Monday, December 12, 2016

Dec 11, 2016 Sermon: "OK, let's do this!"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Isaiah 35.1-10
NT: Luke 1.46b-55
Ok, Let’s Do This!

            Mary may be the least talked about, most important character in the Christmas story.  We take her role for granted, but she was really the lynchpin on which the whole plan rested.    
            Begin by putting yourself in her shoes.  You’re a young teenager, engaged to be married, still living with your parents, and even though you’re poor…you’re full of excitement and hope about the future. 
            Then an angel comes to see you.  He says, “Hello, beautiful!”  That made her nervous.  Who was this guy, and what did he want?  “Don’t be afraid.  God has a surprise for you:  You’re going to have a son named Jesus, who will be the Savior of the world.” 
            She could have laughed and walked away.  She could have said, “Uh, thanks…but no thanks.”  She could have said, “Are you sure I’m ready?  What will my parents say?”  She could have said, “But I have plans!  I can’t do that right now.  Come back in five years.”  She could have said, “A baby?  The son of God?  I think you have the wrong girl.  No, I know you have the wrong girl.” 
Of course, all those options are just fancy ways of saying, “No.”  And if an angel came to you the same way it came to Mary, would you have said no?  Yes.  I dare say most of us would find some excuse or some way to say, “No.”  That’s the remarkable thing about Mary. 
This poor, engaged, young woman full of excitement about the future is visited by an angel of God and asked to take on an impossible task.  Have you ever had to ask someone to do something you know they won’t be likely to do?  In order to convince them, you plan a big speech, right?  You think of every possible reason you can list about why they should do it.  You throw them all out hoping just one will stick.
I imagine the angel had a much longer speech prepared   where he could lay out his argument about why she should do this and how many people it would help and why she shouldn’t care about what others think and how God had a history of doing great things with unexpected people…but almost before he was finished asking, “Will you bear God’s…”, she said, “OK, let’s do this.”  
            Can’t you hear her!  The traditional words are, “Let it be with me according to your word.  But I hear her saying, “Ok, let’s do this!”  Talk about a Christmas miracle! 
             She had every reason to say no.  She had every opportunity to say no.  She wouldn’t have been alone in saying no.  But she said yes.  Mary said…YES!  
            Will you bear the son of God?  YES.
            Will you become pregnant even before you’re married?  YES.
            Will you endure shame from the community?  YES.
            Will you give birth in a stable among the animals?  YES.
            Will you raise him without bottles or binkies or cribs or rockers or diapers or toys?  YES.
            Will you protect him from my enemies?  YES.
            Will you teach him to be a good man?  YES.
            Will you stand by him to the bitter end?  YES. 
            Mary said yes to God.  And when she did, an overwhelming joy filled her heart, so much so that she began to sing, saying these words we read today from Luke 1.46b-55. 
Not only is she willing to serve God, but she is cheerfully willing to serve God!  So let me cut to the chase: It’s Advent once again, and God is still speaking, asking us to do things we have good reasons not to do.  What will you say?  Will you hem and haw and question and complain and wonder and worry?  Or will you say yes? 
Most of you probably remember the DARE program, which taught kids to stay off drugs.  Their slogan was, “Just say no!”  That’s a great slogan for a drug prevention program.  Not so great for a religion.  Modeled after Mary, our slogan ought to be, “Just say yes!”  If God asks you to do something, just say yes!  You can probably think of 30 reasons not to, but just say yes!  If someone is tugging on your heart strings this Christmas, just say yes!  Like Mary, God just might have something monumental in store for you if you are willing to say yes.  


