Room for One More

Earns Burger King

Christ the King/Reign of Christ

Luke 23:33-43

33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Today is Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. Which marks the end of the church year, and is the pivot point between ordinary time and Advent.

Christ the King is a relatively new feast day in the Christian church.The day marking Christ’s reign or kingship was established in the period between World War I and World War II,less than a hundred years ago.

Christianity’s influence, especially in Europe, was being replaced by secularism, nationalism and communism as the primary power brokers.

By invoking the kingship of Jesus, the church hoped to reinforce the claim of Jesus being ruler of all human institutions, political entities, and every economic and culture construct.

I have no way to prove it, but I am convinced church leaders in 1925 weren’t really much worried about Jesus losing authority. The church was anxious about losing its authority.

Church leaders were worried that they were losing their place of dominance and power in society. And we know how they feel, don’t we? I think we do.

In fact, I suspect Christ the King Sunday was born out of the same anxiety that still exists today when people get upset about “holiday trees” versus “Christmas trees,” or red cups at Starbucks, or a sales clerk saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.

Many Christians today feel anxious because the number of people of other faiths or no faith at all is growing. Even among people who claim to be Christian, church attendance is down.

When I was growing up in the 1960’s, everyone went to church.  If you wanted to be considered a “good” person, you showed up to worship pretty much every Sunday. Remember that?

Now, going to church is no longer a measure of goodness.People figure they can be good people without church. And frankly, many people look at the church and don’t see much good in it.Fewer and fewer people outside our walls listen to us.

That can make us defensive. Angry. Or sad. And, I dare say, a little frightened about our future. So today’s text from the lectionary for Christ the King Sunday is really very ironic when you think about it.

What we see in the text from Luke today isn’t anything like a coronation for a human king or even a presidential inauguration. What we see in Luke is exactly the opposite.

We are at Calvary. And Jesus doesn’t look like a powerful king or a president, or even like the pastor of a successful church.

Jesus looks like a beaten up and bleeding man.

 

I once had a spiritual director who encouraged me to look closely at the crucified Jesus as I prayed. She told me to spend time in prayer and imagine myself sitting at the foot of the cross and focus my gaze on Jesus. To remember that Jesus knows and shares in the suffering of the whole world.

When I see this scene in Luke, I want to clean Jesus up, put some clothes on him, and tend to his wounds. I want to knock that sour wine right out of the Roman executioners’ hands.

This text from Luke is not a beautifully rendered portrait of a king taking his rightful throne, but a nauseating scene of a convicted criminal being bullied, tortured and executed by the power of the state.

This is not a coronation of a king, not by a long shot.

What do we see?

Three men hang on three rough wooden crosses.  Two garden variety thieves and one troublesome revolutionary with a sign above his head: “King of the Jews,” which is of course both a mocking joke and the God’s honest truth.

There are the people hanging around the feet of the three crosses. There are a few chief priests and Roman functionaries. Might be family members of the thieves. And probably a couple people who didn’t know any of the men being executed, but show up anyway to see the spectacle.

And of course, there are the soldiers who are just doing their jobs and had long lost any remorse about executing people.  Those are the guys passing the time it takes a condemned man to die on a cross. They gamble to see who gets the dead man’s sandals and look up every once in a while to make sure all is going to plan.

This scene at Calvary has been interpreted in literally thousands of ways over the centuries – in creeds, novels, poems, plays, hymns, spirituals, great choral works, movies, and of course in explicitly religious art and no-so religious art.

But here is an interesting fact to consider.

In the first few centuries after Jesus’ death, there were no works of art created to represent the crucifixion at all. At least none that any scholar or archaeologists have been able to dig up.

Despite its centrality to the Christian faith, the crucifixion wasn’t mentioned or celebrated for hundreds of years after Christ.  Like so many of us, the earliest Christians looked away from the brutal scene of Jesus hanging on the cross. For the longest time, they pretended the crucifixion never happened.In fact, one of the earliest images of Jesus’ crucifixion was a piece of graffiti scrawled on an ancient Roman ruin that showed a man looking up at a donkey hanging on a cross.  The inscription underneath it read, “Alexamenos worships his god.” The artist apparently wanted to mock Alexamenos for worshipping a crucified God.picture1

Jesus’ death on a cross was, to put in bluntly, embarrassing for early Christians. How could anyone of faith possibly make sense of God dying in such a horrible way? It was a confusing event – shocking for those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, and for non-believer, it was proof of how ridiculous this whole Jesus business is.

And truth be told, crucifixion is still embarrassing for us. Because if we spend time pondering Christ on the cross, we realize we do not have a king who will save us from every terrible thing.

What we see on the cross is that Jesus is not going to rescue us from pain.

What we see on the cross is that Jesus will not save us from suffering.

What we see on the cross is Jesus dying a slow agonizing death between two common criminals, and it seems like he either can’t or won’t do anything about it.

The first criminal turns to Jesus and says, “Are you the Messiah or aren’t you?  Save yourself and us!”

This isn’t the first time Jesus has been dared to put up or shut up. Jesus heard it at the beginning of his ministry, right after his baptism. Remember? The Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness for 40 days.

Jesus had been out there long enough to be really hungry, really thirsty and really, really miserable.Then who shows up?

The face of evil itself, a sneaky and persuasive temptation telling Jesus that if he’s truly God’s Son there’s no reason Jesus can’t get himself out of this jam.

Put up or shut up, says the devil. If you are the Messiah, this is a no-brainer.

All Jesus has to do is turn rocks into bread and he’ll get rid of the grumbling in his stomach.

All Jesus has to do is forsake this God who left him to die in some godforsaken hellhole and Jesus will never be this thirsty ever again.

All Jesus has to do is spit in his Father’s face and jump off the roof of the temple and Jesus will never ever have to suffer this kind of misery again.

The criminal hanging next to Jesus is the same voice of temptation.  After all, if Jesus is the king of all creation, rescuing himself and the other two criminals should be a piece of cake. Put up or shut up. Jesus. Save us.

The second criminal hanging on the other side of Jesus is the only person in this entire scene who sees things differently.

Jesus’ disciples are nowhere to be found.

The women still watching are overwhelmed with grief.

The leaders of the political and religious establishment are preoccupied with yelling smart aleck remarks at Jesus.

The soldiers are distracted by their game of “Texas Hold Em” like any other day.

The second criminal hears Jesus say something. Maybe nobody else heard it. Maybe nobody else believes it.

Jesus looks out at the people who are killing him and says, “Forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” And in those words, the second criminal hears something like hope.

When the second criminal hears those ridiculous words of forgiveness he sees Jesus for who he is – a king of the best sort.

