The Righteous Live By Their Faith – Proper 26(C)

[RCL] Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 119: 137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

Trouble and distress have come upon me, yet your commandments are my delight. The righteousness of your decrees is everlasting; grant me understanding, that I may live. Amen.

Today’s scripture lessons present a unified whole, in lovely, surprising connections.

The prophet Habakkuk is notable because he questions God. He asks, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?” and then he announces that he will wait for God’s answer. And indeed, God does answer him, saying, “There is still a vision for the appointed time…it will surely come…the righteous live by their faith.” The message in Habakkuk is clear: even though destruction and violence are all around, the time will surely come; wait for it; live by faith.

In the psalm appointed for the day, the psalmist tells us that he has been consumed by indignation because his enemies forget God’s commandments, yet in spite of his distress, God’s commandments are a delight.

Both the prophet and the psalmist are transformed from questioning and indignation to faith and delight in God’s law, in the certainty that God’s justice is everlasting and the time awaited – the time of salvation – will surely come.

Paul gives thanks for the people of the church in Thessalonia, because he sees their faith growing abundantly, and their love for one another increasing, even during a time of persecution and affliction. Clearly then, we see a theme of holding a steadfast and joyful faith while the world around us is violent and unjust.

Let’s look at the transformation in the story of Zacchaeus. At first glance, we have a perfect narrative of making a new beginning in Christ. The story of the man who is short in stature and climbs a tree so that he can see Jesus is appealing to children and other vertically challenged people, and sheds a new light on the line in the psalm “I am small and of little account, yet I do not forget your commandments” (v. 141).

Perhaps Zacchaeus is not only short in stature, but also in moral status among his neighbors. He is a tax collector, and not just any tax collector, but a chief tax collector and rich. Tax collectors were hated in the community because they collected taxes from their Jewish neighbors for the Romans who occupied their country. In addition, a tax collector could and often did, overcharge their neighbors and keep the extra for themselves. Not only did they serve the Romans, but they also took advantage of their position to steal from their neighbors. The assumption is that Zacchaeus had become rich by his greed and dishonesty, stealing from his community.

So even though Zacchaeus has difficulty seeing Jesus, he makes an effort, humbles himself by doing an undignified, childish thing – climbing a tree – because of his desire to change and become worthy. He welcomes Jesus into his heart and his house, gladly offers to give half of his possessions to the poor, and make restitution if he has taken any money dishonestly. Zacchaeus makes the proper response to his encounter with Jesus.

Our translation states that Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus, but the King James Version says that Zacchaeus received him joyfully. Joy is the appropriate response to God’s invitation. He becomes generous, a rich man who is willing to give away his money. Zacchaeus is transformed from sinner to faithful follower of Jesus. He is saved, and, in the words of Paul, Jesus is glorified in him and Zacchaeus in Jesus. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to meet his death, but in the transformation of Zacchaeus, his mission on earth is fulfilled.

Now, Christ’s mission was to save not just individual souls but humankind. Christianity is a corporate faith. How did Zacchaeus’ transformation affect the community? Zacchaeus was disliked, unpopular, rejected by the community. The crowd grumbles when Jesus reaches out to him, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Let’s think about this.

There are two ways of reading verse 8. The original Greek verb might indicate an action that is present and ongoing or a future action. Our translation reads “Half of my possessions I will give to the poor.” Looking again at the King James Version, the verse reads, “And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”

Scholars dispute whether Zacchaeus is planning to give his money away in the future, or whether he is actually stating something that he has already done. Perhaps this is the reason that Jesus recognizes Zacchaeus up there in the tree, and calls him down, and invites himself to stay in this man’s house.

We know that Zacchaeus is despised by his community. He is an outsider, labeled as a chief tax collector, a rich man, a sinner. He is short in stature. He is not seen by his community until he climbs a tree and is seen by Jesus. Maybe Zacchaeus had been quietly giving to the poor all along! Who among us, that we have left on the margins, that we have not seen clearly because of our assumptions, might surprise us with their generosity and faith?

