Consenting to Change: Sermon by Laura

We are preaching from the Narrative Lectionary these days. Text: Matthew 3:1-17

Recently, Tara Tucker (who gave me permission for this story) shared her desire to delve deeper in Bible study. During Advent, she and her husband Gary had read a chapter a day of Luke’s gospel (there are 24); and now, she said, “We want to know more.” So Tara asked me to help them find appropriate study resources.

A simple request. But I tell you, if Hollywood was portraying how I felt with Tara in that moment, you would have seen the sky opening up,  the beams of heaven shining down, and the heavenly choir singing: “Ahhhh!”

Tara was offering me the opportunity to shower her with a measure of the riches I’d been graced to receive in Bible study. She was telling me how she and Gary have become more receptive to God, willing to open up to studying God’s Word and allow it change their world. I live for these kinds of moments in church ministry!

There is also that glorious feeling when finally, finally, someone asks of you what you are actually prepared and competent to do, what all your schooling set you up for. If there’s one thing we were taught in seminary, it was Bible study!

Do you know that feeling? It can be rare these days when everyone is struggling to adapt to the rapid pace of change. Our days are often filled with tasks and interactions which require us to step out into the unknown, which confront us with the fact that nothing up to this point has prepared us for the actual demands and risks we are facing, in our jobs, families, health, or the world’s problems. Establishing ourselves in a job, raising children, caring for aging parents, trying to live well with new health concerns—all of these situations can bring us face to face with the truth, that reality is utterly different than we anticipated. In such dissonance, doubt, and confusion, how might Christians respond in faith?

John the Baptist is a significant figure in all four gospels. We’ve heard his story many times, usually during Advent. Matthew portrays John as a prophet who himself fulfills prophecy. His appearance and character express the fulfillment of Isaiah 40, which joyfully announces to Israel, captive in Babylon, that their exile is at an end. They are going home!

The details of John’s bizarre clothing and diet are code words which evoke the prophet Elijah’s style, also point to the fulfillment of scripture: the concluding statement of Malachi, at the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, promises God will send the Elijah as a forerunner of “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Here, in Matthew, Elijah has come again, now embodied in the man John, who baptizes people in the River Jordan. At the threshold of a new age, he has come to prepare God’s people for the Messiah. A millennia has passed since Israel crossed the Jordan to enter and conquer the promised land. Passing through the Jordan again with John, the people signal their readiness for a yet greater conquest, God’s decisive defeat of evil and the establishment of God’ kingdom, on earth as in heaven.[i]

John’s incendiary preaching lights the people up with hope and fear. The “more powerful” one is coming, he says, and “I am not worthy to carry his sandals… “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s catchphrase is “Repent!” a word which means, literally, “Turn around!” or more broadly, “Change!”

John’s baptism is for remorseful people, those willing to admit how they have missed the mark of God’s righteousness, how they have alienated themselves from God. Confessing their sins and plunged into the water, the people are cleansed and made ready to enter the kingdom God’s anointed one brings.  Because, John warns them, no one can assume they can enter this kingdom on pedigree alone. It’s not enough to be children of Abraham. Bear the fruit of repentance, he says, the visible evidence of changed lives, to be spared “the wrath to come,” the ax chopping barren trees, fire consuming useless chaff.

You get a feeling about the kind of Messiah for whom John prepares his people, a terrifyingly mighty leader, arriving in heat and light, transforming everything in one fell swoop.

But, as N.T. Wright puts it, “Instead, we get Jesus.”

We get a “king” who arrives in Matthew’s gospel as “a baby with a price on his head.” All grown up now, this humble carpenter simply comes to stand with the line of broken people facing judgment, waiting patiently among them to receive John’s baptism.

Surely John is as surprised as we are.  John is confused. “What’s happened to the agenda?”[ii]

What’s more, John’s propriety is offended. He’s just said he is not worthy to carry this One’s sandals, but now John finds himself asked to do a lot more than that, the lesser man plunging the greater man underwater in what amounts to a symbolic drowning!  “I need to be baptized by you!” John tells Jesus.

Nothing in John’s training could have prepared him for this. What an irony! The one sent to prepare the way finds himself so unprepared! The one preaching repentance finds himself called to a radical change of mind and heart.  Face to face with the truth,  the Son of God standing before him, John discovers that God’s purpose, power, and presence are utterly different than he anticipated.

Jesus wants John to baptize him. “Let it be so now,” replies Jesus, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Only in Matthew’s version of this story depicts this interaction between John and Jesus. “Righteousness” is a theme which will come up repeatedly in Matthew’s narrative, showing us that in Jesus, God’s righteous ways are different than we expect.

From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry initiation here at this baptism, God’s righteousness is not about separating or excluding people, winners or losers, right and wrong, in or out. Instead, God joins together what has been too long separated, immersing the divine into human suffering, plunging God’s energies into compassionate solidarity with flawed and broken human beings.

None of our training in a culture which imagines power as violent or economic domination could prepare us for a “more powerful one” who sheds all superiority. We cannot anticipate the Savior who rescues us, not by wiping out our suffering or limitations, but by entering into our condition without reservation, coming alongside us in our pain to share it with us.

My favorite part of Matthew’s story is a tiny moment. It comes at the ragged edge of everything John has hoped for and everything that is to come. The Messiah has arrived, requesting baptism, overturning everything John expected. But it seems that John still has a choice.

Keith and I considered how the Rowan Atkinson (British comedian of “Mr. Bean” fame,  who does funny versions of scripture, such as this one here) version of this scripture might go: “But Jesus sayeth unto John, ‘Let it be so, for it is proper to fulfill all righteousness,” and lo, John did crosseth his arms, stompeth his feet, and respondeth… “No.” Can you imagine? The whole gospel might have come screeching to a halt if John had refused to baptize Jesus.

Now, I truly believe did John have a choice! He could have said no. John could have flat out refused to change, until Jesus—the more worthy one—compromising to protect John’s puny propriety, baptized John instead.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, Matthew’s gospel says, “Then, he consented.”

In a split-second of grace, John chooses to release all his preconceived ideas, allowing a total paradigm shift, and willingly adding his energies to the direction of God in Jesus Christ. John consents to change, gives permission for God to have God’s way with him, wholly transforming his perceptions and preoccupations. John chooses to accept God as God is, not as he wants God to be.

The opportunity to consent to change arises numerous times in our lives. It’s an invitation to pass through a threshold and enter a new realm of faith and trust where we can receive yet more riches of God’s grace and mercy. The threshold can look like a happy occasion an accomplishment, a wedding, a birth. That threshold can look also look like a misery, the loss of a job, health, or a loved one.