That criminal is the only one who understands those words as an opening to God for even a dirty rotten scoundrel like him.  Not tomorrow. Not next week, or at some point in the future, but right now.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” I think that’s about the most beautiful prayer ever uttered and it happens in the most horrible circumstance we can imagine. And Jesus says to him, “Today you’ll be with me in paradise.”  Today. Right now.  Not in three days. But now.

Jesus on the cross is not a super hero who will save us from terrible things. Instead on the cross we see a suffering servant Jesus who suffers all terrible things with us, right now.

We see a king of a different kingdom that has nothing to do with power or might or numbers or institutions.We see a king who stands with the marginalized, the meek, the vulnerable, right until the end.

I sometimes feel very defensive about the church to which I have been called to serve. Jesus’ church. I feel sometimes as if I personally have to answer every single criticism of what we get wrong. And to tell you the truth, these are questions I ask myself all the time.

If we are the church of Jesus Christ, why are we dying?

 If we are the church of Jesus Christ, why isn’t God saving us?

Why aren’t our pews filled? Why aren’t we successful?

If God is love, why is following Jesus sometimes so painful?

Look at Jesus on the cross, patiently loving and forgiving the people who are killing him and being killed with him.cross-of-christ-0105

Well.  I don’t know.I don’t know.

Maybe in order to be saved, we need to take Jesus seriously, seriously enough to follow him all the way to the cross.

Maybe in order to be saved, we have to get up there with Jesus.

If you look up at the cross right there, right in front of you in this beautiful sanctuary, you’ll see there’s room there for one more.

Jesus was there, he died and he’s been raised, and now it’s time for us to do the same.To follow him. To die and be raised. Each day as we seek to follow his way.

We need to die, trusting as Jesus did, that God will raise us to new life. Not in the way we would want to be raised, necessarily.  But we will be made new because that is who God is.

We need to die trusting we will be loved and forgiven and saved, not because of who we are, but because that is who Jesus is.

Paul says it in Romans 6: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

 The church was not created to be successful…we are called to be faithful, even at the risk of losing our lives.

The church was not created to be successful…we are called to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, in and out of season, trusting in the Spirit to guide us and challenge us.

The church was not created to be successful…we are called to be obedient to the One who showed us in his weakness what it means to be a fully human child of God.

Jesus was not clamoring for earthly power, but he does call his church to join God’s insistent, consistent, and persistent solidarity with the weak, the oppressed, and the forgotten of this world.

Jesus leaves behind all the strength and power of his status – as Paul writes, “emptying himself and taking the form of a servant” – in order to redeem those who are weak, vulnerable, and lost.

We are called not to rise up but to get low enough to wash stinky feet.

We are called not to hoard our possessions, but to feed hungry people.

We are called not to stand at a safe distance, but to get involved in messy stuff of life.

We are called not to condemn, but to forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable.

We are called not to defend ourselves, but to be vulnerable enough to have our hearts broken by those things that break God’s heart.

We are called to be the church.

The King you and I will be seeking in these coming weeks of Advent will reveal himself to us not in glittering palaces, but in the dimmest light peeking through the cracks of broken places and broken people.

Maybe even in people like us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

In Our Hands

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Valley Presbyterian Church

Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question,“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

  34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.

  36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

 Okay, let’s start with a quick poll.

Hands up if you think this political season has been the worst ever in the history of politics!

Oh really?

You think this is bad?

I can think of worse.

Let’s do a quick review of the political situation in Jerusalem in the 1st century and see if I can convince you that it was worse.

So, Rome was in charge of Palestine. And many other places as well.

The Romans were a ruthless and corrupt occupying force as there ever was.

How ruthless? Remember that when Jesus was born, the local Roman puppet, King Herod, ordered the execution of all Jewish baby boys born at the same time.  That’s just one example of how the Romans governed Palestine in the 1st century.  Any enemies of Rome, even potential enemies, even little babies – were swiftly eliminated.

The Roman government operated through brute force, and intimidation, all of it in the shadow of the Roman cross – a vicious form of torture and execution.  To be fair to the Romans, they are not the ones who invented the cross, but they sure perfected it.

The text we read from Luke today is set in Jerusalem and Jesus is standing in the shadow of that cross. It’s Tuesday of Holy Week. In three days, Jesus will be put to death by the Romans.

And Jesus has placed himself at the intersection of Roman authority and religious authority.  And religious authority of the Temple are represented by two groups.

The Sadducees and the Pharisees.

The Sadducees only appear once in the gospel of Luke, but we tend to lump the Sadducees and the Pharisees together as bad guys who always gave Jesus a hard time. However, it’s kind of important to know what kind of characters we are dealing with when we talk about Pharisees and Sadducees.

They didn’t like each other much. For a lot of reasons.

The Pharisees and Sadducees held very different political views, particularly about the Romans.

The Pharisees were hostile toward non-Jews and especially the Roman government in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were more the “people’s party” who strictly conformed to Jewish laws and had no patience with Roman rule. In fact, if the Pharisee’s dearest wish was to throw the Romans out.

The Sadducees, however, worked hand in glove with the Roman government. They would say they were doing so to keep the peace.  But many of the Sadducees also managed to get rich working alongside Rome.

If the Pharisees were more blue collar, working class types, the Sadducees were the white-collar guys, the priestly class CEO’s of the temple. Nobody liked the Sadducees very much, but they held most of the power in the temple hierarchy. The historian Josephus described the Sadducees as the elite upper crust, “able to persuade none but the very rich.”[1]

Another important difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees has to do with their interpretation of Scripture.

The Pharisees read all of Hebrew Scriptures including the historical books, the Psalms and the Prophets. They came up with an oral Torah – developing new interpretations for old laws to make the Torah more relevant to ordinary people.

The Sadducees, however, only accepted the first five books of what is our Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – as sacred text.  They rejected oral interpretation and relied upon literal reading of scripture.  The Sadducees were sort of the “Moses wrote it, I believe it, that settles it” kind of folks.

The Sadducees were most concerned about how they were doing in the here and now.  The idea of resurrection or an afterlife seemed ridiculous to them.  There’s nothing explicit about resurrection in the first five books of the Old Testament, so if you read your text as literally as the Sadducees did, resurrection isn’t even an issue.

So the Sadducees stored up all their blessings here on earth. What mattered to them was protecting what could be seen and felt and spent in this life.  The Sadducees were truly, “live your best life now” kind of guys.  They didn’t think about heaven or anything else beyond this lifetime.

So Jesus walks into Jerusalem, right smack dab into an ongoing and sometimes viscous debate concerning government rule, political power and religious belief.

Jesus didn’t take sides in the debate.

Jesus did not side with the Pharisees who wanted a Messiah to overthrow the government of Rome.

Jesus did not side with the Sadducees who wanted him to stop riling up the poor people like the ones who shouted Hosanna! on Palm Sunday.