While we, and perhaps the crowd in Jericho, might be inclined to feel that Zacchaeus is saved because he willingly gives his riches to the poor, what does Jesus actually say? “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Jesus says Zacchaeus and all his household are saved simply by being the people of God’s covenant with Abraham. Zacchaeus is saved because of his faith, not because of his works. This is the nature of salvation. It is not based on works, but on faith. Perhaps Zacchaeus’ good works are a result of his faith, of his delight in following God’s commandments.

Let’s look again at the words of the prophet Habakkuk: the righteous live by their faith.

Backing up just a bit, Habakkuk says: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” Who is proud in this story? Zacchaeus or the crowd? Who is transformed? Zacchaeus or the crowd?

Both ways of reading the story of Zacchaeus are instructive. We might look at Zacchaeus as an individual sinner, who has repented and been granted salvation. Indeed, it is righteous and good to be transformed by an encounter with Jesus. It is righteous and good to respond with joy to the good news of Christ by giving generously to the poor.

And, as corporate Christians, members of the household of God, we need to consider the possibility that we must recognize ourselves in the crowd. Just as certainly, it is righteous and good to look around us and be open to surprise at who among us may be living with faith and generosity of spirit. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” And the unseen, the overlooked, the misunderstood folks on the edges of our community, the ones who need to climb a tree in order to be seen.

Let us pray. Gracious God, grant that we may see and by seen by our savior and brother Christ. Grant that we may respond with joy to the good news, that we may be generous not only with our wallets but with our hearts. Grant us freedom from making assumptions about others. Grant that we may see our neighbors as Christ sees them, and open our hearts to the faith and generosity of those we may not like or trust. Gracious God, grant me understanding, that I may live. Amen.

Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.  

Download the sermon for Proper 26(C).

Doing faith, 24 Pentecost, Proper 26 (C) – 2013

November 3, 2013

Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 32:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

“It is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service.” This phrase in the opening collect today is a major theme in today’s readings.

In the passage from Isaiah we hear God’s angry tirade against what the people think is true and laudable service: incense, offerings and sacrifice. But God is not interested in these things, and despises their context and content. “I cannot endure your solemn assemblies with iniquity.”

So, where does that leave those of us who worship regularly? It leaves us with the mandate to worship and act in faith.

Faith is not a noun as much as it is a verb, a word of action. Faith is about doing things that please God, because of what God has put into our hearts. Faith is about exercising our values, stretching them, strengthening them, and bringing justice to others.

Look what happens when Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, the whimsical tax collector sitting in a tree. There is a dialogue, of which we only have a small piece. It’s pretty obvious that Jesus and Zacchaeus bond. You can see it: The Lord, an itinerant preacher wandering around the town, and the obviously curious and friendly Zachhaeus meet and are mutually attracted by their unique ways of viewing the world.

Zacchaeus doesn’t just hop down from his perch, he leaps into a new way of life. By the time he hosts Jesus at his house, he has come to a new understanding of his latent love for God, and he announces it through his generosity: “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.”

Taxpayers were allowed to extort additional fees for their living besides collecting the tax, which is one reason they were despised.

Jesus tells him quite simply, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Jesus has found faith in a man outside the circle of the faithful. He has found a person who is prepared to share first.

A man recently died who had lived modestly in a van in a small town in the Ozarks. He had no close family, but a number of friends came to a memorial service for him held in the garden at a local church. “Al” was not a member of that church, but he often came to their Sunday night suppers during the cold winter months. He was also a regular recipient at the local food bank.

Before the memorial service, the minister invited people to share stories about Al. Many of the stories shared were of acts of kindness: how Al had fixed their tire or replaced a fan belt, how he had seen to it that a person had money to get new glasses, how he had helped another person with transportation, even though his own income was a small Social Security check each month.

By the time the service began, it was obvious to all that Al had been a faithful steward, using his simple gifts to serve others. His many friends rejoiced in his life, his kindness and his response to their needs.

This life, celebrated in a church garden, ended with the blessing of a new plant in Al’s honor. The giver of the plant said she wanted it to grow and remind everyone of Al’s unselfish care for others.

Al and Zacchaeus are two heroes who share their faith by doing for others what God wants them to do. They were not interested in large ceremonies or big public events; they wanted instead to serve others with what they had, and their lives are celebrated because of that.