Dec 4, 2016 Sermon: "The Peaceable Kingdom"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Isaiah 11.1-10
NT: Matthew 3.1-12
The Peaceable Kingdom

            The image of the wolf and the lamb lying down together in peace, natural enemies reconciled, fascinates me like few other Biblical passages.  Especially this time of year, during Advent, on the Sunday when we light the “peace” candle. 
There’s a famous painting called “The Peaceable Kingdom” which depicts that scene.  It shows the lion eating straw in the background while a child is surrounded by all the creatures who should be enemies.  You’ve probably seen it before, but if you haven’t you can certainly picture it.  It looks like a petting zoo set in a park with a small child at the center.  I think that’s how most folks picture Isaiah’s words: A cute and cuddly greeting card with a happy baby surrounded by his favorite stuffed animals.  It’s enough to make you say, “Awww, how precious!” 
That was Hick’s first painting depicting Isaiah 11.  When he was a young man.  It was simple and colorful and pleasant.  As he grew older, his life took several wrong turns.  He battled an addiction to alcohol.  His Quaker community forbid his ornate paintings.  He gave up his artistry to become a farmer, but he failed miserably.  He no longer saw the world as a cute and cuddly place.  The more he lived, the scarier the world became.  Can you identify with that?  Is the world a scarier place now than when you were a child? 
Over the course of his life, Hicks drew that same painting 62 different times, and it always looked different.  With each new version, the scene grew darker, more imposing, and downright scary.  He added more animals.  He made the animals increasingly larger.  Whereas they once looked down submissively, they now stare at the child aggressively.  Some of the animals fight one another in the background.  The once leafy, lush trees lost their leaves.  The once plush, green grass died and withered away.  The child looked in control at first, but now…he looked as though he was on the verge of tears.  The more of the world Edward Hicks saw, the less he thought “The Peaceable Kingdom” was a possibility.  Can you identify with that?  Is peace on earth a nice thought…but a na├»ve impossibility?     
Don’t tell me when you sat around the Thanksgiving dinner table you didn’t wonder about peace.  It may have felt like a wolf was sitting next to a lamb and you weren’t sure how long the peace would last!  So let’s think about what “peace” meant in Isaiah’s day.  We think of peace as inner contentment, but that wasn’t what Isaiah had in mind.       
When Isaiah was written, peace was something the Hebrew elders talked about…it was not something people of that day and age had experienced.  They were a small nation with little land always being conquered by more powerful, more aggressive, better funded, better equipped nations.  They were sheep surrounded by wolves.  So Isaiah, playing the role of cheerleader, assures them that it will be OK.  He told them the messiah would one day make the wolves lie down with lambs. 
And they reacted just like you do when a beauty queen says she wants world peace.  Get real!  It ain’t gonna happen. 
The Hebrews wanted a savior to get rid of the wolves!  Not make them get along, because that was a ridiculous idea.  They wanted a hero to ride in on a white horse with his sword drawn and his army in tow to slaughter their enemies!  Instead, they got a baby in the middle of a petting zoo. 
That may sound silly but it is monumentally significant.  You see, back in that day, killing a lion was a sign of divine favor.  A human who did that was seen as worthy to rule as a prince or king.  For example, David was chosen to fight Goliath because he once killed a lion when defending his herd of sheep in the wilderness.  Kings fought and killed lions.  That was their role.  People wanted a king who could slay lions, because if they could do that then they could surely defeat their enemies! 
But the king of Isaiah 11, the king of the Hebrews, the prince of peace, the baby at the center, does not hunt or kill lions.  He remakes them.  He has them lie down with their enemies, and he sits in between them to keep the peace.   Getting a baby in the middle of a petting zoo instead of a warrior says something fundamental about who our God is and what the Christ child’s mission is.  His peace is different. 
So let’s think about peace.  What is it?  What is peace at the family Thanksgiving meal?  Is it not talking about the election or whose dessert is the best?  One of my relatives, who shall remain nameless since this is a small town, once started a fistfight at Thanksgiving.  So the next year, peace meant there wasn’t a fistfight.  God sets a higher bar. 
Peace is not just the absence of visible conflict; it is not a warm and fuzzy feeling.  In Hebrew, the word for peace is “shalom,” and it means wholeness, harmony, completeness, prosperity, and welfare.  Peace, then, is not just a “me” thing; peace is a “we” thing.  It’s wholeness for an entire community.  Jesus came not to hunt or kill or destroy anyone; he came to bring shalom to everyone.  He came to ensure that we can all sit down together in peace.
That was the idea that fascinated Edward Hicks enough to paint about it 62 times.  By the end of his life, it was not as frightening as it once had been.  It wasn’t a scene from a Disney movie, either.  He was asked near the end of his life why he painted it so many times.  “Because the child’s offer is still on the table.” 
On this peace Sunday in Advent, we must know that the peaceable kingdom is not a fairy tale.  Neither is it yet a reality in this world where humans devour each other for sport.  The peaceable kingdom is God’s intention for our world, so much so that God sent the child to sit in the middle of sworn enemies and keep them safe from each other. 

