Sunday, July 22, 2012

Following Jesus: We Hope

(A sermon based on Luke 19:1-10 for Sunday, July 22, 2012)

This saying has been going around on Facebook lately: “Some people are so poor all they have is money.”

Zacchaeus was one of those people. He was one of those people who had everything and nothing, all at the same time. He had more money than anyone else in Jericho, he had more power than anyone else in town, and he had more enemies than anyone else in town. But he had no friends, no respect, no honor, and certainly no love.

He likely had no hope that it was going to get any better for him. He had dug his hole and now it was just a matter of hanging around until he was completely covered up with dirt.

Then along came Jesus.

Evidently Jesus’ reputation had arrived in Jericho before Jesus did because a big crowd gathered to see him. Zacchaeus was among them.

Look at him, jumping up and down trying to see over the crowd; look at the people, laughing at the little big man in town making a fool of himself. Look at him, running down the path to get ahead of the procession; look at him climbing up as high as he can into a sycamore tree so he can get a good view when Jesus comes by. (I wish it had happened in South Georgia; I’d have loved to see him try to shimmy up a pine tree.)

Now—and this is what made all the difference—look at Jesus looking at Zacchaeus.

Don’t you wish you could see what that look looked like? Imagine Jesus, gazing up into that tree at that short fellow perched on a limb. Do you think his expression was amused? Bemused? I know this: it was open and welcoming and inviting and gracious and loving.

I wonder what Zacchaeus saw when he looked in those eyes. Recently I read words of tribute to someone that went something like this: “When I looked in her eyes I saw the me I could be.” Perhaps that’s something of what Zacchaeus saw when he looked into Jesus’ eyes. He saw acceptance and grace and love and so he saw possibility.

And when he saw possibility, he saw hope.

Then Jesus put some words behind that look: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Luke tells us that Zacchaeus “hurried down”; I’ll bet he did since he didn’t get too many invitations, if any. Luke also tells us that Zacchaeus “was happy to welcome” Jesus; I’ll bet he was since he didn’t get welcomed very often, if ever.

What had happened got to Zacchaeus so much that he started throwing repentance and generosity all over the place; he exclaimed to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, O Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” His pledge went well beyond what would have been required of him by the law. “I will give and I will give generously,” Zacchaeus said; “I will make it right and I will more than make it right.”

Because he had been given much he too must give; because he had taken much he also must give.

Clearly Zacchaeus’ actions amounted to his reception of radically generous grace leading to his distribution of radically generous grace. They also amounted, though, to his reception of radically generous hope leading to his distribution of radically generous hope.

After Zacchaeus made his pledge, Jesus, who no doubt had insight to know that Zacchaeus would follow through, said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Notice, please, that salvation was not just an individual thing for Zacchaeus; Zacchaeus experienced salvation as part of the community of God (he was a member of the family of Abraham) and he experience of salvation led him to try to right the wrongs and to undo the damage that he had done to his community.

Salvation is a community thing for us, too. When we receive the grace and hope of God we do so as part of God’s community; when we receive the grace and hope of God we respond, not legalistically but gratefully, by sharing grace and hope with those around us.

Salvation is not only about our experience of grace and hope; it is also about our sharing of our experience of grace and hope.

So for Zacchaeus, salvation made a difference in the ways he lived; it made a difference in the ways he did business. It will make the same kind of difference to us.

We’ve been looking at the book of the prophet Amos in our Deacon Bible Study on Thursdays. That eighth century BCE prophet said to the well-off people of his day,

Hear this, you who trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat. (Amos 8:4-6)

From God’s perspective—which is the only perspective that really matters—to take advantage of the poor and to cheat or abuse the needy is a gross sin for God’s people to commit. We who have experienced the undeserved and extravagant grace and love of God want that grace and love to flow through us to others. Such an experience of grace and love will necessarily and inevitably affect the ways we think about, talk about, and treat other people.

Zacchaeus had through his business dealings contributed to the hopelessness of the people in his community. When he experienced hope, he then through his business dealings contributed to the restoration of hope for the people in his community.

Zacchaeus had, because of his hopeless life, spread hopelessness all around. When he experienced hope, he then through his life spread hope all around.

You have experienced the hope that comes from knowing Jesus Christ and being known by Jesus Christ. Is your business model built on hopelessness or on hope? Does it contribute to hopelessness or to hope in the lives of the people with whom you conduct business?

Does the way you live spread the hope you have received?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Following Jesus: We Eat

(A Communion Meditation based on Luke 5:27-39 for Sunday, July 15, 2012. Fourth in a series...)

