Prayer: Loving and Grace filled God, open our minds and hearts to recognize your presence and desire to be in relationship with your children. Amen.
Our daughter, Emily is in the market for a new place to live. Not just another apartment, but a new state and a new town to go with her new place of employment. Decisions are not something that she enjoys, life changing decisions, unfathomable. But, in less than two months, she will be without a place to call home. On Friday, she, her fiancé, Ryan, and myself spent the day in the Philadelphia area, searching for an apartment that will work for them and their three pets. Today, still no decisions made in spite of the fact that they are, at this moment, traveling back to their current home in South Carolina.
I suspect, Emily is not alone when it comes to making decisions. Let’s be honest, how many of us can claim that we enjoy tossing our lives to the wind, trusting that all will be well, even when faced by an uncertain future? Today’s scripture passages approach decision making from different perspectives. First, Zacchaeus, a man despised by his contemporaries, for both his net worth and his seemingly worthless tax collecting career, needed to make a decision of whether or not to put himself out in front of the one who might understand him, Jesus, the Christ. And so, he climbed a tree to ensure he would be noticed. The message received from our Wisdom Literature passage ensures all of us that no matter the circumstance, God’s forgiving and loving spirit is always present, spreading grace and mercy.
Today, many Protestant Congregations are recognizing the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and remembering all that one of its earliest leaders, Martin Luther, has done for the Christian Church. Talk about life changing decisions. Luther, a former catholic educator and priest, was faced with keeping quiet about religious practices he felt served to exploit its followers instead of uplifting their souls or to stand up for what he believed to be the truth about our faith and God’s presence in all our lives. So, in 1517, he made the decision to put into words his discontent with the church he served and place those words on the door of the local church for all to read.
20th Century Public School teacher and Episcopal Theologian, Verna J. Dozier, once asked, “The important question to ask is not, 'What do you believe?' but 'What difference does it make that you believe?' Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?" Think for a moment what Dozier’s words and how they relate with Martin Luther’s actions. Mind blowing, isn’t it? That someone in our time and place can capture the heart of a movement
which happened just about 500 years before.
What is it that you believe? How does that belief shape your decisions? Your life? For Martin, his decision to begin change in a deeply rooted religious tradition, resulted in his excommunication from the church and branded him an outlaw, but, because this particular outlaw and Protestors like him, we today, enjoy our community here at Christ Church.
Although I do not always agree with the ideals of the UCC Commentator, Rev. Michael Piazza, I did appreciate his recent words on the Protestant Reformation. He shared in a post this week:
The church always has been at its best when it has acted as Jesus did, consistently and persistently, using our energy and strength on behalf of the poor and those who have been pushed to the margins of life. You might agree that this is what the church should do, but what about you?
It is my deep conviction that the loss of spiritual vitality in the Protestant church, and in the lives
of Protestant Christians, is that we spend too much of our time and recourses on ourselves. It you wonder why your faith lacks vitality this may be the reason. It may also be why your church worship isn’t transformational. When life and/or worship become all about us there is absolutely no reason for the Spirit to show up.
You know, most of the community around Zacchaeus would have agreed that Zacchaeus was all about himself, but they would be missing out on so much that was happening behind the scenes. This story as with most of the stories throughout the Gospel of Luke is all about joy. Zacchaeus isn't afraid, he's happy to welcome Jesus into his home and he is just as excited to share with Christ how he has already been extravagantly giving back to society more than what is required.
The story of the Tax Collector from Jericho is more about God’s grace and mercy freely given, than about repentance in order to receive Salvation. It's a new day for Zacchaeus who feels God's mercy and love reaching him through the love and acceptance of Jesus. The Lord came home with this sinner, broke bread, listened to his stories, and demonstrated what it means to be in relationship with another. Zacchaeus of Jericho’s story is a reminder that God, Jesus, the whole biblical story is about relationship: God’s deep, abiding, desire to be in relationship with each and all of us. Which brings us back to the main point of the Reformation, declaring that God is more like a loving parent than an oppressive monarch, who is more interested in connecting with us than holding righteousness over us. This is great news for the tax collector, or the teacher or pastor, the homemaker, or the barber to hear and believe; that salvation has come to us through the life, ministry and death of Jesus.
The Ancient King Solomon wisely declared: You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living. For your immortal spirit is in all things. So there it is, the truth about our lives and our deaths! God is in all things. Our control of life is merely an illusion. This is and has always been God’s world. God can forgive… God can grant salvation… God can develop relationship.
Noah Ben Shea offers these words of wisdom from one of my heroes, his famous wise character, Jacob the Baker:
“Tell us the truth about life!” someone asked Jacob.
And Jacob responded. “Language is only a lie told about the truth.”
“Can you show us a miracle, Jacob?” they asked.
And he answered. “A miracle is often the willingness to see the common in an uncommon way.”
“How can we have more, Jacob?”
And Jacob answered. “The only way I can take a breath is by releasing my breath. In order to be more, I must be willing to be less.”
Martin Luther wished nothing more than for the Catholic Church to be less of an oppressive presence to its parishioners. Mainly the poor who could not afford to support their faith. Luther’s protest was in fact of message that less is more, one did not have to pay for their salvation. All they needed was a belief in God’s unconditional love and grace.
Zacchaeus choose to respond wholeheartedly to God's radical grace in his life, just as we're invited to decide how to respond to our encounter with Jesus and to God's grace in our lives. Like Zacchaeus, we will find in our belief that nothing is the same any more. I am reminded of a blog entry that I read the other day written by Lee and Candy Sugiyama, house parents at Casa Aleluya, in Guatemala, the site for our 2017 Mission Trip. Lee writes:
We have been studying Matthew and the Lord is teaching his disciples by using parables. Yesterday we talked about the parable of the sower. God’s Word is the seed, we are the sowers, and the soil is the human heart. We do the planting and God gives the harvest in God’s own time and way. Sowing the seed is more than just throwing the seed out. It is preparing the field. Loving, disciplining, teaching, playing and never giving up. It is a lot of work, yet God makes things beautiful in time. What do we do? Wait and pray. God is patient.
Lee went on to tell this story: In the afternoon we went to the school soccer field to play soccer. Now, this wasn’t just any ordinary soccer game. This was three-legged soccer. This time we had the older boys play against each other and the younger boys play against each other. I told them that this is a “time to have fun and not to complain. If you fall, laugh. If they score a goal against your team, laugh. Oh, by the way, the goal keepers will also have two players tied together, wearing one of my jackets, so they can only use ‘one pair’ of hands. The first team to score five goals or whoever has the most goals in thirty minutes, wins.” Everyone had a good time.
Lee and Candy are responding to God’s radical grace within their ministry at Casa Aleluya! I am sure their lives have not been the same since they started their jobs as house parents. My understanding is that our 2017 Mission Trip will change our lives forever, too! A despised employee of the Roman Empire gave back, with a heart full of gratitude and grace. A concerned Catholic Priest, knew his faith was much deeper than the coffer housing coin collected to ensure salvation. Many other people have chosen, like Lee and Candy Sugiyama, to spend their time with the lost and tossed aside children of Guatemala showing forth the love and grace of God in a multitude of ways.
“What difference does it make that you believe?' Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?"
The Decision is yours to make. Amen.