Sermon: Vision of Peace

Malachi 3:1-4

Classes in Philosophy dominated my first year in seminary. The study of philosophy opens one’s mind to the ability to ask questions, but not just any question, good questions. Philosophy requires the students to reach past themselves to seek answers to questions about the nature of life and the essence of our very being. For the most part, philosophy is taught using the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method, designed by the great philosopher Socrates uses the question and answer format. The teacher poses a question to the class, calls on a student for the answer, and then poses a series of questions to that student to help them refine their response. The Socratic Method only works if the student is as prepared as the teacher.

There is one particular day that is emblazoned in my memory. Believe it or not, I am, by nature, an introvert. It takes a lot of energy for me to do what I do. This is not, by the way, and uncommon trait in clergy types. I hang in the back of the class and do not usually ask questions or offer answers. This is impossible in a course such as I have just described. But on this particular day, for whatever reason, I came to the attention of the professor. She zeroed in on me like a lioness ready to take down her prey. She started easy enough, although I do not remember the question. I do remember that I answered the question in an unsatisfactory way. She knew that I was not prepared for class, and now, her prey was weak, and she would soon pounce. After 45 minutes of continued questions, and as I was close to tears, the class time ended, and we were dismissed. I had learned my lesson, never be unprepared for class again.

But the idea behind having theological students study philosophy is that it makes the student better at asking questions. Theology and the spiritual life is all about asking questions. In today’s reading from the Prophet, Malachi asks a couple of questions; But who can abide the day of his coming? And, who can stand when he appears?

These are Advent questions and force us to ask other questions like, who will be prepared through repentance and forgiveness? The season of Advent tests our worthiness, readiness, and willingness for Christ’s coming. Advent calls us to a new way of living a new uprightness and integrity, a turning from iniquity, and a renewed reverence for God’s covenant of life and well-being with all of us.

I have been thinking a lot these past few months about the nature of worship and liturgy. This comes partly out of my desire to answer the question, what brings people to church? This is a logical question to ask in these days where people who have no affiliation with the church have surpassed those who do. Don’t get me wrong, I do not foresee an end to the brick and mortar church, but we have to understand what is going on outside the doors of the building.

It seems these days the number one reason folks leave the church is they get nothing out of worship. It is my belief this answer comes from the idea that worship is supposed to entertain. Some of the largest churches in America are a church with great music, fabulous worship bands, light shows, the preacher stands behind a Plexiglas pulpit, and wears jeans and an open-collared shirt. The lights in the sanctuary get turned down, and a spotlight is fixed on the preacher as he, I say he because these churches usually do not allow women to preach, delivers, what can charitably be called a sermon. Sure, it is loosely based on some theme of Scripture but usually ends with we are all sinners in need of repentance and then a call to change your life by coming forward to the altar for prayer. Later in the day, the church will post something on their social media feed about how many “gave their life to Christ.” The problem is, there usually is no follow up.

Worship should not just be about entertainment; it needs to be about change, lasting change. I preach in such a way; I craft messages, I hope anyway, that move people to make a change in their lives not just today but every day. I have told you before that I view my job as preacher and teacher to challenge you, to force you to question not only what you believe but why you believe it. I want you to ask questions, get mad, and challenge me because that is where the growth happens.

This passage from Malachi is featured in one of the signature choral works of the Advent Season, Handel’s Messiah. Malachi’s faithful question about the nature of God’s love is raised in a masterful work. The answer comes in the use of authoritative Scripture. The narrative “The Lord, who ye seek shall suddenly come.” Followed by the bass, “But who may abide the day of his coming?” The chorus “He shall purify the sons of Levi” And the alto answer, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.”

After the first presentation of the Messiah in London in 1741, Handel wrote to a friend, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.” Handel is challenging me, the preacher, and you to go beyond feeling good to doing good. Worship should move us to action, action in our lives that creates a spiritual change in us and action in our world that makes it a better place for all to live.

