23 Pentecost Yr C

23 Pentecost Yr C, 31/10/2010

Lk 19:1-10

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Jesus and Zacchaeus”

The story is told of a pastor who was preparing his appeal to the congregation for funds. His wife asked him how it was going. He responded: “I’m half way there.” “Really,” his wife said. “Yes, the poor are willing to receive; now all I have to do is to convince the rich to give.”

   In today’s gospel we have another story about a rich man named Zacchaeus. He lived in the city of Jericho, where, you remember, in the days of Joshua, the walls came tumbling down. Zacchaeus was rich because Luke tells us that he was a chief tax collector. Moreover, Jericho was a prosperous city–so Zacchaeus was able to garner a high income as chief tax collector. Yet, after his encounter with Jesus, the wall of his sin came tumbling down. Unlike the pastor who had to convince the rich to give; Zacchaeus voluntarily gives half of his possessions to the poor and goes beyond the requirement of the Jewish law by offering to pay back four times as much to anyone whom he may have defrauded in the past. Now that is generosity!

   There is a group of biblical scholars who [say that] Luke’s story of Zacchaeus…[is] a healing story because it has the shape and form of other healing stories. Most of the stories under the healing category refer to people who are paralyzed, blind, or suffering from seizures. Not Zacchaeus. His condition is that he is rich. Can wealth be an illness?

   Have you read the story of J. Paul Getty, once listed as the richest man in the world? He was totally estranged from all five of his wives and every one of his children. In the words of his biographer, “He only loved oil.”

   The sickness of the Kennedy family, whose star-crossed lives have captured the attention of a nation, is well known. The Kennedy family wealth was built on the illegal activities of Joseph, the father. Though it doesn’t appear that his sons imitated his business ethics, they unfortunately copied his womanizing. To listen to the stories of Andrew Carnegie, the American tycoon who built thousands of libraries across the country, or John D. Rockefeller, a Baptist who built chapels and endowed seminaries, is to hear tales of deception and fraud. How many rich people have made their money at the expense of others?

   Unlike most physical ailments, addiction to wealth can result in deep spiritual illness. Often wealth is gained when truth is traded for a lie. Often the accumulation of wealth causes the ravaging of the environment—[even after a three million dollar fine, Syncrude was in the news again this past week for yet more ducks landing in one of their tailings ponds here in northern Alberta and the result was that over 200 oil-soaked birds had to be euthanized.] Ironically, wealth often dampens the gratitude and lessens the joy of those whose lives are given over to getting it. Many who have won huge sums of money playing Powerball have learned that large sums of money always change our lives, and seldom for the good.

   Zacchaeus was the Jewish head of the Roman [Revenue Canada] division in the gateway town of Jericho, a thriving little city. As chief tax collector, or we might say toll collector, Zacchaeus received a percentage of every dollar his workers raised. The more his workers gathered, the more he made for himself. Most taxes went to help pay the salaries of a foreign army, an army that was hated by the entire Jewish population.

   Tax collectors were labelled collaborators and cheats and were despised. Chances are Zacchaeus had great wealth, but little else. The Romans despised the Jews who worked for them, and no self-respecting Jew would ever socialize with one of their own who was collecting money for the Romans. Furthermore, tax collectors were not allowed to serve as judges, could not serve as a witness in court, and synagogues would not accept their tainted money as alms. They were non-persons.

   It seems that Zacchaeus, who was vertically challenged, was fascinated with Jesus. He climbed a tree to see Jesus as he and his disciples walked by. Jesus, who the gospels tell us was forever being interrupted, stopped at the tree, called the little man by name, and invited himself to dinner. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus shouted, “hurry down. I must eat with you.” Zacchaeus was thrilled.

   Jesus had the ability to spot need from distance, even in the midst of a crowd. He was aware of the special touch of a hemorrhaging woman, he understood the need of a weeping mother, and noticed the expressions on the faces of a paralyzed man and his friends. This time he saw a little rich man ridiculously sitting in a tree, suffering from his wealth.

   The religious leaders were upset when Jesus spent time with this traitor. They were equally upset when Jesus spoke to a woman caught in adultery, or when a woman of the street wiped his feet with her hair. No matter. Jesus didn’t come to meet expectations, but to change them.

