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


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The appointed readings for October 30, 2016

Year C

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 26 / Lectionary 31

The appointed texts for those who are not celebrating the Reformation on Sunday continue Jesus’ words and deeds about welcoming the marginalized – whether they be poor or rich – into the dawning reign of God. Sunday, Jesus will invite himself to the home of Zacchaeus, the short little guy for whom no one would make room for him to see Jesus, so he ran ahead and climbed a tree. It makes for a wonderful Sunday School lesson and children’s song (I can still see my young daughter wagging her finger and punching out the line: “Zacchaeus, you come down!”). But the story is for us, who would push such sinners beyond the margin of society if we could. Pick your sin. There are plenty on the left and right, inside and outside the church. We seem all too ready to declare others unclean: politicians, preachers, corporate heads, bankers, abortion providers, sexual sinners, chauvinists, crusaders, tree huggers, libbers, Muslims, persons of color, illegal immigrants – or just immigrants.

But the text is not only about Jesus welcoming sinners – it is about what happens when someone is encountered by the immeasurable mercy and love of God. Zacchaeus gives away half his possessions to the poor, and vows to restore four-fold any he has cheated in the lucrative and relatively unrestrained work of forcing people to pay whatever you can get from them in the name of taxes.

Please understand, these is not about moral reform on the part of Zacchaeus; it is about what happens when someone encounters the reign of God, enters into the new creation, is washed in the Spirit. When he shares in Jesus’ invitation to come to the table, Zacchaeus is born from above. Perfect mercy begets true transformation. We might even call it resurrection.

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5)

Get ready; Jesus is inviting himself to your house today.


The appointed readings for October 30, 2016

First Reading: Isaiah 1:10–18 (“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.”)

Psalmody: Psalm 32:1-7 (“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”)

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 (“We always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call.”)

Gospel: Luke 19:1-10 (When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”)


Image: By Pfir (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Inversions and opposites and contradictions and a world remade

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Watching for the Morning of April 17, 2016

Year C

The Fourth Sunday of Easter / Good Shepherd Sunday

The crucified rebel is Lord of All. The lamb who was slain, lives. The Lamb is the Shepherd. The lame and the shamed are brought to the wedding feast. The tax-gatherer goes home justified. The meek inherit the earth. The New Testament is rife with images turned inside out and the world turned upside down. The scripture doesn’t defend the status quo – it promises and brings a totally new one. The God of the Bible isn’t defending morality, but radically redefining it.

It is hard for us to get our heads around this. “The message of the cross is folly to the Gentiles,” writes Paul. The risen Jesus must patiently teach the scriptures again and again, for even with all that his followers have seen, they don’t get it. It’s why Jesus washes feet and welcomes children and declares it necessary for him to eat at the house of Zacchaeus. It’s why his puts up with the insults of Simon the Pharisee when he eats at his table. It’s why he breaks bread with Judas – and serves breakfast to Peter the denier.

So we come again in this Easter season to Good Shepherd Sunday. But it does not present us a pious pastoral image of the tender shepherd with a lamb around his neck. This is the slain lamb who lives who is Lord of all, standing on the throne of God. This is the shepherd who provides a banquet table for the king “in the presence of my enemies.” This is martyrs who make their robes white by washing them in blood. This is the slain singing God’s praise. This is Dorcas dead but made alive. This is sheep given the life of the age to come: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Easter is a deeply unsettling. A profound revolution. But the hope of all the ends of the earth.

The Prayer for April 17, 2016

Gracious Heavenly Father,
shepherd of our souls and guardian of our way,
in the resurrection of your son Jesus Christ
you have opened for us the way of life.
Continue to lead us by your Word and your Spirit
that we may dwell with you in that life which is eternal;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for April 17, 2016

First Reading: Acts 9: 36-43
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas.” – Peter is summoned to Joppa and Dorcas/Tabitha is restored to life.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – In the midst of the dangerous intrigues of the royal court, where the king is regarded as the shepherd of the people, the poet declares it is the LORD who is his shepherd.

Second Reading: Revelation 7:9-17
“The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
– The prophet sees the martyrs robed in white and singing at the throne of God.

Gospel: John 10:22-30
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” – The conclusion of John 10 that reflects on Jesus as the Good Shepherd.


Image:  By Unknown 1930s (Scan old postcard) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Even from stones


Luke 3:1-18

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Icon of John the Baptist, the forerunner

8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

“Shape up or ship out.” That’s the way we usually hear this. We tend to equate repentance with moral reform. We see it as sorrow for the mistakes of our past and a determination to do better. Only Jesus never asks anyone to “do better.” He asks them to “follow me.”

And sometimes he asks them to “Go and tell how much the Lord has done for you.”

Jesus asks nothing of Zacchaeus, yet the simple act of inviting himself into Zacchaeus’ home brings Zacchaeus to stand up and declare that he will give away half and restore fourfold anyone he has cheated. That is not about moral reform. It is about a new orientation.

We talk a lot these days about sexual orientation, but the important topic is our spiritual orientation.

Repentance is not reform. It is a new orientation. A new direction. A new allegiance. Both the Greek word and its Hebrew antecedent means simply to ‘turn’. To travel a new direction. To bend the knee before a new Lord. To show fidelity to the reign of that new Lord.

So here is John, summoning the nation not to moral reform, but to a faithful allegiance to God’s way, God’s values, God’s justice and mercy.

It means sharing bread. And when we listen carefully, we will see that John doesn’t have in mind a few canned goods for the occasional food drive. He starts by saying, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” The Greek word is tunic. Whoever has two garments must share with the one who has none.

This is not about sharing clothes we no longer wear. It is about a fundamental change in our orientation. It is about how we see our neighbor. It is about how we see God. I wouldn’t have two pair of shoes if my brother had none. The world God is creating, the world where the Spirit of God governs every heart, is a world where bread is shared. This is not a so-called communist idea. It is a world where all dance at the banquet of God. It is a world where joy abounds. It is a world set free from its hungers and fears. It’s a world where there are no shooters.

John’s call is for us to show allegiance to that world. John’s call is to live now the joy that is to come. And we shouldn’t worry about how we could ever become so compassionate or generous. For God is able to make joyful children of God even from stones.


Image: John the Baptist by Feofan Grek (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons