are introduced to Zacchaeus. Our Bibles call him “the chief tax collector,” but in the Greek he is actually “the ruler of tax collectors.” He’s also rich. In other words, Zacchaeus is a rich ruler. Déjà vu. We’ve just seen this.
But whereas the first time we were left asking, “Who then can be saved?” this time the story ends with Jesus’ defiant proclamation, “Today salvation has come to this house.” It’s almost as though in response to the question, “Who can be saved?” Luke tells us the story of another rich ruler who in fact is saved. Zacchaeus is the answer to the question.
Zacchaeus stands in stark contrast to the first rich ruler. First, he gives away nearly all that he has: half his possessions, and then four times back to those he has defrauded. But that’s not all. Jesus invites Zacchaeus to “come down” the tree, and he does. He hurries down. He can’t get down quick enough. There echoes in Zacchaeus’ physical movement down the tree, the kingdom movement that Mary sang about in the days before Jesus’ birth. Zacchaeus is a powerful man who is brought down, a rich man who is subsequently emptied. Zacchaeus is a witness to the good news that with God nothing is impossible.
The Lord’s Supper Is More than the Last Supper
And is it any surprise that God overcomes the impossible at the table? Because that’s where the story of Zacchaeus ends. Jesus’ insistence, “I must stay at your house,” and the mention that Zacchaeus was “happy to welcome him” are the unmistakable language of table hospitality.
In Luke, the table is not just the site of Jesus’ last supper. It’s where Jesus is always hanging out. It’s where he makes a name for himself. Repeatedly in Luke people grumble (like they do in today’s scripture) because Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners (cf. Luke 5:30; 15:2). “In Jesus’ society, eating was a key indicator of belonging and status. In the way he ate, Jesus refused the boundaries of [status and power and purity] which eating was supposed to uphold. In so doing he challenged not only a religious establishment but also an entire empire. [Jesus’ table manners] turned everything upside down: power, status, gender, purity, money.”
For Luke, the Lord’s Supper is about much more than the last supper. It is about Jesus’ way of gathering around tables. And there is perhaps no more striking example of that in Luke than today’s scripture. Whereas churches today have commonly sought to protect the table, making it a boundary between insiders and outsiders, a stronghold for right doctrine, Jesus shows us the opposite. In today’s scripture, the Lord’s Supper takes place in the house of a sinner. This is what outraged his contemporaries. It would have been fine if Jesus were eating with repentant sinners, with people who had already conformed to right religious practice. But Jesus was eating with sinners, plain and simple, regardless of their repentance. In today’s story, Jesus doesn’t wait until Zacchaeus promises to give away half his possessions and restore fourfold to others what he has taken wrongly from them. He insists on sharing the table, and only then do we see Zacchaeus’ transformation. In other words, for Jesus gathering at the table is not conditional on salvation. In today’s story, it’s constitutive of salvation.
Zacchaeus is so overwhelmed by Jesus—and not by his miracles, nor by his teaching, but simply by his loving initiative and grace—that he cannot help but follow in Jesus’ way. At the table, he resolves to follow Jesus’ way of love and self-giving.
Jesus’ response reveals the power of the table. “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9). It strikes me that the rich ruler had asked Jesus about his personal salvation, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (18:18). But with Zacchaeus, salvation acquires a broader horizon. It’s not just Zacchaeus who is saved. Salvation comes to his house—the same house where Jesus and his rag-tag, itinerant disciples are sitting. Around this sinner’s table, which is also the Lord’s table, we catch a glimpse of the impossible world that Mary earlier sang about: a world where the lowly are lifted up even as the lofty are brought low.
The Impossible Table
When I began writing this sermon, I intended to share a challenge about the ways we use our money, for I think today’s passage is very challenging on that matter.
But now that I reach the end, I read in our story a challenge that encompasses more than simply our money. What is most challenging to me in today’s scripture is the Lord’s table, a place where Jesus turned the tables on this world, where he did the impossible, where he ate with the people I would reject, where the rich are emptied and the hungry are filled, where the lofty are brought low and the lowly are lifted up.
From my parents, I have learned that May Memorial is celebrating and sharing the Lord’s table in some inspiring ways. I understand that you all set up tables and shared your love and good cheer with trick-or-treaters at Scottville this past Thursday. Like Jesus, you saw the table not as the property of the church but the possibility of the kingdom in the world. I understand too that in your program “Backpacks of Love,” you fill bags with food for underprivileged students in the community. In this way, you share in the Lord’s table where the rich are emptied and the hungry are filled.
Twenty years ago, Jesus’ words haunted me, in spite of my Bible study leader’s best assurance. Today I am haunted again, this time by the impossible image of the Lord’s table. May that table be for us this morning not a boundary but just the beginning of a new, impossible world.
Lord of the table,
For whom nothing is impossible:
Where we are full of ourselves,
Full of pride, possession, or power,
Where we are empty,
Fill us with your love.
Gather us around your table,
That we might be changed
And that salvation might come today
To us and our communities.
In Christ, who ate with sinners and tax collectors:
 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 666, observes these parallels between the stories of the rich ruler (18:18-30) and Zacchaeus (19:1-10) and suggests that the stories’ juxtaposition invites their comparison.
 Steven Shakespeare and Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Inclusive God: Reclaiming Theology for an Inclusive Church (London: Canterbury, 2006), 97-98.