Friday, October 28, 2016

The Tale of Two Trees and the men who climb them

This week, the Gospel tells the tale of two trees and the men who climb into them (Luke 19.1-10). The Two men? Zaccheus and Jesus. Both trees are instruments which bring salvation. The first is precursory and a foreshadowing of the second. The first tree and the events that surround it show who one man, who refuses to let Jesus pass by without seeing him and discovers that he is being sought by the one who seeks him.

The Zaccheus’ tree was planted decades before he needed it. But it was on the right street in Jericho – on the main road that the pilgrims used to make their way to Jerusalem. The road climbs a steep hill as it leaves the mostly abandoned part of the City. And along the way there is this forty foot sycamore tree with minimal stumpage and plenty of branches for a grown man to crawl into.   

Zaccheus was a man who was ‘vertically challenged’, meaning he was short.  People thought little of him because he was not only a tax collector and therefore a collaborator with the occupying Romans, he was often thought of as ‘irredeemable’ because he was a chief tax collector. To many, he was as corrupt as they come and too far gone for anyone to be able to reach. When Zaccheus heard that Jesus was coming and more than likely that he heard what happened with blind Bartimaeus getting his sight back, he made a plan and ran to his tree. He climbed for that one change to catch a glimpse of Jesus that he might know that God was revisiting and redeeming his people.

So the fact that Jesus would stop and ask to come to his house and to stay over was beyond anything that he could have imagined. It should not be lost that Jesus had no where to eat and nowhere to sleep that night. So hospitality was a must for Zaccheus – custom demanded nothing less. He gave his hospitality willingly and gladly. He got to walk with Jesus down the very same street that Jesus in morning would have to climb to continue on his way to Jerusalem and to his own tree as they walked to Zaccheus’ house.

Meanwhile, as they made their way to his house the religious people started grumbling to each other and asking if there was not someone better to hang out with for an evening because as it is , he has gone to be the guest of a public sinner. To show what the encounter with Jesus had done for him, Zaccheus openly declares that he commits to give half of what he has to the poor. Then he takes it a step further and says that anyone he has injured can come and lay claim as if he had stole sheep from them; repay them fourfold for the offense. These are not small amounts of money for Zaccheus was clearly a wealthy man. It makes clear that where there is repentance there is also joy and grace. Jesus himself points out in the Gospels that there is more rejoicing over one who repents than over 10 people coming into the kingdom who do not need to repent. Being willing to give and to offer of one’s won substance to the lives of other people is a sign of the fruit of repentance. Zaccheus took the time to stop and to stand still so that he could declare boldly for his neighbours to hear what God has done in his life – that he has been visited and been redeemed... and Jesus himself declares that Zaccheus is a son of Abraham.  That is also why Jesus declares that salvation has come and entered into Zaccheus’ life and house – he is living the message!

I think we miss something important in North American Christianity. Faith is not a formula to be figured out and solved. It is a life that must be lived in faith to the fullest and to work out our salvation every day with fear and trembling. To do anything less, is to stay up in the tree instead of coming down and going home. Moreover, with Jesus’ tree, we can see not only how far God will come down to climb this tree and call us to come home, it shows us how far we have fallen and need to be redeemed through coming to repentance.

One of the things that the series of stories in this part of Luke’s Gospel wants to communicate is this: be careful of appearances because they are often deceiving. Just because someone thinks that they are “All that and a bag of chips” does not that they have it all together. I have know people who could fake it real well for a time. And it also means that one cannot judge someone to be impossible for God to rescue; to be beyond the reach of God’s tree and mercy. Blessed are those who know their need of salvation for they shall know the arms of God.

Is your heart, are you open to that same invitation? Will you come down out of your tree and come home that you might be rescued and transformed by God and for the sake of your community?


Friday, October 21, 2016

Praying the Liturgy in everyday life

The Gospel this week (Luke 18.9-14), continues on the need for prayer and to keep praying without losing hope. I am reminded of some things that Jesus has said when I read this passage like, “I did not come to call the righteous but sinners...” and “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy not sacrifice.”  (Luke 5.32; Matthew 9.35)

The setting is a worship service where there are these two men, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. In the practice of ministry I have notice that there are two types of worshipers: those who believe that they are fine the way they are and then there are those who know there need of God’s mercy. One who is more concerned about himself and the other worried about how God sees him and knows that he is a day late and a dollar short. This puts him a position of contrition and humility while the other stands and blithering way, talking more to himself, thinking that God cared to listen.

