Remember Zacchaeus

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Psalm 26:1-8

1 Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity,
…..and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.

The eight verses assigned for us to sing or read on Sunday describe the poet’s righteousness. “Your steadfast love is before my eyes,” he declares, “and I walk in faithfulness to you.” The portrait he paints is noble:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,
7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
…..and telling all your wondrous deeds.

But there is an unpleasant aftertaste in these words.

I always get a little nervous around those who are a little too certain they are righteous. And it’s not just because Lutherans as a whole have a pretty skeptical view of the possibility of our righteousness. The notion of “alien righteousness”, a righteousness that comes from somewhere else, that is not our own but given to us, is pretty deep in Lutheran piety. We are righteous because, amazingly, graciously, wondrously, when God looks at us he sees Christ’s righteousness not our own. We are pretty sure if he saw our own it would resemble a dilapidated storefront in an abandoned urban area. It has walls and a roof, the appearance of a building, but the windows are broken and the roof surely leaks. Thankfully, God is like an overly enthusiastic realtor who sees what should be and will be rather than what is.

In Lutheranland, we are all fixer uppers. So when we encounter someone who is a little too certain they live in a fine neighborhood, we are uncomfortable. Surely they must be denying there is something musty in the basement or mice droppings in the attic.

Nevertheless, this Sunday we are asked to say these words:

4 I do not sit with the worthless,
…..nor do I consort with hypocrites;
5 I hate the company of evildoers,
…..and will not sit with the wicked.
6 I wash my hands in innocence,
…..and go around your altar, O Lord,

It’s a complicated moment. First of all, it requires us to remember that these words are a prayer. The poet is in trouble and offering the kind of prayer we have all offered: “I don’t deserve this…come rescue me…” Like the prayers of our ancestors, our prayers may not be noble, but God does listen.

Secondly we have to remember that these words, like all the words of scripture, reach their fullest truth in Jesus. He was righteous, faithful to God and to others, but his righteousness did not set him apart from the wicked; it placed him in their living rooms. Remember Zacchaeus. I wish I could find a way to put those two words into the six or seven letters of a vanity license plate. That’s one I might consider buying.

Remember Zacchaeus. His righteousness comes after Jesus has shocked the righteous by coming to dine at his home. His righteousness is entirely a response to the presence of Christ. He makes no claim to goodness or holiness; it is brought forth by Christ’s goodness and holiness. Zacchaeus does nothing but agree to let Christ come to his home – and then the spirit of Christ works its work in him. Suddenly he is giving away half his possessions to the poor and setting right his wrongs.

So we will pray the poet’s prayer on Sunday. And the words will come awkwardly. But hopefully we will remember Zacchaeus and, perhaps, all those other prayers that are a little too full of ourselves will be filled with Christ.

Image: By Tangopaso (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Like children in the marketplace

File:Mayan girls playing sack race on the market of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.JPG

Watching for the Morning of July 9, 2017

Year A

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 9 / Lectionary 14

There’s a sweet word coming in the Gospel text for Sunday. Jesus is going to say those familiar and comforting words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” And God knows, we are weary: Weary of the cacophony in Washington. Weary of the rush of modern life. Weary of the challenges of health. Weary of the press of finances. Weary of the drumbeats of war. Weary of the fear that seems to seep into every corner of our lives.

But before we get to that promise, there is a rebuke: we are like children in the marketplace pouting that we don’t get our way. Maybe Jesus is quoting something like a nursery rhyme. Maybe he is just acknowledging the taunts that get made when people won’t go along with the game. But it is clear Jesus is rebuking those whose excuse for not listening to John the Baptist was that he was too rigorous and demanding. But they won’t listen to Jesus because he isn’t rigorous enough. He laughs. He tells jokes. He teases. He dines with sinners and tax collectors. They mocked John because he lived on locusts and wild honey and Jesus because he didn’t.

Hypocrisy comes pretty naturally to us. Trump makes a career of denying the validity of Obama’s birth certificates and then accuses the media of being “fake news”. McConnell says his highest priority is to deny Obama a second term and then accuses the Democrats of being obstructionists. I tell my children they can only have two cookies but, when they go to bed, I help myself. Jesus did say something about not worrying about the splinter in my neighbor’s eye when I have a log in my own – but we do.

Hypocrisy is pretty natural to us. It allows us to do and say what we want without the work of self-examination or amendment of life. It’s comfortable to make excuses for ourselves but grant no grace to others. So Jesus has blunt words for the self-righteous before offering rest to the weary: If Sodom and Gomorrah had seen what you’ve seen, they would never have been destroyed.

The ‘righteous’ are hard to reach; it is the poor and burdened who can see the joy and freedom of serving Christ.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet Zechariah speak of the coming king who comes humbly on a donkey and sets prisoners free. And we will sing with the psalmist of God’s gracious deeds. And we will struggle to understand the latest section of Paul’s letter to Romans – but resonate to the word of thanks to God for delivering us from the bondages of our human condition. And we will hear Jesus welcome the weary and speak of the yoke of service that is not always simple, but lifts the heart.