Jesus did not side with Rome because Jesus saw how the government was exploiting the poor.

Jesus was on God’s side and no other.

And because of this, Jesus had become an enormous problem for the Pharisees, the Sadducees and Rome. In the texts from the last week of Jesus’ life, you see all three groups colluding to destroy him.

Today, the Sadducees show up in all their priestly splendor to take their best shot at Jesus. It’s clear that they are not interested in a serious debate or conversation like the Pharisees who sometimes engaged with Jesus.

The Sadducees really are just messing with Jesus.  They are trying to trip him up, make him look foolish, diminish him to the point that they can turn him over to the Roman government to be squashed.

So they come up with the craziest question they can think of. The idea of resurrection is so laughable to them that they ask Jesus a ridiculous hypothetical question. They invoke Mosaic marriage laws from Deuteronomy in which the brother of a man who dies childless is required to marry the dead brother’s widow.

And the Sadducees produce this elaborate scenario in which 7 brothers marry the same woman and all 7 brothers die without producing children.

So, the Sadducees ask, which brother will be the poor woman’s husband in heaven? Will Jesus dare to contradict the law of Moses?

I can imagine Jesus rolling his eyes at the Sadducees. Jesus knows what they are up to. He sees the trap the Sadducees are laying for him.

Jesus cites the Sadducees’ Torah to point out that when Moses encounters the burning bush in Exodus, the voice of God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

In Exodus, God speaks of the patriarchs not as some fondly remembered friends, not as a bunch of guys who have been dead and buried for years, but as living people. So while Abraham, Isaac and Jacob might be a distant memory to the Sadducees, captured only in the literal ink of the Torah, the patriarchs are alive for God.  The resurrection of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has already happened. Jesus says that God is not the God of the dead, but God of the living. God doesn’t let dead things stay dead.

So what is Jesus up to in this answer?

Remember that we are talking about resurrection. Resurrection is not the same as immortality in which we never die.  We will, all of us, die.

We are talking about resurrection.  And the fact is that Jesus didn’t have a lot to say in scripture about resurrection.  So in many ways, resurrection remains a mystery. It is not rational. It’s not something you can prove.

Even Paul says, “51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die,* but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

Problem of course is that Paul doesn’t exactly make clear how we will be changed or what the change will be or looks like, and theologians have been duking it out ever since. And still it is a mystery.

Jesus didn’t spend much time talking about resurrection.

Was he did was show us what resurrection looks like.

Jesus wasn’t simply raised from the dead, although he was no longer dead.

Jesus didn’t only walk out of the tomb like Lazarus, although his body was missing from the tomb when the women got there on Easter morning.

Jesus didn’t just come back to life like Jairus’ daughter, although Jesus lives and reigns among us and through us and promised to always be with us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We get a clue about what resurrection is about when we look at the disciples’ experiences of the resurrected Christ.

Think about the disciples before they encountered the resurrected Christ.  They are lost in their grief.  They are terrified when they find an empty tomb. When the women come back from the tomb and say, “He is risen,” the disciples are dismissive and scornful of the women. The disciples call the women’s testimony an “idle tale.” Only Peter runs to see for himself and yet still cannot believe his own eyes. The whole theme of Easter morning in the Gospel of Luke is grief, dismissal and doubt.

At some point, a couple of disciples decide to take a walk to Emmaus, and spend a long time talking to a stranger they do not recognize although their hearts tell them something is up.  It’s not until much later, when the disciples sit down for supper that they recognize the stranger. It’s Jesus.

The disciples’ experience of resurrection is confusing, heartbreaking, filled with moments of great joy, and is difficult to explain in a way that sounds anything but ridiculous.  It’s a mystery. One minute the disciples are grieving and the next minute they are eating a meal with the resurrected Christ. Who they somehow know but cannot recognize and even after the experience, they doubt.

But what is clear from all of the post-resurrection stories in the New Testament is that Paul was right.

Resurrection changes people. Resurrection isn’t about what happens when we die, but changes how we live. Right now. While we are still breathing.

Resurrection transformed the disciples.  After resurrection, the disciples are different people.  The doubters in Luke become bold apostles in the Book of Acts.

The Gospel stories seem to say that resurrection isn’t about what we believe or do not believe about live after death.

What the Gospel does tell us is about a God who does not abandon us, even in death. That promise should change how we live.

Resurrection says everything that looks dead to us – people, relationships, the world’s brokenness – all of those situations are, in fact, being transformed into something new.  Right now.  Right in front of our eyes.  And we need to be part of that transformation.

Because while we see resurrection as good news, it is also bad news for folks like the Sadducees or anyone else who can only imagine that what we see is all there is to see, or that justice will only, maybe happen at some distant point on the horizon, which is the Pharisees’ understanding of life.

Resurrection is terrible news for those of us who bury our heads in the sand and imagine that things were better once upon a time, are bad today, and nothing good can happen in the foreseeable future.

The Gospel tells us resurrection is neither comfortable nor comforting, and it probably won’t be immediately recognizable.  But if we keep our eyes open for it, the scales will fall.

Here’s a story…

Once there was a wise old woman who lived in a small village. The children of the village were puzzled by her—her wisdom, her gentleness, her strength. One day several of the older children decided to fool her. No one could be as wise as everyone said she was, and they set out to prove it. So they found a baby bird. One of the boys cupped it in his hands and said to his friend, “We’ll ask her whether the bird I have in my hands is dead or alive. If she says it is dead, I will open my hands and let it fly away. If she says it’s alive, I’ll crush it and she’ll see that it’s dead.” So they went to the woman and presented her with this puzzle. “Old woman,” the little boy asked, “this bird in my hands—is it dead or alive?” The old woman became very still, studied the boy’s hands, then looked carefully into his eyes. “It’s in your hands,” she said.

Brothers and sisters, we have a choice.  We can live as if we are dying, just like the Sadducees, clinging to the past, dragging it around like dead weight. Or we can live as if death truly has been defeated and we have absolutely nothing left to fear.

We can live as if the best is yet to be, because it always is with God.

We can believe that God will take every broken thing, hold it in his hands, blow the dust of sin off it and transform us into something new and redeemed and beautiful.

That is what God does.  That is who God is.  That is the resurrection story we are invited to live.  And live again. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 4,  Patrick Willson, 289.

Threading the Needle of Faithfulness

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Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon

Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I (will) give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I (will) pay back four times as much.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Today’s text is the perfect example of how biblical translators can mess with our interpretation by messing with verb tenses. Seriously.

If we accept the translation we just heard from the New Revised Standard Version, this text from Luke 19 is a clean, classic repentance story.

If we accept the NRSV translation, this is a pretty straightforward text.