The offer still stands.  Will you accept it?  Will you embrace it?  Will you make peace this Advent?  Amen.  

Nov 27, 2016 Sermon: "Are you ready?"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Isaiah 2.1-5
NT: Matthew 24.36-44
Are you ready?

            How many of you started listening to Christmas music this week?  How many of you decorated your house for Christmas?  How many of you went Christmas shopping? 
            We did start listening to Christmas music.  We didn’t do any shopping.  And Kerry did most of the decorating.  We started Saturday morning, and at some point in the afternoon in between rocking the baby and warming up turkey, she asked me, “What’s your sermon about tomorrow?” 
            “Uh oh,” I said.  “I need to stop decorating now and go write my sermon!”  I think that’s the first time I’ve had a legitimate excuse to get out of decorating! 
            But there is something serious and something important about the preparations we make this time of year.  Yes, the music and the shopping and the decorations are all part of that; but the real preparations we make are on the inside. 
            This week’s passage from Matthew, like most passages we read early in Advent each year, is about watching and waiting.  The season of Advent which begins today and leads up to Christmas Day is all about watching and waiting.  But watching for who and waiting for what? 
            You might say we are watching for Jesus and waiting for his birth.  That’s right.  That’s what Advent is all about.  And it’s why I encourage you to attend this afternoon’s Advent wreath-making educational event.  You’ll make a wreath that will help you count the time in a spiritual way leading up to Christmas. 
            What I want to focus on in today’s sermon is not who we watch for and what we wait for.  I want to focus on how we do it.  How we watch and how we wait.  Because that’s what Matthew 24 is about.  Let’s read it together. 
            The passage begins with a comparison to the time of the great flood, saying the return of Jesus one day in the future will come just like the flood.  In other words, judgment will come in the form of an event that catches people by surprise.  More specifically, a whole host of sinful humans were swept away in the flood, right?  They were taken.  Who was left behind?  Noah, his family, and the animals.  Why?  They were good, and their job was to make a better world. 
            This story about two people being in a field when one is taken away and the other is left behind makes people nervous.  It has led to books and movies and television shows where people let their imaginations run wild!  I saw a truck not long ago that said, “In case of rapture, you can have this truck.” 
            In that school of thought, who gets taken away?  The good people.  Who gets left behind?  The bad people.  The problem with that popular version of the story is that it doesn’t fit the Biblical example.  In the flood, who was taken away?  The bad people.  Who was left behind?  The good people. 
            That’s when we get to the meat of the story in verse 42: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”  This is a story about watching and waiting, just like we do at Advent.  And it speaks to how we wait. 
            Does a watched pot ever boil?  Well, yes…but it takes forever and you waste a lot of time when you could’ve been doing something else productive!  We don’t wait this time of year by simply counting down the days until Christmas.  We don’t watch this time of year by counting our presents under the tree.  Watching and waiting are not selfish, passive endeavors; watching and waiting are selfless, active endeavors where we open ourselves to the possibilities of what is right before our very eyes. 
            Matthew 24 is a passage about timing.  And friends, in today’s rushed world, we need to hear this version of timing more than ever.  It is a sense of timing where you do not regret time that is past; you do not long for time that is yet to come; instead, you open yourself to the time in which you live in the present.  Let me say that again.  You do not regret time that is past; you do not long for time that is yet to come; instead, you live in the present. 
            This is a lesson I do not want to learn, but a little boy is teaching it to me regardless this Advent.  Regrets are useless; plans are pipe dreams; all we have is right now.  And that’s all we need. 
            Ben Witherington is a great Baptist preacher and theologian who says this about today’s passage.  “In the days before cell phones (B.C. as I like to call them), my grandparents used to call us up and tell us they were coming for a visit. Since they sometimes stopped various places along the way, we were not sure when they would arrive. This meant we had to always be ready. It was the certainty of the coming, not the timing which motivated this behavior of being ready at any moment.” 