   Bernie Siegel writes in Love, Medicine and Miracles that love is key to health. People who are in the midst of a loving relationship suffer fewer illnesses. He writes, “I feel that all disease is ultimately related to a lack of love or to love that is only conditional, for the exhaustion and depression of the immune system leads to physical vulnerability. I also feel that all healing is related to the ability to give and accept unconditional love.” [Bernie S. Siegel, M.D., Love, Medicine and Miracles: Lessons Learned about Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients (New York: Harper and Row, 1995), p. 180. Too strong? Perhaps. But we are all aware of the terrible toll that lovelessness takes. We also know that shortly after a major loss people are apt to become ill. On the other hand, we know what happens when people experience a great love. We know that love changes attitudes. Martin Luther King Jr. used to tell those who marched with him, “Those whom we wish to change, we must first love.” Zacchaeus felt the love of Jesus and it healed and transformed him.

   His healing from the addiction of wealth was immediate. Without any prodding from Jesus, without pressure from anyone, this man who suffered from the sickness related to his ill-begotten wealth, began the healing process. “Half my possessions I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything (and he probably had), I will pay back four times as much.” In cases of fraud the law required a two-to-one restitution. Zacchaeus doubled that. And without being forced!

   Saying, “Please forgive me” can be a cheap attempt to get off the hook. Those who seek a full recovery from the illness of alcoholism using the twelve-step method must finally make a list of those their addiction has hurt and then settle the score with them. They do this not only for the sake of the wronged party, but for their own sake as well, that they may be set free and healed. Zacchaeus’ act of restitution and generosity put his past behind him.

   Jesus accepted Zacchaeus, and it created a desire for change. Zacchaeus longed for the simplicity and honesty of the teacher. He knew that if he wanted the peace that passes all understanding he would have to do some serious house cleaning. God does not force repentance. Having met Jesus, the desire to make our lives look more like his is motivation enough.

   Many people assume that one has to be sad and mournful in order to repent. Not necessarily. In this story there is no sack cloth or ashes. Repentance for Zacchaeus was an act of pure joy. He was trading sickness for health, a life of destruction for a life with God. This is good news.

   Jesus responded to Zacchaeus by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.” The word salvation, which we often associate only with heaven, actually means total well-being, health. Zacchaeus literally was made healthy through his encounter with Jesus the healer.

   For Zacchaeus, healing began with a meal. It might begin that way for us, or it might begin with the simple awareness that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Grace is amazing.1

   Just like the walls came tumbling down at Jericho long ago because Joshua was faithful to God and obeyed the LORD; so today we learn of Zacchaeus’ wall of sin coming tumbling down because his obedient faith in Jesus led him to acts of generosity above and beyond what the law required of him. A generosity born of God’s love and grace touching his heart and life. May God’s love and grace in Jesus touch our hearts and lives too that we may also respond with acts of faithful obedience and generosity. Amen.

1 Cited from: Wm. R. White, {in over our heads}: meditations on grace (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007), pp. 38-41.

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Recording of Psalm 23

This is a beautiful recording of Psalm 23, sung in Hebrew.

21 Pentecost, Yr C

21 Pentecost Yr C, 17/10/2010

Lk 18:1-8

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“On not losing heart”

A few years ago, a member [who shall remain unnamed] of the congregation where I served wrote me the following letter.

   Pastor Garth:

   I am still trying to find out some information on aged help and there are programs in place, but you have to have the co-operation of the individual.

   There is Home Care at [phone #] and they are located at the VC with a JD in charge. I gather that the government will pay up to $100.00 per month to get someone to help with the yard and cleaning the house, but must have the co-operation of the individual involved. You can only qualify by not having too much income.

   If their spouse is a veteran, then you can apply to get help from them, but from what I gather you keep your bills and submit them to VLA and they will pay for help, but I do not know to what extent.

   I had lunch with my friend on Friday and I could not talk her into anything including my going and giving her help. I have told her that I am going to start phoning her and pounding on her door in order to get her to do something. I will just have to keep at her and see what comes of it. We will find out who is the most stubborn anyway, but I am afraid that she is better at it than I am.