Often when we see people who are generous and kind, we remark on how strong their faith must be. That is because faith is something given us by God to be used. Its expression is that of a steward doing his or her duty. Its sign is service, and its character is simplicity. We see in these generous lives the joyful and unbounded love for God expressed through service to others. It is what God commands, and it is what God defines as justice.

But what about our lives?

Are we faithful stewards who take what we are given and share it with those less fortunate? Are we people who think that faith is a noun or a verb? Do we see our church communities as gathered for worship and then sent forth to “do” our faith?

These are the values Jesus celebrates. These are the behaviors that God calls for. These are the behaviors that result in true and laudable service.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is part of a ministry team at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island. 

Shared vision, Pentecost 23, Proper 26 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 32:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

Hookworm. Largely eradicated in the U.S. for nearly a century, these tiny parasites are one of the leading causes of maternal and child mortality in the tropics and subtropics. Debilitating the immune system, they are a known cause of anemia, and hookworm infections can make the body more susceptible to malaria and HIV.

But in 2004, David Pritchard, a British immunologist, applied a bandage to his arm covered in hookworm larva, intentionally infecting himself. This wasn’t an act of self-destruction but was the beginning of years of study into the possible benefits of the tiny parasites.

The hookworm, like all of our earthly co-habitants, evolved alongside us, and in this case, within us, in an intricate balance. As it turns out, hookworms, in small amounts, can work to keep our sometimes overactive immune system in check. A small hookworm infection can serve to prevent certain allergic reactions in humans, to reduce asthma, and eradicate hay fever. Allergies, in their modern ubiquitous array of manifestations, may be, in part, a result of our attempt to sanitize our world and rid ourselves of this and other tiny parasites.

In our culture, we are obsessed with sanitation and control. For many of us, our vision of the reign of God, whether we call it that or not, is one of simplification, where there exist no unknowns, where the world is a mechanical, predictable, responsive, finite network, and where justice is a system of equal give and take.

The signs of this vision are all around us, as are the signs of its destructiveness. In our attempt to groom God’s creation into a controlled environment, we’ve cleared millions of acres of forestland, prairie, and meadows for single cash crops. We’ve dramatically reduced the biodiversity of our most populated areas in order to make them safe for a handful of domesticated species. We’ve developed simplistic systems of labor, talent, and currency equivalences. We’ve envisioned a world as white as individually plastic-wrapped disposable cutlery; the whiteness of a single-use fork to accompany our individually packaged organic spinach salad.

But today’s readings remind us that the world is a complex, messy place. Consider the reading from Isaiah. The Jewish people of the prophet’s time had a vision similar to ours: a world where simple exchanges could right the spiritual disorder, where quick cures would undo long-term spiritual decline and disease. Their hands were bloodied with their burnt offerings, their schedules were filled with church-stuff without really engaging the broken world surrounding them. But the justice of God asks more: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

One would think that these commands would be clear enough. Stop doing bad; do good. But God, speaking through Isaiah, admits to the fallacy of any system of symbols, even language. Isaiah, interpreting God’s revelation, speaks the beautiful line: “Come now, let us argue it out.” Or in other translations “Sit down. Let us reason together.” In an invitation, God, through Isaiah, admits to humankind that even God’s commandments, when written in human language, are insufficient to know and envision the reign of God.

God calls us into conversation, even argument, over what it is to follow God’s will, to resist, to listen, to adapt, to contest, to move forward in relationship with God. God speaks to the continuing revelation of God’s will in the world, a revelation dependent on relationship, on placed-ness, on the past and the present realities of human life from which we speak, and read, and act. It is in this “arguing out” of justice that God offers us the possibility of redemption, of the cleansing that makes us “like snow.”

But the whiteness of snow can be a slippery slope into the vision of a dry-erase world, where the past is forgotten in an attempt to not be bound to it. Who has not heard or sang of the cleansing power of the blood of the lamb? We are to be washed as white as snow by the blood of the lamb, by claiming him as our personal Lord and Savior. Sometimes we imagine that Jesus is the ultimate re-start button, that to find and be found by Jesus is to forget the past and simply live by love into the future. But that is not the Jesus we encounter in today’s gospel reading.

There’s a fun children’s song to tell the story:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way, He looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down;
“For I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.”

