Sermon for October 31st: Luke 19:1-10

Lost and Found

Many years ago when we were living in the Western Arctic I had the experience of getting lost in the Mackenzie Delta. It was late summer, and I had gone over to Inuvik from Aklavik by boat with my friend Bessie (which was about a sixty-mile trip); I had to take a couple of outboard motors to Inuvik to be repaired, and Bessie wanted to do some grocery shopping. It was late afternoon when we started out on our return journey to Aklavik. Bessie wanted to do some duck hunting on the way home, and so for a while I steered the boat while she shot at ducks. In the excitement of the chase we missed our turn. The Mackenzie Delta is a huge maze of channels, and once we were lost, we were thoroughly lost! Eventually we found a cabin Bessie recognised, and then we realised that we were thirty miles further north than we thought, and had very little gas left in our fuel tank.

We slept for a few hours, then the next morning found some gas behind the cabin, which was enough to get us to a fishing camp about six miles north of Aklavik. There we were able to borrow some more gas, and thus we came home, about eighteen hours later than we had planned! The police had just begun an aerial search for us; we had been looking for Aklavik for a long time, but Aklavik had just started looking for us!

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (v.10). Just as we can be physically lost, as Bessie and I were, so it is also possible for us to be lost in a spiritual sense. We can lose our way in life; we can be travelling a road through life that won’t help us reach the destination we were designed for. Jesus came to search for people who are lost like this, and to help them get back on the right road. In today’s Gospel, he does this for Zacchaeus.

What do we know about Zacchaeus? Luke tells us three things about him: First, he was ‘a chief tax collector’ (v.2) or, as another translation puts it, he was ‘superintendant of taxes’ (REB). In the Roman Empire, taxation was private enterprise; the Romans contracted with local entrepreneurs to collect the various taxes, tolls, tariffs and customs fees in a given geographical area. The entrepreneurs – the ‘chief tax collectors’, that is – were required to pay the contract up front – in other words, to pay the Romans the entire tax bill before they had collected a cent themselves. They would then employ others to collect the taxes, charging their own cut on top of the prescribed amount so that they could turn a profit. Obviously the system was open to abuse, and Jews who collected taxes for the Romans were assumed to be dishonest and were hated by their fellow-Jews because they were seen as collaborating with the Gentile oppressors.

Second, he was ‘rich’, says our NRSV, or ‘very rich’ as the REB puts it. Tom Wright says,

Wherever money changes hands, whether across a grubby table in a tin shack in a dusty small town or across a sparkling computer screen in a shiny office on the ninety-ninth floor of a Wall Street skyscraper, the hands all too easily get dirty. Whenever money starts to talk, it shouts louder than the claims of honesty, respect, and human dignity. One can only imagine the reaction of neighbours, and even friends and relatives, as Zacchaeus’ house became more lavishly decorated, as more slaves ran about at his bidding, as his clothes became finer and his food richer. Everyone knew that this was their money and that he had no right to it; everyone knew that there was nothing they could do about it.

Interestingly enough, the rich have not fared very well so far in the Gospel of Luke. More than any of the other gospel writers, Luke is alive to Jesus’ care for the poor and needy and to his call for justice and compassion. In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (6:24). Jesus calls a rich farmer a fool, and tells a story of a rich man who goes to hell while poor Lazarus goes to the bosom of Abraham (12:20, 16:19-31), and he tells his disciples that it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (18:25). So in describing Zacchaeus as ‘rich’, Luke is setting up the expectation for us that this is someone who Jesus is going to condemn.

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, and he was rich; thirdly, he was ‘trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature’ (v.3). So because of this situation, Zacchaeus does two things that would have been considered very strange and counter-cultural in his day. A respected man in the community would never run anywhere; that would not be dignified. Nor would he climb a tree like a child playing a game. But this is exactly what Zacchaeus did: ‘He ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see (Jesus), because he was going to pass that way’. Luke is underlining for us how serious Zacchaeus was about wanting to see Jesus, and the lengths he was willing to go to in order to get closer to him. This wasn’t just a whim; this was something that was important to Zacchaeus.