Although by 1751, Handel was blind until his death, he conducted Messiah as an annual benefit for the Foundling Hospital in London, which served mostly widows and orphans of the clergy. Handel’s intent was not just to entertain; he hoped to make those listening just a little bit better and in so doing, make the lives of the widows and orphans better.

You get out of worship what you put in. If you come seeking to be changed, you will be changed. If you come seeking only to be entertained, you might leave disappointed. Advent is the season of preparation for the coming of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Just like Handle, I hope to make us a little bit better, so we are genuinely prepared for the “day of his coming.”

Amen.

A Tribute for my Father

The Eulogy delivered at my father’s funeral on December 8, 2019

I want to begin this morning with a word of thanks on behalf of my family. Thank you all for being here this morning and for those who were able to come last night. Thank you to those who reached out to my family in the previous few days and provided words of comfort to us in this our time of sorrow. Each of us grieves in our way, but hearing from friends and family always makes the process just a little easier to get through.

As one would imagine, I spend time in cemeteries. As a minister and a hospice chaplain, I help people prepare for their life to come to an end, and part of that process is something we call a life review. If you take a look at the front cover of today’s program, you will see the dates of my father’s life. He was born on May 11, 1933, and he died on December 1, 2019. In-between those dates are the dash, and the dash is where we live.

The dash represents birthday parties, graduations, the birth of children and grandchildren, and all of the other stuff that happens in our lives. The dash is where life happens. But how can we, in a few short moments, summarize a person’s life? You have before you an obituary that lists the pertinent facts of a person’s life, but that still does not tell the story of the dash.

This may come as a surprise, but I have known my father for my entire life. It’s true. For as long as I can remember he was there. Like most people of his generation he worked hard. Most days, when I woke in the morning, he was already gone to work and many nights, long after I had to sleep, he would come home. But he was always there.

They say parents are the first teachers of their children, and my father instilled some of life’s most essential lessons in me that I have and will carry my entire life. He taught me such things as integrity, honor, service, and that, above all else, the family needs to come first.

My father taught me that a man is nothing if he does not stand by his word. If you say you are going to do something, you better do it. If you commit to someone or something, you still to it. All we have is our reputation, and no matter what we do with our lives, our integrity is everything.

My father taught me that honor is an important life lesson. Like integrity, it seems these that word honor has lost much of its meaning. These days you can say anything you want or do anything you want and, if you get caught you either blame someone else for it or you spin it in such a way that you are the victim, and you say “I did not mean it that way” and all is forgiven. For my father, things were black and white. If you made a mistake, you took ownership of it. If you needed to ask for forgiveness, you did. And that is what brings honor. Honor is found in how we recover and how we hold ourselves after a fall.

At the outbreak of the Korean Conflict, my father joined the United States Air Force and proudly served his country. I followed in those footsteps and continued a long line of military service that my family has provided this nation. He was honored this morning with his casket being draped with the flag of his country. The Honor Guard took great care in folding that piece of cloth and presenting it on behalf of a grateful nation.

But he also served his community. He told a story once of going to the church rectory and asking the priest why there was no Cub Scout Pack in the Church. By the time he left, he was the Scoutmaster, my mother a Den Mother, and all of us boys signed up! Scouting was and is a big part of our family, and my father was able to see two of his grandsons achieve the honor of Eagle Scout because he felt that we needed a program in the Church.

In 1969, believing that no incumbent should run for office unopposed, my father decided to run for Mayor of the City of Quincy. He ran against what was arguably the most powerful political machine in the City. It was a close race, a nail bitter right up to the counting of the last vote. Of the 23,000 votes cast in that election, my father received 4, 480. Not bad, until you look at the votes his opponent received, 18, 317. He only lost by 13,837 votes! He told me he was glad he lost because he was not sure what he would have done if he had won that election. But that was the point, we serve our country, and we serve our community even if we lose.