Rich man meets Jesus.

Rich man is blessed by Jesus.

Rich man repents and goes on to live a generous life.

Can’t get much more straightforward than that. And it would also make a great text for a stewardship sermon, by the way.

Unfortunately, the NRSV translation is most likely incorrect.

If you do a translation from the Greek, and listen to Greek scholars, who are much better at translation than any of us, you will discover that NRSV’s addition of one little word in verse 8 changes everything about this text.

In a more accurate translation, Zacchaeus doesn’t make a promise to Jesus.

He doesn’t promise to give half of what he owns to the poor and repay what he has stolen four times over.

A better translation of the Greek would suggest these are generous actions Zacchaeus is already doing. In the present tense, not the future.

A better translation of verse 8 would be:

8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.”

 Not, “I will give.”

Not “I will pay”

By the time Jesus arrives in Jericho, his last stop before he enters into Jerusalem, Zacchaeus is already making donations to the poor.

 What this says to me is that we have another tax collector on our hands this week who isn’t necessarily what he appears to be. This tax collector, Zacchaeus is a complicated human being who doesn’t fit the easy stereotype of the rich man who decides to loosen his purse strings after an encounter with Jesus.

In fact, the tax collector in our story today isn’t even an unnamed, ordinary tax collector like the man we saw praying last week in the temple.

Zacchaeus is the boss man, the chief tax collector.  I know children’s Sunday school songs refer to him as a cute, wee Zacchaeus, but…make no mistake. Zacchaeus is a very big cheese.

The chief tax collectors colluded with the Roman government and routinely took advantage of ordinary citizens.

And it was common practice for the chief tax collector to skim a percentage off the top of the collected cash to line his own pocket.

That was the system. Zacchaeus sat near the top of that system. And the system made him a very wealthy man.

In other words, when we think about Zacchaeus, we need to revise our Sunday school image of the adorable wee man in the tree. Instead, think corrupt subprime mortgage agents on steroids.[1]

The tax collector we saw praying in the temple last week was merely hated. Zacchaeus was very likely the most despised man in his community. We can hear that hatred in the text as the crowd grumbles about Jesus hanging out with the very worst sinner you can imagine.

To be fair, the Gospel of Luke would lead us to believe that the grumbling of the crowd is entirely justified. Luke has very few kind words for rich people like Zacchaeus.

At the very beginning of the gospel, we hear Jesus’ mother Mary singing,

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

Throughout Luke, Jesus blesses the poor but challenges the rich. In chapter 6, Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Jesus talks about the poor man Lazarus who goes to heaven and the rich man languishing in hell.  And right before entering Jericho in chapter 19, Jesus tells a rich man how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God and that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

We remember the rich man walks away from Jesus with sadness in his eyes because he likes being rich and can’t imagine giving it all away. In comparison, today’s rich man, Zacchaeus scrambles up a tree to get closer to Jesus.

So how can Zacchaeus thread that needle of faithfulness while being part of a corrupt and brutal system that has made him very rich?

Impossible, right? Who then can be saved?

Well, as Jesus says, what is impossible for mortals is possible for God.

Let’s think about this.

Luke makes a point of telling us Zacchaeus was a short guy. And I wonder why that detail is included in this story? How does knowing Zacchaeus’ height tell us anything?

It is not too much of a stretch to imagine that a younger Zacchaeus was the kind of kid who might have been picked on or bullied by other, taller kids in his community. Centuries come and centuries go, but schoolyard bullies never go away.

In addition to being short, Zacchaeus must have also been pretty intelligent. “He’s so good with numbers!” his parents said.  Skilled at record keeping. And with that kind of flinty, resilient attitude that you often see in the runt of the litter.

So this smart, short, tough kid who was good with numbers grew up to become the chief tax collector. Finally, Zacchaeus could move through life knowing that although everybody hated him, nobody would mess with him. Because now big brawny Roman soldiers had Zacchaeus’ back.

Yet, being a successful chief tax collector meant Zacchaeus’ social standing in his community is as diminished as his physical stature. Despite his significant wealth, he feels small. He may no longer suffer from bullies, but he very likely lives a lonely life.

If we accept the Greek translation of this text, it could be that Zacchaeus’ unlikely generosity to the poor may be in response to his feelings of being less than other people. Zacchaeus may have felt kinship with those who were as marginalized and despised as he. Caught in a corrupt system not of his own making, maybe he used the system to the advantage of those who could not access the privilege he enjoyed. Perhaps he even used his God-given brains to pay back those he was obligated to cheat in such a clever fashion, the Romans never caught on.

The crowd around Jesus and Zacchaeus must have been astonished by the announcement. Nobody could have guessed that the most despised man in town was also the most generous. While the grumbling Pharisees merely tithed, that sinner Zacchaeus gave 5 times that.

Who’d have thunk it? People are not always what they appear to be.

Zacchaeus reminds me of a character from “The Big Short” – a movie about the 2008 financial meltdown. In many ways, it is sort of a depressing movie because it reminds us of what went on before the financial system blew up, and how little has really changed since then.  But many of the characters seem to be beacons of something like goodness even in the midst of complete corruption.

The character who reminds me of Zacchaeus is Mark Baum, played hilariously by Steve Cottrell. Mark Baum works for a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley, but he is also an idealist who is fed up with the corruption in the financial industry. Because he is smart and can see  what everyone else seems to be missing – which is how recklessly bankers are behaving — Baum is able to figure out how to profit from their treachery.

Yet, throughout the movie, you can see how Baum is conflicted about benefiting from the downfall of the economy. Even as Baum made millions of dollars from shorting the housing market, you get the sense from him that money isn’t really the point.

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Steve EIsman was the inspiration for the Mark Baum character in the movie, “The Big Short.”

Baum’s interest is in seeing justice done to the financial institutions who are deliberately bilking homebuyers by giving them mortgages they can’t afford. And from Baum’s perspective, the only way to see justice done is to cause pain to the banks the only place it is possible to hurt them – on their balance sheets.

So Zacchaeus is a highly imperfect man moving within a totally corrupt system. Yet, like Mark Baum, it seems he is able to play that same system to benefit the people it victimizes.

Luke doesn’t really tell us why Zacchaeus showed up this particular day in Jericho to see Jesus.

But one thing is for sure. Jesus recognized Zacchaeus immediately.

Predictably the religious leaders and others in the crowd “grumble” about Jesus passing by all the “holy” people and deciding to have dinner with a “sinner” like Zachaeus instead.

But since this is Jesus we’re talking about, we shouldn’t be at all surprised.

In scripture, over and over again, we hear stories about Jesus recognized all kinds of imperfect people – lost sheep, prodigal sons, the lame, the lepers, a poor man covered with sores, a widow confronting a judge, and over the past two weeks, repugnant tax collectors.  It is as if Jesus is compelling us to take another look at the folks we would likely pass by or avoid entirely.