Whether the change is longed for or dreaded, by God’s grace, one choice always remains. Will we choose to dig our heels in, refusing the change that arrives in our faces, denying the grace of God’s purpose, presence, and power revealed in its wake? Or we consent to let God be God in this moment,[iii] allowing ourselves to receive the grace always available to us?

Mark Twain noted that “The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.” But like it or not, my friends, change happens. We can try but never be fully prepared to face its demands. It can feel uncomfortable and risky, but consenting to change, “letting it be,” as Jesus invites John to do, frees our energies to partner with God in co-creating a whole new world.

When one world ends, in our Triune God, a new one always begins, one more beautiful, free and vibrant than we could have previously imagined. Jesus comes up from the water and the sky opens; the Spirit alights on him like a dove and we hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Dear friends, God daily showers us with invitations to pivot yet more in God’s direction. But the God we know in Jesus does not coerce, shame, or guilt us to make changes. He invites us to let it be, he waits for our consent, he joins us in the tension of decision until we are ready and willing.

And when, by grace, we consent to receive God’s transforming Spirit, God’s heart surely breaks open in beams of light with that heavenly chorus, “Ahhh!” so pleased to finally able to shower upon us the riches of grace and mercy, the beautiful wholeness and self-giving power God’s been longing to give each and every one of God’s Beloved children from the beginning.

Thanks be to our Triune God, Creating, Redeeming, and Sustaining us forevermore. Amen.


[i] [i] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Pt. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 18.

[ii] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Pt. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 21.

[iii] “Consenting to God as God Is” by Thomas Keating p72-73


Walk Humbly: Sermon by Laura, 1.29.17

Scriptures: Micah 6:1-8, 1 Cor. 1:18-31

Even if you rarely crack open a Bible, the final verse I just read from Micah is likely familiar to you: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” One of the most-quoted verses of the Hebrew Scripture, it’s like a bumper-sticker summary of what faith is about. But, even if this is one of your favorite verses, I’m guessing that, like me, you may know little else about Micah or the context of his prophecy.

And context, my friends, is important. It may be an awkward metaphor when our local soil is still blanketed with thick snow… But context is the ground on which all our arguments stand, the earth from which ideas sprout and spread seed in the winds of a particular era of history. To examine the meaning and implications of any thought or ideology, we must get as close as we can to the contextual soil in which it is rooted.

So who was Micah? When and where did he live, and how do his powerful words grow out of the fertile mulch of his context?

Micah was a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea, a Judean man who lived in the days after the descendants of Kings Solomon had divided the promised land into two kingdoms, the Northern kingdom of Samaria and the Southern kingdom of Judah.  These were also the days before the Assyrian empire invaded, conquered, and carried a large portion of Israel’s population off to captivity. This was a time of wealth and prosperity in Samaria and Judah. The Temple in Jerusalem flourished, and people demonstrated their religious loyalties with extravagant gifts.

Yet Micah perceived that all was not well. His view was shaped by his upbringing in a small rural community named Moresheth, which was about twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem.[i] He surely witnessed firsthand how local farm workers struggled in an economic system that exploited their labor to the benefit of rich, urban-dwelling landowners. “They covet fields and seize them; houses and take them away,” says Micah in chapter 2, where he also notes how people who don’t like what he’s saying try to shut down his prophetic warnings: “Do not preach” they tell him, “one should not say such things!”

And it’s a little ironic to share this, seeing as our congregation is having our Pizza, Beer, and Gospel gathering tonight, but Micah even says, “If someone were to go about uttering empty falsehoods, saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ such a one would be the preacher this people could accept.”

Later, Micah denounces the rulers of both nations as corrupt, saying they “abhor justice, pervert all equity;” they “give judgment for a bribe;its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us!’”

“Surely the Lord is with us”—how often throughout history have those in power assumed that their attainment of power somehow signifies God’s approval of all their decisions? The divine right of kings or the popular mandate of elected officials—Micah denounces these assurances as falsehoods which have separated rulers from real grounding in the ultimate truth of God.

The question of ultimate truth was just as live a question in Micah’s time as it is in ours. He prophesied God’s word to God’s people, people who desired to walk the way of covenant-faithfulness in a pluralistic world, in which Yahweh was far from the only option for religious devotion. Neighboring cultures worshiped all sorts of other gods and goddesses. As one commentator notes, “Sometimes [Israel] responded by destroying their neighbors, and sometimes they bought some of their idols just to be safe.”[ii]

In Micah’s time, there were conflicting claims about what it meant to be a worshipper of Yahweh or a loyal Judean, just as in our time there are conflicting ideologies about what a true Christian or a true American says, does, and stands for. Struggling to be faithful as God’s people

in our time and place, we also flip-flop between two strategies. On one hand, we try to wall from our presence those things, ideas or people we perceive as a danger to what “true” and “right, ” exercising fearful suspicion against anyone whose belief or practice doesn’t fit our tribal criteria.

On the other hand, we uncritically embrace every religious or spiritual idea as equally valid, without really taking the time to listen and learn either our own tradition or the others’. Neither strategy honors the wideness of God’s mercy or the particularity of God’s love.

Yes, God’s love is for everyone, everywhere, at work bringing justice and mercy in ways beyond our wildest imaginings. The idea that God’s grace is only for the relatively few people in the world who think, act, and worship like we do is an insult to God.

At the same time, the idea that all religions are equal, the tolerance of “all truth is relative,” can be a lazy excuse to avoid the necessary hard work of deep listening for God’s scandalously particular truth.  One author notes, “Tolerance by itself is apathy. To say that all religions are equal is to say that no religion makes any difference.” [iii]

So, where does this leave us? How do we discern God’s will and align with it for faithful action in such a confusing world?

Of course we crave clarity. Of course we crave simplicity. Who doesn’t love three-step-formulas which promise unequivocal rightness? Who doesn’t want plain-spoken practical guidance we can rely on to get us from where we are, with whatever we feel is lacking in our lives, to where God’s people desire to dwell: where God abides with us in beauty, goodness, and Truth with a capital T.

But any rush to “simple truth” may stampede over deeper falsehoods. Premature clarity may be merely a knee-jerk fear-triggered reaction to something we’ve not taken time to understand. And shrugging relativism misses the incarnational wonder of God’s sharp and specific Word. One reality of human sin is that we are biased people who would rather put our trust in the devil we know than in the Christ who confounds us with the foolishness of the cross.

In Micah’s time, the Temple was crowded with people who showed off their “rightness” with God; yet Micah saw how the systems they’d created demonstrated an arrogant, uncaring attitude toward the poor and marginalized. Where, he asked, was true worship of the God who loves and protects the widow, the orphan and the stranger, the most vulnerable in the land? We face similar questions in our time, as we struggle to discern and navigate a clear path of faithful action amidst a deluge of biased information on all sides.

