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Sunday, November 24, 2019


NOTES FOR A sermon based upon Luke 17: 11-19
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
November 24th, 2019

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus1 was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers1 approached him. Keeping their distance,
 13 they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
 14 When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean.
 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.
 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus'1 feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
 17 Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?
 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"
 19 Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." (Lk. 17:11-19 NRS)

INTRO.   Our friend Judy called:  “Come, Meet some new friends…, friends from Romania.
----- We did.  Maria and Leviu,  A retired Chemist and a Doctor. 
-----They came to US almost 30 years ago.   Why? 
---Because there was no real change after the Wall Fell.
---Because they had no chance of advancement, after loosing
 all to the Communist. 
----They were so thankful.  Both Sons with Doctorates.  They speak Language.  They are US Citzens.   They freely practice their Orthodox Faith.

As we approach Thanksgiving… What brings you ‘joy’ and gives you ‘a spirit’ of Thankfulness?

---Today’s text, is unique to Luke and concludes this series. 
----It’s also one of the most popular texts for Thanksgiving in the Lectionary, used by both Protestants and Catholics.


A.  The MOST OBVIOUS part of this story

     ----ONLY ONE Leper, healed by Jesus, actually ‘turned back to give thanks’ (16).

     ----While 10 where Healed…ONLY ONE GIVES THANKS. 
----That’s  a sad percentage…. But it reflects a reality we still see.
       ---How do we show our thanks?
----AS NT WRIGHT ASKS:  “What Makes us SHOUT FOR JOY?”  Especially this year.   It does us good to follow the advice of the SONG:
‘Count Your many blessings…. Name them, or list them, One by One!

         ---Another Popular Hymn at Thanksgiving:  Come, Ye Thankful People Come!..
---This Song reminds us of those first Pilgrims, Christian Puritans who landed at PLYMOUTH, and as the story goes, after a frightening Voyage to America, made friends with the Indians and invited them a big feast to GIVE THANKS TO GOD….
----There’s some truth in this story, and some myths too.  The BIGGEST TRUTH, is that Thanksgiving didn’t get started in American, it was a REALITY these Pilgrims brought with them…  A day to Give Thanks was a THREE DAY FEAST, they had practiced long before.   It was natural to BRING THEIR FAITH….AND THEIR THANKFULNESS… which was already a custom for them, but took on NEW MEANING in their new home….

-----IN THIS SONG we hear an invitation to us, TO COME TO THIS TABLE…which was not just a table of the FIRST PILGRIMS, but it was already the normal custom of EVERY TRUE CHRISTIAN to make a special effort to express our gratefulness and gratitude to God.   BUT YOU HAVE TO COME, not just alone, but TOGETHER…
---Why don’t some PEOPLE STILL COME?  Why have some left the table of Thanksgiving in our culture?   Is it loss of Belief in God?  Is it loss of love for Christ’s Body, the Church?  Are they too distracted, too busy?  Are they just becoming more pagan by the minute?  
         (1)  Church Going in irrelevant in this culture.   Either have lost ‘faith’ with the people or find it out of date—not relating to real life today.
         (2)  What the Church Does Is INCREDIBLE.   It’s not so much that they don’t believe in God, but that we don’t see God as they do.  Christianity Today suggests that Evangelicals getting too deep into politics and political correctness (both ways to right, or to left) will hurt more than help the cause of Christ.
         (3)  The Church Overpromises and UnderDelivers.  There is so much talk, hype about love, justice, optimism, that LIFE DOESN’T MEASURE UP to what the church teaches.   THE church forgot to mention the DOWN SIDE, and develop a THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS…OF SUFFERING AND GRACE.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why people don’t ‘come’ as they once did.   I think it might go deeper, that according to Jesus’ parable of the Sower, some seeds never had good roots—were picked up,  dried up, or chocked out.  

-----who knows how to be ‘thankful’, just as something ‘lost’ in the person who doesn’t.     We can easily see this, can’t we?
         ---OLD SAYING: 
“Sharper than a serpent's tooth are the words of a thankless child”.  
Good parents, schools, TEACH ‘THANKFULNESS’  and GRATITUDE AS VIRTUE.   
This is something we HAVE TO BE RAISED INTO…IT DOESN’T COME naturally, nor is it automatic…. It’s not only Christian too.   Being thankful is a Human Virtue,  that must be taught, learned, made to be a ‘habit’ and a behavior that is practiced in our daily lives.

EX.  HOW DO WE TEACH THE VIRTUE OF GRATITUDE?   Well sometimes, LIFE TEACHES US, because, like this Leper, we were sick, injured, were in a crisis and receive unexpected healing or help.  
-----But there is still more.   PERHAPS this Leper’s RELIGION…HIS CULTURE… OR HIS PARENTS TAUGHT HIM…   WE don’t know exactly where it came from, but it wasn’t just a mere, automatic, response.  
It didn’t come out of no-where?   ARE taught more than caught
         Virtues, which are behaviors… don’t just happen. 

         We’ll talk more about this, but what is most obvious is the negative we feel toward these 9, who were healed, but did not return to say thank you.   You don’t have to explain the ‘negative’ here.  Their lives were ‘saved’, but they didn’t return to thank their Savior.  
         ----WHY DIDN’T THEY RETURN.   Well, Jesus told them to go to their PRIESTS, their very Jewish Priests, and by this time Jesus was a marked man.  Perhaps the Priests told them, that if they acknowledged Jesus, they’d be ostracized, and could not return to their communities, they so longed to belong too.
         -----THERE’S SOMETHING GOING IN THIS STORY, WHICH IS MORE THAN ‘UNTHANKFULNESS’ but we’ll get to that in a moment.
         -----Just allow the picture of 9 ungrateful Healed Lepers stick in your mind.  It’s not a pretty picture.   To have been given a gift of healing, without showing gratitude and thanks.   HOW DARE THEY?  THESE OTHERS---Where Are They? 


         The less obvious is very important…It’s not just a story about gratitude and thanksgiving,  but thanksgiving is also a story about INCLUSION.

EX.   Perhaps the most important SYMBOL of Thanksgiving, isn’t the TURKEY, as Much as, THE TABLE…..    Yes, we traditionally have Turkey, but eating Turkey has little meaning without the PEOPLE who share it with us.   TURKEY is a big bird, and not the most tasty bird either.  WE EAT THIS BIG BIRD, not because he’s the best, but because HE’s BIG ENOUGH for a lot of people.  
         ---Even the story of the FIRST Thanksgiving included INDIANS, RIGHT?

WHO WILL BE AT YOUR TABLE?    FAMILY.  FRIENDS.   STRANGERS TOO?   Sometimes our own family can be ‘strange’ too, including us.
         Tables can be very personal, private places, but they can also be places we invite people to share with us.  THAT’S HOW IS WAS WITH ROMANIANS.
In this story,  JESUS invites the SAMARITIAN,  the STRANGER, outsider, and FOREIGNER to God’s TABLE….
         Interestingly, the Jews and Samaritans were very much alike, but didn’t like each other.   Samaritan Jews were ‘half-breed’ Jews.  They were the poor people left behind way back when Babylon invaded.  When the Jews returned, since they understood themselves to be God’s people, they didn’t mix with these half Jews.  They understood that the be pure, clean meant something about color of skin, customs, cultures, etc.
EVEN EZRA… said GOD told them not to mix with these people.  IT WOULD ‘POLUTE’ THE HOLY PEOPLE  (Ezra 9:2).
----This was still very much the consensus in Jesus’ Day.   The Samaritan’s shared the same Law, the Same Bible, and the Same God, but they were still looked Down upon by most Jews.  
---JESUS wasn’t particular about whether the leper was Jew or Samaritan.   Jesus is looking for something that transcends race, gender, and the culture and custom’s of all people.   JESUS IS LOOKING FOR FAITH….FAITH THAT HEALS, not just individuals, but relationships.

B.  IT IS FAITH THAT TRANSCENDS being Samaritan or Jew, and we also see in the Gospels, that Faith can come from Gentiles too.
         ---This is the main reason we have a NT…  That the Gospel based on Faith is more important than anything.  (Gal. 3:28-29 NRS)

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring,1 heirs according to the promise.

         --WHAT JESUS WAS DOING was ‘traveling in the area between Gallilee and Samaria.   TRAVEL HELPS.. Just get out… see, experience, get to know others.
         ---INCLUSION is born out of having ‘knowledge’ of the other….
----THE IMAGE OF BORDERLAND is in the news today, because of the refugee Crisis in Europe and in North America too.   We know that in this past couple of years,  ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION has been a ‘hot button’ issue.  Who should we include?  Who should we Exclude?   This is why we have laws to settle these issues, but sometimes the laws are not doing what they should do, now, just as they weren’t in Jesus’ day.

----EX.  Now, when you live in Borderland, you begin to see things differently.  We liked borders, BECAUSE people who lived near the borders were more open to accepting differences and others….  We see people as people..not issues.

------What is important, most important, is that even the people who are very different from us, are much more like us, than different.  
----MOST IMPORTANT to see especially is this story, is that WE CAN IN A FOREIGNER SOMETHING THAT IS MISSING IN US…

But later in his life,  Jerry supported civil rights for gays, and he wanted to build relationships with Christian Gay groups….  WHAT CHANGED!   Falwell said,  “I still don’t agree with your life choice, but I want to be your friend….”  I DON’T WANT TO CONDEMN YOU….  That’s not my job….

---WE are STILL DEALING WITH ‘WHO’ we invite to the table, aren’t we?  I’m still dealing with it too.   Our culture is changing.  Some of it is good.  Some of it bad.  Church’s have choices to make.   Some see it as compromise.  Some see it as progress… What would Jesus do?

HOW DO WE LIVE IN THE BORDER TOWN?  The question is as alive for us, as it was in Jesus’ day.


So, being thankful, is not simply about ISOLATION, but it’s also about RECONCILIATION…   Who do we need to invite to the Table?   Jesus invited SINNERS to his Table.   He sat, ate, and dinned with them.  HE SPENT a lot of his time in ‘bordertown’.  ARE WE WILLING TO GO THERE?

---- In an age of difference and divisions, Thanksgivng CALLS US TO CONSIDER WHO WE MIGHT INVITE TO GOD’S TABLE,  To our Table, and how we can find FAITH IN THEM that Transcends….DIFFERENCES….

----I Can’t TELL YOU HOW TO DECIDE….Because like you, I struggle with who’s in and who’s out, what’s right, what’s wrong, and what to accept, and what to reject.  


 Jesus saw that as the most important and the most essential trait of a human being.   Faith to trust God, and faith to overcome differences, and faith see have gratitude for healing and hope in life.   JESUS saw that everyone needs Faith…

B.  So, the MOST IMPORTANT POINT OF THIS STORY…is not simply about thankfulness, nor is about inclusiveness, but it’s about WHOLENESS…HEALING…SALVATION  IN AND THROUGH JESUS CHRIST.   

----In this story, while the ‘healing’ came to all 10, the ‘wholeness’---that is salvation which comes only by faith, only came to this one SAMARITAN.   The irony is that salvation that was for Israel only came to the ‘outsider’ and the ‘foreigner’ because it was rejected by the ‘insiders’ and the homefolks. 


C.  Today, this is part of the question too.   Does God save others who don’t ‘bow to Jesus’.  But maybe we should look at it another way.   This God who sent his son to the world, didn’t send him to condemn, but to include.   There is nothing in the saving work of God in Jesus that seeks to exclude anyone.   The world ‘all’ is all over the NT,  it is a salvation for all.

AND THAT’S WHERE WE SHOULD LEAVE IT,  at Thanksgiving, and at anytime.  God has come to SAVE.   It was never meant to be exclusive….  It was mean to call sinners to salvation…..  Jesus himself said,  “He didn’t come to call righteous, but sinners…”   He also said,  “Those aren’t sick, don’t need a physician….”   Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to Father except through him, but it is Jesus who is the DOOR, and the DOOR KEEPER… Not us.

That’s what I like about Thanksgiving…. It’s a time to focus on the positive, the known.   It’s not about wallowing in what we don’t know, can’t know, or is negative about the world or ourselves.   IT FOCUS ON THANKSGIVING…  IT FOCUSES ON GOD… and in this STORY…. IT CALLS US TO FOCUSING ON THE SAVING POWER OF JESUS.   He’s the healer.  He’s the redeemer.  He’s the reconciler.    Let’s focus on HIM….  AND WHEN WE FOCUS ON HIM…we see BORDERS AND BARRIERS LESS AND LESS.

EX.  I brought black friends from school home…. Parents were shocked, even though supportive….

WHEN CHARLESTON SHOOTING…. I mentioned it too family members and they rejected my compassion…. THEY STILL BELIEVED THE STRANGER, FOREIGNER, CAN’T COME TO THE TABLE OF THANKS…


Sunday, November 17, 2019

“Today, Salvation Has Come!”

A sermon based upon Luke 19: 1-10
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,
November 17th, 2019

There is something odd about the sight of a grown man up a tree.

The Reuters news service recently carried a story about a Polish man who climbed a tree to avoid a taxi fare which totaled just a few dollars.  Pursued by the irate taxi driver, the passenger climbed a tall tree, jumped from branch to branch and hurled bananas from a shopping bag at a crowd which soon gathered at the scene.

More than a dozen firefighters were called in and spread out an air-bag under the tree as a police psychologist was sent up in a ladder‑bucket to negotiate with the man.

After a two‑hour stand‑off, the man agreed to come down. But he learned a hard lesson.  He may have to pay many times the original taxi fare he tried to evade. At last report the fire brigade was planning to send him a $4,300 bill for the rescue operation.
(From Dynamic Preaching,  “Man in a Tree”,  by King Duncan, in Fourth Quarter Sermon, 2007).

Most of us recognize the Bible character in today’s text from the children’s song about ‘the wee little man…who climbed up into a sycamore tree’.    While this was a fun song to sing with children, what we need to understand is that this story, about a man up in a tree, is anything but a children’s story.   And while the Bible described him as small in stature-- so small he couldn’t see over the crowd,---there was something very ‘big’ about him too.  So big, that it got his name in the ‘papers’ of Scripture.

In this message, we want to consider what made this little man big in everyone’s eyes?

The first big thing about Zacchaeus was that he shouldn’t have been looking for Jesus.  He was a little man, but he was also already a big shot.  In that world he had it made it.  He was rich.  He was in complete control of his own life.  The only one he had to answer to was Rome.  And so long as he was making Rome money, he was, for the most part, left alone.  He had a system that worked.  Again, as long as he was putting money in the coffers of the Roman authorities and the Emperor, he was guaranteed a life of luxury and pleasure.  He could do as he pleased.  He was living the life that everyone wants.

What is strange, however, is that even with all he seemed to have going for him, he wants to get a good look at Jesus.  Perhaps he’d heard about Jesus as a popular itinerate preacher.   He just wanted to see Jesus for himself.  He was so curious about him, however, that he climbed up a tree to catch a glimpse of this popular, moral and spiritual teacher.  Why did he do this?  Doesn’t he realize that curiosity could ‘kill the cat?  Did he not understand that Jesus would not condone his way making his luxurious life mostly off the backs of the hard working poor?  Just one look, and that’s all it would take for Jesus to make him feel very bad about the way he has chosen to live his life, and to make a living with his life.

That certainly says something to us about Jesus’ popularity. At this particular time in his ministry, Jesus was a star.  Eventually the crowds would turn against him and even cry out for his crucifixion, but when he had this encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus was a public sensation. A celebrity. an icon, with all kinds of fans and groupies following him around.

It’s amazing how taken ordinary people can be with celebrities.  Zacchaeus reminds me of the funeral I conducted at a Funeral Home in Greensboro.  Conducting funerals in that Funeral home was always a challenge.  Where they seated the speakers, you couldn’t see anyone in the crowd until you stood up.  In one service, for a very wealthy lady,  I stood up and looked out in the crowd and saw Elvis Pressley.  Not the real one of course, but an imitation of the real one.  He was an Elvis Pressley looked alike who worked at Myrtle Beach.  The lady that had died knew him personally, loved to watch him perform and often showered him with gifts after his performance.  Because of their close relationship, he had promised he would come to her funeral in full Elvis attire.  He would do this in her memory and in honor of their mutual love and respect.   It was heartwarming, and funny too.  He was a very nice guy. It shook me up, but also chocked me up to see ‘Elvis’ in a funeral audience.

Another fellow who loved Elvis was Dennis Wise.  He earned a reputation as the ultimate Elvis Presley fan, back when Elvis was the number one entertainer in America.  Wise’s love for Elvis drove him to bizarre lengths. He had his face lifted and his hairline contoured by a plastic surgeon to make himself look like Presley.

Wise began his worship of the rock idol when he was five years old. He has every record Elvis ever made and pictures in the thousands. He even has a couple of books about Elvis in Japanese and Chinese, and some leaves from the front yard of Graceland, Presley’s home.

Wise admits he never met Elvis personally. He did see him on the stage four times, he says. Once he stood up on the wall at Graceland for twelve hours trying to get a glimpse of the singer, but Elvis had so many people around Wise could never get close.

When Jesus was famous, we can understand why people wanted to get a look at him.  But who would want to look at a teacher who might make you feel bad about yourself?  When you have everything you want, the last place you would want to go is to hear a teacher who has been challenging people to leave ‘everything’, ‘give it all away’ and  ‘comes full  and follow’ him!  Who wants to look the guy who’s not just taking the offering, but is putting demands on everything about your life?

This is what’s so strange about this text.  We can understand that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus for himself, but why did he dare to show up in the crowd along the road that day? And what made him so curious that he dared to climb up a tree to risk everyone seeing him and giving Jesus the opportunity to look straight through him?  Why did Zacchaeus risk this?  Why did Zacchaeus give Jesus a chance to mow him down with God’s righteousness that might expose his wretchedness in front of God and everybody.  Why didn’t he just stay ‘lost in the crowd’ and better yet, just have stayed home. Why was he so desperately and dangerously curious about Jesus?

There is only one possible answer to Zacchaeus’ blatant curiosity.  The answer is found in what happens next.  When Jesus saw Zacchaeus’ curiosity, he responded in the most unexpected way; with grace and with the kind of compassion that comes with openness and opportunity.  Do you see it?  Instead of condemning Zacchaeus for how he lived his life, Jesus revealed a very different understanding of God’s presence.  Instead of being outwardly judgmental and opposing, Jesus was warm, forgiving and hopeful.  Jesus offered and invited himself to go home with this ‘sinner’.

What makes this story so important and Jesus so interesting is not that Zacchaeus got himself into position to see Jesus, but it was because Jesus already knew Zacchaeus. He called him by name. Can't you see Zaccheus so stunned by this revelation that he nearly falls out of the tree? Jesus knew his name. Here Zacchaeus is in his sleazy position in life, wallowing in unhappiness, looking ridiculous--a grown man of great wealth perched up in a sycamore tree--and Jesus knows his name.

Think of the implications of this truth: Jesus knew Zacchaeus   There is a story about an old minister was dying. A young man who was also a minister came to visit him and offered to read to him from the Scriptures.
”Do you have any favorite scripture you would like to have me read?" the younger man asked.
"Yes," said the old man. "Please read the first chapter of First Chronicles."
The young man read the requested chapter. It was not easy. Chapter 1 of First Chronicles consists primarily of genealogies. Names. Hebrew names. It was hard work pronouncing the some two hundred fifty unfamiliar names in the fifty-four verses. The old minister listened with eager attention to every name.
When it was finished, he uttered a fervent Amen. He said, "Thank you, my son; that was so comforting." The young man was frankly puzzled. "Please tell me," he said, "what is so comforting about the chapter?"
"Ah," said the old minister, "just to think that God knew them all by name!"

Isn’t this what makes the ‘gospel’ the gospel?  It is not just a gospel for the world, but it’s a gospel that  has our name on it.  And the God of this gospel cares, and loves, as the song says, ‘EVEN ME.”

Jesus put Zacchaeus’ name on the gospel.  Jesus put your name on it too.  Haven’t you wondered, like those critics of Jesus wondered what makes a God who demands righteousness and holiness to enter into the heart and home of a pagan, and unbeliever, an infidel, or a down-and- dirty, scoundrel?  Why did Jesus go home with him, when there were so many other well-deserving candidates that Jesus could have visited?  Of all people, why would Jesus risk his own reputation to spend time with him?

Why did Jesus go home with this sinner?  There’s only one answer.  Again, the answer is the gospel.  And get this: it’s the gospel with your own name on it, too.   It’s an answer that has nothing to do with how good or bad we are, and everything to do with who God is.  God is love.  God is compassion.  God’s heart is open to engage the hurting, aching, empty and lostness in our souls.

Many years ago, pastor Steve Crofts had been to a Christian camp in upstate New York. Five days of two-a-day meetings had exhausted him. So when he got on the plane in Albany, he planned to sleep. But the elderly woman beside him wanted to talk. "Are you flying to Baltimore?" "Yes," he said wearily, "there I'll change for North Carolina." Then he shut his eyes and slumped in his seat, all body language meant to say politely, "Leave me alone. I'll go to sleep now."
Still the woman rattled on. "Oh, I do hope it is not raining in Baltimore!"
He thought to myself, "Lady, who cares?"

On and on, she talked. So finally Steve set up and politely inquired, "Why are you flying to Baltimore and so concerned with the weather?" That's when she told him her husband was dead, his casket was in the jet's storage, and his graveside funeral would be in Baltimore. So she was hoping for good weather.

Then Pastor Steve asked God to give me strength to listen to her for an hour. And she told him how they met, about his career in sales, how their only son died in a war, and of his last years in an awful bout with cancer.

The plane landed and he walked her to a taxi that would take her to a funeral home. As he shut the door, she was saying to the driver, "Do you think it will rain today?" And the pastor  caught myself praying, "Please, God! Let him listen to her.”

At the center of this story, what we witness, and what controls the direction of this story, has much more to do with what’s going on in the heart of God, than in the heart of Zacchaeus.  All those people were there, with their eyes fixed on Jesus, but Jesus’ had his eyes fixed solely upon the little man who was up a tree, out on a limb, and was curiously trying to get a glimpse.  But at the center of this story that tells the tale, is that Jesus was ready and waiting just for him.  Jesus knew he was coming, and called him by name.  And Jesus stood ready, not just to invite himself into Zacchaeus home, but to also invite himself into Zacchaeus’ heart, by offering him the grace of the hope and healing for a better life through the God who ’so loved the world’, which includes scoundrels like Zacchaeus too.

God’s compassion is about who God is.  Nothing we can, can’t, do, or don’t do can change God’s love.  God is love.  He can’t be anything else.

Still, although love is who God is, and although God’s love is not necessarily about us, God’s love is for us.  This is what love does.  When we love, like God loves, our love is for a.  Just like God cannot be love without loving, God’s love reaches beyond himself, looking for someone to love.  God’s love, goes looking to love because compassion is what offers meaning, hope, and opportunity for life.  Love is constantly seeking to love and to help make life what it is supposed to be.

When love goes seeking to give love, and when love is received, the energy of life infuses the human soul and life looks different, because life much become and be different.  This is exactly what happened to Zacchaeus.  When unconditional love came home with him, his heart, his perspective and his outlook on everything was changed.  We call this conversion.  Jesus called it salvation.  When love invited itself into Zacchaeus’ life, and Zacchaeus answered yes to God’s unconditional love, everything changed.  And it wasn’t just a change in Zacchaeus heart, it was his whole life that was changed, including changing the most personal part of his life, for him; his pocketbook.

Where has loved changed you?  How has love changed your life?  Notice, that Jesus did not announce that salvation came, until there was evidence of an appropriate response in Zacchaeus’ own life.  Without some outward sign of inward response, there is no proof of love, of conversion, or of salvation, either.  God loves us unconditionally, but that love remains only about God and his nature, until we respond reciprocating that love with our hearts, so that we are changed in both word and deed. And this is exactly what Zacchaeus does.  He reciprocates unconditional God’s love for him by proving his love from Jesus in a brave, bold, and brazen act of repentance.

So often we hear the word “repentance” used as a synonym for “being sorry.” Being remorseful for our sins. Repentance is far more than that. Zacchaeus Displays his true, change of heart, when he says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” He shows he’s serious about Jesus because he loves him even when it hurts.  That’s repentance!
Speaker Les Parrot tells about a pig that flew aboard a US Airways jet from Philadelphia into Les’ home city of Seattle. Two passengers convinced an airline representative that the pig needed to fly with them as a “therapeutic companion pet”--like a seeing-eye dog--so the representative decided to permit the pig to sit with them in the first-class cabin of the plane. It was a decision he would soon regret. Passengers described the 300-pound pig as “enormous, brown, angry, and honking.” He was seated in three seats near the front of the plane, but the attendants reportedly had difficulty strapping him in. “He became restless after takeoff and sauntered through the cabin,” one passenger said. “He kept rubbing his nose on people’s legs trying to get them to give him food and stroke him.”

Upon landing, things only got worse. The pig panicked, running up and down through economy class and squealing. Many passengers, also screaming, stood on their seats. It took four attendants to escort the beast off the plane. And when they reached the terminal, the pig escaped only to be recaptured in another part of the airport. When asked to comment on the story, a US Airways spokesman named David said, “We can confirm that the pig traveled, and we can confirm that it will never happen again.” (Shoulda Coulda Woulda: Live in the Present and Find Your Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003).

Again, that’s repentance. It happened. It was a mistake. It will never happen again. When Zacchaeus found who and what he had been looking for, he responded with everything he had and answer with whatever he needed to do.  He found everything his heart ever needed in this man Jesus.  So, as he gave his heart to Jesus, Jesus gave God’s promise to him, “Today salvation has come to this house . . .” Zacchaeus was now a changed man. He wasn’t simply a better man, he was a man who had moved from darkness to light.  He was a man Jesus came to save.

In 1898, a young bank clerk named William Porter was convicted of embezzling money from a bank in which he had worked. He spent the next three years in prison. In prison, Porter was determined to change his life. He began writing short stories to earn money for his family. One of his prison guards, a man by the name of Oren Henry, encouraged William Porter. He believed that the former bank clerk could make a fresh start after his release.

One day, the prisoner asked the prison guard for an unusual favor: could he have Oren Henry’s name? You see, a new man starting a new life needed a new name. Oren Henry graciously agreed, but he made William Porter promise that he would take good care of that name.   In 1901, after his release from prison, William Sydney Porter became a well-known writer; his short stories are considered classics of English literature. You may have heard of this reformed writer yourself. His pen name was O. Henry.

Zacchaeus also had a new name following his encounter with the Master. Now he could be called Christian.  Don’t you think he took good care of that name? We probably wouldn’t be reading about him, if he didn’t.  Luke’s gospel was written by someone who had to have carefully selected this story. He too, was lifting up Jesus as a savior by telling us this one whom Jesus truly saved.

How about you?  What are going to do with the name that could be yours?   Is there a void in your life that only God can fill. God knows your need. God awaits you with open arms. If so, today is your day to begin.  Amen.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The One Who Humbles Himself!”

 A sermon based upon Luke 18: 9-14
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,
November 10th, 2019

There was a very lost, wicked, rebellious man who decided it would be good for business if he went down to the church and joined it. He was an adulterer, an alcoholic, and had never been a member of a church in his life.

But when he went down to the altar to join the church, he gave public testimony to the church that there was no sin in his life, and that he had grown up in the church, and they readily accepted him as a member.

When he went home he told his wife what he had done, and his wife, a very godly lady, exploded. She excoriated him for being such a hypocrite, and demanded that he go back to the church the next week and confess what he really was. Well, God used his wife to really break him, and he took it to heart.

The next Sunday he went back to the church, walked down to the front again, and this time confessed to the church all of his sins. He told them he was dishonest, an alcoholic, an adulterer, and he was sorry. They revoked his membership on the spot. He walked out of the church that day scratching his head and muttered to himself: "These church folks are really strange. I told a lie and they took me in; and when I told the truth they kicked me out!"  (As Told By James Merrit).

Jesus once told a story of two men in a similar situation who got totally different results.  One man tried to talk himself into God's kingdom, but he didn't make it.  The other man tried to talk himself out of God's kingdom and he got in.  What creates this strange difference; a good man doesn’t get in, and a bad man, a scoundrel, does?  Why does it turn out this way?  Luke makes it plain who Jesus told this parable about and for. In verse v.9,  Luke explains: "Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others."  The main point: trusting in yourself will not get you in.  Trusting God completely, will get you in.   So now that you know the main point, let’s move on to some details you might have missed.

Let me ask you:  Do you ever look at people who don't go to church, and think you are better than they are because you do go to church? If so, Jesus is talking to you.
Do you ever look at people in prison, and think you are better than they are because you are not? If so, Jesus is talking to you.
Do you ever look at people who are divorced, and think that you are better than they are because you are not? If so, then Jesus is talking to you.
Do you ever look down your nose at anyone for any reason, and think you might be better than them? If so, Jesus is talking to you.
I promise you, every one of you will find yourself somewhere in this story today. And in this sermon, you are also going to learn, surprisingly, I might add, what does impress God, and what doesn't. 

First, we want to talk about what doesn’t impress God.  To do this, this parable helps us move beyond the many complex faces and feelings we have.   We are looking into the human heart for what is universal among all of us.  I found an example of this on, of all places, on Netflix, after a friend recommended I see watch a show.

Of course, it’s getting harder to find good things to watch on TV these days, but the story of an Orthodox Jewish family is an exception.  In these two series of episodes, called Shtisel, a young Orthodox Jew is struggling to find his life’s calling and the love of his life.  His story reminds us that feelings and emotions like love, and longing to live with meaning and purpose, are universal, but they can also be very complicated too.  Especially for those who think everything in life should be viewed in right or wrong, or ‘black and white’, feelings can be both simple and complicated at the same time.

Jesus’ story about ‘Pride’, often entitled, the Pharisee and the Publican, should be seen a simple, but also a complicated story.  What I mean by ‘complicated’ is that most of know already, that there is there is a good way to have pride in yourself, just like there is a bad way to be ‘prideful’ about oneself.   It is good for your self-esteem, and your self-image to ‘take’ pride in who you are and what you can do.  But there is also a bad way to be prideful about yourself, which is exactly what Jesus’ story, or parable is about. 

How a person can quickly move from good self-esteem to wayward pride, comes from the well-worn story about a 5th grader who came home from school so excited.  She had been voted "prettiest girl in the class." The next day she was even more excited when she came home, for the class had voted her "the most likely to succeed." The next day she came home and told her mother she had won a third contest, being voted "the most popular."  But the next day she came home extremely upset. The mother said, "What happened, did you lose this time?" She said, "Oh no, I won the vote again." The mother said, "What were you voted this time?" She said, "most stuck up."

This story reminds us why Jesus’ story about pride matters?   It reminds us why it’s so important for us to get ‘pride’ right.   A lack of self-esteem and self-worth can lead to very negative self-image and a downward path of self-destruction.  Most people living negative lives, lack good self-esteem.   Having the wrong kind of pride about oneself, can be also be self-destructive; not only to ourselves, but also to others, and to our relationship with God.  When you think too highly of yourself, you can get the ‘big-head’; you can forget that you are human, your ego gets over inflated, and you living without a sense of reality about yourself and the world.   In this story, the man’s selfish- pride had made him too big for his spiritual britches. As C. S. Lewis once said, "A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and of course, as long as you are looking down, you can't see something that's above you."

Having a good sense of pride and self-respect, rather than a negative or overinflated one, is a balancing act.  It’s a lot like riding a bicycle.  You have to make sure you keep your eyes on the road ahead.  You’ve also got to think about where you’re going, and to make sure you stay upright.  This is what Jesus’ parable attempts to display: how we can get ‘pride’ right, and how we might get it wrong.

This Pharisee’s attitude reveals pride in its worst form.  His selfish pride promotes such a narrow view of self in leads to other forms of sinning.  This is why, in the Christian understanding, pride ranks at the top of the list of Seven Deadly Sins. Not only is pride destructive self, it leads to destructive behavior that hurts others. Like a noxious weed in the garden, pride grows, spreads, and chokes out all life around it.

