May 1, 2009

Sermon Title: When Jesus Comes

Benjamin A. Loven
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
First Place tie, May 2009 Round

Isaiah 1.1-20; Psalm 145; 2 Thessalonians 2.1-17; Luke 19.1-10

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

In our reading for today the Prophet Isaiah gives many warnings to the people of Israel, telling them to turn from their evil ways and instead to seek justice for all, especially for those who cannot help themselves. If the people refuse, they will be destroyed.

Why, then, wouldn’t the people want to do what Isaiah tells them to do? Do they like being “devoured by the sword?” Do they like being a “besieged city?”

Don’t you think they would want to “wash themselves; makes themselves clean; remove their evil deeds from before God’s eyes?” as Isaiah directs them to. Wouldn’t they want to avoid having their cities burned with fire and their country laid desolate?

If we were faced with these warnings wouldn’t we want to “cease doing evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow?”

So why don’t we?

When the World Trade Center was destroyed the entire country was united under the cause of fighting terrorism. We initially pursued this task in a just manner, following our own laws and international conventions. However, we quickly lost our way. Anything, no matter how heinous or immoral could be legalized if it could be justified as necessary for fighting the ‘War on Terror.’ Warrant-less searches and wiretaps; ‘enhanced’ interrogation methods; indefinite imprisonment without trials of any kind.

And we as a country were not outraged. There was no mass outcry as there had been in generations past.

Why didn’t we cry out for justice? Why didn’t we, as Isaiah says, “learn to do good?”

Why didn’t we, as the Prophet cries, “rescue those who were oppressed,” those who were withering away in prisons without any hope of ever facing their accusers?

Why do we insist on rebelling against God’s laws and commands, seeking our own destruction, welcoming the sword that comes to devour us, the fire that comes to burn our cities and make our lands desolate?

St. Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians writes about the lawless one. The lawless one exalts him/herself over all other things, seeking to be God.

Brothers and Sisters, we are the lawless ones. We seek to set ourselves up as God in place of the one true God. We do not do what God’s law demands: we do not seek justice, we do not rescue the oppressed, and we do not defend the widows and orphans. We do not cry out on behalf of those who are imprisoned indefinitely without their legal right to a trial, we do not cry out on behalf of those who are being interrogated with illegal and immoral methods, and we do not cry out on behalf of those whose privacy is being illegally violated.

Whether these people have committed acts of terrorism or not, we have not acted in just ways. We have not justly dealt with these captives, who are innocent until proven guilty under the law. We have not justly investigated and interrogated these and other prisoners.

God’s law shows us all of this and it accuses us and tells us how we have failed to live justly and morally.

St. Paul writes about the “lawless one;” some Greek texts call this person the “sinful one.” The law shows us that we are indeed lawless and full of sin.

Our Gospel reading from Luke today tells us the story of another great and lawless sinner: Zacchaeus the tax collector.

Tax collectors were worse than regular sinners: they were traitors. Tax collectors worked for the domineering Roman Empire. Zacchaeus, like us, did not cry out on behalf of the oppressed; he took part in this oppression. Tax collectors made their money by cheating those they collected taxes from. The Romans had a certain amount of money that they collected but the tax collectors could, essentially, demand whatever amount they wanted and the people had to pay it. I know that the IRS has a bad reputation but at least it cannot collect taxes like Zacchaeus and those like him!

You can understand why the people were grumbling in verse 7 about Jesus going to stay at Zacchaeus’ house. Why should Jesus, a great Prophet, go to stay with Zacchaeus, a horrible tax collector, a traitor against his own people? That would be like Jesus staying at the penthouse suite of Bernie Madoff, or at the mansion of the CEO of AIG or Citigroup, or any of the host of other white-collar crooks who were greedy and did not care about what they were doing to their companies, the country, and the world.

So Jesus goes to the sleazy CEO’s house; he goes to stay with Zacchaeus. But something amazing happens when Jesus arrives there.

“Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘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.’” Zacchaeus is a tax collector and the way that he makes his money is by cheating people; all of his possessions have been acquired through cheating and defrauding people. He is going to give half to the poor and then pay back everyone he has defrauded (which we have found out is everyone that he collected taxes from) four times as much as he took!

Where will he get all of this money? Where will all of this wealth come from? These are both pressing questions but there is one question that trumps those two: why? Why will Zacchaeus do this? What has changed in him? He used to be the lowest of the low, the sleaziest of the sleazy, the Bernie Madoff of Bernie Madoffs. Why is he now so generous and so concerned with those whom he has cheated?