But by the grace of God, my friends, we have been given prophets, courageous truth-tellers like Micah. Micah’s words to God’s people then cut right through to God’s Truth for us now, reminding us of what we already know, offering us a clear measure by which to discern our own and others’ faithful words and actions: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Here we are reminded that God has already spoken, God has already shown Israel and us in numerous mighty acts of deliverance and grace who God is and what God desires. God’s people are created to speak and act in God’s image, the God who is consistently named as compassionate, merciful, slow to anger, and overflowing with gracious love.

Our God is a God of justice: alert to the voices of oppressed and vulnerable people—any person at risk of being treated as less than God’s child by whoever holds majority power.

Our God is a God of loving-kindness: a mercy that surpasses our imagination, a forgiveness that seems foolish to the powers of this world.

And what our God most deeply desires, my friends, is for us to walk humbly with God.

What does this mean? It means returning to our heart-knowing, getting close to the foundational ground of our existence, remembering the humus from which we humans were created and remembering the One who created us from it. From that vantage point, near to the muddy earth on which every human being stands at the foot of the cross, I understand that I am infinitely precious to God… and so is every one else. I have the clarity to truly value the inestimable gift of the life I have been given to share with others; I have the clarity to truly value the inestimable gift of life shared by all the others who inhabit this Earth beside me.

My friends, I believe that to “walk humbly with God” is the most important spiritual practice for Christians to focus on in our confusing and frightening times. Let’s make humility the virtue of this year! Practicing humility does not mean abdicating your convictions. By all means, stand up for what you believe is right! But do so, always ready to turn around, to fall to your knees, to return to the Ground of All Being and say, “Forgive me, I was wrong.”

Humility refuses to make “being right” an idol which substitutes itself for a real encounter with the surprising God in Jesus Christ, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, whose weakness is stronger than human strength. Humility stands with trust and love upon the humus from which human creatures are created,  and, I would add, humility regards everything—especially oneself—with a sense of humor.[iv]

Lastly, as another preacher notes, “…To walk humbly is not to be above someone or below someone, but rather with someone.” [v] My friends, we do not walk alone through the muddy paths of faith. Whatever burdens we carry in this world, we carry them together, all of us upheld by the unending grace and mercy of the God who walks with us and gives his life for us, the God whose power enlivens and empowers us, this day and always.




[ii] Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 293.

[iii] Younger, 293.

[iv] Though it should be noted that “humor” does not actually have the same root as humus, human, and humility—it comes from a root more related to “humid”—having a quality of wetness rather than earthiness.



Come and See: Sermon by Keith, 1.22.17

Scripture: John 1:35-42   

Let’s just say that the “philigopper” on your car breaks.  You go out one morning, put the key in, and nothing happens.  You open the hood and notice the philigopper is leaking gop, so you know this is serious.  Your car has always run like a dream, and besides regular maintenance, you have never had to go to a mechanic before.  But this isn’t a job for any regular mechanic; you need one that specializes in philigoppers, a philigoptimist.  You open the Yellow Pages or Google “philigoptimists” in La Grande, OR.”  Wow, there are six different philigoptimists in the area!  You know this will be an expensive job that is very detailed and time consuming and you want it done right.  What do you do next?

Well, I know what I would do; I’d start calling my friends.  I’d call some of you and ask you if ever had your philigopper go out on your car, and if so, who did the repairs.  (pretend to call one of the members of the church.)

There is an issue of trust in the midst of all of this.  If your friend tells you which shop took good care of him when their philigopper went out, you are more than likely to go to there, too.  If your friend says that the new movie showing at the theater is awesome, you have a better change of changing your schedule and go see it.  It even counts with restaurants.  We are making our plans to travel to Arizona for Spring Break and trying to decide if we are going to go through Nevada on the back roads or stick to the interstate through Utah.  We may have been swayed to go through Nevada because Linda Fratzke said there is this little restaurant in Wells that has awesome homemade food.  Our trust and friendship in Linda may have swayed how we travel in March.

But what about when comes to church?  Or even talking about God for that matter?  I’ll be the first to say that we live in era and part of the world that you are probably more likely to be asked about where you get your philigopper fixed than you are to have someone call you up and ask you about what church you go to.  In some ways, this seems almost counterintuitive.  Spirituality is at an all time high, people are looking for God, people are looking for answers to life’s questions, but for some reason people want to find that path on their own, as an individual without a community.  It’s like fixing your philigopper without a manual or help from someone else who’s worked on one before.  But on the flipside, it can be hard to talk about God, our faith, Jesus, and church.  If the phone did ring and a friend was asking you about who this Jesus fellow was, you might be apt to say, “Let me have you call my pastor.”  You know, call the expert, even though you have everything you need to talk about what Jesus is doing in your life.

I believe our scripture from the Gospel of John offers up to us what any of us can say, a simple invite to those times when we haven’t been asked about our faith, because I believe it goes beyond waiting for someone to ask us.  The invitation is to “Come and see.”   And I think the entire gospel is a “come and see” gospel.  Do you remember the very beginning of John, where the Word was God and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us?  God didn’t wait for our invite.  Jesus is God stepping across the cosmos right into our lives, right in front of us, inviting us to “come and see.”  Why would God want to do this?  Because God wants to be known by us and has become known by us in Jesus Christ.

It begins when John the Baptist sees Jesus walking by, points to him and says to his disciples, “Look, there he is—the Lamb of God!”  They follow Jesus and he says, “What are you looking for?”  A simple question with profound implications.  Everyone is looking for something: salvation, identity, love, to get out of church soon enough to get to their favorite lunch spot.  Some are looking for fulfillment, purpose, answers to life’s question.  Their reply may seem odd, “Where are you staying?”  But I think their question points us to a deeper meaning, they want to know if this guy is legit, if he really is the Lamb of God.  “Come and see,” is Jesus’ response.  Come and get to know me. Come and find out for yourself.  Ask questions.  See me at work.  Come to the conclusions on your own.  Live with me.  Be in relationship with me.  Simply, come and see.

Even the interaction between Philip and Nathanael shows how uncomplicated it is.  We don’t know their relationship, but they must have been friends for Philip to go share this good news.  Philip comes and tells Nathanael that the one scripture has promised is here!  And he is from Nazareth.  Now, Nathanael’s response can seem a little snooty, but it is a legitimate question.  “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael knew his scriptures and the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, not Nazareth.  It seems like an unlikely place for the Christ to call home.  But do you see what Philip does?  He doesn’t try and convince or cajole.  He doesn’t even answer Nathanael’s question.  No, he invites Nathanael to join him on this faith journey and answer the question himself.  Here is a friend inviting his friend to come have an encounter with Jesus himself.  Come and see and have your own experience of and testimony to God who has come to him in Jesus Christ.