It reminds me of a time early in my ministry when there was a change of Rectors in the large parish were I was serving at the time. Many times over several months and in many different ways and venues, the new priest thought it okay to be publicly critical of how I prayed and when I prayed, because to him, I “prayed too much.” The prayers were too long and it took too much time from other things that might be more important. Thing is, I have always found that I often end up in places and spaces that I was always needed but rarely anticipated. I have seen and continue to see that God uses me to help people even when they and/or I am aware that this is what is going on.

To me, prayer is more than the words that we offer to God – though the words we offer are important. Prayer is more than the silences that we keep and the things that the Sprit prays for us when we are a loss and do not know what to pray. Prayer is the attitude with which we approach God, people and life in general. We need to live this life as if we are in continuing mode of worship. Offering ourselves to people knowing that we have God’s grace to spend and to be spent ourselves in the service of the kingdom.

The Pharisee’s prayer was one out of his peripheral vision: letting God how great and awesome I am and how much better I am than the person next to me... just in case God has not noticed the other because I am so great.

The tax collector was focused on God, who God is and then who he saw himself to be in the light of the glory of God. This man experienced the holiness and judgement of God. Because he submitted and humiliated himself he finds that God’s mercy and grace are effective and real – he gets to go home with the understanding that he has got what he needed: mercy and forgiveness. These things have the potential to transform his life, his family’s life and the community and nation around him. The tax collector went home justified because it is God who forgave him and justified him, not someone else.

How then will you live your liturgy this week. Will you pour your heart out to God in prayer or will it us be a passing fancy? A thing you do to get God to give you what to think you want?


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Persisting in prayer, justice and equality

The Gospel this week (Luke 18.1-8) has three important words connected to it: prayer, persistence and justice. The first two I know lots about and the last, because of its usage in parts of the Church these days, is something that makes me cringe. The word justice makes me cringe for one simple reason: most people don’t know what it is they are asking for when the ask God for justice. It gets applied to the personal situation and to what might be perceived as the unfairness of the current social state of the community, but that is not what justice is. What people are searching for is not justice, but equality.  So let’s carefully consider what justice and equality might look like from a biblical perspective and then look at our own situation to consider how it might be understood and applied.

Jesus in Gospel lesson, tells his disciples and the Pharisees and the lawyers who are gathered around him talking, the parable of the unjust judge. At first I thought about pointing out the widow and how she harangued the judge until he decided in her favour. But then I remembered being thought that we need to learn what we can about God and how God acts and reacts, which puts the judge in focus.

So let me ask you, how do you pray? What is your thing to do? My normal thing to do is to come to the office and the first 20 minutes and the last 10 minutes of the day are spent in prayer – for the people I minister to, for the people I minister with and for other needs that I want to mention to God – things that I think are important both personally and pastorally. And I would note that there are things which I pray for a long time for as well as things that I have received almost immediately.

The parable encourages us to consider carefully the nature of God and how God judges people, situations and other things. And if we are going to do that we need to consider Scripture to hear how others have experienced God. Take the prophet Isaiah for example. Consider these words from Isaiah experiencing his call to be a prophet: 

And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. (Is.6.4-6 NASB)

Isaiah went to worship and was allowed a glimpse of God for who he really was – he got to see the glory of the LORD (Elohim). Thing is, after seeing God’s big toe, he then was confronted by reality. Seeing who God was made Isaiah turned and considered himself and the life of the nation, he could see things he did not before. He saw the state of his life before God and the state of his people and the Land they had be given by God. It made him crumble. The passage goes on to note that his lips are touched by a holy coal from the altar and then answers the call to go and speak to the people what he has seen and what God needs to communicate with them. God asked, “Who will go for us, whom shall I send?” and Isaiah replied, “Here I am. Send me. “

What I take from that is this: we need to pray. We need to pray to gain the attitude of altitude. We need to spend time in God’s presence. And we need to learn to pray for what is requisite and necessary for the body as well as the soul. It is not so much about how you pray it, but rather that you mean it. We need to learn to pray and not give up because we are praying in the face of the reality of the coming of God’s kingdom. The world will act to preserve itself and its own interests because it is all about self interest and self preservation. For the Church, this life is more than just about having lots of faith or possessing the correct doctrine, (thought there is need of them both) it is about the pursuit of divine justice because in that is the Church’s hope. The Church must persevere through trouble and hardship wade through whatever besets it.

