Sunday, November 4, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 31 or All Saints Sunday
Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

To-day is salvation come to this house...

Wednesday was All Hallows Eve, otherwise known as Halloween. It is a day when the kids wander the streets at night dressed up as all sorts of characters begging for candy from the neighbors. Over the years I’ve had numerous positions about Halloween from loving the Trick-or-Treating to hiding from the Trick-or-Treaters to vocally denouncing the holiday because of its focus on darkness and greed. This year I have decided to give out candy to the children. My family will be going door to door collecting canned goods for the International Thespian Society “Trick or Treat So Kids Can Eat.” They have been doing this project for several years now and the local troop is hoping to collect a ton of food tonight.

The holiday has roots that go back into the days of the Celtic Druids. It was called Samhain. It marked the end of summer and the beginning of the dark days of winter. They believed that on that day the dead returned to the earth. Not only were the spirits given credit for mischief that happened, it was believed that the priests were best able to predict the future when they were nearby. They had bonfires and wore costumes. When the Romans populated Celtic lands they joined their own fall holidays with Samhain. Feralia commemorated the dead and there was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. By the ninth century, Christianity was the dominant religion in the areas where the Celtic people lived. Pope Boniface IV decided to name November 1 All Saint’s Day to transform the pagan traditions into a church-sanctioned holiday. The evening before All Saint’s Day was called All Hallow’s Eve, and the people continued to celebrate with bonfires, parades and costumes. Eventually, November 2nd was called All Soul’s Day, and the three day celebration was called Hallowmas. Today Halloween and All Saints Day are completely unrelated celebrations.

Oddly, Halloween seems so much more like a night of the living – everyone has a fun time at parties, parades and Trick-or-Treating. Though many of the costumes are dark and wicked, death is not the focus of the evening for most people. Costumes included fairy princesses and popular cartoon characters. According to a report today, the fastest selling costumes are political with Hillary Clinton and the Bush family flying off the shelves. Some of my neighbors have decorated their houses as brightly as they might decorate for Christmas. The streets are glowing with orange and purple lights. All Saint’s Day is focused on remembering those who have passed during the previous year. Though it too is a celebration of life – the lives of the saints who have passed – the mood tends to be sad and teary as we join together to mourn the loss of our loved ones.

We tend to think of the saints as men and women who are recognized for outstanding service to the Lord. Some of the saints were martyred for their faith. Others made a powerful impact on the world in which they lived. The men and women who are specifically named saints seem to be extraordinary people. Their life stories come with accounts of divine intervention, miracles and unusual experiences. However, saints are not only those who have died, but those who live in Christ today. We are saints. The saints were not extraordinary. They were ordinary people through whom God made extraordinary things happen. He does the same for us.

I am focusing on the ordinary texts for Pentecost this week, but November 4th is also All Saints Sunday. Most churches will do something special for the day. The Gospel lesson is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. A few years ago I attended an All Saints Sunday at the cathedral in Bury St. Edmunds, England. Bishop Clive gave a sermon about Matthew’s version of this text. Throughout the sermon Bishop Clive kept saying, “Consider yourself blessed.” It is hard to think in those terms when the blessedness is given to people who are being persecuted and are suffering. Bishop Clive explained, “In the beatitudes, Jesus was making saints out of ordinary people.” All those in Christ are saints – called, gifted and sent to be His witnesses in the world.

So we will continue to celebrate the fun of Halloween but I hope we will also remember the joy of being in Christ. As we recall the lives of those who have passed this year or before, we are reminded that they were just like us: ordinary people gifted with faith and called to serve the Lord in our daily lives. We are still sinners, just like Zacchaeus, in need of God’s grace every day.

In Luke 19 we hear one of the favorite childhood bible stories. As a matter of fact, I can’t read or hear this story without thinking about the old song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man.” In the story, Jesus was passing through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem. According to Luke’s Gospel, Zacchaeus’ house was the last place Jesus stopped before the Triumphal entry. We can really see the excitement about Jesus’ ministry in Jericho; crowds were gathering along the way to see Him. Before this encounter Jesus healed Bartimaeus the blind beggar.

Luke tells us that Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was. Zacchaeus was a rich man and he was probably very powerful. Zacchaeus was not well liked; there were certainly no neighbors who would give him room to get to the front of the crowds to see Jesus. He might have demanded a place of prominence based on his position in the community, but he did not. Instead Zacchaeus ran ahead and found a tree from which he could see the procession. Zacchaeus had never met Jesus, but he seems to have known about His reputation. He knew that Jesus was a healer, perhaps even the Messiah. He was a preacher and a teacher. He cared about the poor.