What does this mean for us?  Well friends, first and foremost, it means we invite our friends to come and see.  It isn’t our job to answer every question.  Like Philip, we must recognize that questions are an opportunity to help the people who are curious venture into the ranks of those who are willing to come and see.  Our job is not to think for people; it is only to invite them.  This means that those you are inviting to “come and see” are those who know you and trust you, whether family member, friend, or neighbor.  In this day and age when people are looking for authenticity in every aspect of their lives, an invitation from someone who they already know and trust will go further than anything anyone can offer.

But I also believe these “come and see” invitations are to be given to those who haven’t called you up to ask you about God.  God came across the room, so to speak, in Jesus Christ so he could live with us and we could live with him, to be in a new, whole relationship with him.  And in that relationship, God is inviting us to walk across the room to invite people to “come and see.”  I think Philip was excited to invite Nathanael into a relationship with Jesus.  And it is something we need to be excited about, too.  Now, I’m not saying stand on a street corner and scream Bible passages at people.  I’m not saying clobber your friends and family with Jesus.  What I’m saying is pray and be guided by the Holy Spirit.  Those times for invitations will come.

A couple years into our time as your pastors, I was asked, “If I invited someone to church, what would I be inviting them too?”  It’s a good question.  If you hadn’t noticed, we are a little older, we don’t have a praise band like a cool church should, we don’t have a bunch of programs.  But notice what God’s invitation, Jesus invitation, and Philip’s invitation is all about.  Or what that invitation isn’t all about.  It isn’t an invitation to accept a certain dogma or doctrine, a certain music style, or even an invite to a church.  It is an invite to a relationship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  To dwell in God and have God dwell in us.

So, what would you be inviting people too?  Let me answer that question with a story.  Do you all remember Autumn and her two daughters? A couple of months ago, she was trying to sell her house and she called us to see if we were able to help her with a couple of things now that she is hundreds of miles away.  When I thought we were almost done talking, she asked, “Keith, why isn’t your church full of people?  It should be packed.”  I went on to ask her what she was talking about.  She shared that when she had moved to La Grande to go back to school at EOU, she checked out a couple of the “big” churches and felt ignored by the people.  Yeah, they had all the programming for the every age and whatever style of music worship service that a person could want.  But they didn’t seem to want to get to know her and her daughters.  So she took a chance on First Pres, mostly because she liked the architecture.  But she was shocked when she got here.  Never had she felt so welcomed at a church.  She said, “The church loved on me and my daughters like we were family.”  She didn’t find a program, she didn’t find a praise band, she didn’t even find a small group for divorced moms like they had at one of the other churches she checked out.  She got a glimpse of God.  She found the love of Christ in and through you.

And Autumn hadn’t been invited by anyone.  Just think what would happen if we all invited a friend to come and see and experience Christ here?  Because Christ is here!  Ultimately, he is the one doing the inviting, because he wants to be found by you, by your friends, by your family.  “Come and see” calls the Christ.  And his invitation becomes ours. “Come and see” is our invitation to the world.  Join the journey and invite others on the journey as well, for in the quest itself, there is life to be found in the one who journeys with us.   Because along the way, he promises that we will get glimpses in and through him of what every person is looking for:  the very heart of God.  Amen.


The Messenger: Sermon by Laura, 12.4.16

Scriptures: Matthew 3:1-12, Matthew 11:2-19

“Most people do not see things as they are, because they see things as they are.” Richard Rohr repeats this statement twice when teaching about spirituality, so I will, too: “Most people do not see things as they are, because they see things as they are.” Rohr continues, “Their many self-created filters keep them from seeing with any clear vision.” Rohr says that spirituality—life in the Holy Spirit—“is about seeing—seeing things in their wholeness, which can only be done through the lens of our own wholeness.”[i]

Rohr’s talk of filters and lenses makes me think of the tricks of light filmmakers use to convey atmosphere and symbolism. When a movie character is experiencing prison, literal or metaphorical, a filmmaker might zoom toward his face through a barred window. Or maybe the filmmaker suggest prison bars with lines of shadow on the character’s face, like that cast by light shining through prison bars. Perhaps in spite of outward appearances, viewers intuitively feel, that the character is experiencing some form of bondage.

That’s how I’d film John the Baptist in his prison cell, with lines of shadow over his face. How his circumstances have changed from our initial encounter with him! There on the banks of the Jordan, he seemed like the bright blaring light of a desert sun at midday. He was as expansive as the wilderness around him, confident in his message: Repent: now comes the Day of the Lord! Turn your life around and prepare! The people came to him and were baptized, cleansed for a new beginning inn the new era of peace the long-promised Messiah would bring.

In prison, the view is quite different.  The brilliant prophet, wild locusts-and-honey-eater, is now confined to a constricted cell. The messenger who “prepared the way” for the Messiah now sits in captivity, his own way barred. Likely he suspects he will not leave this cell alive.

But the prison bars cannot keep out the good news. Bright shards of Christ’s light filter through to John as he hears word of Jesus’ deeds, igniting his hope even as the bars remind him how his vision is bounded. Longing to know, longing for clarity, the Messenger sends his own messenger to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I’ve always thought John’s message and Jesus’ response sound like code—which makes sense, given how both are Jewish change agents, and as such, have a precarious relationship with the political powers. On one level, John is asking Jesus for basic assurance that his work hasn’t been in vain. But on another level, John is grasping at his last hope for rescue.

Jesus’ response is a paraphrase of Isaiah 61:1, which John would know well. It’s almost a job description for the Messiah: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…”

But notice that Jesus’ paraphrase adds some things and leaves others out: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Notice Jesus says nothing about “release to the prisoners.”

As one scholar writes, “…Jesus’ answer affirmed he is the Messiah while clarifying that he would not rescue John from Herod’s prison. This royal Son of David would not overthrow the wicked human rulers over Israel.” [ii]

What a hard grace John receives in this Word. It dismisses one hope while it amplifies another. On one hand, the great longing of Israel is met! The Messiah has come! But on the other, John will remain in prison. John’s change in circumstances is permanent. John’s work as herald and messenger, forerunner and preparer has come to completion.

But John’s work as Christ’s disciple has just begun. As he speaks to the crowds, Jesus honors John’s faithfulness: no human being in history is greater than John. But with Christ, a new reality comes into being. John’s ministry was rooted in the old reality that’s passing away.That’s what Jesus means in saying John is “least” in the kingdom of heaven. “John who had preceded Jesus must now learn to follow him; the one who prepared the way for Jesus must now receive him.”[iii]

No wonder Jesus also says to John, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” He knows his message and lack of action will likely disillusion those whose expectations he refuses to meet.