This does bring me back to the two people in the parable. The widow does persist in seek a judgement in her favour. So much so, that the judge who does not care about man or God actually beginning to worry about self preservation. He chooses to vindicate her in her small financial matter because he will be the worse for wear if he does not.

Consider then how God answers prayer: is it unfair that we have to wait? Why shouldn’t prayer be like a drive through window where we can order what we want an pick it up so we can get on with our busy little lives. Answer? There is a cost and there is a time. Somewhere in the middle of trying to get what we want there is a cost. Besides, a delay is not a no – what about timing. An answered prayer may take time to answer. Maybe there is something that God needs to do in us before a prayer is answered. Otherwise, how do we develop and grow as people of faith if it is not taught and tested? When he returns, will he find faith in the world? Wouldn’t you want to be one of those people? it is God who meets out justice because in his eyes we are all equal. 


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Of thanksgiving, faith and mercy

Should we not just learn to get along with other people’s ingratitude? If God has to deal with it from people shouldn’t we learn to live with it as well?

The Gospel for this week (Luke 17.11-19) has an interesting, biting edge to it, especially when one considers that this is our time to give God thanks for another year of harvest, hunting and provision. We catch up with Jesus, his disciples and the rest of the folks who are following Jesus as they make their way to Jerusalem and to what is to be sure, a confrontation with authority of gargantuan proportions. And we are not totally sure of where they are except to say they are in the North and therefore are in foreign territory.  That’s important to the piece of Scripture that we are studying but I will come back to that. It is enough for the moment to know that they are in an uncomfortable place and in an increasingly uncomfortable moment.

Jesus and the crowd enter a village and as they do, they are approached by 10 men who were lepers. They did what was required of them by society. They stayed a respectful, careful distance away and gave warning that they want to speak to Jesus. In fact they cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They make a plea for mercy so that they can be restored to wider society and their former lives with the families and so on.

It is important to point out that not all of the lepers are Judeans (or Southerners). A least one of them is a local Samaritan a “Northerner”. The North and the South don’t get along on much. Often they would disagree and argue over things not unlike the arguments currently going on in the Anglican Church of Canada on matters of human sexuality. People often segregate each other by geography and theology in the Church. It is the same now as it was then. And we are more comfortable in arguments and thinking that is the way to unity than working to discover and do what God has called us to do and actually do it.

So let’s start with giving thanks... are you thankful for what God has given you in the past year? Are we as a congregation thank for how the Lord has supported us over the last year? How often do we receive something from another person and thank them for the gift but then forget to thank God for making it possible? We are often swift to recognize and call out the inhospitality and the ungraciousness of others but at the same time fail to see it in ourselves?

Giving thanks and remembering God in doing so is at the core of the Eucharist. We take the time on Sunday mornings to give thanks to God for all that God has done and is doing in our lives both as individuals and as a faith community. Even the very word eucharist means, “thanksgiving”. In taking time to give thanks, makes us both stronger and a better community. We do not let those things that we have, buildings, theologies and spiritual gifts to be our possessions though we received them from the hands of Christ himself.  By taking the time to give thanks on a regular basis, we kept our possessions and our theologies from being idols and ourselves from being self idolatrous. We are blessed not because of being in possession of the gifts we have received but rather that we know and are known by the Giver of every good and perfect gift.

Faith as an ongoing act of thanksgiving and praise, is not a choice and commitment to a particular set of beliefs and doctrines but rather a striving to remain within the relationship and calling to abide in God and in Christ on a daily basis. Giving thanks allows for us to recognize the presence of the living God in this place and to understand that wherever we are, every patch of land that we inhabit, is a sacred place. And because God is in this sacred place, he is in this city. Therefore we need to seek the welfare of this place because we are sent to it.

One last thought. Jesus asked why only the local Northerner returned and not the other nine. All ten men, this little community of lepers were healed, right? So where is the thanks and praise that is due? Is it not possible that the one man who returned found something in his healing that the others took for granted? Mercy gets us out trouble. Grace makes us whole, an entire person. Faith makes us ready for what’s next, for the life that is yet to come in God’s kingdom. Faith makes us ready for salvation. How many people, having been shown mercy and given grace by God for healing for get to be thankful, even on a weekly basis?