Zacchaeus was a sinner. He did not care about the people. He was a wealthy tax collector and it is likely he became wealthy because he lied, cheated and stole money from his neighbors. I am sure some people in the crowds questioned his faith. After all, what real Jew would lie, cheat and steal from his own people? When Jesus reached the place where Zacchaeus was hanging in the tree, He cried up to the man, “Zacchaeus, come down. I must stay at your house today.” His last stop before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem was to the home of a sinner. He went to the home of a tax collector. He stopped to be in the company of someone whose very faith was questionable. Zacchaeus was amazed and excited. The people were angry and began to mutter, “He is gone in to lodge with a man that is a sinner.” This very act may have put some doubt in their minds. Is this Jesus really who we think He is? Is He really the One who has come to save us?

Zacchaeus answers their mumbling with real action. He shows Jesus his wealth and then tells Him, “If I have wrongfully exacted aught of any man, I restore fourfold.” Jesus answers their mumbling also. “To-day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham.” He is the Savior not because Zacchaeus has done something spectacular with his wealth. Jesus is the Savior because in His presence people are transformed. Zacchaeus did not know Jesus. He was there because he was curious about this person whose reputation had reached Jericho. Zacchaeus did not invite Jesus into his life. Jesus invited Himself into Zacchaeus’ life.

We can learn from Zacchaeus that repentance means not only saying we are sorry, but that we should actively work for justice even if it means sacrifice on our part. However, in this story we learn something even more important. We learn that we do not seek out Christ, He seeks us out. We do not invite Christ into our lives; He invites Himself into our lives. We are not transformed because of the things that we do, but rather in the presence of God we can’t help but be transformed. Salvation has entered into our house, not because of anything we have done, but because God came looking for us.

Zacchaeus was a sinner. He was a liar and a cheat. He stole from his people. But God knew that he was a child of Abraham and He came to bring salvation to his life. Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus and he saw the world in a whole new light. He saw the world from God’s perspective and he was transformed into someone who would work toward justice and restoration. Zacchaeus saw the forgiveness that would be won for us all at the cross in just a matter of days. He experienced the grace of God first hand and his life was forever changed.

I wonder how many people doubted Zacchaeus’ sincerity. Did he really do what he told Jesus he would do? Did they question his motives? Did they think that he did it just to impress Jesus? I think the story tells us differently. Jesus announces a victory. “To-day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham.” He puts to rest the doubt that Zacchaeus is not a Jew. He is a son of Abraham and he has received the grace of God.

We all know someone that makes us doubt their sincerity, however. Eddie Haskell was the kind of guy that you loved to hate. He was the best friend of Beaver’s brother Wally on the television show “Leave it to Beaver.” Eddie was the troublemaker. He was the guy that always let you down. He was the guy who always managed to manipulate his friends into doing the things they should not do so that he would not be the guy to get caught. Of course, Wally was the guy who always got caught.

In front of the adults Eddie appeared to be the most polite, mature young man. He was kind and helpful. He said all the right things and offered to do anything that needed to be done. He appeared sincere, but it was just a façade. He really hated to do those things and managed to find ways to get out of doing them. He thought this false front was believable, that the adults really considered him a most polite young man. He was wrong. They saw through the act and knew not to trust Eddie Haskell. Wally’s parents often wondered why he would keep a friend like Eddie.

Friends like Eddie are both friends and thorns in our side. They are lovable and unlovable at the same time. We keep friends like Eddie because we like them and we are sure there must be some innate goodness. We enjoy their company and hope that we might have an impact on their life. No one knows why they act the way they do, there must be some reason and we hope that some kindness and friendship will help make them a better person. Wally saw Eddie’s vulnerability and in the end their friendship did have an impact. The trouble with those who put up a façade is that their works do show. The impact of their negative behaviors eventually destroys whatever good will they have built with their false fronts. The people around them realize they are not credible and that they have no integrity. We can not believe the Eddie Haskells of this world when they offer to help because we know that they will manage to get out of it somehow. Their offering is unacceptable because it does not come from the heart.

In our Old Testament lesson we see that to God, the Israelites were much like Eddie Haskell. They went to the Temple with sacrifices regularly, seeking forgiveness and blessings. As soon as the Temple was out of sight they went back to their old ways. They worshipped other gods and disobeyed the Lord. They did not do as He had commanded, but they thought that their sacrifices would be enough to cover their sin. They did not love the Lord with their whole hearts and they did not live according to His will and purpose. They wore two faces – one at the temple when they were facing God and another when they thought He was not looking. In today’s passage we see that God was tired of these meaningless offerings. They were a waste of blood because there was no sacrifice in the hearts of His people.