Jesus called Levi the tax collector to follow him and Levi did. One of the first things that Levi did after he started following Jesus was to throw a big dinner party at his house for Jesus.

That makes sense, because following Jesus is cause for celebration.
Sure, following Jesus involves repentance which is a turning away from another way of living life and toward the way of living life in a free and full relationship with God, but that is no cause for mourning. It is reason for celebrating! Following Jesus is more about the life you are entering than it is about the one you are leaving; it is about the much that you are gaining rather than the little that you are losing!

Levi’s guest list was made up of what Luke described as “a large crowd of tax collectors and others” and of what the religious folks described as “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors are tax collectors and pretty much everybody in Jesus’ day regarded them as sinners, including the tax collectors themselves, I imagine; I guess whether someone is “other” or “sinner” depends on your perspective.

It is the case, though, that for many religious folks the “other” equals the “sinner.” It is the case for way too many of us the “other” and the “different”—you know, “they”—are the problem to be dealt with rather than the people to be accepted, loved, and embraced. “We” are fine; “we” are welcome. “They” are not.

And so the religious people asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but the sinners to repentance.” In other words, those who thought they were fine wouldn’t open themselves up to God’s grace in Jesus and those who knew they weren’t fine would.

Still, we know from other places in the Gospels that Jesus would eat with anybody, even the uptight upright (have you ever noticed how similar those words are?) religious folks, if they wanted him to do so.

The bottom line is this: kingdom of God time is party time! When you encounter the grace and love of God in Christ Jesus it’s something to celebrate; it’s something to which you want to invite your friends and family. To hear and to answer the call of Jesus is a big deal and it merits a big celebration.

This morning we are partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Let’s think of the Communion table as a banquet table. Let’s think of the Supper as a fellowship meal; let’s think of it as a precursor and a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet that will take place when Jesus come; let’s think of it as a reminder that we are “feasting on the riches of his grace; let’s think of it as part of our larger fellowship of sinners who have met and are meeting Jesus.

I guess that one thing we tend to seek in our Lord’s Supper observance is reverence and there is good reason for that; after all, we are remembering the death of our Savior. I suppose that since Jesus did say “the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days” we rightly see the death of Jesus as something to mourn.

Still, there is more here to celebrate than there is to mourn. Jesus’ death fulfilled the purposes of God. Jesus’ death was an act of perfect obedience, submission, love, mercy, and grace. Jesus’ death achieved our deliverance from sin.

And Christ the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.

I want you to remember that what we celebrate here is not disconnected from real life. If we are not careful we will treat the Lord’s Supper as some kind of super sacred or super spiritual event that we come aside from the world to share in and that we go back out into the world to forget. The Supper is a real-life event that remembers a real-life Savior who died and rose that we might have full and meaningful real life in the real world. It is a sacred moment but it is not an other-worldly moment; it is a moment that reminds us that the kingdom of God is among us and within us.

That is why I sometimes think that the Church has made a mistake in divorcing the Lord’s Supper from its original setting as part of a community meal. The early church would have the Supper as part of a fellowship meal. Nora Gallagher has written beautifully of a Maundy Thursday meal in her church, in which, right after soup, the people shared in Communion right there around the tables, then returned to their meal and their conversation.

She then said, “It must have been something like this, in those early churches. You had the blessed meal and the meal meal. You were dependent on each other not only for worship but for food. You had sacred life and ordinary life, folded together like a sandwich” [Nora Gallagher, The Sacred Meal (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), p. 105).

We eat our meals and we eat the Lord’s Supper and it all belongs together, somehow.
Granted, there are times to feast and there are times to fast. There are times to receive and there are times to give. There are times to bust loose and there are times to hold back.

Our member Jackie Harden told me about times when her family would gather for big meals with many guests from outside the family. The family had a code; as the main dish was being served from the platter, when they came to family member they would whisper either “FHB” or “PIK” in the person’s ear. “FHB” meant “Family Hold Back” and “PIK” meant “Plenty in the Kitchen.” They wanted to make sure that everybody got served, that everyone had enough.

For the sake of the hungry and the hurting and the marginalized and the outcast, there are times when we should hold back. Today is not one of those days; this is not one of those times. When it comes to God’s grace, there is always plenty in the kitchen. The extravagant grace that we receive is then meant, I hope we’ll remember, to be passed on.

So today, let’s think of the Lord’s Supper as a feast. Let’s think of it as a reminder that we are all gathered around one big table sharing in the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let’s think of it as a table to which only sinners come.

The righteous don’t need it.

You see, Levi gave a feast for Jesus and all the sinners came.