Yet, Jesus is holding up all these people not as objects for us to save, but as victims of systems that do not correspond to God’s rule of justice and abundance.  Systems that bully, exploit, and kill the soul.

Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus in that tree and sees the heart of a man who has done what he can to be honorable in a system that is anything but.

Jesus looks up and sees the heart of a man that has done his best to hang on, to survive with his humanity intact, despite being despised by his community.

Jesus looks up and recognizes Zacchaeus as one who has managed to be a small, quiet glimmer of light in a dark and despairing world.

Jesus looks up and doesn’t see a short, nerdy kid who somehow survived the humiliation of bullies and grew up to become a rich man.

Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus perched on the branch of a Sycamore, calls Zacchaeus by name, and sees him as he truly is:  a Son of Abraham, a child of God.

And Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ call with joy, the joy that comes from being fully recognized, fully known and fully loved. His response to Jesus’ call is the classic response of faith – the great and glorious YES when we accept God’s gracious invitation to come to the table and be in relationship with all of God’s family.

We don’t know what happens to Zacchaeus after his time with Jesus. There are some traditions that say he became an apostle or a bishop. Perhaps, the healing Zacchaeus receives from Jesus is a restoration of his place in the community.

All we really know is salvation came to Zacchaeus house, because Jesus came to his house. All we can know for certain is Zacchaeus will never be the same.

And Jesus still comes to us.

How can we, who are impossibly rich compared to the rest of world and who are also part of corrupt, unjust and inequitable systems, how can we thread the needle?

Like Zacchaeus, we are all participants in systems that are often life-draining and inhuman. And we have choices about what we are to do with that reality.

Like Zacchaeus, we carry scars of hearing voices tell us we are not enough, we are too small, too insignificant. Jesus sees who we are, treasures our scars, and works even through our brokenness.

Like Zacchaeus we are called by Jesus to move from being distant observers to become faithful disciples.

We’re about to sing one of my favorite hymns, “Will you come and follow me,” which celebrates how Jesus calls us by name so that his life can be grown in us.

It is a call that involves taking up the cross and to “risk the hostile stare” that Zacchaeus knew all too well.

It is a call to love in actions which open our eyes to the hearts of the captive and blind and even the lepers in our midst.

It is a call to have faith in our God-given identity that can conquer our inner fears of climbing down and getting into the work of Jesus.

The hymn ends with a prayer for strength to follow Jesus and ‘never be the same’.

For in responding to Christ’s call to love, we move and live and grow in him and he in us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

To listen to: “Will Your Come and Follow Me? (The Summons)

https://youtu.be/o469PRLdbHU

[1] Johnson, Elizabeth E. Feasting on the Word, Volume 4, Year C. 260

Faith 101: A lesson from a tax collector

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Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast, and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

 It is good to be with you again this morning, brothers and sister in Christ. I am delighted that Pastor Donna asked me to preach and lead worship with you over the next two weeks.

I am particularly excited to have been invited into this ongoing conversation with you about faith and what faith looks like as we observe Jesus’ teachings in Scripture.

And today we’re using the lens of Luke 18 as we observe a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple.

I already know what you’re thinking.

The Pharisee is such a jerk, right?

Even if you only have a limited knowledge of the Bible, you can be pretty sure you know everything you need to know when a Pharisee shows up.

The Pharisees almost always serve as a nemesis to Jesus, a literary foil, a first century Lex Luther.

So when we see the Pharisee in this parable, we can confidently predict that the writer of Luke has cast the Pharisee in the role that Pharisees almost always play — the self- righteous, religious blowhard.

When we have that bad guy stereotype safely stuck in our mind, we think we already know the moral of Jesus’ parable –

The moral is: don’t be THAT guy. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t think you’re better than other people.

And just a few weeks out from the presidential election, it’s just so easy to hear a political candidate praying just like the Pharisee.

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that Hilary Clinton.”

 God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that Donald Trump.”

 And that’s exactly what a lot of voters are saying, “I’m voting for Donald Trump because I can’t stand Hilary Clinton.” Or vice-versa. They are voting for one candidate because they feel like the other is simply too wretched.

But here’s the thing, in ancient Palestine, the Pharisee was probably not considered to be wretched.  Or a villain. In fact, a Pharisee was likely seen as a trustworthy and honorable man by many if not most people around him.

The Pharisees were faithful interpreters of the prophetic tradition and guardians of Mosaic law.

One commentator defends the Pharisees like this: “(They) longed for what we long for:  God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven and all nations streaming into Zion to enjoy God’s just and compassionate rule.” [1]

They Pharisees were guys struggling to keep a religious institution going in the face of considerable odds against them.

Judaism had not only survived, but was flourishing., at least at the moment when we see the Pharisee in the praying. No wonder he feels particular blessed this day.

The Pharisee’s prayer in the temple is factually true.

The Pharisee is just being honest.

He doesn’t steal.

He doesn’t commit adultery.

He fasts twice a week. He tithes. He prays.

He serves his faith community with great energy.

He does all the things,

all the religious things,

all the time.

In fact, the Pharisee is the kind of guy you’d love to have in your church.

He’s the kind of guy you’d love to have serving on Council.

In no time at all, he’d be elected to be clerk of session.

In his own eyes, and in the eyes of his community, the Pharisee is a good and faithful servant of God, doing what his father did, and his grandfather did, and all of his ancestors before that.

So in 1st century eyes, the Pharisee is not a bad guy at all.

So what about the tax collector?

Tax collectors seem to have a slightly better, or at least more nuanced image in Scripture. Jesus ate with tax collectors, hung out with them, and forgave them. So it is certainly easy to read the tax collector as the humble hero of the parable.

But again, we need to consider how tax collectors were considered in their own time and culture.

1st Century tax collectors were not mild-mannered accountants working as IRS agents, upholding the tax law.

Tax collectors were not like the nice lady down at Jordan Tax Service who collects your sewage tax.

The tax collector in this parable was probably more like a not-so-nice guy whose job it is to throw a family out on the street when the rent is late.

I always picture the tax collector as someone like a character in “The Godfather,” or an employee of Tony Sopranopqrmfw3

1st century tax collectors often operated like Paulie Walnuts who collects money at gunpoint, beats up strippers and drug dealers, and once famously said,

“When someone owes you money, even if you gotta crawl, you get it.”

In other words, the tax collector should probably exist in our imagination as a scumbag.

If the Pharisee commanded respect in Jesus’ time, the tax collector received scorn.

People probably never passed up a chance to let the tax collector know how much they hated him.

