You Are Good

Sermon on Luke 19:1-10

Psalm 119:140-142 Your word [, God,] has been tested to the uttermost, and your servant holds it dear. I am small and of little account, yet I do not forget your commandments. Your justice is an everlasting justice and your law is the truth.

Introduction

We’re submerged in the waters of identities and self-conceptions anchored in being exceptional—as if our worth and dignity are dependent on it. I think it’s one thing participating in our distinction from animals. Even with their individual quirks and personalities, I don’t think—as far as I understand them—dogs wonder much about their identity or if they are exceptional. My dog, Angie, spends what seems like zero minutes being concerned about her place in the world, if she has status, prestige, and power. I mean, she’s 97% Pitbull, so she’s got plenty of power. She isn’t wondering if other dogs think she’s dogging in the right way—her goodness isn’t dependent on what these other dogs think, I don’t even think it’s dependent on what she thinks. In general, Angie dogs around, chases light reflections, barks (relentlessly) at the mail woman, the fed-ex guy, and the UPS person—she doesn’t even care if it’s completely cliché to do so. She just dogs—wags her whole entire body when her family comes home, obeys any command for a treat, and loves stealing mama’s warm spot on the bed early in the morning. Cats cat. Horses horse. Spiders spider. Flies fly. Elephants elephant.

People do anything but just people around. How can we? We’re not only born into but are stuck on a relentless hamster-wheel of identity and dignity defined by our exceptionalism, our actions, our works, what we bring to the table. We are told that we are not good unless we…. (fill in the blank).

I find myself exhausted from endless pursuits trying to validate myself through and defend how special and good I am. The more I pursue, the more I’m terrified of it ceasing. If I stake my claim to the right to life on my virtue, what happens when that goes away and I become unvirtuous? Do I lose my right to life? If I stake my identity on my ability, what happens when that goes away and I become unable? Do I lose my identity? If I stake my importance on my work, what happens when that goes away and I am unable to work? Do I become unimportant? If I stake my indispensability on my intelligence or creativity, what happens when either of those things go away? Do I become dispensable? If everything I stand for depends on me being right, what happens to the ground under my feet when I’m wrong? Do I lose everything? If my goodness and lovability come through being exceptional in some regard, what happens when I cease to be exceptional in any regard? Do I cease to be good and loveable?

Am I less worthy of respect and love, am I not good if I have absolutely nothing exceptional to bring to the table but my vulnerable body and empty hands?

Luke 19:1-10

Now Zacchaeus stood and said to [Jesus], “Behold, half of my possessions…I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded a certain one, I return fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come into being in this house, in what manner he, he is a child of Abraham. For the son of humanity came to seek and save those things having been destroyed.”[1]

Luke 19:8-10

Luke introduces an infamous character of Gospel proportions, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, and not just any tax collector but the chief of tax collectors. So, according to many a Pharisee, the worst of the worst.[2] Luke also tells us that Zacchaeus with reference to stature was little. He struggles to see through and around the crowds when Jesus enters Jericho and passes by. His struggle may mean he was short in height or too young. What is likely is that he was short with reference to status in his community, and the crowds presented an obstacle to him because they didn’t care to let him through. The crowd prevented him from seeing Jesus and coming to know who he is.[3] Even as wealthy and powerful as he was, he was blocked from seeing Jesus because he was the chief tax-collector. In other words, he and his wealth were despised.[4] In the eyes of the crowd, he had no dignity or worth. He wasn’t good.