And the plain truth is that we are easily offended. When what we see does not meet up with what we expected to see, our resistance to seeing what is can be violent. As Jesus speaks to the crowds about John, he hones in on this point again and again.  “What did you go out to the wilderness to see?” Jesus asks us about John.

Did we see what we expected to see, did we see as we are, or did we see John as he really is, a frail human being with partial vision, yes; but also a prophet, more than a prophet, he is also Elijah come again—symbol of the Messiah’s imminent coming—to those who will accept it?

Jesus is asking us the same thing as we prepare ourselves anew for his life to be born within us. What are you here to see? What self-created filters come between you and true seeing?

Did you come here for the peaceful atmosphere, the beautiful music of bells and the tree full of lights? Well and good—but now that you’re here, prepare yourself for what else Christ might show you! Peace comes as the Messiah restores sight—and we learn to see as he sees. That is, to see things as they are, not as we are. But very few of us appreciate being disillusioned! And Jesus’ peace disturbs us before it brings clarity.

My friends, like John, our vision—of ourselves and others, of this world and the world to come, of who God is and what God is doing—is limited, partial, incomplete.

We see things not as they are, but as we are. But Jesus sees fully and clearly. He sees our world clearly, a world where the messengers of heaven’s kingdom continue to suffer the violence of those who resist and reject what Christ reveals. He sees each one of us clearly, all the ways we reject and refuse to depend on God’s grace.

But there is no easy grace for John in prison, or for so many we know who suffer the bondage of poverty or shame here and now. And what grace for grieving friends amidst the cheery brilliance of twinkle lights, the glitter of decorations, and the inescapable chirpy songs that only seem to accentuate their losses? What grace for families held hostage by one member’s unchecked addictions? What grace for people who appear to have it all, yet are forcing themselves into strait-jacket roles which do not fit the true shape of their souls, or people trapped in the tangle of treasures they’ve hoarded against the fear of future loss?  What grace for neighbors around the world, enslaved in human trafficking, or captured by systems which diminish their personhood?

It may not, at first, seem like much. But Jesus sees John, recognizes him, understands him, accepts him, just as he is, exactly where he is. Both the shadows of bondage and the spark of God’s image are visible to Jesus, who sees and accepts this world in all its beauty and brutality.

It may not seem like much, but in the light of Christ’s gaze in the intimate honesty of his regard, John is longer alone in his prison cell. He is accepted in all his complexity, honored for his contribution, and invited into still deeper trustin God’s will and ways.

Nothing has changed—yet everything has changed.

It may not seem like much, but Jesus sees us, each and every one of us, sees us as we are, in whatever circumstances trap us, the intermingled light and shadows on our faces. Sees us, accepts us, and invites us to receive him as our Savior in those dark places. He is the one who rescues us, not by forcefully taking a throne but by humbly taking up his cross.

The peace Christ brings does not magically melt our prison walls but changes our relationship to them; it does not whisk away the burdens of our lives, but changes the way we carry them.

We begin to see them the way Christ sees: obstacles, yes, but there are also opportunities in our life’s darkness for seeds of new life to gestate. We begin to see ourselves as Christ sees us, broken and beloved, forgiven and freed, and then we begin to see Christ within us, empowering us to forgive and free others.

The spiritual practice of Advent is learning to see things as they are.  But there are many tricks of light in this season! Do not be put off—do not let yourself be offended—if Christ’s light also reveals lines of shadow you never expected—or you never allowed yourself to see before. Notice the hard stuff. Notice your own un-freedom, the systems of bondage which steal your power, or relationships in which you give it away.

You can look and see these things with courage, because it is Christ within you who sees. You are not alone.

And Christ’s clear regard, Christ’s intimate honesty, is the light by which we can begin to envision a small wedge of freedom, opening up the possibility of new life right where we are; is the light we can begin to carry to others in bondage and captivity.

Alleluia! Come Lord Jesus! Amen.


[i] Richard Rohr, “Contemplative Seeing,”

[ii] Bonnie L. Pattison, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. 1. Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, 286.

[iii] John P. Burgess, Feasting on the Word. Year A, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 70.

Us and Them: sermon by Laura, 11.20.16

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  It’s a Good Friday question from a haunting old spiritual. But it is also a question we are asked today, on Christ the King Sunday. Instead of throne room splendor, Luke’s Gospel presents the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion. It is not an easy or comforting scene to enter in your imagination, and you may resist allowing yourself to go there.

But I invite you to close your eyes as I read the scripture, to see all the figures arrayed around the crosses at Golgotha, and to listen to the Holy Spirit within you, answering the question: Were you there—and with whom were you standing in that place?

Read Luke 33-43.

Abruptly we arrive at the place called The Skull. Telling us what happens next, the text uses a simple pronoun: “They.” “They” crucified Jesus and two criminals, one on his right and one on his left. “They” cast lots to divide his clothing.

It’s a vague word, broad and nonspecific. We are not given names or characteristics to pinpoint exactly who “they” are. And from our vantage point, far off in history and location, we might feel it gives us permission to answer the question: Were you there when they crucified my Lord?—No, of course not. It was not us, but them.

Luke sketches this scene with quick, blunt strokes. He could have been more descriptive. He could have shown us a vivid picture of the horrific suffering involved in crucifixion—as the movie “The Passion of the Christ” did.

But let’s not forget what crucifixion was about. It was a means by which one group of people controlled another. One scholar notes, “Crucifixion was more than a means of death. It was a weapon of terror, exactingly designed by the Romans to produce…a slow and degrading death …Luke spares us these details…”[1]

Luke’s original audience would have been all too familiar with crucifixion; but even so, I think Luke spares details here in order focus us elsewhere. He wants us to clearly see all those present at the foot of the cross, all those encompassed by that vague pronoun “they.”

First, there are the crucifiers, the people whose job it is to actually carry out ‘the mechanics” of execution, people “just following orders.”[2] Then there are the “leaders.” Perhaps Luke is pointing here to the chief priests and religious authorities, people who saw Jesus as a threat to their power in the present status quo. Maybe Luke is also pointing to Pilate, the Roman procurator, who authorized this politically expedient execution, despite his awareness of Jesus’ innocence. Likely Pilate himself was not actually present,but there’s no doubt it is his power moving the hands which hammer in the nails.

Then there is the crowd. Luke says they “stood by and watched.” Earlier, Luke mentions women, wailing in mourning for Jesus on his walk of pain. Maybe some of them are in that crowd. Maybe others are disciples who fled and abandoned Jesus to the authorities. And maybe still others are people who’d shouted words which freed Barabbas, a violent revolutionary, and condemned Jesus; people who were caught up in mob emotions, who shouted things at a rally, they would never have said elsewhere, people who didn’t realize what the full consequences of their vote might be; people who now find themselves complicit in a grave injustice.