            Are you ready?  I’m not talking about the music and the lights and the presents.  I’m talking about what’s on the inside.  Are you using your time wisely?  Are you being a good steward of what you’ve been given?  Are you ready?  Amen.  

Nov 20, 2016 Sermon: "Saying Grace"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Deut 26.1-11
OT: Psalm 100
Saying Grace

            One of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies is when the Griswold family in Christmas Vacation asks Aunt Bethany to say grace.  She’s hard of hearing and a few marshmallows short of a casserole, so they have to tell her several times what they want. 
            Her crotchety husband leans over and says, “Grace, they want you to say grace.”
            She replies, “Grace? She died thirty years ago.” 
            “The blessing!” And she finally agrees. 
            The details may differ, but most of us start our family meals, especially at the holidays, the same way.  Why?  Because saying grace is the heart of faith.  It’s more than a tradition.  It’s more than a custom.  It’s more than something you have to endure because Aunt Bethany says so before you dig into that magnificent turkey.  Saying grace is the heart of faith. 
            In the Bible, when something important happens, it’s usually at a meal.  When the prodigal son returns.  When Ruth and Boaz make a pact. When Jesus is arrested.  When Jesus is resurrected.  I could go on and on.  Important things happen at meals all throughout the Bible!  God is a Presbyterian after all!   
            Saying grace is the heart of faith.  And Psalm 100 shows us the way:  “1Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. 2Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. 3Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. 4Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. 5For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”
            Historians tell us the pilgrims recited those joyous, grateful verses at the first Thanksgiving meal.  They probably even sang them.  Before you get too nostalgic and want to go back to those good ole days, remember that the meal was nothing like we remember it. 
No linens or silver or even a table.  Half the pilgrim colony had died.  They were constantly in conflict with the Native Americans on whose land they were encroaching.  They weren’t expected to live through winter.  So the governor decided they needed a morale boost.  He said they needed a feast.  They brought what they could scrape together, vegetables and beans and so forth.  They had no meat, so they invited the Natives to attend their meal…and bring a few deer if you can, thank you very much…and they did.  So they all stood together around fires and shared a potluck.  Historians tell us this was probably the turning point for the pilgrims, for they wouldn’t have survived without the aid of the Natives, and it took the pilgrims hitting rock bottom to put aside their pride and prejudices to ask for help. 
Good thing we’re not like those pilgrims, huh?  We ask for help all the time!  We share our gratitude freely!  There, I’ve just lied three times in church on Sunday morning.  The truth is…gratitude is counter-cultural.  Our culture teaches us, “This Bud’s for you!...Have it your way! …Just do it.”  Gratitude is counter-cultural in a culture that makes us think we are the center of the universe.  Which is why saying grace is the heart of faith. 
As the great preacher John Buchanan once said, “To praise God for,,,life, to thank God that all is grace—corporately in worship or in private prayer or at table with loved ones—is to be called out of yourself for a moment or two, to be called away from the relentless focus on me, mine, my needs, my feelings, and to focus on something greater. It is a countercultural, subversive act in a market economy and culture that tells us over and over that our needs are what really matter, that meeting our needs, whatever they are, will make us happy, that “this Bud’s for you.”
Wendell Berry is a Christian author who has spent his life doing just that.  For the past 35+ years, he takes an early morning walk in the woods, looks, listens, and pays attention to God’s creation.  Then he comes home and writes a poem of gratitude to God.  In one called A Timbered Choir he writes,
I go among the trees and sit still
All my stirrings become quiet
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle . . .
After days of labor,
mute in my consternation
I hear my song at last
and I sing it.
Gratitude is our song.  Saying grace is the heart of faith, whether you do it at the dinner table, on your lunch break, or during a walk through the woods.  That’s because gratitude is more than a feeling.  More than an attitude.  Gratitude is about remembering, about being part of a larger story, and telling that story everywhere we go. 
I’ve been thinking this week about our story as a church over the past year.  I’ve thought about special worship services and folks who have gone through hard times and renovation projects and the workcamp program (which hosted a record 17 groups this year).  But what defines this past year in our church, is our bulletin board.  It is filled with “thank you” notes, mostly from folks in the community that we do not know, sent to us because we provided flood relief, which we were able to do because folks from across the state and nation sent us help, which they did because…who knows why. 
I imagine us and all the families represented on this bulletin board, like the people of Deuteronomy 26, sitting down together with our first fruits, entrusting them to God, sharing with one another, and giving thanks that we are a part of the same story for another year.  It has been a hard year.  And it has been a beautiful year. 