Zacchaeus, determined to know who Jesus is,[5] ascends a tree. Now! Now I have a clear view of Jesus…and Jesus has a clear view of him.[6] In a moment, Zacchaeus went from disgraced tax-collector to graced host of the Christ when Jesus sees him and announces he’ll be staying with Zacchaeus that day—Jesus chooses Zacchaeus as if the crowd wasn’t even there.[7] The crowd was determined to push Zacchaeus out, now they find themselves on the outside as Zacchaeus proudly and happily hosts Jesus in his home. To whom were they an obstacle? Themselves or Zacchaeus? Who here is lost to destruction and who has been sought out of it?[8]

As Zacchaeus hosts Jesus—while the people grumble about Jesus staying with a sinner[9] misunderstanding the divine mission of the Christ[10]—he immediately addresses his wealth.[11] Pulling no punches—as if knowing his means of acquiring wealth were troublesome—Zacchaeus is compelled to explain himself.[12] He blurts out, Okay, I know,…I know I’m not the greatest guy and a bit trapped in this system, but I give half of my gain to the poor and if I ever take by means of exploitation, I give it back fourfold. I wonder if Jesus was taken aback from the sudden confession—he certainly wasn’t looking for one, nor was his presence in that home dependent on such a thing. Jesus just loved Zacchaeus. I imagine Jesus smiled right before he said, Today salvation has come into being in this house…For the son of humanity came to seek and save those things having been destroyed.

Zacchaeus knows who he is, so he now knows who Jesus is. He knows that his wealth must lovingly[13] serve his community, that he should not exploit others, and that he is unworthy if based on his own accomplishments. He can’t measure up. Zaccheaus cannot justify himself; he knows he is irreligious, despised,[14] and small in the eyes of his community.[15] If God’s love is dependent on these things, he falls short. Then Jesus shows up. Into this moment of confession of smallness, Jesus pronounces a divine bigness upon Zacchaeus: he’s very much a worthy child of God[16] and a son of Abraham.[17] Not for any reason other than love: Zacchaeus is loved and loves; Zacchaeus is good.

As it frequently is in Luke’s stories, it’s those who are small who are big, it’s those who are lost who are found, it’s those whose are weak who are strong, it’s those who strive to see Jesus who finally see who they are, it’s those who seek their dignity and worth in God who know that they have dignity and worth apart from their actions. It’s those who feel the farthest away who are the closest. It’s those dead set on their unloveliness who are the lovely. It’s those made to feel bad because they don’t measure up who are called good by God in Christ.

Conclusion

Ouch, I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah, I think that I might break
Lost myself again
And I feel unsafe

Be my friend
Hold me, wrap me up
Unfold me, I am small
And needy, warm me up
And breathe me[18]

Sia “Breathe Me”

It’s when I’m small when I experience the fullness of God surrounding me. It’s when I’m weak, when I give up, when I realize I have nothing, when I look around and see hopelessness, when I look deep into the mirror and know that I’m only a random collection of muscles, bones, sinew, and blood—nothing exceptional—that I need to be reminded by this tremendous love story between God and humanity that I’m worthy apart from what I can offer anyone else other than basic existence. It’s when I realize I don’t care for being exceptional (because that standard is so death dealing), that I rather prefer being loved for no other reason than just because and beyond what I can bring to the table. In the quiet of letting go, releasing my grip, giving into gravity, and falling, surrendering, I’m caught in the love of God manifest in Christ encountered in the Spirit. In that encounter, in hearing God’s love proclaimed to me again (and again) in word and deed, I’m unfolded, made warm, and comforted. In that moment everything becomes quite exceptional, I’m found, I’m saved, I’m reborn. I’m good.

Beloved, you do not need to prove yourself to God. You do not need to get your act together, strive for some abstract conception of perfection, kill yourself in a human made system thriving off of your livelihood, your energy, your quickly depleting spirit. You do not need to be exceptional by any human standard. That you exist—in that your being and your life is a huge miracle—you’re amazing. You are loved for no other reason than juts because. You. Are. Good.[19]


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 221-222. “Tax collectors in general were despised as collaborators with the Roman regime, as exploiters of the powerless, and as often contaminated by ritual uncleanness. Major tax collectors had others performing the same duties under them. That Zacchaeus was rich implies that he was not just one of many tax collectors, but an important one. A sinner among sinners!”

