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!

Prodigals Abound

Sancta Colloquia Episode 206 ft. Judy Douglass

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I had a chance to talk with author, Judy Douglass (@judydouglass417) about her recent book, When You Love a Prodigal. Apart from getting to know Judy a bit more on a personal level, we dove into why she wrote her book, which also is/was a personal journey. Judy’s pastoral heart shines through as she articulates her own maternal struggles with staying present and consistent in the life of her son who was self-destructing. There’s only so much we can do as parents to stop such a thing, and boy are we desperate to try to stop it. We’ll employ every tactic in the known parenting universe to try to protect those whom we love with our entire minds, hearts, souls, strength, and bodies from hurting themselves. But sometimes, the best thing to do is to simply walk alongside this one who bent on self-destruction, whispering the entire time: I’m here with you and I love you dearly, you are my child, my beloved. Judy takes her cues from her very personal and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ: she’s been loved radically in many different ways so why shouldn’t she love in the same way? Through out the discussion we weave and wend through talking about her book and about the parable of the Prodigal son as told in Luke 15; at the end of the show we come to the very needed conclusion that we are all prodigals like both sons in the story are prodigal. In one way or another, none of us has the right to judge another human being, especially according to their actions. As we fight for those we love, we must remember an important lesson: as Judy explains,  “tough love” creates barrier and separation, it pushes away and rejects; the object of this love doesn’t want to come back. She says that it’s better to think of “firm love” rather than “tough love”. “What’s the difference?” you ask. This, again recourse to Judy: you have to let them make their choices, parent like the father of the prodigal, because love draws others. We must remember to have Mercy and compassion. Forgiveness. Remembering her own faults and short-comings and that at the end of the day, we are dust. Judy reminds us from beginning to end of the episode: to send out mercy and grace to others, which we have received from God. At the end of the day, according to Judy, it’s better to make mistakes on the side of Grace. Couldn’t have said it better myself. 

Intrigued? You should be.

Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (@seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (@ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (@SanctaColloquia).

A native of Dallas, Texas, Judy Douglass is a graduate of the University of Texas with a degree in journalism.  She has been on the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1964, serving previously as editor of Collegiate Challenge magazine, manager of the Publications Department, and founding editor of Worldwide Challenge magazine.
Judy currently partners with her husband, Steve, in giving leadership to Campus Crusade for Christ/Cru.  Her primary focus is Women’s Resources.  She is the author of four books and has had articles published in numerous magazines.
A frequent speaker at a variety of groups, including church women’s groups, retreats, missions conferences and student conferences, Judy is known for her “realness” and loves to encourage people to trust God for all He wants to do in them and through them. 

Resources and Help

Books

Allison Bottke—Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children

Katherine James—A Prayer for Orion

Robert J Morgan—Moments for Families with Prodigals

Dena Yohe—You Are Not Alone

Other helps

Connected Families book and seminars–https://connectedfamilies.org/

Hope for Hurting Parents–http://www.hopeforhurtingparents.com/

Prayer for Prodigals—virtual prayer community. To be invited in, write to PrayerforProdigals  @  gmail.com

Suicide Prevention Lifeline–National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Call 1-800-273-8255

Available 24 hours everyday

In the Lap of Mary

Galatians 3:23-29 (Homily)

Help, I have done it again
I have been here many times before
Hurt myself again today
And, the worst part is there’s no-one else to blame

Be my friend, hold me
Wrap me up, enfold me
I am small and needy
Warm me up and breathe me

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…Sia “Breathe Me”

This is one of my favorite songs to turn to when I’ve had one of those days. The days defined as terrifically terrible, where everything I touched seemed to turn to dirt, my words fell like stones destroying rather than bricks building. One of those days where I was clearly the one in the wrong, where I failed badly, did that thing I swore I’d never do again…Those days where I wish water could truly wash me clean inside and out.

The feelings that surround me are those that are products of an internal monologue that is in dialogue with the law. There are two sides to the law. It can be both positive and negative. The positive side of the law is the side that creates structure and order in our school, in our town, state and even in our nation. Laws create order out of chaos. To follow the law in this way can bring comfort: I know what is expected and what to expect.

But the negative side of the law is the side of the law that exposes something about me I’d rather have hidden. That side of the law that brings to light what I’m desperately eager to keep cloaked in darkness. That I’m not kind. That I’m not good enough. That I’m a failure because I’ve failed once again. That I’m not who I like to think I am and not whom I’ve lead you to believe I am. The negative side of the law exposes the imposter and drags her into the light. This part of the law doesn’t strengthen me and highlight my talents and capabilities, reminding me how powerful I am; rather it draws to the surface my guilt and shame, that I’m lost and fragile, small and needy. “Be my friend, hold me/Wrap me up, enfold me…”

The book of Galatians does well highlighting both aspects of the law. Paul refers to the law as working with and not against the promises of God but that the law also functions as a disciplinarian in the life and mind of the person. To deny both aspects of the law is foolishness; it is even more foolishness to think that by the law one can avoid the negative aspect of the law. That is the relentless hamster wheel of perpetual performing and existential self-denial of mass proportions. Everything is not fine. We are not peachy-keen and better than ever, or “too blessed to be stressed” and certain no Christian colloquialism will alleviate the tumult under the surface.

The reality is we’re all pressed in on every side. And now more than ever as we slide full-speed into the end of the semester. Grades hanging in the balance: will you fail or will you succeed?  College acceptances and rejections? The yays and nays depend on whether or not you’ve done enough on paper. Have you done enough and in the right time? Family pressures; friendships under strain; anxiety and stress rising; mind, body, and soul longing for a moment, a breath, a safe place.

This safe place so longed for rests in the lap of Mary. After giving birth, Mary was ceremoniously unclean according to the laws of Leviticus. However, Mary gave birth not just to any child, but the son of God. Thus she was, after having given birth, holding and nursing the new born Christ, for the full duration of her uncleanness. Very God of Very God dwelt with his mother while she was unclean—impure, technically unable to be in the presence of God. Yet there she was: with God because He was with her, physically, in her presence and she in His. From the moment of His birth, Jesus had begun to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment. This is God with the guilty and shameful, the lost and fragile, the small and needy; this is Emmanuel, God with us.

During Advent we recall the long awaited event of the fulfillment of the promise of God: I will be your God and you will be my people and you will love me with all your heart, mind, soul, and body. We are brought to the one to whom the law directs and guides. The law’s reign as disciplinarian began to crumble the moment Christ was born; its ability to render a verdict about who and what you are was revoked when Christ died and was raised. Thus, the whispers of condemnation ricocheting in your head have been silenced; that fear of failure: stilled. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).

Christ has fulfilled the law relieving it from its role as disciplinarian; thus, we are not to remain in the condemnation of the law. Our guilt and shame, those terrifically terrible days and seasons in our lives don’t have the final word because Christ has taken our burdens and given us His light yoke. So, as we go toward the end here, be gentle with each other and be gentle with yourselves. We’re all battling our internal condemning monologues with the law. And remember: In Christ, you are the befriended, the held, the wrapped up, the enfolded. No matter how all those cookies crumble, you are the beloved and adored.