As you sit down at a table with your friends or family this week, remember that saying grace is “the blessing!”  And it is the heart of faith.  Gratitude is a story in which we all have an important part to play.  Amen.  

Nov 13, 2016 Sermon: "Building a Kingdom"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Isaiah 65.17-25
NT: Luke 21.5-19
Building a Kingdom

            The day before I took Kerry to the hospital, someone very seriously asked me, “Are you ready for the baby?” 
            And I very sincerely said, “Why, heavens no!” 
            They were almost offended and said, “You mean you haven’t setup a nursery or anything?”
            “We have a nursery and we have all the gadgets and trinkets.  But how can you be ready for something you don’t really know anything about?”  We were prepared, but I did not feel ready. 
            What I did not know was that I wasn’t prepared on a more basic level.  And I’ve got a bone to pick with the men in the church.  Listen up, fellas.  You told me being a father would change my life.  You told me I may not be ready but I would be fine.  You told me holding the baby for the first time would be indescribably joyous.  You were right about all those things. 
But you didn’t tell me what it would be like to witness the birthing.  They show you a video in the birthing class, and it’s all a lie.  That woman on the video gives birth likes she’s taking a loaf of bread out of the oven.  You didn’t tell me it’s not that simple!  You didn’t tell me I should wear protective eyewear and bib overalls and industrial gloves and commercial grade ear muffs!  
I was neither prepared nor ready for that.  But the world didn’t wait on me to be ready.  The world turns, and we must keep up.  That’s what Jesus is saying in Luke 21, right?  Or is he?  Let’s take a look.
The story begins while Jesus and his disciples are standing outside the temple gazing at its beauty.  Sort of like the way you stare at the beauty of the stained glass window behind me…but also completely different.  You see, the temple would dwarf a church like this.  How many people do you think we could fit inside here?  How many more on the lawn outside? 
Biblical historians surmise that the temple court in Jerusalem could hold 400,000 people.  It was a grandiose, great, gigantic place people went to honor God.  The temple was not only the center of religious life in Jesus’ day; it was the center of their universe.  Everything else revolved around it.  And what does Jesus have to say about this massive fortress which is home to God?  It’s going to fall.  Soon.  It would be like Jesus telling us today that the sun was going to set and never rise again. 
The people understandably want answers.  Sure, they’ve been following Jesus and hearing him talk about the end, but they’re not ready for it.  They’re not ready to be persecuted and see their holy place destroyed.  They want to know when this will happen.  They want to meet with an architect and a contractor.  They want to meet with the Building Committee and the Historical Preservation Society and the County Commission.  They want to write grants and start saving pennies. 
So they ask Jesus, “Can you give us some advanced warning about when this will happen?  I mean, we need to be prepared.  We need to get scaffolding and building materials from Lowe’s and we should’ve started that capital campaign ten years ago for a project this big!”
Here’s what I’m saying: The disciples and those following Jesus are concerned about the building.  The building.  Is Jesus concerned about the building?  No.  What is Jesus concerned about?   Building a  kingdom.   
Jesus is talking to them about a time when the rug will be pulled out from under them.  He’s trying to prepare them.  Will they be ready for it?  No, probably not.  But he wants to prepare them for it.  So that when the rug is pulled out from under them and the fabric of their very lives is shaken to the core, they will know a deeper truth than their admiration for a building. 
That deeper truth is that we belong to a kingdom not of this world.  When the stones fall on one another, we need not fret.  When everything seems to be working against us, we need not worry.  When we feel like hope is lost, we need not give up.  When that which we hold dearest is taken from us, we need not give in.  We belong to a kingdom not of this world!  And even when the stones come crashing down, not a hair on your head will perish.  Not a single hair.  Will perish. 
Some people think this story is about being ready.  To an extent it is, and we ought to do our best to be ready.  The Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves” right?  Wrong!  We think the Bible says that but it does not.  The Bible says, “Not a single hair on your head will perish.”  That means when we go about the work of building a kingdom--not just admiring a building, but building a kingdom--then we are doing the Lord’s work.
So make up your minds now not to prepare your defense in advance.  In other words, don’t worry about how people judge you today for the work of building a kingdom.  Don’t pay attention when they are admiring buildings and you’re trying to build relationships.  Even when everything around you falls down, God will stand with you. 
This is a hopeful story.  Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples that their temple will fall to upset them; he tells them so they’ll be prepared when it does…and so they’ll know that it’s not the end.  Just because something they hold dear crumbled down did not mean the world was imploding on itself.  Life would go on.  And Jesus wanted their ministry to go on.  They had a kingdom to build.  We have a kingdom to build. 
Who of us are ever ready when the rug is pulled out from under us?  But if we’re prepared enough to know that it will happen, we can remember when it does that we need not fear.  Not a single hair on your head will perish.  For God loves you, and your souls are forever in God’s care.  Amen. 