[3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 670. “Thus, it is not simply that Zacchaeus cannot see over the crowd; rather, the crowd itself is present as an obstacle to him. On account of their negative assessment of Zacchaeus (cf. v 7), the people refused him the privilege of seeing Jesus as he passed by. Whether short or young, then, Zacchaeus is presented as a person of diminutive status in Jericho, thus rendering him as a member of the unenviable association of the lowly…”

[4] Green, Luke,  668-669. “By way of analogy with other Lukan texts, however, it is clear that Zacchaeus is thus presented as a person of advanced status, even if only among other toll collectors. More specifically, as a ‘ruler’ in the Greco-Roman world Zacchaeus would have enjoyed relative power and privilege, though from the perspective of the Lukan narrative we would anticipate his opposing the mission of Jesus. That Zacchaeus is wealthy is emphasized within the narrative by its being enumerated separately, as a quality distinct from that of the others. Within the larger Greco-Roman world, possessing wealth was an ambiguous characteristic. Although wealth was required if one were to reach the upper echelons of nobility, how one got one’s wealth was equally determinative. Zacchaeus’s fortune was not ‘landed wealth’ but was the consequence of his own entrepreneurial activity; hence, it would not have qualified him for enviable status. Within the Lukan narrative, such ambiguity dissipates rapidly, since the wealthy are thus far repeatedly cast in a negative light. Most recently, Jesus had remarked on the impossibility of the wealthy entering the kingdom of God (18:24-25).”

[5] Green, Luke, 669. “He is not interested merely in ‘seeing Jesus’ but wants to know ‘who Jesus is’ (cf. 10:21-22). He goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his quest, even enduring the probable shame of climbing a tree despite his adult male status and position in the community as a wealthy ‘ruler,’ however notorious. That he goes to such lengths is illustrative of his eagerness, to be sure, but is also a consequence of the crowd, which has positioned itself as a barrier to his endeavor.”

[6] Green, Luke, 667. “We discover at the outset that Zacchaeus is on a quest to see who Jesus is, only to learn in the end that, in accordance with his divine mission, Jesus has been on a quest for Zacchaeus, to bring him salvation.”

[7] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010.  505. “ALEJANDRO: ‘Other times we’ve seen Jesus against the rich, but here we see he wasn’t a prejudiced man or a fanatic. He chooses to stay in a rich man’s house without getting an invitation. He invites himself. Even when there were plenty of other places where he could stay, because there were swarms of people welcoming him.’”

[8] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “He is one more example of the lost that have been found.”

[9] Cardenal, Solentiname, 505. “I: ‘They don’t criticize that he’s gone to stay with a rich man but that he’s gone to stay with a sinner. This rich man belonged to the class that were then called ‘publicans,’ people who weren’t religious and who were despised by the Pharisees even though they were rich. You have to keep in mind that in that society … the ruling class wasn’t people that just had money, like Zacchaeus, but people that belonged to a religious caste which had money as well. The scandal is that Jesus has gone to stay with someone who isn’t religious, and it seems that’s why Jesus sent to his house.’”

[10] Cardenal, Solentiname, 505. “TOMAS: ‘People didn’t understand or even know what Jesus was looking for. They didn’t know his mystery. He was coming to save sinners, not to destroy them. That guy that was on the edge of the pit, he came to pull him back and set him on the good road.’”

[11] Green, Luke, 671. “Zacchaeus answers first, not with reference to behaviors or commitments that might mark him as acceptable according to standards developed heretofore—for example, fasting, praying, tithing (cf. 18:11-12), or even his choice of knowledge of the messages of John (esp. 3:10-14) and Jesus regarding economic justice and almsgiving. That is, he lists behaviors appropriate to those who have oriented themselves around the kingdom of God.”