I mentioned before that my father would often leave for work before I got up and came home after I had gone to bed. My father believed that you do whatever you have to do to support your family. If that means working late into the night and on weekends, you do it. If that means sacrificing what you have so that your children have more, then that is what you do. My father worked hard, but there would be time for family vacations to exotic locations like Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Huntsville, Alabama. We would load up whatever care we had, sometimes taking along an extra kid or two, and we would head off down the road. We did not have a lot, but we sure did have fun. Well, until my brother Mark flipped me over in that little red wagon in Huntsville.  I think I still have the scars from that day. My therapist and I are almost a breakthrough on that one.

One of the gifts that he left us was knowing exactly what he wanted when his time came. Over the last few years, he had conversations with each of us about what he wanted.  Those conversations are not always easy to have but, and this is a little commercial interruption, please have those conversations with someone. When it came time for us to make those decisions, my father had made it easy for us since we all knew exactly what he wanted. Like having those conversations, making those decisions is not easy, but he helped us, but telling us what he wanted and I believe we have fulfilled those wishes.

I do have a few regrets. I could have spent more time with him, talked to him more, done more with him, and for him. But, my biggest regret is that he will not be here to give me advice on raising my soon to be born daughter. I am a little jealous of my brothers because they had the wisdom of both of our parents, also the free babysitting service that comes with being a grandparent. But I know that that advice they gave them will be available to me from them because of the lessons that he taught them. Through his life and the life of my brothers, my parents left wonderful examples, and I thank them for that.

So, they are back together, although I am sure my mother had some words for him about his beard, they are together again, and they continue to watch over us and guide us, and laugh at us a little from time to time.

I want to leave you all with some questions to ponder. What are you doing with your dash? What life lessons are you teaching? What legacy are you leaving, or will you leave?

Amen

The Greatest of These…

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13

As we enter the second week of the Season of Advent, our thoughts and attention turn from hope to love. As you already know, love is central to my preaching and my ministry, as I believe it is central to the Gospel and our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.  For me, the love of others has to flow from our lives as Christians, and it has to move us to care for others, especially the least among us.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth that I quoted above, Paul is summarizing the faith that we must have. As Christians, we live in hope, hope for a better tomorrow, but a tomorrow that we have to help usher in. We have to have faith, for if we do not have faith, we have nothing. But, Paul tells the Church that the greatest of all of these is love. Earlier in the 13th Chapter, Paul says this:

“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:2

We can do everything and obtain all the riches and power on earth, but if we do not have love, we are nothing. Love is central to everything that we do, and every action that we take, every decision that we make has to come from a position of love.

Apart from Paul, we have God as the supreme example of what love is all about.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

So deep was God’s love for his creation that he gave up his Son, not to come and pronounce judgment on all of us, but to show us the way to eternal life. And that way is straightforward:

Love God, Love Neighbor, Love our Enemies, Love Each Other, and Love Yourself! Love is the answer.

The Power of Saying No

Saying no is one of the hardest things I have had to learn to do. As someone in ministry, I want to be available to everyone but, that usually leads to overextending, and then bad things start to happen. Harnessing the power of saying no is a lesson we all should learn. When we say yes, we are also saying no to something. Ask yourself these five questions to determine if your priorities are straight.

1. What do I like about saying, yes? When does saying yes, impact me negatively? (Make two lists)

2. What am I afraid of when it comes to saying no? When does it feel wonderful to say no? (Make two lists)

3. Where do I need to say no in my life, and what would that feel like?

4. What gets in the way of me saying no? (Make a list)

5. If I say “No” more, would I be able to…

Think about these questions, make the lists, and begin to harness the power of saying no.

If you need help learning to say no, check out my Coaching Page and let’s begin a conversation.

5 Questions to Inspire a Habit of Gratitude

Gratitude is a wonderful habit that increases our mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  Here are five questions to help you get inspired to create a meaningful habit of gratitude:

1. What stops me from being thankful or grateful?

2. When I feel thankful, how do I feel differently about myself, life, and the world?

3. On bad days, how could I still be tankful?  (think small!)

4. How could I express my gratitude to those around me?

5. How could I begin to cultivate a larger habit of gratitude and thankfulness in my life? (Make a list of ideas.)

This week, ponder these questions and then chose one action to move forward with in the coming weeks.

Advent Scripture Journey

Advent is the time of preparation not just for the family gatherings at Christmas but spiritual preparation for the coming of the Savior of the world Jesus Christ. Taking time to prepare ourselves spiritually is vitally important and is often the most overlooked practice of the Advent Season. I want to help with that.

I recently came across a MEME on Facebook with the title “A New Christmas tradition.” This tradition is a journey through the Gospel of Luke during the 24 days leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. Beginning on December 1st, read one chapter from the Gospel of Luke, and continue for the next 24 days which will bring you to Christmas Eve. In reading these chapters, when you wake on Christmas morning, you will understand Who and Why we celebrate.

I mentioned that I wanted to help. If you send me an email, I will add you to my list of people that I will be posting a chapter a day from the Gospel of Luke starting on December 1st. This daily email will make the process of the journey that much easier to participate in since it will be there in your mailbox each morning. I promise I won’t spam you and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Please join me on this Advent Scripture Journey and let us reclaim Advent as a time of Spiritual Preparation.

Wisdom Wednesday: Dealing With Toxic People

We all have toxic people in our lives. You know them, the ones that drain you or minimize you. They are the ones that deplete and sap your energy, so you have nothing left. Toxic people undermine and consume us – but only when we allow them to have power over us.

Life Coach and New York Times best-selling author Brendan Burchard has this to say about toxic people in our lives:

Toxic people will not be changed by the alchemy of your kindness. Be kind, but move on swiftly and let life be their educator.

We need to surround ourselves with people who lift us and support us. We need to surround ourselves with people who give us energy and not the people who take that energy away.

Here are five questions to ponder over the next few days. After you have thought about the answers to these questions, choose 1-3 actions you might take moving forward to help you deal with the toxic people in your lives.

1. Who energizes me in my life? How could I spend more time with them?

2. Who drains or minimizes me? How could I spend less time or spend time differently with them?

3. How do I allow people who drain me and deplete me?

4. How does it help me to remember that toxic people are in pain themselves?

5. What steps do I need to take with toxic people for my own esteem and peace of mind?

Need help answering any of these questions or what to get on the right path in dealing with the toxic people in your life? Check out my Life Coaching page for more information.

Prayer at the Dedication of the National Cemetery Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Prayer at the
DEDICATION OF THE NATIONAL CEMETERY AT GETTYSBURG
by Reverend Thomas H. Stockton,
Chaplain of the House of Representatives
Thursday, November 19, 1863

O God our Father, for the sake of Thy Son our Savior, inspire us with Thy Spirit and sanctify us to the right fulfillment of the duties of this occasion.

We come to dedicate this new historic center as a National Cemetery.  If all departments of the one Government which Thou had ordained over our Union, and of the many Governments which Thou hast subordinated to our Union, be here represented; if all classes, relations, and interests of our blended brotherhood of people stand severally and thoroughly apparent in Thy presence; we trust that it is because Thou hast called us, that Thy blessing awaits us, and that Thy designs may be embodied in practical results of incalculable and imperishable good.

And so, with Thy holy Apostle, and with the Church of all lands and ages; we unite in the inscription: ‐ “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort, who comforteth us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.”

In emulations of all angels, in fellowship with all saints, and in sympathy with all sufferers; in remembrance of Thy works, in reverence of Thy ways, and in accordance with Thy word; we laud and magnify Thine infinite perfections, Thy creative glory, Thy redeeming grace, Thy providential goodness, and the progressively richer and fairer developments of Thy supreme, universal, and everlasting administration.

In behalf of all humanity, whose ideal is divine, whose first memory is Thine image lost, and whose last hope is Thine image restored; and especially of our own nation, whose history has been so favored, whose position is so peerless, whose mission is so sublime, and whose future is so attractive; we thank Thee for the unspeakable patience of Thy compassion and the exceeding greatness of Thy loving kindness.  In contemplation of Eden, Calvary, and Heaven; of Christ in the Garden, on the Cross, and on the Throne; say more of Christ as coming again in all subduing power and glory; we gratefully prolong our homage.  By this Alter o Sacrifice, on this Field of Deliverance, on this Mount of Salvation, within the fiery and bloody line of these “munitions of rock,” looking back to the dark days of fear and trembling, and to the rapture of relief that came after; we multiply our thanksgivings, and confess our obligations to renew and perfect our personal and social consecration to Thy service and glory.

O, had it not been for God!  For lo! Our enemies – they came unresisted, multitudinous, mighty, flushed with victory, and sure of success.  They exulted on our mountains, they reveled in our valleys,; they feasted, they rested; they slept, they awaked;  they grew stronger, prouder, bolder every day; they spread abroad, they concentrated here; they looked beyond this horizon to the stores of wealth, to the haunts of pleasure, and to the seats of power, in our Capital and chief Cities.  They prepared to cast the chain of Slavery around the form of Freedom, binding life and death together forever.  Their premature triumph was the mockery of God and man.  One more victory; and all was theirs!  But, behind these hills was heard the feebler march of a smaller but still pursuing host.  Onward they hurried, day and night, for God and their country.  Foot‐sore, way‐worn, hungry, thirsty, faint – but not in heart, they came to dare all to bear all, and to do all, that is possible to heroes.  And Thou didst sustain them!  At first they met the blast on the plain, and bent before it, like the trees in a storm.  But then, led by Thy hand to these hills, they took their stand upon the rocks and remained as firm and immovable as they.  In vain were they assaulted.  All art, all violence, all desperation, failed to dislodge them.  Baffled, bruised, broken, their enemies recoiled, retired, and disappeared.  Glory to God, for this rescue!  But, O, the slain!  In the freshness and fullness of their young and manly life; with each sweet memories of father and mother, brother and sister, wife and children, maiden and friends; they died for us.  From the coasts beneath the Eastern star, from the shores of Northern lakes and rivers, from the flower of Western prairies, and from the homes of the Midway, and the Border, they came here to die for us and for mankind.  Alas, how little we can do for them!  We came with the humility of prayer, with the pathetic eloquence of venerable wisdom, with the tender beauty of poetry, with the plaintive harmony of music, with the honest tribute of our Chief Magistrate, and with all this honorable attendance: but our best hope is in Thy blessing.  O, Lord, our God! O, Father, bless us!  Bless the bereaved, whether present, or absent; bless our sick and wounded soldiers and sailors; bless all our rulers and people; bless our army and navy; bless the efforts of the suppression of the rebellion; and bless all the associations of this day; and place, and scene, forever.  As the trees are not dead, though their foliage is gone, so our heroes are not dead, though their forms have fallen.  In their proper personality, they are all with Thee.  And the spirit of their example is here.  It fills the air, it fills our hearts.  And, long as time shall last, it will hover in the skies, and rest on this landscape; and the pilgrims of our own land, and from all lands, will thrill with its inspiration and increase and confirm their devotion to liberty, religion and God. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil; for Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Sermon: Infinite Possibilities

Luke 21:5-19

It is said that most people can remember exactly where they were when they received news of some kind. These moments of recollection often involve a tragedy of some sort.  Many of you remember where you were when you heard that President Kennedy had been shot. I am sure we all can remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the first news of the events of September 11, 2001. I know I do.

But not all of these events have to be tragic. I can remember, as if it was yesterday, a crisp fall evening in 2004 when a short toss of a ball broke the “Curse of the Bambino,” and the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in almost 90 years. These events leave a mark on us, but it is what we do with that mark that matters.

This morning we heard some very challenging words from Jesus concerning what we are to do when these types of events strike. Jesus is speaking of the destruction of the Temple, and his disciples ask two pertinent questions: When? What will be the sign? Jesus then goes on to describe three things that will happen in the future; imposters will come and try and trick the faithful; war and conflict will rage on; natural disasters will be prevalent. Jesus gives them some assurance that the “end times” are in the future and that they will not happen all at once. He also tells them that he does not know when it will happen; only God knows, so we really should not worry. But, and there is always a, but with Jesus, this will be an opportunity for us.

Jesus says in verse 13: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.” But he warns that our testimony should not be canned or rehearsed but should come naturally from a life spent living their testimony. In our rather stoic, New England, Yankee sense of religion, we do not like to speak about our faith. In many ways, this is a problem when we consider church growth. In a recent survey, 80% of people who come to a church for the first time come because someone has asked them to come. They did not find an ad in the Yellow Pages; they did not even read something on a church Facebook page, nope, someone asked them to come with them to church.

It is an exciting phenomenon to watch, people will go to a movie or out to dinner at a new place and after, they cannot wait to tell their friends about it. They post on Social Media, check-in, take pictures of their food, or their happy faces while eating that food, but when they come to church on Sunday, it’s as if they don’t want anyone to know. I encourage you to whip out your phone right now, come on, do it, open your Facebook app if you have it, and check-in that you are here. Take a picture, quote something from the sermon or a song, you are testifying!

But, we do not like to talk about our faith because we were taught that in polite society, you do not talk about politics or religion. But the problem with that is, we now do not know how to talk about politics or religion in polite society, in fact, I would suggest that the reason we no longer have a polite society is that we do not know how to talk about these topics.

These days religion is known for two things, what is wrong and who or what you should be afraid of. Some preachers love to talk about the “end times” because it makes people fearful, and when people are afraid, they will usually do whatever anyone in authority tells them to do. I do not spend much time reading the Book of Revelation, and I know for a fact, except for quoting a few verses here and there, I have never preached a sermon from that book. Revelation is, in my estimation, and incomprehensible book to the human mind, the one most taken out of context and is frequently used to bind up the faithful but to scare the life out of them.

But back to this idea of testimony. Jesus tells us in this passage that all of this bad stuff that is going to happen will allow us to testify, and I believe the time has come. You all know this, we are living in a world that devalues some human beings over others. Some churches go out of their way to make it know who is and who is not welcome in their place of “worship.” These are our opportunities to testify.

A few days ago, I was talking to some folks about my view of what Communion means. I have shared with you before that I believe that the bread and juice cease to be simple elements but that a change happens when we ask the Holy Spirit to come upon them. Their elemental nature remains the same, but the is a shift in their essence, and they are no longer just simple food that feeds us physically, but they become sanctified, and they feed us spiritually. In this discussion I mentioned that one of the reasons, it’s actually the number 1 reason, I left my previous denomination was the idea of closed Communion that only those deemed worthy by a set of rules, that no one follows, by the way, is worth to come to the table. My testimony is that this table is open to all people without the condition.

To put it simply, in a world where the church is known more for what we are against than what we are for, our testimony is that God loves you and that God welcomes you into his presence.

Our testimony needs to be the testimony of Paul in his Letter to the Romans:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

We begin each service with “God Moments.” These moments have touched me in such a way that wherever I go next, I am going to try and work these into the service. These are the moments when we share when we testify to what God is doing in our lives. It might be something as simple as passing a test or something a great as healing from some illness; it does not matter what it is; what matters is that God is still moving and acting in our lives, and we want to tell the world about it.

We have zero control over the future; what is going to happen is going to happen for the future is unknown to us. We cannot predict what will happen or when all we can do is live in the moment, care for one another in the moment and testify to what God is doing in our lives in the moment. And, invite someone to church!

Amen

Sermon: Transforming Love

Have you ever faced an obstacle so significant there was no way you thought you would be able to overcome it?  Have you ever placed an impediment to someone’s path to prevent them from something?  Today we heard the story of a person that overcame the most significant obstacle he faced, and it radically changed his life.

Let’s face it, life is full of obstacles, and that may not be a bad thing. When faced with those things that stand blocking us, we have a few choices, turn back, go around, or go over but, if what we desire is on the other side, we have no option but to overcome whatever is in our way.

Let’s set the scene of today’s encounter with Jesus.

Jesus is coming into Jericho. It is rather late in his ministry, and he is on his way to Jerusalem. Jericho is in the Jordan Valley on the West Bank. Today it is a Palestinian City with the Jordan River to the east and Jerusalem to the West. It is and was a rather large city, and word of Jesus had spread, and so crowds were gathering on the street to see him.

Zacchaeus is the Chief Tax Collector; he is very wealthy, and, as Scripture points out, he was short of stature. Because of his height, or lack thereof, he could not see when Jesus was coming down the road, so he needed a plan. He ran ahead a climbed a tree, not just any tree but a sycamore tree with low hanging branches, and there, he encountered Jesus.

Jesus, seeing this man in the tree, calls to him, “hurry down, for I must stay at your house.” As Jesus is saying this, all eyes follow Jesus’ gaze, and they see Zacchaeus, the dreaded Tax Collector, and the people start to murmur among themselves, “he has gone to be the guest of sinners!” They were outraged that Jesus would do this. How could anyone want to spend time with sinners?

But what drove Zacchaeus to do what he did?  He is the Chief Tax Collector and very rich, and by definition, he is a thief.  Tax Collectors worked for the Romans, the occupying force, and as such, they were looked upon poorly. Tax Collectors receive their wages from the Taxes they collected, so the more tax they collect, the more money they make, and the Chief Tax Collector was the richest of them all. But something happened to Zacchaeus, and he needed to make a change in his life.

Last week, we read the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the Temple. I cannot say for sure, but I do not think it is a mistake that these two stories follow on another. I believe that Zacchaeus is that Tax Collector and that he had a conversion experience in the Temple. Now, he needed to see Jesus for forgiveness. So he runs out of the Temple and climbs the tree because salvation is walking down the street.

Zacchaeus makes no confession other than what he makes in the Temple. Jesus sees him in that tree, sees his heart, and knows what is in that heart. The very act of Jesus, calling his name and staying at his home, was the forgiveness and reconciliation that Zacchaeus needs. Zacchaeus makes his penance, he gives half of his possessions to the poor and promises to makes restitution to anyone he has cheated, and I can only imagine that list is a long one. And with that, Jesus tells him that “Salvation has come to this house.” And they go off together.

But what of those left, those that started to murmur amongst themselves? They cannot understand how Jesus can do this; they are so blind in their rage that they did not see the confession and reconciliation taking place right before their eyes. Zacchaeus is no longer a sinner, in the broad sense of the word, of course, but their strict adherence to the law has blinded them to what happened right in front of them.

In a few moments, I will invite you to come to the table that is prepared for you. This communion table that is here before us is a table of radical welcome for all, not just for some. Through this mystery, we come together, regardless of our background or belief, to take the supper of the Lord. I have told you this before, when we pray over these elements they cease to be just simple bread and juice they become holy, and we are being called down out of our trees to break bread with Jesus.

I bring this up because last week, this sacrament was used not as a reminder of the love of Jesus that should bind us together but as a spear that is used to separate those who do not follow a specific set of rules. I cannot say how much this saddens me and disgusts me that this has happened, is still happening. Jesus Christ sat at the table with the man who was to deny him and the man who would betray him, and he served them his body and his blood knowing full well what they were going to do. I do not know where the arrogance comes from that makes people feel they have the power to be the judge of the grace of God!

We are all Zacchaeus with our heads bent low and pounding on our chests, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” We are all Zacchaeus when we run down the street, filled with joy to climb the tree to get a glimpse of Jesus as he passes by. We are all Zacchaeus when we realize that our lives need to change, and so we repent and promise to do better. But none of this would have happened if Jesus had not shown love that day on the street. Jesus looked up and saw a person filled with regret and offered him a place at the table, he did not shun him or turn his back on him or refuse to help him, he opened his arms wide with love and welcomed him in.

And so today I do the same. If you are Zacchaeus in the Temple, if you are Zacchaeus in the tree, if you are the ones standing there mocking Jesus for taking a meal with sinners I say to you, welcome to this table and through it may you find peace and joy.

Amen.