It would be interesting to speculate about Zacchaeus’ motivation; given the fact that he had undoubtedly received his fair share of condemnation from the religious establishment in Jericho, why did he want to put himself in the line of fire from yet another rabbi – and a rabbi who had a reputation for siding with the poor? Or had he perhaps heard that Jesus also had a soft spot for people on the margins – Roman centurions and prostitutes and, yes, even other tax collectors? Had he, perhaps, heard that there was even a former tax collector named Matthew or Levi in the disciple group that followed Jesus around? Did he wonder if this rabbi, at last, might be someone he could talk to, someone who would give him a sympathetic hearing and answer his questions over a glass of single-malt Scotch? Was Zacchaeus, in fact, aware of a hunger for God inside, and was he looking for someone who could help him find his way back to God?

It’s speculation, of course; we don’t know the answers to these questions, because Luke doesn’t give them to us. What’s really striking, though, is that Jesus describes Zacchaeus in verse 10 as having been ‘lost’: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost”.

Now I suspect that of all the words that the people of Jericho had thrown at Zacchaeus over the years, ‘lost’ did not figure very highly on the list! I suspect that if you’d talked to the ordinary people of Jericho and suggested to them that Zacchaeus might be lost, they would probably have laughed in your face. “Lost? Zacchaeus? You’ve got to be kidding! Do you know where he went for his last vacation? He went all the way to Corinth, wherever that is! Have you seen some of the furniture in that house of his? And they say he’s got a summer home down at Joppa, too. No, Zacchaeus isn’t lost! He’s not suffering! He knows which side his bread’s buttered on!”

Things don’t change all that much. It’s easy for us to look at an AIDS orphan in Africa or a street person in Boyle/Macauley and think of them as ‘lost’, but we somehow don’t think of someone who drives a BMW and works in a plush office tower downtown as being in the same category. It makes sense for us that God has a heart for the poor and needy and wants us to care for the victims of oppression and injustice; it’s not so easy to remember that God also loves the perpetrators of oppression and injustice and wants them also to come home to him. And when we in this church think about outreach and mission, it’s tempting to think only of those whose bodily needs are obvious – the homeless, the unemployed, those who live on the street. It’s easy to forget that every human being also needs to connect with God, and that Jesus came and lived and died and rose again in order for that to happen – that Jesus called people everywhere to turn to him in faith and find the answer to their spiritual hunger, and that this hunger exists in the rich and the powerful as well as in the poor and the powerless.

So Jesus confounded the expectations of everyone in Jericho. Instead of spending time with the religious leaders, or with the poor and needy, he chose to invite himself to the plush mansion on Saskatchewan Drive where the superintendant of taxes lived. Pretty well everyone was annoyed with Jesus about this. Luke says, ‘All who saw it began to grumble and said. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner”’ (v.7). By the way, the word for ‘grumble’ in the original language is one of my favourite New Testament Greek words: ‘gonguzo’! Pretty graphic, isn’t it? But the contrast with how Zacchaeus felt could hardly be stronger; verse 6 tells us that ‘He hurried down (from the tree, that is) and was happy to welcome (Jesus)’. At least, that’s what the NRSV says; the actual Greek is a lot stronger – it says ‘He welcomed him with joy’. Luke is reminding his readers of the story of the lost sheep, which concluded with Jesus saying “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Just like the shepherd going out to find the lost sheep, so Jesus has gone out to find Zacchaeus; he’s now brought him home, and the result is joy.

Let’s close by reflecting on the gospel, the good news, and what this story tells us about it.