[12] Green, Luke, 672. “According to this reading, Zacchaeus does not resolve to undertake new practices but presents for Jesus’ evaluation his current behaviors regarding money. He even joins the narrator in referring to Jesus as ‘Lord.’ Jesus’ reference to ‘salvation’ (v 9), then, signifies Zacchaeus’s vindication and restoration to the community of God’s people; he is not an outsider, after all, but has evidenced through his economic practices his kinship with Abraham (cf. 3:7-14). Zacchaeus thus joins the growing roll of persons whose ‘repentance’ lies outside the narrative, who appear on the margins of the people of God, and yet who possess insight into and a commitment to the values of Jesus’ mission that are exemplary.”

[13] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “When it comes to the use of possessions, it is not just a matter of setting aside a certain proportion to give to the poor—be it 100 percent as in the case of the ruler, 50 percent as in the case of Zacchaeus, or 10 percent as in the practice of tithing-and then claiming the rest for oneself. It is not just a matter of obeying a commandment—be it the tithe or giving all to the poor. It certainly is not just a matter of some token almsgiving. It is a matter of free, liberal, loving giving. And it is also a matter of being willing to recognize the possibility that one’s wealth may be unjustly acquired. In short, it is a matter of love and justice entwined.”

[14] Green, Luke, 669. “On the other hand, Zacchaeus is a toll collector. Within the Greco-Roman world, he would have belonged to a circle of persons almost universally despised.”

[15] Gonzales, Luke, 221. “From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had clashed with those who presumed on their piety and their obedience to the law as guaranteeing their salvation, and insisted on a great reversal that would result in great joy at the conversion of sinners and the finding of what was lost.”

[16] Green, Luke, 670. “In this respect, Jesus’ use of the term ‘today’ is highly suggestive, since elsewhere in Luke’s narrative it is used to communicate the immediacy of salvation. Because of the association of ‘joy’ with news of divine intervention and salvation, that Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus with joy (NRSV: ‘happy’) signifies genuine receptivity on the part of Zacchaeus, intimating that he is one who embraces the values and claims of the kingdom of God.” And, “Rather, since the Lukan narrative has redefined status as a ‘child of Abraham’ with reference to lowly position and faithful practices. Jesus assertion vindicates Zacchaeus as one who embodies the qualities of those fit for the kingdom of God.” 672.

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “Zacchaeus stands in contrast with the fool that thought his possessions were truly his, and with the ruler who was saddened because he wished to hold on to what he had. This story also corrects the sell all and give it to the poor. He decides to give to the poor half of his possessions-not all, as the ruler was told. He adds that, if any of his wealth is ill-gotten, he will repay it fourfold. Jesus accepts this as a true act of repentance, and announces, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’”

[18] Sia “Breathe Me”

[19] Thank you to the podcast “You Are Good” discussing movies and feelings. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/you-are-good/id1527948382 The theme of this sermon was completely and totally inspired by the work they do. Thanks Sarah and Alex, you make this world better!

God is Love and God Loves You

Luke 13:10-17 (Homily)

The statements “God is Love” and “God loves you” are abstract concepts. I can tell you these things all day, but apart from concrete manifestation of that love in substance and action, both statements fall flat. We live in an era where words are tossed about, rapidly and thoughtless so. We say I love you to our friends and family and then in the next breath profess love to jellybeans. What then does love mean? In the predicament where there is little concern for the substance of language, the meaning of words, and the impact of nouns and verbs, how do I communicate to you love? What does “God is love and loves you” mean? A profession of love causing you to experience and believe that profession, means the profession needs substance, the landing has to stick; deed must follow word.

We encounter Jesus on the Sabbath teaching in a synagogue. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a woman appears having an ailment for 18 years. Luke explains: she is bent forward,[1] unable to raise herself up completely. Luke doesn’t tell us much about the woman. He only tells us that she’s suffered with this ailment for 18 years. For nearly two decades she existed in a curved-in state, unable to look up. Her eyes took in more of the ground than the sky; her face went unnoticed, turned toward the dust and dirt of her travels. The very face a mother adored, a lover loved, a child yearned for now hidden in plain sight. An identity hidden; she was merely a body in the crowd. 18 years nearly unseen. That’s a lifetime for some of you.

