Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Sermon for Reformation Day, 2016

The following sermon is based on Luke 19:1-10, which is the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel for the day. (I've used the Reformation Day texts before, but because I also serve an Episcopal congregation now, I used the RCL text so I didn't have to prepare two sermons).  

Grace to you and peace in the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Since I have spent the past couple of days at the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, I didn't have a lot of time to create my own sermon for today.  So, I want you to imagine that we have a special guest preacher here today, but I’m not going to tell you who the preacher is until after you’ve heard it.

"You have come here meet Jesus. Today’s Gospel speaks to us of just such a meeting between Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus, in Jericho. There Jesus does not simply preach or greet people; but he passed through the city.  In other words, Jesus wants to draw near to us personally, to accompany our journey to its end, so that his life and our life can truly meet.


An amazing encounter then takes place, with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. Zacchaeus was a wealthy collaborator of the hated Roman occupiers, someone who exploited his own people, someone who, because of his ill repute, could not even approach the Master. His encounter with Jesus changed his life, just as it has changed each of our lives.  But Zacchaeus had to face a number of obstacles in order to meet Jesus, which also have something to say to us.

The first obstacle is smallness of stature. Zacchaeus couldn’t see the Master because he was little. Even today we can risk not getting close to Jesus because we don’t feel big enough, because we don’t think ourselves worthy. This is a great temptation; it has to do not only with self-esteem, but with faith itself.   We have been created in God’s own image; Jesus has taken upon himself our humanity and his heart will never be separated from us; the Holy Spirit wants to dwell within us. We have been called to be happy for ever with God! 

That is our real “stature”, our spiritual identity: we are God’s beloved children, always. So you can see that not to accept ourselves, to be negative, means not to recognize our deepest identity.  God loves us the way we are, and no sin, fault or mistake of ours changes that.  

As far as Jesus is concerned – as this Gospel shows – no one is unworthy of, or far from, his thoughts. No one is insignificant. He loves all of us with a special love; for him all of us are important: you are important! God counts on you for what you are, not for what you possess. In God’s eyes the clothes you wear or the things you own are of absolutely no concern. In God’s eyes, you are precious, and your value is inestimable.

At times in our lives, we aim lower rather than higher. At those times, it is good to realize that God remains faithful, even obstinate, in his love for us. The fact is, God loves us even more than we love ourselves. God believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves. God is there for us, waiting with patience and hope, even when we turn in on ourselves and brood over our troubles and past injuries.

But that brooding is a kind of virus infecting and blocking everything; it closes doors and prevents us from getting up and starting over.  God, on the other hand, is hopelessly hopeful, because we are always his beloved sons and daughters. Let us be mindful of this at the dawn of each new day.  It will do us good to pray every morning: “Lord, I thank you for loving me; help me to be in love with my own life!” Not with my faults, that need to be corrected, but with life itself, which is a great gift, for it is a time to love and to be loved.


Zacchaeus faced a second obstacle in meeting Jesus: the paralysis of shame. We can imagine what was going on in his heart before he climbed that sycamore. It must have been quite a struggle – on one hand, a healthy curiosity and desire to know Jesus; on the other, the risk of appearing completely ridiculous.


Zacchaeus was public figure, a man of power. He knew that, in trying to climb that tree, he would have become a laughingstock to all.  Yet he mastered his shame, because the attraction of Jesus was more powerful. You know what happens when someone is so attractive that we fall in love with them: we end up ready to do things we would never have even thought of doing.


Something similar took place in the heart of Zacchaeus, when he realized that Jesus was so important that he would do anything for him, since Jesus alone could pull him out of the mire of sin and discontent. The paralysis of shame did not have the upper hand. The Gospel tells us that Zacchaeus “ran ahead”, “climbed” the tree, and then, when Jesus called him, he “hurried down”. He took a risk, he put his life on the line. For us too, this is the secret of joy: not to stifle curiosity, but to take a risk, because life is not meant to be tucked away. When it comes to Jesus, we cannot sit around waiting with arms folded; he offers us life!

After his small stature and the paralysis of shame, there was a third obstacle that Zacchaeus had to face.  This obstacle was all around him. It was the grumbling of the crowd, who first blocked him and then criticized him: How could Jesus have entered his house, the house of a sinner!  People will try to block you, to make you think that God is distant, rigid and insensitive, good to the good and bad to the bad. Instead,  God calls us to a kind of courage, the courage to be more powerful than evil by loving everyone, even our enemies. People may laugh at you because you believe in mercy. But do not be afraid.


That day the crowd judged Zacchaeus; they looked him over, up and down. But Jesus did otherwise: he gazed up at him. Jesus looks beyond the faults and sees the person. His gaze remains constant, even when it is not met; it seeks the way of unity and communion. Don’t stop at the surface of things; distrust the worldly cult of appearances, cosmetic attempts to improve our looks. Instead, God has given you a heart which can see and transmit goodness without growing weary. The joy that you have freely received from God, freely give away: so many people are waiting for it!

Finally let us listen to the words that Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus, which to be seem meant for us today: “Come down, for I must stay at your house today”.  Jesus extends the same invitation to you: “I must stay at your house today”.

We meet Jesus here, today, but that meeting continues tomorrow, in your homes, since that is where Jesus wants to meet you from now on. The Lord  wants to enter your homes, to dwell in your daily lives: in your studies or in your work, your friendships and affections, your hopes and dreams. God desires that you bring all this in prayer and God hopes that, in all the “contacts” and “chats” of each day, that prayer comes first. God wants to be able to speak to you day after day through the word, so that you can make the Gospel your own, so that it can serve as a compass for you on the highways of life!

In asking to come to your house, Jesus calls you, as he did Zacchaeus, by name because your name is precious to him."

So, whose sermon was that? 
Martin Luther? No.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer? No. 
Some other great Lutheran, Episcopalian, or Protestant? No.
I edited it somewhat for context, but that was, in essence, the sermon given by Pope Francis to a million young people at World Youth Day in Krakow Poland, on July 31st of this year.  One of the slogans of the Reformation was “grace alone”, and there was a whole lot of grace in that sermon.

Tomorrow is the 499th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Germany, a Reformation which spread to England and other parts of Europe a few years later.  But October 2016 is proving to be a special month, too.
Earlier this month, Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby met and said together that our differences “cannot prevent us from recognizing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ by reason of our common baptism. Nor should they ever hold us back from discovering and rejoicing in the deep Christian faith and holiness we find within each other’s traditions.

 Our differences should not stop us from praying together: not only can we pray together, we must pray together, giving voice to our shared faith and joy in the Gospel of Christ.”
That call to common prayer is being lived out tomorrow in Lund Sweden – Pope Francis will be visiting the predominantly Lutheran country for a joint prayer service marking the beginning of this 500th anniversary year, and this is one of the prayers that they will pray together:

“Jesus Christ, Lord of the church, send your Holy Spirit! Illumine our hearts and heal our memories. O Holy Spirit: help us to rejoice in the gifts that have come to the Church through the Reformation, prepare us to repent for the dividing walls that we, and our forebears, have built, and equip us for common witness and service in the world.  Amen.”
The Reformation helped remind the Church of what Jesus said to Zaccheus - that salvation comes to your house today, for the Son of Man, has come out to seek, and to save.  As Pope Francis’ sermon indicated, that promise is a gift which can overcome obstacles and divisions.  It is a gift that gives us new life in Christ.

Thanks be to God – Amen.        

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