Monthly Archives: November 2014

Zacchaeus was a wee little man?

Sycamore trees in America are tall, grand trees that are not easily climbed.  This type of Sycamore is found exclusively in Israel.  This particular tree is found in Netanya, about 50 miles from modern Jericho.  You can see from it's shape though, that it would be quite easy to climb.

Sycamore trees in America are tall, grand trees that are not easily climbed. This type of Sycamore is found exclusively in Israel. This particular tree is found in Netanya, about 50 miles from modern Jericho. You can see from it’s shape though, that it would be quite easy to climb.

The Gospel of Luke tells a short story about Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus.  It is found in Luke 19:1-10.  I included a link to a site called Bible Study Tools, where you can read two different translations of the story.  The two translations are going to be important, but we’ll get to that shortly.  If you’re not familiar with the story, it is a very simple episode of a short man named Zacchaeus meeting Jesus.  Zach is not only short, but he is a chief tax collector, and a rich man.  When he encounters Jesus (from in a sycamore tree so that he could see) Jesus tells him to get out of the tree because he has to come over for dinner.  The people in the crowd grumbled at this because they weren’t big fans of tax collectors.  As a response to the crowd’s grumbling, and perhaps more importantly, in response to Jesus’ invitation, Zach declares, at least in one translation, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  Jesus responds with praise and repeats the theme of the Gospel of Luke, that he “came to seek and save the lost.”

The story, as told above, is a great story of conversion.  As the traditional interpretation goes, Jesus inspired something in Zach to make him change his ways.  By inviting himself over, and including him in the community, Jesus inspired Zach to change heart.  He re-examined his relationship with money, and decided to live a more righteous life.  This is a reasonable story, and one that is surely good news.  Even with this traditional interpretation, there is some radical love going on here.  First of all, Jesus offered grace to Zach before there was a conversion.  This can be read as a story of God’s preceding grace (or prevenient grace, if you want to use a $20 Methodist word); the kind of grace that comes before we do anything about it.  Jesus indeed came to seek and save the lost.

There is even a sweet children’s song to go along with it, although the song has little to do with conversion.  I read one description of the song that says it is a “reminder that even small people are important.”

Short Jesus

Short Jesus

Recently though, I’ve come to see Zach a little differently.  First of all, while it is clear that someone in the story is short, the truth is the Greek is ambiguous as to who the short one is.  Zach climbed in the tree, so everything thinks he’s short, but read that sentence again without assuming that Jesus is the tall hero with long flowing brown hair and perfect complexion.  “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd.”  If a short man was walking in the midst of a crowd, he would be hard to see.  In other words, climbing a tree would be helpful to see over the crowd whether Zach was the short one or Jesus was the short one.  We just assume Zach is short because the hero of the story is never short (unless the hero is a hobbit).

This is really a minor issue.  Jesus’ height isn’t really an important issue, but I believe it reveals to us the way we bring our own assumptions to the text.  We assume that Jesus is the tall one because we want our heroes to be tall, dark, and handsome.

The fact is, we bring our own assumptions to a lot of parties.  Another assumption is revealed in the translation issue I mentioned earlier.  Most translations have a simple word that, at least in my mind, alters the meaning of the story.  After Jesus invites himself over to Zach’s house, Zach says, “I will give…”  The Common English Bible, however, leaves out that little ‘will.’  This is a fact that David Lose pointed out before the Common English Bible existed.  In fact, the ‘will’ is left out of the King James and the RSV as well.  It seems like more modern versions of the text have shaped the story the way we want it to appear.  We want this to be about conversion.  We want this to be about how Jesus’ grace changed the heart of a terrible tax collector, because then the story can be about someone else.  It can be about those terrible people that gained money in illicit fashion, and now must repent.  It demands nothing of the reader.  Since none of us are chief tax-collectors, t’s so easy to simply see others in the role of Zach, and leave ourselves with a gentle reminder that all are indeed welcome to the table.

If Zach’s declaration is not in the future tense, then the story feels different.  Instead of Zach changing his heart because of the grace of the savior, we have him defending himself against a grumbling crowd.  It turns out, he’s been doing what John the Baptist had told him to do.    Back in Luke 3:12-13 we are told that John the Baptist was baptizing tax collectors.  They asked him, “What do we need to do?” John replied, “collect only what you are due.”  It seems like Zach was doing just what cousin John had taught them.

Now, the focus is not on the heart of that dirty-old tax collector.  The focus is on the heart of the grumbing crowd.  Remember too, that “all who saw it began to grumble.”  Not the Pharisees and their letter-of-law strictness.  Not the chief priests and their holier-than-thou attitudes. Not even the disciples, and their always-a-step-behind bumbling.  All of them. Zach is not confessing a change of heart to Jesus, he is defending his honor to the grumbling crowd that assumes he is not worth their time.