   As you can see from this letter, my parishioner went to considerable effort to care for her friend. The friend was unwilling to co-operate, and my parishioner was afraid that she would be less persistent than her friend; that she would, in the end, lose heart.

   What about you? How persistent are you? Have you ever lost heart? Today Jesus tells a parable about a persistent widow who keeps visiting an unjust judge and asking that he do the right thing and grant her justice. Jesus introduces the parable by saying: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” I think that not losing heart is something we all struggle with from time to time. We forget that God is faithful; that God answers prayer. On some occasions, we may pray and pray, yet there seems to be no answer. We wonder why. Did we lack faith? Did we not pray long enough? Do we need more persistence and patience? What is happening here? Why does our neighbour pray for that dream job and God answers his or her prayer in short order while, you have prayed the same prayer and God keeps you waiting for what seems like forever? Or why do we pray so long and often for the suffering people in places like Darfur, yet God still has not put an end to their suffering? Such questions are troublesome for us and we don’t always have the answers to them. However, I do believe that one answer to such questions is that God knows exactly when the time is right in which to act and sometimes if God were to answer our prayer the time would not be right and we would live to regret what we prayed for. As the author of Ecclesiastes 3:1 says: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” God’s time is not always our time; God’s way is not always our way. That is why Jesus teaches us today “to pray always and not to lose heart.”

   You see Jesus gets to the heart of the matter. We are not being ignored by God if we pray till we’re blue in the face and our prayer is not answered right away. No. Rather, the parable is really about God. God does answer prayer and the encouragement to pray always and not lose heart is for our own benefit. Such prayers help us to remember that God will not let us lose heart because God is God. God’s heart of love and compassion, mercy and justice is always at work—even when we fail to see or understand God’s workings. By praying always, we continue to place our faith and trust in God; that God shall hear us and indeed answer our prayers in his own time and in his own way. If an unjust judge who does not fear God or give a hoot about people will grant justice to a persistent widow; then how much more will God who is loving, gracious, merciful and just grant justice to those who ask him. You see God is not like the unjust judge in the parable. No. Rather, God hears our prayers and helps us remain in relationship with him and helps us to remember that he loves and cares for us because he is truly a God of justice, grace, mercy and love.

   Listen to the following story, told by the Rev. Dr. Wm. Willimon, which, I believe, underscores the point that our prayers help us remain in relationship with God and that relationship prevents us from losing heart.

   [The Rev. Dr. Willimon says:] A person I know works for the telephone company, in the area of customer complaints. She has a tough job because she must represent the demands of the company, and at the same time, she must try to be open and caring about customers.

   She told me about a person who called her, complaining about some grave problem with her telephone service. My friend said, while this was a bad problem, it did not come under telephone company guidelines. In other words, it was the customer’s problem to solve, and not hers.

   The customer, a widow, living alone by herself on a fixed income, persisted.

   My friend said, “During the conversation, she at last said something that really got through to me. She said, “I’ve always loved and respected the telephone company. Since I was a young child, coming home alone, my mother always told me, ‘If you have any problem, just call the operator at the telephone company and she will help. I trust the phone company to do what is right.’”

   My friend said that a light went on in her brain and she realized that this was not merely a dispute over money and service, but was a discussion about the character of the telephone company. Was this a company who cared, a company that valued its long-term relationship with a customer, a company who could be trusted? Even though the guidelines could not fit in this case, my friend reached out and saw the woman’s problem.

   Something similar I think is discussed in the parable about prayer. Perhaps Jesus is saying, “If even an employee of the big, impersonal phone company will ultimately be true to the good character of the company, how much more so will your Father in heaven be true to you when you persist at your relationship with God.”

   And that is why we do not lose heart.1

   We do not lose heart because ultimately God is faithful; keeping us in relationship with him. His faithfulness never ends. Without God’s faithfulness his Chosen People Israel would never have survived and flourished. Without God’s faithfulness Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection would never have reconciled humankind with God. Without God’s faithfulness, the Holy Spirit would not have founded the Church and remained present with Christ’s followers through the centuries right up to our day. In the end, God’s justice shall prevail—not necessarily according to our plan or timeline. Rather, in accordance with his plan and timeline. I know this is not always easy to accept because of the “instant world” in which we live. We are often socially conditioned to expect immediate results and gratifications—yet, that is not always the best for us, nor is it always God’s way of addressing our concerns. Patience is required, hence the instruction not to lose heart. We can be prayerfully persistent and expectant like the widow in the parable because God is a God of love and grace, mercy and justice, and keeps us in relationship with him. Thanks be to God!