Oct 30, 2016 Sermon: "A Change of Heart"

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Isaiah 1.10-18
NT: Luke 19.1-10
A Change of Heart

An elderly preacher was dying. He sent a message for his IRS agent and his senator (both church members), to come to his home. When they arrived, they were ushered up to his bedroom. As they entered the room, the preacher held out his hands and motioned for them to sit on each side of the bed. The preacher grasped their hands, sighed contentedly, smiled and stared at the ceiling. For a time, no one said anything. Both the IRS agent and senator were touched and flattered that the old preacher would ask them to be with him during his final moment.
They were also puzzled because the preacher had never given any indication that he particularly liked either one of them.
Finally, the senator asked, "Preacher, why did you ask the two of us to come?"
The old preacher mustered up some strength, then said weakly, "Jesus died between two thieves, and that's how I want to go, too."
Wee man Zacchaeus is not the first tax collector to have a bad reputation.  That’s been the case for many moons.  But today’s story about Zacchaues the tax collector is a story about a change of heart…just not the one you expect.
            Turn with me to verse eight.  In the pew Bible, verse eight reads, “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.”  Other translations are similar, saying, “Look, I will give half of all my possessions to the poor, and I will pay anyone I’ve cheated back four times over.”  When translated that way, it makes it sound like Zacchaeus is either giving away his possessions for the first time or he is promising to do it in the future, right? 
            Now, I don’t want to sound like an English teacher, especially with so many educators here in the church, but there’s a significant grammatical error in that translation. The problem is that the Greek verb—the New Testament was written in Greek—is a present tense verb.  In other words, it’s not a past tense verb where Zacchaeus says he gave away half of his possessions to the poor last year.  It’s not a future tense verb where Zacchaeus says he will give away half of his possessions to the poor next year.  It’s a present tense verb where Zacchaeus says is already doing that.  He gives away half of his possessions to the poor and pays back anyone he has cheated four times over.  So if it’s not Zacchaeus who has a change of heart, because he is already doing good, then whose heart is changed?  Let’s go back through the story and you’ll see.   
            Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus walking down the road and into town.  He can’t because he’s short, and there’s a crowd along the road.  If you are in a crowd and a short person wants to see what is happening, what might that person do?  They could politely ask those in front to let them through since they are short, right?  They could sit on the shoulders of a taller person, right?  But both of those options require the kindness of the people in the crowd.  Zacchaeus did not receive any kindness from the crowd.  He is forced to climb a tree to see because no one will let him see.  Remember, he’s a tax collector.  People loathed him. 
            Zacchaeus shrugs it off and climbs a sycamore tree, sees Jesus, and Jesus sees him!  Jesus knows him by name.  How does Jesus know who he is?  As chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was a public figure who would’ve been well-known, and this wasn’t Jesus’ first trip through Jericho.  Jesus also has a knack for seeing through to people’s hearts.  Perhaps he saw something in Zacchaeus others did not.
            There’s one more possibility.  Do you remember who Jesus lifted up in last week’s story as an example of humility and generosity?  A tax collector.  Is it possible that Jesus was referring to Zacchaeus?  Hold onto that thought; we’ll come back to it. 
            Next, Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home, which was a sign of great respect and honor.  He did it in front of the whole crowd, and when he did, the people grumbled and scoffed for they considered Zacchaeus a “sinner.”  This simply confirmed what we already knew when they wouldn’t let Jesus through to see Jesus on the road—the crowd hates Zacchaeus.  They treat him like he is less than a person. 
            Tell me.  When a crowd fixates on one person whom they hate, and that person happens to be in the crowd at the very moment, is that person’s life in danger?  Zacchaeus’ life is in danger in the middle of this mob.  So by inviting himself over to Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus is offering his protection. 
            Overwhelmed, Zacchaeus says to Jesus who will be his guest and the crowd who calls him a sinner, “I give away half of all my possessions to the poor, and if I ever cheat anyone then I pay them back four times over.” 
            Jesus takes time to point out that Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham, which simply means that he is telling the crowd that Zacchaeus is one of them.  Next, Jesus says, “For the son of man came to seek and save the lost.”  Who was lost?  Zacchaeus?  No, he was doing good all along.  Jesus knew his heart and lifted him up as a positive example of faithfulness.  So who was lost?  The crowd.  After Jesus intercedes to save the wee man Zacchaeus, he reminds the crowd that even though they were lost in their mob mentality, he has come to save them as well.  He calls on them to have a change of heart. 
            This is a conversion story for sure.  But it’s not about the conversion of Zacchaeus.  It’s about the conversion of the crowd.  The man they’d always seen as a short, stout mizer was actually a generous man of faith.  When people think with the crowd, they can make huge mistakes.  Jesus holds us to a higher standard in Luke 19, challenging us to see through the drama and the rumors and the chatter to the heart of things.  Amen.  