We are no different than Eddie Haskell and the Israelites. We are just as two-faced before God. We take offerings and sacrifices before the Lord thinking they will be enough to cover all that we have done to dishonor Him in this world. Our offerings are not animals at the Temple. We consider all our good works, our regular attendance at church and the checks we through in the offering plate as sacrifices. We do these things out of duty or with a sense that God will see these good works and forget our sin. However, our sacrifices are never good enough. He desires a humble heart and honesty before Him. Our sin is not hidden, it is seen by God. He knows our deepest, darkest secrets. When we face Him with a façade, pretending to be righteous and good, He sees behind the mask. Our offerings are offensive if they are only a façade to make it appear as though we are polite and kind. God calls us to a different life. In Christ we are washed clean, made new. Through faith in Christ we no longer need a false front because He gives us garments that are white as snow.

We need to be careful because it is a very fine line between the glory we have in Christ and the glory we make for ourselves in this world. The Israelites gloried in their self-righteous actions. It is possible that Zacchaeus may have been looking for some glory from his incredibly generous offer to restore four-fold all that he had stolen from his people. All too often we consider glory something that makes us better or more important than others. Some athletes like to take the glory for themselves, forgetting that they are part of a team. Some business people like to take the glory, forgetting that without co-workers and employees they could not have completed the job. Some actors like to take the glory, forgetting that he or she is not starring in a one-man show.

Paul writes, “…that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and ye in him…” God’s idea of glory is much different than human ideas of glory. For God, the glory is in the divine presence, it is about living and dwelling in Him. Christ was glorified because He lived the life God had sent Him to earth to live. It was a life of humility and service. In all that He did, God’s presence was seen and felt. His lived the life of mercy and grace, sharing God’s love with the world. It was not an easy life He lived, for there were many who were enemies to the work of God in the world. Some of those enemies did not even know they were working against God. They thought they were living according to God’s Law, but they gloried in the things they could do for themselves. They gloried in their own righteousness.

Paul wrote a word of encouragement to those who were suffering from persecution because of their faith in Jesus Christ. He boasted of their steadfastness, not as a way of setting the Thessalonians above others, but as a way of showing his pride in their commitment despite the hardship. He does not make this about their ability to stand up to the enemies of God, but instead prays that God will continue to transform and make them into the kind of people that He has called them to be. Paul prays that God will continue to draw them into His glory so that they will dwell there and shine His love to the world. God is glorified when His grace is given to others so that they too might dwell in His presence. We are called to be part of a team. No one Christian will be glorified alone. We are glorified together because we are drawn together by God to make Him known to the world.

This brings us back to the reality that we are ordinary people, sinners who are called by the grace of God to live faithfully as witnesses to God’s love. We are always reminded that we fail, that we are imperfect and that we are sinners. When our cat Felix was just a kitten I had purchased a bag of feathers for a project. He took a keen interest in the bag of feathers when I brought it home, so I knew I had to put them out of his reach. I found a hiding place high on a shelf and then I left. We were all out of the house for the evening, but when Bruce got home he found feathers all over the house. I arrived home late that night and did not find out about Felix’s adventure until the morning. As I woke up the next morning I heard a strange noise near the bed. It was Felix carrying the bag of feathers. He had brought the bag all the way up the stairs to lay his prize at my feet. He was so proud for a moment, until he looked at my face. Then he knew he’d done something wrong. I was angry, but I forgave him. He is a cat and he has only a limited understanding and ability to be obedient to our human expectations.

That’s how it is with God. He knows that we are merely human and that we will fail over and over again. He knows that we are not perfect and that sometimes we will do the things that are not good for our well-being and that go against His Word. He wants us to be obedient, but He is ready with forgiveness when we fail. What He wants most is our acknowledgement that we are sinners. This is as much for our own good as it is for Him. When we confess our sin we also recognize our need for God’s grace, a grace that is always available for us. When we admit that we are sinners we look for the forgiveness that is freely given through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God does not need us to speak the words to provide the grace, but in acknowledging our failure we see His mercy and find hope and comfort in it.

Jesus called to Zacchaeus that day in the city of Jericho. It was a divine appointment. Zacchaeus did not need to be seek out Jesus, to use his power or position to get a better view. He did not have to be a perfect to be in the presence of Christ. He did not have to prove himself to be righteous to experience God’s grace. He was an ordinary man who has an extraordinary story to tell. God came and invited Himself into Zacchaeus’ life and Zacchaeus was transformed forever. The saints have similar stories to tell, each one uniquely gifted with grace and called to serve God in the world. We, too, have our own stories of life in Christ. He calls us out of our tree and invites Himself into our lives, giving us all we need to be His witnesses in this world.

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