There’s absolutely nothing in this parable to suggest the tax collector changes his evil ways after he prays in the temple.

He doesn’t repent. He doesn’t promise to leave the temple and lead a spotless, sinless life.

It is possible the tax collector leaves the temple and proceeds to shake down the next poor widow he meets for her last nickel.

Despite being a nasty character,

this guy, this tax collector…

This is the man Jesus says will leave the temple justified.

And the Pharisee, who is doing all the things,

all the religious things,

according to Jesus, this is the one who leaves unjustfied

Doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t even really make sense if you think about it. It’s baffling. And, frankly, a little annoying.

In some ways, I think this parable is a trap.

The bait is that we want to find a moral to the story.

We think the moral is, oh, ok. I need to be like the tax collector. I need to be humble.

And before we know it, we’re trapped into praying: “Thank you God that I am not like the Pharisee. Thank goodness I am not self-righteous or hypocritical or hold others in contempt.  Thank goodness I am humble like Paulie Walnuts…I mean…like the tax collector.”

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Yeah, Jesus. You got us again.

I think at the end of the day, this is not a story about becoming more humble, although Scripture says we should strive to clothe ourselves with humility, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12).

And we should.

This isn’t a story of how we how we should or should not pray, although Jesus tells us to pray with humility, in secret, and avoid heaping up words to make ourselves look good in front of other people.

And we should.

This isn’t even a story of how we can become good people or better people, although all of us seek to faithful and decent lives.

And we should.

This is a story about how easy it is to have more faith in ourselves and our own goodness, than faith in God’s goodness.

I think this is a story of how easy it is to think we are the ones in control of our righteousness before God.

I think this is a story about a Pharisee who is so busy being religious, so busy keeping the religious institutions going, he forgot the love and grace of God is more powerful than anything any of us can do under our own steam.

And it is a story about a tax collector who realizes the love and grace of God is about all he has going for him.

Which is something we Presbyterians need to remember as we struggle to figure out how to be church in a culture that is rapidly shifting.We need to remember that our hope is built not on our own strength and goodness or good ideas. Our hope is built on Jesus’ blood and righteousness, and the confidence that the Holy Spirit is at work among us.

Over the past three years, I have been working with a very small Presbyterian congregation who owns a very large building they could no longer afford, so the congregation decided to put the building up for sale.

A few months later, the ruling elders of the church were approached by and decided to rent out the building to a non-denominational church who was wanted to establish a new ministry in the area, but couldn’t afford to buy the building.

Although in good condition, the building is surrounded by mostly dilapidated rental houses owned by mostly absentee landlords. The neighborhood, perched on a hilltop overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, is one of the city’s most neglected and under-resourced areas, plagued by frequent gun violence. Just this past August, a 6-year old girl was shot while standing on a porch of a house very near the church building. She died a few days later.

In other words, the church building is not particularly attractive to potential buyers. To date, there have been no offers.

The leadership of the new ministry renting the space, however, sees the neighborhood as exactly the place God has called them to be.

Since moving in, they have started a free daily after school program for neighborhood children, which includes tutoring, enrichment activities, field trips, and a hot dinner every evening.

In response to some of well-publicized police shootings, the pastor of the new ministry invited police officers from the zone office to come in and meet the children in the afterschool program. The officers now frequently come in to serve dinner and hang out with the kids and their families.

The transformation happening on the hilltop is only happening because God showed up and gave the Presbyterians the opportunity to say yes to a ministry run by people who don’t look like them or worship like them.

But, let’s be honest.

Did they say “yes” out of desperation because they were running out of money and people?

If we’re being honest here, the answer is, “Absolutely.”

Is a non-denominational ministry renting their building the outcome they would have preferred?

If we’re being honest here, the answer is, “Nope.”

Here’s the truth I have learned through this experience and others: often it is only when we feel like we’ve hit a brick wall that we finally make space for the Holy Spirit to do its work and realize that God’s love and mercy is all we have going for us. And God doesn’t wait for us to get it together or come up with grand schemes.

God will work through the most imperfect people. Including you and me.

I imagine that behind the pious mask worn by the Pharisee, there is a tired, anxious soul yearning to admit that he does not have all the answers.

How heavy such a burden must be for him at the end of his rope.

The anxiety he must feel in trying to hold it all together,

always comparing himself to others to figure out if he’s good enough for God to love him.

The tax collector is not a better person than the Pharisee. They are both beloved children of God, as we all are, just trying to make it through each day.

But despite all the awful things the tax collector knows he has done, all the awful things people say about him, the tax collector’s faith allows him to admit he is entirely dependent on God’s mercy.

And that is enough.

Brothers and sisters, the grace of God is a free gift.

I will never get my life right on my own.

You will never get your life right on your own.

And that is okay.

Because we are not required to be perfect.  We don’t even have to be good, as scandalous as that may seem.

We just have to have to open our hands and receive God’s free gift of grace. And that grace is sufficient. More than sufficient.

Nothing we do can make God love us less.

Nothing we do can make God love us more.

And we cannot save ourselves. It is not our own doing. It is pure gift from God.

For Donald Trump. For Hilary Clinton.

For the Pharisee. For the tax collector.

It is amazing. It is God’s grace.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/10/proper_25_year_.html Accessed on October 21, 2016

At the End of Our Rope

My latest blog post for Presbyterians Today is up. in it, I talk about a church with whom I am working who ran out of money to take care of their large building, moved out, and rented out the space to a new non-denominational ministry that is blooming in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.This experience has taught me that sometimes you have to run out of ideas and be at the end of your rope before God can get in and make something new. Thanks be to God!

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http://www.presbyterianmission.org/today/2016/10/17/unglued-church-3/

Not Funny.

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I thought I was doing really well.

A few months ago, I made it through Trump’s careless mocking of a disabled reporter, although as the mother of a child with autism, I know full well the damage a bully can do.unknown

After the Democratic convention, I made it through Trump’s cruel attack on a family whose son died in combat, although as a mother, I know full well that losing a child is unimaginable suffering. unknown-1I would willingly give up my own life to save the life of my kids. As I’m sure the Khans would.

After the first debate, I made it through Trump’s disgusting comments on a woman’s weight, although as a woman who’s struggled with weight and body image my whole life, I know full well the self-loathing that comes when you feel like you will never, ever, ever be thin enough.aliciacontrump

But the story by the People Magazine reporter, Natasha Stoynoff, hit me like a ton of bricks when I read it last night.  http://people.com/politics/donald-trump-attacked-people-writer/

Let me be clear. I have never been raped. I know I am fortunate when so many women have been victimized by physical sexual assault.

Last night, however, I read these words from Stoynoff:

I tried to act normal. I had a job to do, and I was determined to do it. I sat in a chair that faced Trump, who waited for his wife on a loveseat. The butler left us, and I fumbled with my tape recorder. Trump smiled and leaned forward.