Oct 23, 2016 Sermon: "A Reversal of Roles: How Do You Pray?"

Stephen Baldwin
GOSPEL: Luke 18.9-14
A Reversal of Roles: How Do You Pray? 

            When Albert Einstein was making the rounds of the speaker's circuit, he usually found himself eagerly longing to get back to his laboratory work. One night as they were driving to yet another rubber-chicken dinner, Einstein mentioned to his chauffeur (a man who somewhat resembled Einstein in looks & manner) that he was tired of speechmaking. 
"I have an idea, boss," his chauffeur said. "I've heard you give this speech so many times. I'll bet I could give it for you." Einstein laughed loudly and said, "Why not? Let's do it!" 
When they arrived at the dinner, Einstein donned the chauffeur's cap and jacket and sat in the back of the room. The chauffeur gave a beautiful rendition of Einstein's speech and even answered a few questions expertly. 
Then a supremely pompous professor asked an extremely esoteric question about anti-matter formation, digressing here and there to let everyone in the audience know that he was nobody's fool. Without missing a beat, the chauffeur fixed the professor with a steely stare and said, "Sir, the answer to that question is so simple that I will let my chauffeur, who is sitting in the back, answer it for me."        
            This week’s Scripture tells the story of a reversal of roles as well.  In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were not popular.  Imagine if you were responsible for paying your federal taxes to your neighbor, who set the rates and skimmed what he wanted off the top.  Would you like him?  No, tax collectors were despised. 
            Pharisees, on the other hand, were adored and respected.  They kept the religious law, lived holy lives, and served as an example to their community of righteousness. 
Yet, the Pharisee is set up as the villain and the tax collector is the hero of this story.  This is a stark reversal of roles. 
            Today we know that Jesus often picked the most unlikely people to help, right?  What were some unlikely people that Jesus helped?  Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, etc.  Today, we also know that while Jesus had some Pharisee friends, what role do the Pharisees mostly play in the Gospels?  They are mostly the villains. 
            Because we know that today, we get this story the first time we read it.  “The Pharisee is a self-righteous hypocrite.  The tax collector is a repentant sinner.  Check that one off the list…lesson learned…I got it, preacher!”  But if it were that simple, I would be done preaching now, and I’m just getting started.  
            Let me ask you something.  Have you ever walked into a trap?  I’ve walked into traps.  One night Kerry and I were eating some lasagna she had made.  Several times, she asked me if I liked it.  That should’ve been a sign.  “Yes, it’s good!” I said.  “Why do keep asking me?” 
            “Because I added lots of things in very small pieces that say you don’t like—onions, mushrooms, zucchini to name a few—but you do like it!”  She set a trap, and I walked right into it. 
            This parable is a trap for modern readers.  In its day, it would have been highly controversial, because it sets up a good guy, the Pharisee, as a bad guy and a bad guy, the tax collector, as a good guy.  That would’ve blown people’s minds and shocked them into humility, for they wouldn’t have expected that lesson from Jesus.  Today, we expect the Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite and the tax collector to be a repentant sinner.  So if we’re not careful, we read this story and think, “Lord, I’m so glad I understand the Scriptures better than those disciples ever did.  And Lord, I thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee—self-righteous, hypocritical, and proud.  I come to church every week, am a good Christian, and say my prayers before I go to bed every night.  I’ve learned how to be humble, and I sure do feel sorry for those who haven’t.” 