The uncomfortable truth is, the story of Zacchaeus reveals more to us about our own grumbling hearts than it does about his own.  It’s no longer easy to see Zach as some wretch who was saved by Jesus’ compassion.  Instead, we are forced to see him as someone who was excluded from society because – dare I say – the assumptions that were made.  Who else do we refuse to see?  Who else do we judge by their credentials, and deem unworthy?  How many times have we seen the grace of God, and thought, “he doesn’t deserve that.”  How often do we grumble without knowing?

Zacchaeus wanted so desperately to see Jesus that he was willing to risk humiliation.  He was willing to venture out into the crowds that would surely reject him.  But it was not Zacchaeus who saw.  Instead, he was finally seen.  He was seen by Jesus – spotted there up in a tree, not exactly a place of dignity and respect.  He was seen by the unforgiving crowds.  He was seen by those who would do their best to not see him.  Maybe in the end, that’s all any of us really need.  To be seen, not as a job title or a resume.  Seen not as a role to fill, or a caricature of what others think we should be.  Simply to be seen, as one who was made in the image of God.  To be seen simply as one who fails and wins, who cries and laughs, who has lost and loves.  To be seen by Jesus, even as we risk humiliation and scorn, and be invited to come to the feast.

Listen to the Pulpit Fiction Podcast about Zaccaeus

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2014 #AdventRun to Bethlehem

According to google maps, the journey along the Jordan River from Nazareth to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is 166 kilometers, or 103.2 miles.

According to google maps, the journey along the Jordan River from Nazareth to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is 166 kilometers, or 103.2 miles.

CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT YOUR RUN

In 2013, we had our first Advent Run/Walk to Bethlehem.  As a way to promote living well in the midst of a season that is notoriously difficult on healthy habits, we went on a run together.  The goal was to honor the journey of Mary and Joseph by running the 103 miles it takes to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We promoted the run through this blog and at The Pulpit Fiction Podcast.  We asked people to log in their runs and walks online, and shared updated results a few times between Thanksgiving and Epiphany.  The results were phenomenal.  Even though I bowed out early because of a terrible chest cold, the 2013 Advent Run had 23 different people log 67 different runs for a total of 255 miles.  The runs took place in 14 different states and London, England.  Our longest runner was Jessica, who ran 30 miles.  My Pulpit Fiction partner Eric ran 6 times for just over a marathon (27.2 miles). We reached our goal of 103 miles in just two weeks, so we created a challenge goal.  We decided to honor the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt (as told in the Gospel of Matthew) and go 333 miles.  We didn’t make that goal, but I think that is a good goal for 2014. Here’s how to participate: Follow this link, and then book mark it.  This year we added a “Group” option.  If you are a part of a church, club, or class that wants to participate in the #AdventRun, then tell people to enter their group name.  We’ll compile individual, group, and total miles. You won’t be able to register a run/walk until Thanksgiving – November 27.  We’ll keep it open until Epiphany – January 6. Follow The Fat Pastor on Facebook

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The greatest sync since The Dark Side of Oz

A lot of awesome stuff happened in 1989.  The Berlin Wall fell.  The USSR ended their war in Afghanistan.  A brave man stood in front of a tank in Tienanmen Square, inspiring millions in the hopes of democracy.  The Velvet Revolution produced free elections in Czechoslovakia.   The Boys of Zimmer won the NL East.  Montana to Taylor won Superbowl XXIII.   Taylor Swift was born, and there was a National Aerobics Championships.

Tonight, my daughters and I enjoyed a spirited dance party to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” in our kitchen.  After finding this video, my only question is, “how did they get a camera in our kitchen?”

Seriously though, this video is truly amazing.  It was posted on my Facebook as a link from Huffington Post.

Unfortunately the Huffington Post article, and the maker of the video incorrectly identify this aerobics championship as the 1989 season.  This is actually the 1988 championship.  It was hosted by Alan Thicke, and apparently, this happened too:

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The Open Table

Click on the picture to see a part of Amy's house concert.

Click on the picture to see a part of Amy’s house concert.

It was a nearly perfect night.  Ever since, I’ve been thinking, “Can we do that again?”

We gathered in at our home.  It was the first cool night of autumn, and we started the night with some chili and hot apple cider around a fire pit.  Then we came inside.  There were 15 friends sitting in couches and chairs around our living room.  Amy Cox, a talented singer-songwriter with a heart for Jesus and a passion for justice, brought her guitar, a mic, and a small speaker.

She sang.  She told stories.  The kids came and went as they pleased.  The older ones stayed upstairs, listened to the music and whispered to each other in their own little world. The younger ones came and went, going from the floor to the basement to play when they felt like being more rambunctious.  The littlest ones stayed in laps and arms – not necessarily the laps and arms of their own parents.  At one point I looked around at this group of people, all of whom I care for deeply, and my heart was warmed.