1 Cited from: Wm. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26 No. 4 Year C & A October, November, December 1998 (Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos Productions Inc.), p. 13.

Thanksgiving 2010

Thanksgiving is integral to the life of faith. The psalms are loaded with exhortations and invitations to give God thanks. In the psalms, God is thanked during acts of public worship for, among other things: life, health, bountiful harvests and provision of all the basic necessities of life, protection from danger and harm, God’s presence, covenant-faithfulness and steadfast love. In the New Testament thanks is also given in the context of public worship and prayer, healing and health, life and salvation. In Canada we celebrate Thanksgiving this weekend. One of the exercises that I encourage folks to engage in at Thanksgiving is to make a list from A to Z of persons and things and offer your thanks to God for them. Here is my list. If you would like to share yours by leaving a comment on this post you are most welcome to do so. A blessed Thanksgiving to you.

Blessed are you LORD God of heaven and earth. There are so many things and people for which I have to be thankful. Today I give you thanks for:

A – the beauty of your creation revealed through works of art

B – the Bible, source of abundant life now and eternally, revealing your truth and love

C – the covenants of God, both old and new, without them humankind would be lost

D – dreams that inspire, motivate, bring clarity and direction, and nurture our relationship with God

E – eternity, with its promise and hope of a perfect, sinless existence in God’s presence

F – faith, one of the three most important gifts of the Holy Spirit, keeping our relationship with God and neighbour alive and healthy

G – grace, God unconditional love, acceptance and forgiveness towards us

H – healing of mind, body or soul/spirit or all three, in more ways than we can ever know or understand

I – ideas, which give birth to thoughts, creativity, beliefs, inventions, and other meaningful activities

J – Jesus, who is, among other things, our Messiah, Lord, Saviour, Friend and Brother

K – the many acts of kindness directed towards me throughout my lifetime by God and countless people

L – love, which, of the triad of the Holy Spirit’s greatest gifts, reigns supreme, revealing the presence of God in the church and world, without which we could not exist

M – music, which allows us to express the whole range of human emotions, awakening us to the joy of life

N – neighbours, whom God commands us to love, and through whom we meet Jesus himself

O – offering, which provide us with the opportunity to love and serve God and neighbour by giving our time, talents and treasures in a spirit of love and generosity

P – preaching, which works faith in us and through it Christ is present and active

Q – quiet, in moments of silence God speaks to us, like he did to Elijah of old

R – resurrection, the small ones that give new life and hope in the everyday and ordinary, and the large one that we await with eager longing to be with Christ beyond the grave

S – sufferings that test us to the limits, strengthen and mature our faith by a deeper reliance on and trust in God, as well as shape, form and recreate us into the persons that God has predestined us to be

T – table, around which we gather to enjoy being fed with an abundance and variety of foods for our physical health, but also the place where family, friends, neighbours and even strangers share in the community of brotherhood and sisterhood, as well as the place where Christ is with us in, with and under the elements of bread and wine as we remember him and his immeasurable love for us through his suffering, death and resurrection  

U – unity, between husbands and wives in marriage, between Christians within their own denomination and ecumenically, between peoples of diverse faiths, racial, ethnic, social, economic and political backgrounds who live in peace, between the three Persons of our Triune God

V – vocations, realising that we are all in this life together, therefore we need the wide array of contributions that each human being makes for the common good of the human family

W – water, the essential element of human life and life as we know it on this planet, and the element through which God life in the sacrament of baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit

X – xylophone, that humble percussion instrument producing unique sounds to praise and thank the LORD with

Y – yeast, which is also humble, small and unseen, yet makes the difference in the quality of bread, and like small faith, adds quality to life and can work wonders that awaken folks to the creative power of God

Z – Zion, city of Jerusalem and hill where the temple was located, and the hope of a new, heavenly Jerusalem, when God shall consummate all of human history, ushering in the complete realm of God

Amen.