Then three voices sound out with challenges to Jesus’ identity and worthiness, mirroring the tests he faced in the desert. The leaders scoff: “If he is the Messiah, let him save himself.” The soldiers bellow, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” The criminal next to Jesus sneers: “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us!”

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Of course we weren’t there…but then Luke shows us, in those faces and in those voices, a world we know all too well. An ugly, broken world of shame and fear-driven violence, a world which sets “us” up against “them” in bankrupt comparisons to decide who is worthy and who is not, who is deserving and who is dispensable.

We were there…because we are here.

For while Jesus’ crucifixion may be ancient history, not so long ago in the United States of America, people not so different from us, dressed in Sunday best stood by and watched fellow human beings get lynched. Not so long ago, here in the Pacific Northwest, people not so different from us stood and watched as Japanese neighbors were sent off to internment camps. And in these days after a difficult election some people have used it as permission to degrade and hurt other people in the name of “making America great again.”

The scene of Jesus’ crucifixion is nothing special, just the business as usual of an “us” or “them” world, in which a calculus of comparison fuels our most inhumane behavior. It’s there in “if…then” logic of those who jeer at Jesus, kicking a man already down to push themselves up. It’s the base language of a culture which proclaims, “You get what you deserve.” Clearly, if you can’t save yourself, you don’t deserve to live.

How many of us are bound up in this mindset, focused on saving ourselves? If I just work harder, if I earn more money, if I diet and exercise or take the right meds, If I please everyone around me and fulfill all their needs, If I stay out of trouble and don’t rock the boat…Then I’ll deserve to live.

This mindset keeps us focused on ourselves—how hard I work, how much I’ve earned, what I deserve, what I am owed. Even worse, in this mindset our identity, our dignity, and our worthiness is set up over and against other human beings in a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all and the loser is left with less than nothing.

This self-centered, self-serving attitude cannot fathom the possibility that a powerful leader might refuse to use his power to save his own life or share it with others. [3]

But then, against this bleak tapestry of inhumanity, a thread of royal gold shines out. The scoffers and the silent watchers cannot tempt Jesus to despair. He knows who he is; he knows what it means to be the Messiah, the king of kings, the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. He does not pit himself against those sheep; he does not pit the sheep against one another.

Lifted up into kingship in this dire hour, he brings healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Even as he suffers the shameful abuse of the cross, Jesus speaks words of costly grace: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

There is that pronoun again: “them.” Thankfully, the way Jesus uses it, it is broad, vague, non-specific. We don’t want to distance ourselves from this one. Still, we must ask, who are the “thems” for whom Jesus asks the Father’s forgiveness? Who is included in the suffering King’s compassion and mercy?[4]

Who are those who “do not know what they are doing,” who are those, throughout history, who have pushed themselves or another down attempting to save their lives? Pilate, the leaders, the scoffers, the soldiers? Yes. The criminal on the right? Yes. And the criminal on the left, too? Yes, yes, yes.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Friends, the good news for us all is that, wherever we recognize ourselves in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, wherever we recognize ourselves in relation to the crucifixions of our world, Jesus’ forgiveness extends to us.

Whether we have consciously participated in diminishing another human being for our own gain, or whether we have just come awake, shocked, to an awareness of our unwitting complicity in injustice, Jesus forgives.

In the mystery of the cross, all of us were there—and so all of us receive the grace Jesus extends at the center-point of history. We are all “them.”    “They” are us.

Ohhhh…Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble…

My friends, the grace of Jesus’ forgiveness is not cheap.Jesus bears the cost in his own body. But notice, there are no strings attached. Jesus offers it to those who don’t repent or ask for it, who don’t even know they need it. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus tells the man who asks to be remembered. There is no test to see that he truly deserves it! Nor does Jesus turn to the scoffing thief thereafter and say, “But you—you deserve to die!” There is no calculus of “deserving” applied to Jesus’ grace.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Yes, I was there, gratefully forgiven. And yes, I will be there. I will not look away when, in our “us or them” world, I come across those who think they must push others down to lift themselves up, or cut off others’ lives to save their own. I will face the ugliness of our world with courage, and whenever I can, I will not just stand by and watch. I will stand with and watch out for those who have less power or regard than me; I will also stand with and watch out for those who, like me, are all too often caught up unwittingly in the competition and division which seeks to dignify some people at the expense of others.

For the One raised up and crowned on a cross is my Lord and my King. I choose to follow his lead and act in his power, his power shared generously, his suffering borne willingly, his forgiveness offered lavishly, his life poured out freely, that others—all God’s children—might live abundantly.

And what about you? Were you there? Where are you now, and where will you be?

May Christ’s Kingdom come in the reconciliation of all God’s children and the whole creation beginning today, beginning with us.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.





[1] Craig T. Kocher, Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 2.  Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 326.

[2] Edward A. McLeod Jr. Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 2.  Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 328.


[4] McLeod, 330.




Scripture: Luke 20:27-38

I have an interesting history with this passage.  It seems to pop up now and again in theological conversations I’ve had with people over the last several years.  One of those conversations was just an out of the blue phone call I received when I was sitting in the office.  “First Presbyterian Church of La Grande.  This is Keith, how may I help you?”  “You a pastor?”  Since I was kind of shocked at abruptness of the question, it took me a second to answer, “Yes, yes, I’m a pastor.”  “Well, my friend and I are having an argument.  He says angels are male.  I say they are female.  Who’s right?”  I’d never been asked a question like this before, so I had to think for a second, but this passage came to mind.  “Did you ever consider that angels are neither male nor female?  There is this passage in the Bible that talks about how in the resurrection we will become like the angels.  There is no longer any marriage or death.  When you read it, there is a subtle, possible implication in this passage that angels aren’t sexual beings, but created as eternal beings with no sexual identity.”  After a pause, I get a, “Well, that doesn’t do me any good” with a click on the line.

Actually, there is a lot in this passage that doesn’t really do us any good if we get stuck on them, like are angels male or female.  But if we start with the end of the passage, where the good news rests, it will make this passage come alive and have an impact on our lives and probably make us ask different questions.  The good news of this text is that God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.  Say that with me, God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.

So, keep that in mind as we start working on this passage.  We hear a lot in scripture about the Pharisees.  This is the first and only place in Luke where the Sadducees show up.  Just like today, there are different camps that believe different things about who God is and what God is up to in the world.  And one of the arguments between these two groups was “what is authoritative scripture.”  Basically, the Sadducees believed that only the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, had any say in the theological life of the Jewish people.  Since Moses makes no comment about an afterlife, there is no afterlife.  To the Sadducees, when you died, you were dead.  No heaven, no hell, no resurrection, just the grave.  This life was the only one you are given.