We’re having a feast today; let all the sinners come to eat, because sitting around the table laughing and eating and drinking with the Lord and with each other is what us sinners do…

Monday, July 9, 2012

Following Jesus: We Pray

(A sermon based on Luke 11:1-13 for Sunday, July 8, 2012. Third in a series.)

Richard Foster said, “Prayer catapults us onto the frontier of the spiritual life. Of all the Spiritual Disciplines prayer is the most central because it ushers us into perpetual communion with the Father” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 33).

We see the truth of that statement when we look at the life of Jesus.

Had we been among the people who followed Jesus during his sojourn on earth, we would have often seen him praying; we could also have assumed that, if he was not around, he was likely off somewhere by himself praying. Prayer, therefore, was central and essential to the life of Jesus.

If we are his followers, then let’s make prayer central and essential to our life as well.

Let’s make prayer central to our individual lives.

Let’s make prayer central to the life of the church.

And not the kind of prayer that is just a sharing of a list of the things we want or think we need.

I’m a little nervous about the word “make,” even though prayer is a discipline, a practice, and thus it can be adopted and developed.

Prayer is first and foremost a relationship thing. Prayer happens because of a relationship that exists, it emerges from a relationship that exists, and it contributes to the growth of a relationship that exists.

So, prayer is first and foremost about our relationship with God.

Notice that our passage begins with Jesus teaching his disciples, including us, to pray to our “Father” (v. 2) and closes with Jesus reminding us of our heavenly Father’s gracious generosity toward us. We approach God as our heavenly Father, as our perfectly loving parent, and we do so with great confidence and faith that are based in God’s great love for us.

We pray because God is our heavenly Father and we pray to God as our heavenly Father.

Jesus’ prayer life was a vital aspect of his communication with his Father. Communication is key to the development of a relationship and spending quality time together is key to communication.

While in Ft. Worth for the CBF General Assembly a couple of weeks ago, Debra and I had dinner with some friends from Louisville, Kentucky with whom we had spent no quality time in about twenty-five years. Now, we had enough common interest and enough memories and enough catching up to fill a long conversation. But our relationship would be much deeper and fuller had we maintained it through regular conversations and visits over the past two decades. In a similar way, our relationship with God is deepened and enriched through our regular and purposeful communication more than it will be through sporadic and unfocused contact.

If you stop and think about it, you realize that no one had a closer relationship with God the Father than did God the Son. Yet Jesus intentionally spent untold hours in prayer. The relationship was that important.

So was integration. By that I mean that Jesus was very interested in integrating his will with the will of his Father. It seems, given the example of Jesus, that one of the most important roles that prayer plays in our lives is to help us to be aware of what God wants so that we can order our lives according to God’s will.

We assume, don’t we, that Jesus, being the Son of God, had a special insight into his Father’s will, and no doubt he did. Still, Luke tells us that before making a big decision or confronting a major issue, Jesus spent time in prayer.

So, before choosing the Twelve who would be his closest followers, Jesus spent all night praying to God. Then, he chose the Twelve from among his followers (Luke 6:12-16).

Even as we understand that the story teaches us to spend time in prayer before making major decisions, we also hear it sounding a cautionary note. After all, after spending all night seeking God’s will and no doubt coming to understand it, Jesus chose Judas. That choice was not a misunderstanding of God’s will but was rather a part of God’s will.

Being in and doing God’s will does not always mean having easy things and helpful people come into our lives; it can mean having difficult things and hurtful people come into our lives.

It was while Jesus was praying alone with his disciples nearby that he decided to ask the question, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”; it was a question that led to Simon Peter’s famous answer (“The Messiah of God”) and then to much important discussion about what that meant, namely, that the Messiah must suffer and that his followers must take up their crosses and follow him (Luke 9:18ff).

Jesus’ prayer life led him into and guided him in the making of vital decisions. So can ours; so should ours.

Then there is Jesus’ prayer in the garden in the moments leading up to his arrest (Luke 22:39ff). There he struggled to comprehend and to carry out the will of God.

When we in prayer become better able to comprehend and to accept the will of God, the way we pray changes. We come to see our prayers as less about what we think we need and more about what our needs really are as they relate to the will of God. As Jesus’ two parables in our text this morning teach us, God really will give us what we need and what we really need is the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit communicates the will of God to us.

Perhaps the main thing we should notice about the prayer life of Jesus is that he took time to get away and to go aside and to pray. He would go off by himself to pray; sometimes he would spend all night in prayer. His life was in its entirety a life of prayer as we want ours to move toward being; but part of that kind of life is taking time to pray regularly.

“Our Father, thy kingdom come.”

Now, what that means for me is…