But the story is not quite so simple. Zaccheus is a tax-collector and a rich man. His money had been made through the extortion of the people by the ruling empire, and by his own wickedness, as he tells it, in “defrauding” others. Having welcomed Jesus into his house, having come into personal relationship with him, having not only seen Jesus, but having been seen by and recognized by Jesus, he was transformed. As a result, Zacchaeus took it upon himself to make restitution for his past.

This is not a case of “Go and sin no more.” Zaccheus had to confront those he has wronged, paying them back four times what he has wrongfully taken. The restitution, the resurrection, is in the confrontation with God that results in a confrontation with ourselves, our pasts, and our world. The “arguing out” of God’s justice is a complex invitation.

“Cease to do evil.” What is the evil we turn from?

“Learn to do good.” Who will teach us the good?

“Seek justice.” How will we know justice when we find it?

“Rescue the oppressed.” Who, indeed, are the oppressed and how are we called to rescue them?

“Come now, let us argue it out.”

As a faith community, we have often found it sufficient to say we are “open and affirming” or tolerant or inclusive. We have hung banners and said, “All are welcome.”

But have we truly wrestled with the reality of the experience of people who are oppressed? What might it look like to pay back fourfold what we have wrongfully taken in terms of dignity, social place, relationship, and of life? Not just to this community at this time in this place, but to all those we have wronged and continue to wrong? What might this type of justice look like? We must “argue it out,” with God, with each other, and ultimately with God present in those we have wronged.

The question is not whether we should stop trying to eradicate hookworm or move forward into more inclusive communities. The issue at hand is confronting the reality that we are not operating in the artificial whiteness of a lab, or in the mansions of an imagined hereafter. The vision that we share with the ancient Hebrews, that vision of a sanitized and simple world that can become a productive, predictable, controllable machine operating within the confines of human logic, will always be a violent and destructive dream. At the end of the day, we will always be called from real lives with real relationships to make real sacrifices for the sake of real justice.

The crumbs will always fall to the linen, the wine will always drip from the chalice, and, by grace, the body will always be broken open and shared. Come, let us argue it out.

Written by Jason Sierra
Jason Sierra is a member of the Office for Young Adult and Campus Ministries at the Episcopal Church Center. He resides in Seattle, Washington, and holds a BA in American Studies from Stanford University.

Jesus is already here, Pentecost 23, Proper 26 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 or Isaiah 1:10-18; Psalm 119:137-144 or 32:1-7; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

“Just looking, thanks.” When a salesperson in a store approaches us to see if they can be of assistance, we may say these words to keep them at a safe distance: just looking. We’re interested, but not willing to commit; curious, but don’t want someone pressuring us into making a purchase. Just looking, thanks.

Zacchaeus was curious that day when Jesus came to Jericho. The crowd was big and he was small, so shinnied up a sycamore tree – the perfect solution. He was high above the noisy crowd and he could get a glimpse of Jesus from a safe distance. Besides, let’s admit it, he didn’t have any friends in the crowd.

Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector for the Roman government in this prosperous town, and his position may have made him the most hated man in all of Jericho. He worked for the occupying forces and was therefore a traitor to his own people. What’s more, he made money off his neighbors as part of a system primed for corruption. He was obliged to send in only what the Romans expected. Anything he took in above that, he was free to keep. “He was wealthy,” reads our text, in his case an indictment rather than a description. Who would make room for him in a crowd? Who would want to be seen with him?

One day, along comes Jesus. The word has spread about Jesus, and Zacchaeus is one of the many in Jericho who want to see him. But what does Zacchaeus expect to see? Would he like what he saw in Jesus, or not? On the one hand, maybe he has heard that Jesus was known for eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. Maybe he has heard that in some of Jesus’ stories, it’s the tax collector who is the hero, and the Pharisee who comes across as the fool. Maybe he has heard that a man named Levi, who was a tax collector, is among Jesus’ closest followers. On the other hand, maybe Zacchaeus has heard that Jesus told the rich man to sell all that he had and follow him. Maybe he has heard Jesus’ statement that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. And after all, Levi had to leave his tax collector’s booth behind in order to follow this Jesus.

