October 30, 2016 – Salvation, according to Jesus

Pentecost 24 October 30, 2016   (Ps 146, Luke 18:18-30, 35-43) Luke 19:1-10 

Salvation, according to Jesus

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Tomorrow is Halloween.  Our pumpkin patch for the Bourne Food Pantry of course piggy backs on the association of pumpkins with Halloween… And going door to door with kids or grand-kids, and greeting children who come to our doors with candy can be good ways to meet some of our neighbors. (If it seems appropriate in the course of conversation, we might even mention – we’re part of the church that sells pumpkins for the Bourne Food Pantry. We never know – someone we meet may be thinking about coming to church, and our pumpkin patch outreach may be of interest… )

And getting dressed up in costumes is also part of our religious heritage. Our Jewish cousins in faith dress up for the holiday of Purim, where wild and oddly funny costumes are the norm.

And this year we’ve already held a bible character’s costume party, last Sunday…(Some of you were there helping, thank you very much…) I’m pretty sure we all had fun, and learned some interesting things about the bible. Many adult volunteers helped immensely; and Tatsiana and Tom Goux led us all in bible sing-a-long-songs… All costumes were creative and thematic…

Jacob (Martitz) came as himself – actually, rather, as his biblical namesake, Jacob, from Genesis, who wrestled an angel all night and was given a new name, Israel… Jacob’s sister Ella had a great costume, all dressed in purple, as Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth known for her hospitality, who became the first leader of the church in Philippi (Acts 16)…

Marcus was marvelous as bearded Melchior, one of the three wise men…

Juliana was splendid as the daughter of Pharaoh, with adopted baby Moses under her arm… Her parents Christena and Cory looked great, though a bit young for their parts as Sarah and Abraham, who had their son Isaac when she was 90, he was 100….Yan came as Noah, washed ashore after the flood….

Alexis was shining like the sun in her bright yellow solar costume, while her brother Tyler did some time travel as Harry Potter, back into the bible, perhaps to check out the Potter’s House of Jeremiah 18…

Rohi and her mother Reah came as contemplative Mary of Bethany and busy sister Martha… while yours truly with them was arguably also well cast, in his role as their brother Lazarus, brought back from the dead by Jesus…

And today we continue on the theme of biblical characters in their various costumes… As we consider the case of two rich men and Jesus…

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In our first reading a rich ruler comes to Jesus. And if I were designing a Halloween costume to portray this bible character, I’d be looking in our thrift shop for a tastefully-expensive-looking business suit, perhaps with a golden-cross as a tie-pin. He comes asking, politely, what he must do to inherit eternal life. He seems to have faith eternal life is for real. And he seems to think its his to inherit… (Just checking with Jesus to be sure there’s no technical issues he’s overlooked.)

And Jesus doesn’t say eternal life isn’t his to inherit, he just says, “you know the commandments: don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, honor your father and mother…”

“I’ve kept all these since my youth,” the man says…

“Just one more thing, then,” Jesus says. “Sell all you’ve got; give to the poor; store up treasure in heaven, then come and follow me.”

We’re not told what if anything the man says back to Jesus now – but we are told he’s very sad, because he’s very rich. And Jesus looks at him and says, “how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Its easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Which does sound rather different, doesn’t it? – from the way we usually hear it? I mean, really – who does not want to be a millionaire? (Being a billionaire’s better, of course, what with inflation, but – who can really be against being rich?) And it’s not just us today who think along these lines – those listening to Jesus also ask, “Then who can be saved?” (As if the rich should have a better chance than others…) To which Jesus replies,“What’s impossible for people is possible for God.”

Which could be the end of the story. It does sound pretty final… Except, in our last reading, here comes yet another rich man, looking for Jesus. And if I were to be designing this bible character’s halloween costume I wouldn’t know where to start… Zacchaeus clearly is in the money – but he’s also short of stature. Meaning both short in height – and also held in very little regard by his neighbors in the community in which he lives. Because –

As chief tax collector, Zack is taking all he can possibly can get from his neighbors on behalf of the ruling Roman colonial government. For this reason he’s probably about as popular as the chief of the IRS at tax time when, instead of a refund, we realize we owe back taxes, with lots of interest…

Yet strangely enough, the perfect Halloween outfit for Zack just might be a small camel suit, and a very large needle with an extremely large eye on it…

Because tax collectors, again, strangely enough, are portrayed for the most part as sympathetic characters in Luke’s gospel. Last week we heard, remember, two men praying in the temple in a parable Jesus tells… The Pharisee in that story looks down on others and recites his spiritual resume…While the tax collector in the same parable beats his breast and prays humbly, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” and gets a big thumbs-up from Jesus.