 “You know we’re going to have an affair, don’t you?” he declared, in the same confident tone he uses when he says he’s going to make America great again. “Have you ever been to Peter Luger’s for steaks? I’ll take you. We’re going to have an affair, I’m telling you.”

All of a sudden, I was in that room with Ms. Stoynoff. But I didn’t hear Donald Trump. Instead, I heard the voice of a client from 30 years ago saying,

Do you like sex, Susan? I bet you like it doggie style. Have you ever had an affair? I could help you in your career, you know. I could do that.

 And I remembered every comment from that client and other colleagues who commented on my legs, my clothes, my breasts, my hair, what I was like in bed and any number of attributes that had absolutely nothing to do with my professional competency.

I wish I could tell you why I never confronted those men or reported them to my employer. I was young. I was insecure about everything, including my physical appearance and my ability to do the work I was hired to do. I wanted to be a “good sport.” I needed to keep my job and that meant keeping clients happy. Most of the people I knew in advertising suffered a certain level of emotional abuse at the hands of our more bullying clients and it seemed the price we had to pay in order to satisfy the people who paid our salaries.

And as you can imagine, where there was misogyny, there was also racism which, if anything, was more blatant and unapologetic.

I’ve heard similarly horrific stories from my female colleagues in ministry. So, you know, it’s not just the business world where this happens, y’all.

Until last night, these memories seemed to be in a very distant past, safely put away. These were not things I cared to dwell on or think about or even revisit.  Until that damn People Magazine stirred it all up again in my mind and kept me awake most of the night.

Just words, right? Sticks and stones. Boys will be boys. Don’t be a spoilsport. Don’t be so sensitive. He was just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?

I’m done.

The best I can do is to continue to talk to my son what it means to be a good man.

The best I can do is be thankful for a husband, as well as the wonderful male friends and colleagues, who respect women and are not afraid to call out misogyny (with special gratitude to my husband because the medical world seems nearly as bad as the advertising world).

The best I can do is be supportive of women by listening to them and, most importantly, believing them.

The best I can do is listen to marginalized voices and use my privilege to amplify them.

The best I can do is try to walk like Jesus, who protected the weak and unwanted, and challenged the bullies of his time.

But I’m done with toxic political conversation. I am staying off social media for the duration. And I’m praying for every woman who has been triggered or harmed in this election campaign.

It’s not funny anymore. It’s just not. Words are hurting the people I love and, I admit it, it’s hurting me.

All In

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Back before I left for vacation in late July, I received an email from the pastor of Whitehall Presbyterian Church, where I preached this sermon. The pastor needed to know the scripture on which I would preach. I was literally walking out the door for an international flight, so I made a snap decision that I would preach on the Gospel text in the lectionary on September 4.  Luke 14:25-33. I didn’t look at the passage until last week and realized I picked a terribly difficult text to preach, particularly as a substitute preacher in a congregation I do not know well. It was too late to make a change, the bulletins and liturgy were done, so I took a deep breath and dove in.

Because the Holy Spirit is reliable, I realized around Thursday or Friday that it was a gift to receive this text to ponder and pray over. It gave me the opportunity to think about my friend, Rev. Eugene “Freedom” Blackwell and his faithfulness in answering God’s call despite every trial, tribulation, and risk.

Sometimes, the preacher receives a sermon he or she needs to preach. I needed this one.

Of all the faithful people I’ve known in my life, Freedom is one of the very few who I considered “all in” for Jesus. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Luke 14:25-3325Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem in this text.  He has been teaching.  He has been preaching. He has been healing.

And, by all accounts, Jesus has been pretty successful — so successful that large crowds of people are traveling with him. on his journey toward Jerusalem.

But ever since Jesus made the turn toward Jerusalem back in Chapter 9 of Luke, he has been warning his followers and his disciples about the final destination of this journey.

To the cross. To death.

Throughout these chapters in Luke, Jesus does his best  to challenge would-be followers about the depth of their commitment.

In fact, by modern church standards in which we fret all the time about how many people decide to become church members and how many people show up on Sunday morning, I think it’s safe to say Jesus is the worst evangelist ever.

Think I am exaggerating? Well, let’s look at Luke.

First, in Luke Chapter 9:

When a couple of potential followers attempt to connect with Jesus, he immediately warns them that being a disciple means having nowhere to lay their head.  Homeless.

Jesus also says if they want to become followers, they can’t go back and bury a parent or say goodbye to family. Sorry folks, the time to go is now, not later when it’s more convenient.

Jesus also says that following him means leaving behind everything and everyone in your past and moving into the future with him.

That’s just Chapter 9.

In Luke Chapter 10, Jesus sends some people out ahead of him, telling them to take nothing with them.

No purse, no bag, no sandals.

Jesus sends them out in pairs, but warns them not to expect very much in the way of welcome. In fact, these disciples will be like lambs among wolves, according to Jesus.

In Luke Chapter 12, Jesus says he has not come to bring peace to the earth, but division.

To set father against son, mother against daughter.

Yet, despite these harsh warnings, Jesus has attracted a crowd of people by the time we get to Luke 14.

Perhaps the crowd is motivated to follow Jesus by the promise of healing. Perhaps they’re hoping Jesus will do for them what he has done for others.

Perhaps the crowd heard how Jesus is able to feed thousands and thousands of people with just a few loaves and fishes. Perhaps they figure following Jesus ensures a regular meal.

Perhaps the people are curious.

Perhaps they are lonely.

Perhaps they are bored.

And yes, perhaps a few in the crowd are true believers.

Here in Luke 14, Jesus is challenging the people again, ramping up on the requirements for discipleship.

Jesus says, if we want to follow him, we have to hate our family.

That’s a demand which certainly sounded just as difficult in 1st Century Palestine as in 21st Century America. Maybe more difficult.  Family ties were everything in Jesus’ time. To dissolve family ties and leave the protection and structure of family would be almost unthinkable.

Jesus says to the crowd that if they want to follow him, they have to carry a cross. Not the kind of cross we imagine – a shiny piece of jewelry around our necks or the beautiful crosses at the front of our sanctuaries – but a 1st Century instrument of terror, and the purest expression of brutality ever built by the Romans.  Jesus might as well ask us carry a guillotine or electric chair.

Finally, Jesus says, give up our possessions.

Compared to the stuff we stuff into our homes now, the average 1st century person didn’t own all that much.  What they did own was essential for survival. So this demand is not about giving away your excess stuff.

This is a demand to give up the stuff that keeps you and your family alive. And depend entirely upon Jesus.

Small wonder that Jesus also says that becoming his disciple is not something one does on a whim.