But the Pharisees believed that God revealed the divine will not only in the books of Moses, but continued to speak to and through God’s people in their changing circumstances.  So as time went by, the Psalms, the prophets, the history of Israel as we have now in most of our Old Testament became authoritative to the Pharisee camp.  And from this new understandings of God’s promises evolved.  Like the resurrection of the body  You find a bit of an understanding for it over here in Daniel, and in a few versus in Ezekiel and the Psalms, and the prophet Isaiah writes poetic lines about being bodily present in presence of God.  So they took this understanding of resurrection and looked at what was happening around them in the culture.  Here is what they saw:  The righteous suffered and the wicked seemed to prosper and they knew that a just God wouldn’t let that be the final word.  From scripture, they concluded that God would raise the dead and the righteous would receive their reward and perhaps the wicked would be raised to receive punishment.  Most of the general population believed in the day of resurrection and so did Jesus.  And this teaching drove the Sadducees mad.

That’s the background of this scene between Jesus and Sadducees. It starts off with this crazy question about this women’s married life that speaks to some of the laws in the first five books of the bible.  And we can’t get stuck here.  Their goal in setting up this extreme example was to put Jesus on the spot.  The crowds would see just how brainless such a belief was.  How can the dead be raised, the Sadducees say, if those who are raised aren’t even able to tell who is married to whom?

Since we are going to focus on the good news of this passage, that God is not the God of dead, but the God of the living, Jesus’ response not only affirms the life after death experienced in the resurrection but also goes on to briefly teach about what that life will be like.

First, since God is a God of the living, life on earth and life after death are not alike.  The resurrected life will not just be an extension or repeat of this life, thank God!  We experience death and decay here.  In the resurrection, we will be totally in the presence of the living God, completely enveloped in his presence and death and pain will be destroyed and all tears will be wiped away.

Second, there will be no marriage in the age to come.  For some of you, that might be a relief.  For others, you might be heart broken.  You love your spouse.  Again, God is a God of the living.  Jesus doesn’t say we won’t know our present spouse in the age of the resurrection, but rather that our relationship will be different.  I love Laura.  I love Laura with all my heart.  But we don’t have a perfect marriage.  I thank God everyday that she is able to forgive me for my screw ups.  But I can celebrate the fact that in the new life of the resurrection that my relationship with her will be so transformed that it will go beyond marriage.  But that also includes my relationships with you, too!  No one will be less than the other, no one will be greater than the other, but we will be focused on God.  In the Message, Eugene Peterson says it this way:  All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.

Third, there is no death.  All these rules about what happens when you die and keeping blood lines don’t matter any longer.  God is a God of the living, no more death, the resurrected will be like the angels in heaven, eternally serving, praising, and living in the presence of the living God.  Now it doesn’t say the resurrected become angels, but are like them, no longer experiencing death because God is the God of the living.  Our existence and nature becomes fully alive in the presence of God.

But in all these points, Jesus is debunking their argument based upon scripture outside of the books of Moses. This argument holds no water for the Sadducees.  But Jesus then turns to the book of Exodus to say, and again I’m quoting Peterson:  Even Moses exclaimed about resurrection at the burning bush, saying, “‘God: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob!’ God isn’t the God of dead men, but of the living.  To him all are alive.”  Now, this is really exciting and really hard to put our heads around.  Here’s why:  God, in defining Godself, uses the relationship experienced with these patriarchs of the faith to say who he is.  And God uses the present tense:  I am currently the God of Abraham, not I was the God of Abraham whom I dearly miss.  In this argument about the resurrection, Jesus is saying that to God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive in the presence of God.  And to say that they are living, it is necessary to conclude that they have been resurrected.  Don’t ask me how this works, because you can go visit the graves of the patriarchs today.  Their bones are in the dirt!  The best way I’ve been able to even attempt to grasp this is in a lecture I heard Tom Long give he said that when we die, we enter God’s time, eternal time, resurrection time.  If God is the God of the living, in our death, to enter God’s presence, we have to be fully alive, body and soul.  Wow.

So, why does that matter?  I said earlier that believing that God is not God of the dead but God of the living would have a impact on our lives.  Here’s why:  One of the reasons the Sadducees pushed against the teaching of the resurrection was that people who believed it pushed against the status quo.  If this life was all that you had, you will compromise with the powers that be and hold on to all that you can get your hands on.  And guess what?  The Sadducees were the ones who pushed for alliances with the Romans and were generally the wealthiest members of the Jerusalem population.  Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t push back or it might mess with this comfortable life I’ve created.  But what about those who pushed back, who said the Romans shouldn’t be in the temple, who pointed out the wrongs in this life, who demanded justice, who rocked the boat, who said God intended something better for the world he created?   These were the ones the Romans nailed to a cross and they were the ones who believed that they would be resurrected and vindicated by God.  Knowing that we will live fully in the life to come pushes us to live life fully now, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors and all creation.  We come to the point that lives can be lived with a certain amount of hope, a certain amount of daring in working for justice, a certain amount of adventure, a certain amount of confidence because God is a God of the living.  We don’t have to let the things of this life control us, we don’t have to hoard and hang on, we don’t have give up when the path God is calling us down seems crazy.  God is calling us to live, live the hope of the resurrection today.

So, don’t get stuck on all the details of this passage.  Get stuck on God, for God is not the God of the dead but the God of the living and the promise of resurrected life in this passage invites us to live fully alive with God today.  But at the heart of it all will be a people who live.

God in Christ is making you into his living people by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

(Sermon preached by Rev. Keith Hudson on Nov. 13, 2016 at First Presbyterian Church, La Grande, OR)


Son of Abraham: Sermon by Laura, 11.6.16 Pentecost 25C

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

What a convergence of significant dates we have in these early weeks of November! In our congregation, as we’ve already mentioned, today is “Stewardship Commitment Sunday.” But I’m guessing other significant dates have captured more of your attention, anticipation, and anxiety. Cubs fans continue to celebrate Nov. 2nd’s historic win. Veterans Day is coming up on Nov. 11. And…what’s that you say? There’s an election in two days? How could we forget!

We’ll come back to that. But the date that was most significant for me this past week was Nov. 1, the Feast of All Saints. I now count my Dad, Ron Elly, among the members of the church triumphant. In honor of All Saints, I’d like to read you the words which, to me, are the heart of Dad’s testimony as a Christ-follower. Dad had scrawled these words, in all caps for emphasis, with blue ballpoint pen on a swatch of wide-ruled paper; stuck with tape to his bathroom mirror. He saw them every time he saw his own reflection: “I am a child of God, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.”