The Prayer for July 9, 2017

Gracious God,
in Jesus you invite all people into the path of your teaching and life.
By your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and lives to your message,
that following your Son, we may find true rest for our souls;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 9, 2017

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12
“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – In the weary years after Babylon has fallen but Judah is a poor backwater of the Persian empire, comes a prophetic message from the book of Zechariah promising a king who shall arrive like the kings of old and command peace to the nations” and reign “from sea to sea.”

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-14
“Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” – A hymn of praise to God who reigns as earth’s just and faithful king.

Second Reading: Romans 7:14-25
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” – Paul uses the image of possession (compelled to act against our own will) to expound his notion that the death of Christ has freed us from our bond-service to sin and made us servants of God.

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Jesus rebukes the fickle crowd (who criticized John for his asceticism and Jesus for being a libertine) and praises God for opening the eyes of the poor and marginalized to see and take up the yoke of God’s reign of grace and life.

Image: By Erik Albers (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Would that you were

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Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

14Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.

The Tanakh translation by the Jewish Publication Society renders this verse:

14Seek good and not evil,
That you may live;
And that the Lord, the God of hosts,
May truly be with you,
As you think.

“As you think.” “As you have said.” There is no shortage of delusion in the human heart and in human societies. The prophet looks upon a nation that considers itself God’s people and utters the simple, searing indictment that they are not.

It should make us wary of claiming too quickly that we are God’s people, or that we are a Christian nation. We sing “God Bless America” now at the seventh inning stretch of our professional baseball games. It’s not so much a prayer that we might be a holy people as a defiant response to being attacked on 9/11.

14Seek good and not evil,
That you may live;
And that the Lord, the God of hosts,
May truly be with you,
As you think.

In their speeches, our politicians take it for granted that we are God’s favorite nation. They confuse wealth with divine favor, and power with greatness. They confuse naming the name of God with being a people of God.

We have that same problem in our churches. We say God is with us, but often lack the evidence that we are with God.

It is so seductive, this conviction that God is on our side. Whether we are engaged in a great crusade or resting on laurels real or imagined, “God is with us.” But the serious question is whether we are with God.

The prophet’s word – God’s word through the prophet, remember – asks fundamental questions about the treatment of the poor, the abuse of the legal system, the corruption of the economic system, the neglect of truth, the loss of our basic fidelity to one another. The leaders of the nation ignore all this, while singing a song of national inviolability: “We are God’s people.”

“Would that you were,” says the prophet. “Would that you were,” says the LORD of hosts.


Photo: By Eric Kilby on Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.



Deuteronomy 30

An illustration of the Parable of the Good Sam...

An illustration of the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the Rossano Gospels, believed to be the oldest surviving illustrated New Testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

11Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.

When I was a child the confession at the beginning of the worship service said I am “sinful and unclean.”  When our church body adopted a new hymnal the language was changed to declare that we are “in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  I understand theologically what the confession was stating.  I also understand why no one wanted to think we were not in control of our own righteousness and salvation.

It is part of my innate rebellion against God to wrench the title “savior” from God’s hands and claim it for myself.  We are all Little Jack Horner wanting to declare, “What a good boy am I.”  The parade of self-conceit in politics, news, business and religion is tiring.  Like the lawyer whose challenge to Jesus prompts the story of the Good Samaritan, we are all eager to claim we are the righteous.  Watch any family argument and you will see a battle of self-justification.  We are not naturally inclined towards the truth but to self-preservation.  And part of that self-preservation is the denial of our sinfulness.  Oh we will acknowledge that we are imperfect, but hiding behind that statement is the conviction that, graded on a curve, we are still better than average, good enough to be welcomed into the eternal habitations.

But the old prayer that we are “unclean,” didn’t mean we were vile; it meant we were unworthy to stand in God’s presence.  We are not “holy.”  And “sinful” didn’t mean we were wholly corrupt, but that deep within we are turned towards ourselves rather than towards God and our neighbor.  The desire to be our own savior, to be the judge who declares us worthy, is prime evidence of that inward turn.  Like a car repaired after a collision, we may look fine on the outside but, hidden from view, the frame is bent.

If we are honest, we must acknowledge that something is off-kilter in the human heart.  Were it not, peace and harmony would be the norm rather than conflict and resentment.  But in that wondrously talented way we have of twisting things, even our “bondage to sin” becomes a rationalization and excuse: “I’m only human.”  And there it is again, our self-justification.  Psychological studies confirm that it is much more important for us to be able to claim innocence than to be innocent.

To this human heart that wants to excuse itself comes this word that God’s commands are not esoteric or difficult.  God’s will for us does not require heroic effort.  The voice of God through this verse from Deuteronomy strips away our excuses.  It is not that hard to be faithful to God and our neighbor.  It is not that hard to be mindful of the poor, to honor our parents and our neighbor’s marriage.  It is not hard to guard the possessions and life of others.  We just don’t want to.  And there is our bondage.  We can’t give up the self-justifying self, so we trim and edit the commands of God to suit our needs.  Like the legal expert before Jesus, we limit our obligation by limiting who is regarded as our neighbor – and labeling some as our enemies.

Between Jesus and Deuteronomy we are defenseless.  God’s commands are not hard, but we are addicted to self.  And so we are back to the core question: who gets to be God?  Who will be Savior?  In whom shall we trust? And, therefore, how will we live?  Mercy, justice, compassion, are not heroic tasks; they are simple deeds – if only we will let God be God.