Jesus says becoming a disciple comes only after taking an honest account of ourselves.  Becoming a disciple is something to do only after counting the costs. And Jesus says, discipleship may cost us everything.

This is difficult stuff.

This is an unreasonable Jesus.

But if you think about the direction in which Jesus is heading, toward Jerusalem, toward crucifixion. That’s also unreasonable.  The Son of God, God in the flesh, moving toward death.

This is the kind of Jesus talk that helps us begin to understand why the Samaritans and the Pharisees and a lot of other people in the scriptures don’t want Jesus around when he shows up in their town or their synagogue or their temple.

And maybe at this point, you’re wishing I’d picked another piece of scripture. Frankly, I do too.

I preached at another church last week on a different text, a much easier text than this. After worship, a few congregation members told me they really liked my sermon and I told them I always know I’ve done well with a text when, by Sunday morning, I’ve fallen so deeply in love with the Scripture, I can’t wait to share it.  I always hope a congregation will fall in love with a text so much that they want to go home and read it themselves.

Today’s scripture passage is a hard text to love. This is a hard text to hear. And yes, it is a hard text to preach.

Every time I’ve heard these challenging texts from Luke preached, the pastor tries to smooth out the sharp edges of Jesus’ demands so Jesus doesn’t seem so…well…demanding.

But I think the writer of the gospel includes these sharp edged words from Jesus in the text for a very particular reason.  And I think we need to pay attention.

I wonder if we need to take what Jesus says seriously instead of trying to wiggle out of it.

If Jesus really means what he says here, the question is no longer whether or not Jesus means what he says or if we can wiggle out of these heavy costs of discipleship.

The question becomes: is this a Jesus we are willing to follow?

The kind of Jesus who tells us to love our families less than we love him?

The kind of Jesus who tells us we have to give up our comfort and safety?

The kind of Jesus who will lead us headlong into rejection and controversy?

Are we willing to follow this Jesus all the way to Jerusalem? Even all the way to the cross?

All of these nagging questions have led me to the uncomfortable realization that having Jesus Christ as the head of our church means it might be hard to find anyone to stick around for very long.  And perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that so few do.

If we take this passage from Luke seriously, I think we come to the conclusion that Jesus doesn’t fit our image of a successful evangelist or a church growth consultant when it comes to number of people who decide to stick around with him.

In this text, Jesus is demanding.  Jesus is bordering on being downright offensive.

But he’s not saying these things to make us feel guilty or that we’re bad Christians.

Remember where Jesus is heading and where this journey will end.  Jesus is on a mission for the sake of the world.

The mission to Jerusalem is what matters to Jesus.  He is leading his disciples on a mission that will lead, not to glory or comfort, but to the cross.

I think all of us in the church do a fair amount of trying to shape Jesus according to our needs and our wants and our need to look successful.

We create the Jesus we want instead of allowing Jesus to shape us into the people God has created us to be.

In this text, Jesus will have none of it. Because he’s set his face toward Jerusalem. And his journey to Jerusalem is serious business.

His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is to embrace the pain of the cross for the sake of the world.

His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is driven by nothing less than love,

God’s profound love for all humanity and all the world.

A pouring out of God’s love that is the very essence of what it means to be “all in.” Jesus is “all in” for God’s purpose of redemption and grace.

Nothing will interfere with Jesus’ single minded purpose of sacrificial love.

Nothing, on heaven or on earth, will stop Jesus.

Not family. Not ridicule. Not rejection.

Not even us.

And thanks be to God for that.

If we are to believe our text today, survival was the last thing on Jesus’ mind. He knew there was a cost in participating in God’s mission of reconciliation and grace.

It may mean giving up one thing or many things or all the things.

It may mean risking relationships with people we care about.

It may mean carrying a burden on a long road for a long time.

And at first, we may be surrounded by many people willing to help carry that burden.

By the end, there may be very few of us left. Just as it was for Jesus.

This week, one of my dearest colleagues in ministry, who was also my mentor, died after a long struggle with a rare form of bone cancer. He was just 43, and left behind an incredible wife, amazing children, and a fledgling ministry which had just begun to gain important spiritual ground in the challenging city neighborhood of Homewood.

Every time I saw my friend Freedom Blackwell during his illness, I never once heard him question the providence and goodness of God. You can ask anyone who knew him, anyone fortunate enough to come into contact with Freedom in these last years. The injustice of it all, the fact that cancer threatened everything he cared about and held dear, none of it was enough to stop him from praising and serving the Lord he loved so dearly.

I don’t know how my friend could hold onto his faith in Jesus so tightly and continue to preach the Gospel even as he suffered great pain and faced the near certainty that the family and the church community he so cherished would soon lose him.

I don’t know how he did it. But he did.  Freedom was the epitome of an “all in” disciple.

Another important thing to know about Freedom is he was a visionary, gifted African American Presbyterian minister.

He could have taken a call to a very large church, anywhere in the country. He could have opted for a safe, comfortable, well paying position.

Instead, Pastor Freedom followed the call of Jesus to Homewood, where he started a new church called House of Manna, a church for “everyday people” whom Freedom knew needed to hear a message of Jesus’ love.

It was also a call which offered very little in terms of economic and physical security for Freedom and his family.

But Freedom knew where God wanted him.

In that neighborhood. Right there.

Freedom turned his back on prosperity.

He turned his back on security.

He turned his back on certainty.

He turned his back on comfort.

Freedom was as true a disciple of Jesus Christ as I’ve ever met.

Christ was first in his life in every possible way.

Before family, whom he loved dearly.

Before possessions.  Before anything.  He loved and followed Jesus Christ.

And he loved God’s people in Homewood. And he knew how to invite all kinds of people from all over Pittsburgh to share his love for Homewood.

Freedom gave up much to follow Jesus.  But if you asked him, Freedom would say that by letting go, he and his family were blessed abundantly by God.

But there was a cost. For him to do the ministry to which God had called him.  There was a cost.

There is always a cost to doing justice, to loving mercy, to walking humbly…

There is a cost to living into the demands of the gospel.

That cost may look different for you than for me. It will look different for each follower of Jesus Christ. And we are free to follow or not.

But if we are to believe the promises of the Gospel, following Jesus also leads to freedom.

There is a freedom that comes when we are willing to risk no matter the cost.

In the last paragraph of his great book entitled Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has these important lines: “The principle runs all through life, from top to bottom.  Give up yourself and you will find your real self.  Lose life and it will be saved.  Submit to death – the death of ambitions and secret wishes.  Keep nothing back.  Nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.  Look for Christ and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in.”

We are resurrection people, brothers and sisters. The hope in our calling is the promise that death does not win and love has the final word.

We are resurrection people.  Let us turn our face toward Jesus.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.