Those words reflect the good news of the gospel, as we consider the familiar story of Zacchaeus, Jericho’s chief tax collector, short on stature if not on wealth. Zacchaeus is so eager to see Jesus that he scurries ahead of the crowds to climb a tree to for a better view. Stopping below that tree, Jesus calls Zacchaeus down, inviting himself to lodge at Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus is joyful to host Jesus, but onlookers grumble. Why would great rabbi like Jesus want to associate with a man like Zacchaeus—a tax collector who must be a “sinner?”

After all, tax collectors weren’t known for integrity. Business men who had bid on and won the privilege of collecting taxes for the Roman Empire, they regularly took an extra cut for themselves. A chief tax collector, like Zacchaeus, with other tax collectors working under him, had even more opportunity for “cooking the books, commodities speculation, side deals, graft, and extortion to defraud”[i] others. Fellow Jews viewed him as profiting from their distress, and collaboration with the Gentile occupiers made him a sinner, an outsider to the “official family of faith.”[ii]

But what does Jesus see in the man up in the tree? Does he see a sinner in need of repentance?

That’s the traditional interpretation of this story.

But there are a couple of ways the original Greek text can be understood. Most English versions translate Zacchaeus’ speech in future tense, so that he says,  “I will give half my money to the poor…I will pay back four times as much.” It sounds like Zacchaeus is so moved by Jesus’ personal attention that he repents the spot. But these verbs can also be read in what’s called the “customary present tense:” “I give to the poor…I pay back four times as much.” Zacchaeus is revealing that he is already, customarily, practicing righteous stewardship, despite what others assume about him.

I like this second reading. It turns the tables on my assumptions, as Jesus so often does. As one author notes, “maybe the story is not about a sinner who shocks us by repenting, but about the crowd that demonizes a person it doesn’t like with all sorts of false assumptions.”[iii]

Such a reading is consistent with Luke’s other stories.  There are unlikely heroes all over the place: a faithful Roman soldier, a “good” Samaritan, a healed Samaritan leper who returns to thank Jesus, and a tax collector praised in contrast to a Pharisee. Each of these stories overturns the expectations of religious insiders.

There’s also the “rich young ruler,” righteous in all the expected ways,  who walks away from Jesus, unable to bring himself to do as Jesus directs, to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow in Jesus’ way. At the end of that story, the disciples ask, “Who, then, can be saved?”

“This guy!” Zacchaeus’ story seems to respond. Here’s another rich man, about whom Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.” But what does Jesus mean with that word “salvation”?

In one sense, it points to the very person of Jesus Christ, literally coming to dwell at Zacchaeus’ house. Childlike in his eager-tree-climbing—and remember, Jesus says we receive the kingdom like a little child—Zacchaeus receives Jesus with great joy. Named and accepted as a true son of Abraham, Zacchaeus is brought from outsider status back into the true family of faith. Jesus has sought, found, and saved Zacchaeus.

But the word “salvation” applies in a second way. Affirming Zacchaeus’ generosity, Jesus is recognizing that salvation had already arrived at Zacchaeus’ house,   because Zacchaeus had already committed himself to economic practices which tangibly bless other people.

“Salvation” is a big word.  It is more than a penitent sinner’s return to morality, more than a warm feeling of acceptance, more, even, than an “inward and spiritual grace leading to heavenly rest,” as one scholar puts it. Salvation also includes the outward actions we take to make a “practical and observable” difference in others’ lives.[iv]

All of this points us toward the challenge of discernment. Are we able to see and recognize the true sons and daughters of Abraham, bearing fruits of generosity, compassion, and graciousness wherever and whenever they may be found—or do we assume some people, “those people,” cannot possibly have any blessing to offer? Which of our prejudices obscures our vision from seeing God’s powerful Spirit at work, blessing the earth, through neighbors all around us?

What an important question in election season! And what a brutal season it has been! I’ve read that therapists are reporting record numbers of patients with over-the-top anxiety in the recent weeks of Election 2016. I get it—this election has drawn out an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and dehumanizing rhetoric. New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, “If America were a marriage we’d need therapy…There has been so much bad communication over the past year: people talking in warring monologues past each other, ignoring the facts and using lazy stereotypes…to reduce complex individuals into simplistic categories…”

So I truly appreciated a meme on my Facebook feed this week. It was a picture of the two major presidential candidates, along with these words: “These people were both made in the image of God. Yes, both.” I appreciated that reminder, not because it helps me which one to vote for, but because it reconnects me with our basic Christian conviction, that every human being has value, no matter who they are, no matter what they have done or left undone, simply because God chose to create them. And God longs for God’s image, concealed beneath layers of damage and dust, to be revealed in each of us. God longs for God’s beloved children to recognize themselves—and each other.

All of us here have been sought, found, and saved by Christ. We are recipients of a salvation that way beyond a ticket to heaven after death. Christ transforms us from recipients to participants and agents of salvation, and sent into the world on God’s mission, empowered by the Holy Spirit of mercy and forgiveness, courageous compassion, and daring love. As my Dad reminded himself every day, we are children of God, deserving of love and respect, and God will use us to change the world.

But if this is true of each of us, it is also true for every other child of God, it is also true for every other human person created in God’s image, for whom Jesus gave himself so generously so that image might be restored in fullness.

In the days ahead, our invitation, is to ask the Holy Spirit to give us clear vision, that we might see past our assumptions and prejudices. We trust in a God who immeasurably greater than our culture’s politics. Holding fast to that faith, it is our special task to create spacious sanctuaries of listening acceptance, where neighbors and strangers are welcomed without fear.

Therefore, prepare yourself, church. Use your eyes and ears first, to see and to hear, and only then, use your mouths to proclaim all the ways that God is active.  Practice careful discernment.

Look at each person you encounter, in person or on the news, with the gaze of the Holy Spirit, and recognize saints, hidden and in plain sight, doing gracious acts in small and every day ways. There are always people bearing the fruits of salvation in unexpected ways, in unexpected places. Practice curiosity, not prejudice.

And on Stewardship Sunday, this Sunday after All Saints, let us commit ourselves to practicing generosity. Not just generosity in our economic practices, not just generosity in sharing our resources with others. But with a generosity of spirit, the kind of generosity God shows us, let us open our hearts to God’s children everywhere.

Let us be courageous in our relationships willing to be changed as we listen to people who are different from us. Let us be available to experience God’s love from unexpected sources. Let us be willing to “pay forward” all the little acts of kindness that actually keep this world alive, the daily acts of sharing made by those who are now among the “great cloud of witnesses,” who made, in one way or another, our life together in this place possible. Thanks be to God for their generous lives, and, in death, for the completion of  their joyous reunion in the family of God.

Alleluia! Amen.

[i] Christopher R. Hutson, “Exegetical Perspective” on Luke 19:1-10, in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 165.

[ii] D. Cameron Murchison, “Theological Commentary” on Luke 19:1-10 in in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 166.


[iv] Murchison, as above, 168