So maybe the most we can say with any confidence about Zacchaeus is that he is curious. He wants to see Jesus; he doesn’t want to meet him. He doesn’t want to touch him, or be touched by him. He certainly doesn’t come to him for healing. He wants to observe from a safe distance.

Zacchaeus thinks he is safe in the tree where he can watch, where no one will confuse him with the cheering crowd, where no one needs to know where he stands. Where he can’t touch or be touched. Where he is safe to say, “Just looking, thank you,” if anyone accidentally spies him up there. “Just looking.”

And suddenly this strange little man in a tree seems a little more familiar. Don’t we all have times when it is easier to stay in our tree, to watch the events of the world as a spectator, rather than come down and get involved? Rather than come down amongst the crowd, and the dirt, and the noise, and the needs, and the confusion, and put one foot in front of the other and follow Jesus? Isn’t it easier sometimes to say, “Just looking,” when asked to help, to give, to get involved?

There’s a different sermon for those among us who try to do everything, who need to learn to say no, who need to work on some Sabbath time. But for others of us, is it time to get involved, to stop being a spectator, and join the action? Maybe it is time to take on some ministry in the church, to get involved in the community. Maybe it’s time to vote, to serve, to say yes.

Sometimes getting involved in a church takes a leap of faith. “Church shopping” is not a bad thing – many of us “shopped” our way into the Episcopal Church, or into a particular parish church. It’s important for people to look around, to explore different faith communities, to find a place where they can worship, grow, participate, serve, be at home, and yet, be challenged too. But there can be a danger sometimes that people don’t ever come down out of the tree and say, “This is it. Here I am. I’m getting involved.”

Or in our faith lives: wanting to see Jesus is a good thing, but do we keep him at arm’s length? Do we ponder him from a distance, rather than meet him, come to know him, to love him, to serve him, to be changed by him? Rather than grow more and more into his image and likeness? Rather than discover the meaning of our lives through a deep relationship with him, empowered by prayer, nurtured by participation in the faith community, nourished by the sacraments?

That day in Jericho, Jesus looks up into the tree. He sees the little man clinging to his branch and commands him to hurry down, because Jesus needs him – his hospitality, his welcome, his company. Jesus plucks Zacchaeus out of his tree, and Zacchaeus is happy to welcome him.

Zacchaeus could have said no. It would have cost Zacchaeus less. It would have attracted less attention. It would have prevented the townspeople from having one more reason to grumble about something Zacchaeus did. We know it may seem easier to go on with our own lives and continue our preoccupation with ourselves and our own agendas rather than allow the Messiah to invite himself over to lunch and allow him to delve into our truest selves. It might be easier to say, “Just looking, thank you.”

But if we’re honest, we know from experience that it is not easier to go on with our own preoccupations, to try to take care of our worries ourselves; that actually there is a tremendous ease and grace in letting Jesus take our burdens from us, to giving ourselves over to Christ, to letting Christ set our agendas. It really is easier to stop scrambling up trees and allow ourselves to know the one who knows us completely and loves us still. Like Zacchaeus, we can take the chance, invite Jesus in, and watch the radical realigning of our lives.

Zacchaeus’ life changes greatly. Something in his encounter changed the way Zacchaeus saw the world. Now he could see people in need, whereas before he only saw people he could use.

That’s part of what happens when we come out of the tree and allow Jesus to touch us. Whereas before we might just be looking, Jesus enables us really to see. Now we see real people with real needs. We see real opportunities to get involved. We see true beauty in others. We see the astonishing array of gifts God has given us and our community.

Salvation comes to Zacchaeus’ house and he is forever changed from a taker into a giver. And Zacchaeus is not unique. We see it over and over again. When Jesus finds a home with us, the result is a generous heart. Giving is a joy, not a burden. What’s given may be money, may be time, may be some ability that can be shared. But time and time again, when Jesus plucks us out of our tree, we ripen into givers, not takers; workers, not watchers; people who serve, not observe.

Jesus isn’t just coming to our town. Jesus is already here. And he may be looking up at you, inviting you out of some safe, but lonely perch, and into the kingdom of God.

Written by the Rev. Amy Richter
The Rev. Amy E. Richter is Missioner for Lifelong Christian Formation for the Diocese of Maryland. E-mail: arichter@ang-md.org.