However, pride does not start out looking down on others.  It starts with a narrow, misguided, illusionary view of self.  Girolamo Savonarola, the great fifteenth-century Florentine priest, was said to have noticed an elderly woman worshiping at the feet of the statue of the Virgin Mary outside the city's cathedral.  When he realized she came every day, Savonarola said to a colleague, “Look how devout she is. She so reveres the Blessed Mother.”

“Don't be deceived by what you see,” the other priest replied. “Many years ago the artist commissioned for the statue chose that woman as his model. She was a lovely young woman with a look of innocence on her face. The statue was completed decades ago and every day that woman has come to WORSHIP HER OWN IMAGE.”

So, what’s wrong with this Pharisee, other than he has a really big, ego?  Well, it all starts with an appearance of what is good and right.  The Pharisee appears to do everything right.  He has a lot going for him, too.  He’s good.  He’s not greedy for money.  He’s honest.  He’s just the right kind of fellow, except for one thing.  He thinks he’s better than everyone else.

He just may even be better than most people, but he because he knows it (or thinks it), he’s become the worst kind of fellow.   Selfish pride is pride of the worst kind exactly because it’s only focused on self.  Selfish pride fails to consider the other.  It sees only the good in one’s self, and fails to look for any good or value in anyone else.  This narrow view not only destroys any hope for community, it also limits the work of God’s love.   It’s the kind of pride that keeps us from seeing what God wants us to see.    It doesn’t see the other person as someone God loves unconditionally, simply because they are God’s creation.   In other words, selfish pride only sees what the self wants to see.   Selfish pride fails to see what wants us to see and to feel what God feels.

Seeing beyond ourselves may be the most important need, not just for Christians, but also for churches today.  Churches who are stuck only thinking about themselves, even trying to ‘save’ or persevere themselves, are caught in a downward spiral of decline.  The only way out of this decline, say the experts, is not to fix oneself, but to focus on what God sees, who God loves, and what God has called us to do; and to move beyond thinking only about ourselves.  A church stuck on itself, is a church that is stuck in a culture that goes along with this Pharisee and can’t be justified as healthy, holy or helpful.

In a recent study of businesses who are also, like churches dealing with constant change and transition, one author says that organizations should learn to think of problems as challenges instead of threats.  In other words, focus on the need, the challenge, not only yourself.  The business who are only thinking about being on top,  and seen their business as in competition against another, will is only doing more to harm its business.   It hurt’s its own business, because it has think only about itself, and not about its mission.  Recently I saw a TED Talk about why the Wright Brothers where successful inspiring others to work with them at achieving FLIGHT.  All kinds of people were attempting it, at the time.  The Wright Brothers had less money.  They had people working for lower salaries.  They had less skill and information.  There were scholars at Harvard and other elite schools who knew so much more.  How did the Wright Brothers do it?  It was not about ‘head’, but it was about ‘heart’.  The Wright Brothers failed many times, and they were not afraid to admit it, to face it, and to learn from it.  Also, because the Wright brothers’ focus was not on being first, not on making money from it, but it their focus was on ‘believing’ is what they were doing, it was ‘heart’ that enabled them to do what others could not.   As the Ted Talk speaker said, ‘Because the Wright Brothers answered the question “why” (Belief) first of all, they were able to get to the ‘what’ (Flight) before all the others

By getting ‘stuck’ on himself, it was ‘who’ this Pharisee could not see that was most self-destructive.  By being ‘stuck’ on himself, he couldn’t see beyond himself, and he couldn’t see what and who he needed to see. Selfish pride is self-destructive because it creates an isolated, insulated, individual world that cuts itself off from the life; the life of reality, and the life of others, whom we, as social creatures, all need to be in relationship with to survive, and to thrive.

This Pharisee’s saw no one else.  He needed no one else.  His vision of life became short-sighted and it shorted out.  Isn’t that what a ‘short circuit’ is?   It’s which the flow of electricity gets stuck and can’t continue to flow as it should because something creates resistance.  In order to flow, the current must continue to flow freely, running through all its circuits rather than getting stuck in one place.   In the same way, God has created humans to keep looking around, to keep seeing life, not just through our own view of ourselves, but by seeing others and focusing God’s love for all.

Recently a respected pastor in NC died of a brain tumor.  He had been recognized for leading his church in Durham to see the needs of immigrants and to respond as a church to those needs.  In order to do this, he once wrote about how he had to face himself, his own prejudices, and ask his church to consider the biblical call to welcome the stranger.  One thing he discovered, which is what we all discover when we go on mission with God, is that we can’t begin to think about the neighbor, if our only focus is on ourselves, our own desires, needs, and opinions.  We have to also try to ‘put ourselves some elses moccasins’.  In this way, it wasn’t just that the Pharisee only saw good in himself, but Jesus mentions his great failure because the Pharisee couldn’t see the good in the other.  He failed to  recognize both the good and the need beyond himself.

If the Pharisee only saw himself, what is really so different with the ‘publican’ or the sinner?  Wasn’t he only focusing on himself too? What makes this sinner a better person in God’s eyes?  The Pharisee only sees himself as good.  This sinner only sees himself as bad.  So, what’s the real difference?  Aren’t they both just focusing only on themselves?  What is it that Jesus sees in the sinner that he didn’t see in this self-described ‘saint’?   Besides that, we all know that negative self-esteem isn’t good for you either, just like too much ego.  Just like people should over inflate their self-image, people also shouldn’t carry around such heavy guilt and negative thinking about themselves.  What ‘good’ does Jesus see in this fellow who appears to be too hard on himself?