When she appears,[2] Jesus perceives her. In the midst of all the people attending the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus’s perception of her presence is identical to his question, “Who touched me?” in Luke 8, while being pressed in on all sides in a crowd. Luke loves highlighting Jesus’s divine attributes. One of those attributes is perceiving the people his society and the religious therein have ceased to perceive. Jesus sees those who have fallen through the cracks, those who have slipped off the grid, those who have been relegated to the fringe. Those who have been excluded and isolated? These he sees. And he doesn’t merely see, he perceives and he acts. Jesus loves these.

On any other day, that woman would’ve gone in and come back out without much notice. But not today; today, Jesus notices her very presence. And what does he do? He calls her to him. “Woman, you have been[3] set free from your infirmity.” And then he lays his hands upon her. In an instant (literally), she is set straight (again)[4] and (at the same time) is bestowing glory on God.

And, I am brought back to Genesis 2. The last time someone was this curved-in was when Adam felt the deep trial of isolation. In the presence of God, he longed for an other. As God gazed upon this turned in man, God said: it is not good that this man is alone. I will make a partner for him. And like the light and the dark on the first day, God pulled the man apart—taking one and making two. Just as light is its own substance and so too the dark, both the man and the woman were two complete individuals—they were equal but not interchangeable. Forever, in this swift movement of deft surgical precision, loneliness was lifted from Adam’s back and cast into the outer darkness to take up its kingdom where there is not. And God sat on his throne among the light, in the midst of the life of humanity in community in the cool of the verdant garden. And it was very good.

As Adam was set free from his infirmity of loneliness in divine intervention, so too this woman is set free. Jesus lays his hands upon her and separates her from her burden, from her isolation, from her oppression, from her exclusion. She now stands upright, for the first time in 18 years; she can see the bright light of day, the blue of the sky, the twinkling stars of night. As she stands upright, she gazes (again) into the eyes of those around her, to recognize and to be recognized in her identity. Jesus restores her to the dignity of her humanity articulated in upright posture. Not frail and hunched over, she stood tall and looked out, restored by the simple word and touch of Jesus the Christ, by his love. What was her life of burden and bondage is now relegated to the old age of what was; she is ushered into the freedom and liberty of the new age. And when that event of encounter happens with God, a thick and dark line is drawn in the sand between what was and what is and what will be; a line is drawn like the one created by the collapsing walls of water forever separating Israel from Egypt and their bondage and captivity.

In Luke’s brief story, he boldly describes the cosmic battle between God and the powers of sin and death. Jesus heals on the Sabbath and is chastised. He brings dignity and humanity to an old woman, and the ruler of the synagogue loses his mind.[5] After a stern, “Hypocrites!”, Jesus tightly correlates Satan (the powers of sin and death) to the religiosity of the rulers. According to Jesus, using the law to keep people bound in their burden and oppression is letting Satan have his way in the world. The law is good and can create and maintain freedom; but it should never be weaponized. When we love the law more than we love people, we are in the business of stripping people of their dignity and humanity. The law was made for humans, not humans for the law.

Back to the beginning, God is love because God is active and God’s activity is manifest in love loving, which is bringing freedom to the captives (in a real way). When I profess love, my love best look like this…

 

 

 

 

[1] More like “bent-forward-ing” the verbal aspect of the word doesn’t translate well into English.

[2] The word that is translated as “appear” in the text is technically “Behold!” which carries the same force of “suddenly there she was!” thus “appearing”.

[3] The perfect passive here has the force of an event that has occurred to the recipient that has ramifications into the present. In a sense, she will has been set free and will continue to be set free. Woe to anyone who attempts to reverse the divine action.

[4] Highlighting that she wasn’t always this way that at one point she could stand up straight.

[5] Quite literally, he is indignant, it’s the manner of his being in the current situation.