Firstly, the gospel truly is about unconditional love. Jesus didn’t require that Zacchaeus change his life before he would go to visit him in his house; he went to him as he was, sins and all. As we’ll see in a moment, that doesn’t mean that Jesus didn’t care how Zacchaeus lived; he did care very much, and he knew that Zacchaeus would never find what he was looking for until he was willing to change his way of living. But Jesus knew that condemnation wasn’t going to make that happen. If judgement and condemnation could have changed Zacchaeus, then it surely would have happened before Jesus came on the scene! I would imagine that every rabbi in Jericho had had a go at Zacchaeus at one time or another, thundering God’s judgement on him for collaborating with the pagan Romans and feathering his own nest in their service. But none of that changed Zacchaeus. What changed him was when Jesus showed him the unconditional love of God by going to him as he was, accepting his hospitality, and showing him that he, too, was special to God.

And in case you haven’t heard that often enough here at St. Margaret’s church, let me announce it one more time. The Christian message is not that if we just try harder at loving our neighbours we might possibly succeed in persuading God that we’re not so bad after all. That doesn’t sound very much like good news! The Christian message is that Jesus came to save the lost, that he came to save sinners (“of whom I am the chief”, says Paul), that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, that as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us. With God there is forgiveness and a fresh start: that’s what the gospel tells us.

What’s that fresh start like? That’s the second thing we see in Zacchaeus’ story. When he accepts the love of God, it can’t help but have a transformational effect on his life. In Leviticus the law of God says that if you defraud someone you are to pay them back the principal amount and add one-fifth to it (Leviticus 6:5), but Zacchaeus went much further than that; he says, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (I love that little word ‘if’ – as if there were any doubt about it! But Zacchaeus is still human, isn’t he?!). And when he’s finished making amends to those he has wronged, he’s not going to stop there: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor”. That’s got to have cut into his standard of living!

This is what happens to us rich people when the love of God comes into our lives. First, we look carefully at the way we have been doing business to see if we’ve harmed anyone along the way, and if we have, we make amends to them. Second, we learn to give as generously to others as God has given to us. We learn that the one who dies with the most toys doesn’t win, he just dies, but the one who responds to the love of God by giving extravagantly might just have found the secret of life after all.

Thirdly and lastly, this story tells us that this gospel needs to be taken to the rich as well as the poor. Christian mission isn’t just feeding the hungry, it’s also helping the rich and powerful and the smug and self-satisfied to find the answer to their spiritual hunger too. Many of our neighbours, like Zacchaeus, look outwardly prosperous and satisfied, but inside they are aware that something is missing. St. Augustine said to God, ‘You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’. Many of our neighbours are aware of that restlessness.

So the call to us as members of St. Margaret’s is to do as Jesus did: to live out the love of God to our neighbours, to help them understand and experience the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that they can find the answer to their spiritual hunger and thirst and so that their lives can be transformed as Zacchaeus’ life was transformed. Have you experienced the transforming power of the gospel in your own life? Then surely you want others to meet Christ and experience it too. Just imagine what could happen if all the Zacchaeuses we know met Christ and were transformed as Zacchaeus, the superintendant of taxes in Jericho, was transformed! Imagine the joy in the presence of the angels of God! And with the help of God, the gospel of Jesus, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, it can happen, and you and I can be a part of it!


Oral love?

When it comes to Internet discussions of current Anglican controversies, Doug Chaplin tells it like it is:

I know that I’m only blogging sparsely at the moment, but even when blogging more regularly I confess that I hardly ever blogged on the fractious, febrile and frustrating state of the Anglican Communion, or even the Church of England.

In part, it’s because I very rarely have anything to say that isn’t being said better elsewhere. But it is more to do with the way I feel that blogging is more often part of the problem than the solution. Many of the main blogs covering it – and it is often in the comments more than the initial postings – seem to me to stir people into frenzies of self-righteous hatred and the caricaturing and dehumanising of their by now thoroughly demonised opponents.

I thank God that I am not like this tax-collector / liberal / fundamentalist / fascist / bigot*
(*delete as applicable)

In this field at least, blogging is certainly not promoting either conversation or understanding.