            Do you hear me?  This story is a trap!  In order to avoid the self-congratulatory prayer the parable condemns in the first place, we have to remember how shocking it would have been to people in Jesus’ day.  It would be like praising the prayer of the corner drug dealer instead of your minister’s prayer.  The parable is supposed to shock you. 
            One time I was writing a press release for the newspaper about one of our Christmas services, inviting the community to attend.  I was trying to find a simple, succinct way to say that it was an informal service, you didn’t have to dress up, you didn’t have to bring anything, and you didn’t have to know anyone.  I decided to write, “Come as you are.”  I think that’s the shocking point of the parable. 
            The Pharisee came to worship not as he was but as he was supposed to be.  He looked the part.  He played the part.  He seemed like a faithful man.  But the prayer he prayed was selfish; it had nothing to do with God!  The tax collector did not look the part.  Running around beating your chest made you look like a weak fool.  But he came as himself, a child of God in need.  The Pharisee came seeking people’s approval.  The tax collector came seeking God’s forgiveness.  Which would you rather have?  Which do you need? 
            That’s a trap question.  We would all say we need God, but something about our human nature makes us act like our pride is the most important thing.  It feels good to be exalted, doesn’t it?  We like to be noticed, recognized, and praised.  So much so that sometimes we begin to think the things we do (like attend church, tithe, make a good salary, serve as upstanding members of society) and the things we don’t do (like rob, cheat, or steal) can justify us before God. 
            Jesus says only one man goes home justified.  (By the way, “justified” means “forgiven” or “right with God.”)  Only the tax collector is justified.  Even though he’s lived a terrible life up until that point.  Even though the Pharisee by all accounts had lived a good life.  Only the tax collector is justified.  The point here is that we cannot be saved by what we do or refrain from doing.  Only God justifies.  Only God saves.  Only God judges such heavy things. 
            The good news of the parable, for Pharisee and tax collector alike, is that no matter how harshly we’ve been judged by our world or by the harshest judge of all, ourselves, no matter how good or how bad we think we are, we don’t get to make that decision.  Only God does. 
            That’s a reversal of roles.  We’ve come to think that our actions can save us.  Our service to the hungry can get us to heaven.  Our teaching of the Bible can impart truth others don’t have.  Our prayers work while others don’t.  That’s the shocking reversal of roles in today’s parable.  
            Who is justified?  The tax collector.  Why?  Because he shows humility.  He prays to exalt God, not himself.  He prays to in a way that lets God be God, not to pretend like he in the center of the universe.  He prays in search of the truth, not because he thinks he already has it.  He prays out of humility, not out of pride.  How do you pray?