Before we get to an answer, let’s look more closely at this ‘sinner’ and how he prays.  While the Pharisee ‘stands’ while he prays, the ‘sinner’ won’t even look up.  He bows his head.    While the Pharisee ‘thanks God’ for ‘not being like other people’, the ‘sinner’ goes straight to the heart of God, saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinners!’  The Pharisee is thankful for what he thinks he is and has.  The Sinner faces what he knows he is, and isn’t?   In short, the Pharisee prays a ‘fake’ prayer and needs nothing from God, but the sinner’s prayer is ‘real’, honest, and has nothing, unless God delivers him.  The Pharisee doesn’t need God for anything.  He does it all himself.  The Sinner needs God in everything.  He is completely and utterly dependent upon God’s mercy, grace and love. 

With a closer look, you come to understand that it’s not that this ‘sinner’ is negating himself, but what he’s really doing is ‘putting himself’ completely into God’s hands.  He’s surrendering himself, so that he can move beyond himself, move beyond his own good, or in this case ‘bad’ deeds, so that now, he can be used of God.  In other words, in this fellow understanding of himself, he’s a sinner, just like everyone else is a sinner. In his own view of life, there are no chiefs and Indians, good or bad, saint or sinner, but everyone is an Indian, everyone fails, and everyone is a sinner.  Jesus lifts up this ‘sinner’ above the ‘Pharisee’ because, like him, and before God, and God’s perfect righteousness, everyone stands of prayer, of love, of mercy, of understanding, and in need of forgiveness from God, and from the other.  The theme song of the sinner who understands our human limits and dependency upon God is: “It’s me, It’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer?

So, now that we see the difference; that the Pharisee could only see himself, was stuck on himself, and couldn’t see his need of God, and that Sinner, by humbling himself, faces the reality that everyone ‘stands in need’ of God’s mercy and grace, what does this matter?   We are told in the text, that the sinner ‘went down justified’, but what does that mean?

Practically, we’ve already said, haven’t we?   The one who ‘humbles’ himself is the one who completely depends upon God, so that he or she is able to get themselves out of the way and are now able to focus on others.   Recently, in our first Dinner Church Bible Study, we were talking about how one Church in Seattle, was able to start a new form of church, that was really an old form of church.  As a decline church, it started to realize it’s face it’s decline because it realize that it wasn’t trying to ‘rescue’ people.  Only when it became a church able to move beyond itself, was it able to focus on the most needy people in its community and then find God’s blessing and purpose that rejuvenated its ministry. 

One of the question that was asked in the book we were studying,  “Welcome to the Dinner Church”, was simply this: “Do you see God’s Church as primarily being in the rescue business?  Why or Why not?

One of the answers that was shared was that “ it has been difficult for churches to be in the business of rescuing others, because we are still too busy at having to rescue ourselves?”   What do you think that’s about?  Is it because preachers keep putting guilt trips on us, or we keep putting them upon ourselves?  What is it that keeps from getting involved in God’s mission?

Many years ago a man conned his way into the orchestra of the Emperor of China, although he could not play a single note. Whenever the group practiced or performed, he would hold his flute against his lips, pretending to play, but not making a sound. For years he received a good salary and enjoyed a comfortable living.

Then one day the Emperor requested a solo from each musician. Well, the flutist got very nervous. There wasn't enough time to learn the instrument. He pretended to be sick, but the royal physician wasn't fooled. On the day of his solo performance, the imposter took poison and killed himself. The explanation of his suicide led to a phrase that found its way into the English language: "He refused to face the music."

The way to move on with your life and with the life God has for you is to ‘face the music’.  You can face the music now and be a part of the heavenly band. Or you can face the music later and be kicked out of the orchestra.   But when admit your need of God, and how day by day you depend on Him, this is what impresses God and it’s what fits us for work in God’s kingdom and on God’s mission.  Again, the great truth in the life of this ‘sinner’ is that he was casting himself on God, once and for all.   He went home justified because he left everything there.  When he left everything in God’s hands, realizing he could never justify himself, he could ‘get up’ ‘justified’ and ready to serve God in focusing God’s call and mission.  The Pharisee could never get this far.  He was stuck where he was, because he was stuck on himself.

This brings us to the question this text raises for us?  Where do you see yourself in the mirror that Jesus paints?  Do you show up as the person who has everything you just the way you want it, because you are holding something back?   And because you hold back, you can’t move forward in the flow of God’s love that starts with you, and then moves toward others.  Or, are you the person who is willing to lay everything on the ‘altar of God’ holding nothing back?

Once, a King of Israel, Saul won a battle, but lost the main ‘war’ because he ‘held back’ what he should have dedicated completely to God.  The prophet pointed out his failure, but it was too late.  But what Jesus’ story is telling us is that it’s never too late, as long as you have today, to ‘confess your sins’, to ‘cast all your care upon’ him, and know that he cares for you.  This form of humility is not to beat you down, but it’s to set you free, so you can have a healthy view of self, and you are ready follow Jesus in the mission and purpose he has for you.

Today, you can ‘go home’ justified too.  In order for this to happen, you must first, humble your true self before the God who forgives unconditionally.  He forgives, not only because he loves you, wants to free your from your sins and failures, but he forgives you because life is not only about you, it’s also about those you will see when you start to move beyond you.   Will you come and give yourself to God, so he can use you in all that God still wants to do to bring love, life, and hope into the world?  Please, don’t hold anything back that will keep you from receiving all God has for you!  Will you come?   Amen.