Read the rest here.


October 24th 1990

Twenty years ago today, on October 24th 1990, I was ordained as a deacon by Bishop Jack Sperry, Bishop of the Arctic. The service was very different from the ordinations I attend now at our cathedral here in Edmonton. It was held in the little Church of the Resurrection in Holman, Northwest Territories, where I had been serving as the Church Army officer in charge of the parish (I had been in full-time lay ministry for twelve years before my ordination). The service was bilingual (Copper Inuktitut and English), translated by Bishop Sperry especially for the occasion (the dialect is only spoken in four communities and ordinations using that language are rare). The only other ordained person present at the service was my father who had flown all the way from England to be there; the cost of air travel was too prohibitive for any of my fellow clergy from the Diocese of the Arctic to attend.

Because I had not taken the usual route to ordination through a lengthy academic preparation, my ordination was unusual (and it was later suggested by at least one other bishop that I was not properly trained for my ministry). I am grateful to Bishop Sperry – a dedicated Arctic missionary who gave his whole life to ministry in Canada’s north, in days when it was far more fraught with danger and difficulty than it is today – for his belief in me and his willingness to step outside normal practice in my case.

In some ways my ministry didn’t actually change that much after October 24th 1990. As a deacon, I was still not authorised to preside at Holy Communion, and as a Church Army officer I had already been doing pretty well every other aspect of parish ministry – preaching, teaching, visiting, pastoral care, baptisms etc. But it was of course a vital step toward my subsequent ordination as a priest (which took place a year and a half later, in Valleyview, Alberta).

Today I minister in a very different context from that tiny Inuit community of 400 people in the high Arctic. But it’s still a privilege to be able to do this work, and I thank God for the people who helped me, taught me, encouraged me, and believed in me along the way – people like Bishop Jack Sperry.

The disputes of rascals

Another good reading from the book of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) at Morning Prayer this morning. For some reason I decided to use my old New English Bible for my daily office readings today. The following excerpt seems particularly appropriate for Internet conversations, comments on blogs etc.

Do not find fault before examining the evidence;
think first, and criticize afterwards.
Do not answer without first listening,
and do not interrupt when another is speaking.
Never take sides in a quarrel not your own
or become involved in the disputes of scoundrels.
(Ecclesiasticus 11:7-9 NEB).

Then follows this verse which seems particularly appropriate for clergy who are getting sucked into the ‘Jesus is coming: look busy!’ syndrome:

My child, do not busy yourself with many matters;
if you multiply activities, you will not be held blameless.
(I’m quoting here from the NRSV of v. 10).

Some good nuggets for me to think on as I go into my day.

On ‘what’s going on in my world’.

Today I met with five other guys for Bible Study at 7.00 this morning; we spent an hour on 2 Thessalonians 2 which is a bit obscure, but the study was good nonetheless. I then drove down to the church and prayed Morning Prayer (I found Sirach 10 to be full of good nuggets for meditation this morning). I’m spending the rest of the morning on various projects, also helping out our new administrative assistant as she finds her way into the job. Yes, I had to spend the past month looking for a new administrative assistant, which is always a time-consuming job. I’m glad it’s over.

This afternoon I’m doing my pastoral care thing with a fellow-priest who is off on sick-leave with a badly torn hamstring – I’m picking him up and taking him for a beer! After that, back down to the church for 4.00 for an hour and a half of instruction with a trainee lay-reader. Supper at my daughter’s place, then in the evening I’m visiting a couple for baptismal preparation for an hour or so.

That’s the way my days tend to go. I’m also ‘baching it’ right now, as Marci got on the plane last night and went down to Ontario to spend nine days with her sister and brother and other assorted relatives. I’m not a bad cook but I find it rather time-consuming. It’s more fun sponging off my daughter!