“This,” I thought, “is church.”

It was a holy moment, one which I want to re-create.  My wife and I have talked since.  “Do you think we could do that again?”  And time and again our answer is, “I don’t know if we can, but we need to try.”  Unfortunately, Amy Cox isn’t available.  She’s busy planting a church in Virginia, and I wish her success.  She was able to come through the Quad Cities on a cross-country trip to San Diego, and I’m so glad she was able share a night with us.

Luckily, I have some friends with some musical talent, and I’m hoping we can create something together.  Picture this:

It’s a Thursday night.  People come to our house at 6:30.  Hopefully everybody’s had dinner, but we’ll have some small snacks, wine, coffee, and we’ll just chat for a little while as everyone arrives.  Eventually, we’ll write down something for which we would like prayer, and throw it in a basket.  All are invited to share if they’d like, but don’t have to.  We share a brief time of prayer and silence.  Someone with a guitar leads sings a couple of songs.  Some sing along.  Some of the kids stick around for the music.  Some have gone down to the basement to play.  Someone reads a passage of Scripture.  I talk about it for ten minutes or so.  It’s not really a sermon – more like a guided discussion.  We wrap up the discussion, then we talk about a mission or ministry – local or global – and take an offering for it.  Sometimes instead of an offering, we might put do some kind of hands-on mission.  Then I get a nice loaf of bread and grape juice, and we share in Communion.  We sing another song or two, and go home.  Before we leave, everyone takes one of the prayers that was written down at the beginning of the night and we promise to be in prayer for whatever we draw over the course of the week.

This is my vision.  It is kind of scary to put it out there like this, but I do so because I wonder, does anyone out there have a similar experience?  What kind of worship have you experienced outside of church walls?  What is the value of gathering in homes?  What are the pitfalls?  I’d love to hear from you.

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The Great Cloud of Witnesses

Hebrews 12:1-2: So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.  Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.  He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.

harvested fieldIn churches around the world, on All Saints’ Sunday, the names of the dead are read.  Bells are tolled.  Portraits are shown.  Years of birth and death are printed.  Candles are lit.  Songs are sung.  This is the day that all saints are remembered.  The saints of the Church are remembered, and their names are spoken.

At the eve of winter, before the Advent season has begun, as the leaves are dried and fallen, and the fields lay bare, we celebrate all the saints.  At the eve of winter, when the wind feels a little stronger, and the grass starts each morning with a glistening sheet of frost, we look into the face of death.  The winter is coming.  The temperature will continue to drop.  The night will get longer.  In the midst of this changing season, we pause.  We stand.  We face the cold winter wind and in defiance, we speak the names of those we have lost.

We stand and face the coming reality.  In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death.  We stand together facing the twin realities that we have all lost someone, and that we all face the same end.

In a culture hungry for immortality, we come together on All Saints Day and proclaim the good news that all will die.  Everywhere you look, there are those avoiding death.  Vampire and Zombie stories are insanely popular.  What is their common theme?  They revolve around the ability to cheat death.  All around, there are schemes – plans, pills, and procedures – to avoid aging.  Is there any stranger relationship we have in our culture than we have with aging? I cannot think of anything people try so hard to at the same time do and avoid.  So we mock a celebrity for getting saggy arms, or wrinkles on their face; and then we mock them for having plastic surgery.

On All Saints’ Day we can come together and acknowledge our own mortality.  And we name those we mourn. We say the words, and there is a physical response.  There is a release when we speak the name of those that have died.  So often, we hold in our memories and emotions.  We keep them bottled up, and often forgotten.  We’ve been told over the last year – or longer – that we should be “over it.”  It is doubtful anyone actually said the words, “get over it,” to someone who is mourning.  We hear it nonetheless.  We hear it from life that goes on.  We hear it from routines that settle back in.  We hear it in empty chairs that are never filled, phones that no longer ring, and arms that no longer embrace.  And so we get over it.  We move on, but never quite the same again.  When we speak the name, it is a chance to stop pretending.  Stop pretending that we have “gotten over it.”

Speaking the name is a chance look at death and say, “I will not forget.  She will not die.”  Death is no less a reality when we speak the name of those that we mourn, but when we gather for worship in the midst of death, we know that it does not have the final say.  We continue to run the race that is laid out in front of us because we know we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  The death of a mortal body that falls to the ground is no more the end of  life than the death of a seed that falls from a tree.

So we gather, surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses.  We gather, surrounded by the saints of Christ.  We gather, singing the songs of the ages and reading the words of hope and healing.  We gather, praying to the Spirit that lives in us all, surrounds us, strengthens us, and empowers us.  We gather in the midst of life, and yet surrounded by death.  We gather and face the cold wind, and we are warmed by the hope of resurrection.  We are warmed by love that is eternal.  We are warmed by the assurance that nothing may separate us from the love we share in Christ.

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