Tax collectors, again in contrast with Pharisees, come to listen and stay to be baptized by John the Baptist (back in Luke’s third chapter). And a tax collector named Levi is called to be an apostle by Jesus two chapters later… When Jesus attends Levi’s going-away banquet and other tax collectors and sinners are invited guests, Pharisees question Jesus about the bad company he keeps. Jesus says “I have come not for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance…” Jesus welcomes tax collectors and sinners. And Luke’s gospel keeps us thinking of tax collectors as potential followers of Jesus – in spite of any initially negative impressions.

But Zacchaeus is a rich chief tax collector. And Jesus has been notoriously tough on the rich, throughout Luke’s gospel. In his sermon on the plain (Luke 6) Jesus says “blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God… Woe to you rich, you’ve had your fun…” And: “the measure that you give will be the measure that you get… Adding later (Luke 14), “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required…” He also tells his disciples (in Luke 12 and 14) they should sell possessions and give to the poor, indeed, they must be willing to give up all they possess to be his disciples. (So Jesus isn’t telling the first rich man to do more than he’s told others previously…)

And there’s real tension in the story, as we meet Zacchaeus – tension between Jesus’ highly critical view of wealth and those who seek it – and his warm welcome of tax collectors, even though they’re deeply implicated in sin against their neighbors.

As a chief tax collector,  Zacchaeus is presumably supervising lower level tax collectors. His riches come to him through commissions received for squeezing all he possibly can from neighbors. His financial fortune has come to him at the expense of his neighbors…

But now all the money he has is somehow nowhere near enough… Something beyond price is missing…

And when we meet him, Zacchaeus is urgently trying to see Jesus – trying very hard to get a look at someone he hopes can show him how to find real meaning and joy in life…

So he’s climbing a tree to get a look at Jesus… Nobody’s willing to move an inch to let short-of-stature Zacchaeus see… So he climbs a sycamore tree and crawls out on a branch to try to see Jesus…

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Meanwhile, as Zack is going out on that limb… We never get to know the rest of the story of that other rich man who came to Jesus, inquiring about inheriting the kingdom of God…All we really know about him is that he meets Jesus and sorrowfully concludes that he can’t – or won’t – do as Jesus suggests. We can almost hear his silent, sorrowful no to Jesus… And his story seems to conclude with the sad question “Who then can be saved?

Zacchaeus, by contrast, gives his joyful yes to Jesus’s invitation to come down from the tree and receive Jesus into his home. And the last word we hear in his story is from Jesus, saying:  “Today salvation has come to this house, for he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost…”

We don’t know all Zack’s previous life story. We don’t know if his turn to Jesus is a sudden 180 – or the culmination of many smaller 5-10-15-20-degree changes made over a period of time…

But at the end of this day with Jesus, we do know – Zacchaeus has taken off his tax collector’s costume, and re-clothed himself as a child of Abraham, a child of Jesus. Our poster child, now, for new possibilities…

He’s pledged half his fortune, and probably quite a bit more (assuming he has taken more than what’s strictly due, sometimes, along the way)… But he’s all-out, all-in, all-joyful, now, with Jesus…

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So… What about us? Are we inviting Jesus to come to our house today and continue the conversation? Have we heard his invitation? (It is for us all…)

I know… Most of us don’t consider ourselves rich. We may not see much of ourselves (at least not at first) in either of these rich men…

But we do live in one of the more prosperous states in one of the richest countries on earth… And we do live in a nation and world deeply divided, with many who lack the basics, and many with much more than we need… And we live in a place and time where many are confused and perplexed about who God is, who Jesus is, and what the church of Jesus is really all about…

So, along with brother Zacchaeus, we too should be striving earnestly to be biblical people of faith, on or off the job, in or out costume – at work, at school, in church, at play… We too, with Zacchaeus, ought to be living the gospel according to Jesus… Demonstrating the way of salvation, as Jesus is teaching it to us…

Like Zacchaeus, we too ought to be looking, always, for Jesus. Asking Jesus “Where are you, Lord, now in our life and the life of our community? What are you saying to us here and now – through your gospel, Lord, through your Spirit?”

Like Zacchaeus, we too should be excited about Jesus and his love – enough to want to climb a tree and go out on a limb for Jesus…

Others are looking to us, as followers of Jesus. Others need our help to be able to see Jesus… Our actions always speak at least as loudly as our words…So –

When we’re up the tree,  out on a limb for Jesus, count it as all rejoicing. It’s a great blessing to be able to help, even in very small ways, others to get to know Jesus better.

And the more time we spend together out on a limb for Jesus, the more we know for sure –

It’s only because Jesus is looking first for us… that we’re able to see him at all…

It’s only because Jesus has gone all the way out and back for us…

Nailed to the tree for us…

That we’re able to see, and believe, and come to him…

And hear, as he says to us, again –

“Come down, come over. Come to me…

For my salvation is for you and for all who will come.

So, come, share the good news.”

Come share the life the truth the way of salvation by grace working through love that we have together in Jesus.

Giving all thanks to God.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.