At church we’ve had a busy September and early October. We had a good 30th anniversary celebration on September 12th and an excellent ‘Back to Church Sunday’ on September 26th with our attendance up about 40%. I’ve been doing a sermon series on big questions; so far we’ve done (1) ‘In the great big scheme of things, why is my life important?’, (2) Aren’t right and wrong just a matter of opinion?’, (3) Why is there something, and not nothing?’, and (4) ‘Aren’t all religions equally true?’ This coming week we’re doing ‘What happens to us after we die?’

We’ve also started a book study group on Francis Collins’ excellent book The Language of God. Like many churches, we tend to attract the ‘same old crowd’ to our midweek activities, but breaking out of the normal pattern of midweek studies and addressing something of a more scientific/philosophical nature seems to have made a difference. The group is well-balanced age-wise and the discussion is very interesting indeed. We did our third session (of eight) this past Tuesday evening.

We’ve tried to start Messy Church but ran into volunteer crunch and are now realising we need to redesign it to make it workable for our busy congregation. We tried to run a Christian parenting workshop but had to cancel it at the last minute as registrations were very low. So – you win some and you lose some!

In my spare time I’ve been arranging new versions of some old folk songs. I’ve reworked ‘The Recruited Collier‘ using Robert Anderson’s original 1803 words as my starting point, and redesigning the guitar accompaniment using open C tuning.  I’ve also reworked ‘Fair Annie‘, leaving out a few of the verses in the Bellamy/Simpson strand of the tradition and incorporating some different ones from the Child ballads, as well as working on the guitar accompaniment, also in open C, bringing it a bit closer (but not identical) to the approach Martin Simpson takes.

One thing I haven’t had much time for is blogging, and I find I also don’t have much to say right now. Hopefully that will change in the not-too-distant future.

And that’s what’s going on in my life!

Can’t keep quiet

‘Then (the Sanhedrin) called (Peter and John) in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes, to listen to you, or to him? You be the judge. As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen or heard” (Acts 4:18-19).

I hear a lot of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ when it comes to evangelism these days, and I’ve issued my own fair share of them. They are only marginally effective. Traditional church members in the pews of Anglican churches seem as reluctant as ever to talk about their faith with their non-Christian friends. I sometimes think these folks would breathe a sigh of relief if someone in authority told them not to speak about Jesus (as the Sanhedrin told Peter and John); it would give them an ironclad excuse to keep their mouths shut, which is what they’ve wanted to do all the time!

Here’s a couple of alternative approaches we preachers might try.

First, instead of preaching sermons telling people to spread the gospel, perhaps we could try presenting the gospel ourselves in our sermons, in many and various ways, with such compelling power that the people in our pews are thrilled and entranced and captivated with the good news of the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, and find that they can’t help sharing it with others. Perhaps we could make a point of asking ourselves how often our sermons present the incredible good news of God’s love and make it clear that we don’t have to do anything to deserve it, because Jesus died for sinners and so we all qualify? Maybe we could be intentional about regularly preaching sermons that don’t ask the hearers to do anything other than dare to believe the good news that there is nothing they can do to make God love them more, and nothing they can do to make God love them less, because God already loves them infinitely, and nothing is ever going to change that fact?

Second, maybe we could do all we can to help the people in our pews step into the experience of the love of God themselves. Peter and John couldn’t help speaking about what they had seen and heard. What had they seen and heard? Well, they were witnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; they had seen his healing power, heard his life-changing teaching, stood and watched as he poured out his life on the cross (in John’s case), stood in the empty tomb, and then met the risen Lord for themselves. We modern Christians can’t share their experience of watching and listening to Jesus in the flesh, but the power of the Holy Spirit is just as real for us; people (including ourselves) are still delivered by the power of God from things they couldn’t deliver themselves from; God is still changing lives today. Maybe in the mainline church we spend too much time talking about what Jesus did, and not enough time talking about what Jesus does, and encouraging people to put their faith in him and experience his work in their lives. When they do that, maybe they too, like John and Peter, will be unable to stop speaking about what they have seen and heard and experienced for themselves.