Jesus was probably asked this question too. “Lord, why did Zacchaeus change so dramatically?” Jesus gives us a great one-liner: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Why the drastic change of heart? Salvation has come to Zacchaeus.

When Jesus comes to even the biggest, sleaziest, nastiest sinner, salvation comes with him. When Jesus arrives at your doorstep, salvation comes in and changes you. This is the Kingdom of God breaking into our old world and making all things new. This is what it means when Jesus proclaims at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (1.15) This is the Kingdom breaking into our world and making us into new creations.

Let us be clear about this: Zacchaeus is not saved because of his good actions on behalf of the poor; Zacchaeus is saved because Jesus came to him. Zacchaeus’ change of heart came because Jesus chose him as Jesus says at the end of our reading in Luke: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Jesus sought out Zacchaeus, a lost sinner, and he saved him in spite of the evil that he had done.

In spite of the evil actions that we have done, in spite of our silence on the matters of illegal searches and interrogation tactics, in spite of our silence on the issue of unlawful imprisonments, Jesus comes to our homes and saves us. We, who once were lost, are now found by Christ and he brings us salvation through his death on the cross and resurrection three days later.

He went to the cross for us and because of us, to take captivity captive, to become sin to sin, to be sleazy to sleaze, greedy to greed, and to put death to death. In his resurrection he brings to each and every one of you, to every human being on earth, eternal life, salvation and forgiveness.

No matter what sins we have committed, no matter whom we have oppressed, whom we have ignored, whom we have allowed to suffer because of our silence, Jesus Christ forgives us and saves us through his death. He frees us from being bound by the power of our sins, frees us from being bound toward our own destruction at the hands of a devouring sword.

And it is out of this freedom that Zacchaeus acts. His good actions are the first fruits of the salvation that Christ brought to him. His generosity is not his own work but it is God’s salvation working in and through him.

This is our future as well. Christ has surely come and brought each and every one of us God’s salvation and it will work in and through us. You will no longer be able to sit complacently as injustice rages around you. God will work in and through you to speak out of behalf of those who have no voice, to rescue those who are oppressed, even if they happen to be your enemies: these are the fruits of your salvation and the Kingdom of God.

What is our response to this? With the Psalmist of Psalm 145 we will shout: “The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed; and I will declare your greatness. They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.” We will praise God because of the salvation that he has given us. We will praise God because of the wondrous things that he will do through us on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

When Jesus comes to our home, as he came to Zacchaeus’ home, he brings salvation and he brings God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom we are new creations, poured out on behalf of our neighbors. In this Kingdom we will seek justice, rescue the oppressed, and defend the widows and orphans. We will cry out on behalf of those who are imprisoned indefinitely without their legal right to a trial, on behalf of those who are being interrogated with illegal and immoral methods, and on behalf of those whose privacy is being illegally violated.

We will do these things not because of our own volition but because God has saved us and created us anew. It is God working in and through us that we do these things and we will give thanks to God because of this. “[We] will extol you, [our] God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day [we] will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!” (Ps. 145.1-3)

Hear the gospel of your salvation: Jesus Christ lived, suffered, and was crucified for the forgiveness of sins, yours and mine. On the third day he was raised from the dead for the salvation of the world. You have this forgiveness and salvation not because of any good works that you have done to deserve it, but you have them in spite of the sins that you commit. God promises this to you: that he has come to seek you out, you who are lost and have fallen short of the glory of God. God does this through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon Title: “Selective Hearing”

Justin Mootz
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
First Place tie, May 2009 Round

The other day, I went over to visit my good friend. While I was at his house, I had a chance to watch him interact with his two young daughters. One of them is two and the other is three. For the sake of confidentiality, we’ll refer to them from here on out as #2 and #3, with their number referring to their age. As we observed both children at play, their dad began to tell me about their personalities. He mentioned that #2 had particularly selective hearing. Just a few seconds after telling me this, I was able to witness an example firsthand. The dad called to #2 and told her not to follow her sister up the stairs. She stopped in her tracks, but didn’t turn her head. It was obvious that she heard him, but didn’t quite want to let him know. Instead of running up the stairs, she changed her pace to a slow gait. However, she continued on her journey of defiance. Again, her dad called and told her not to go upstairs. Again, upon hearing his voice, she stopped in her tracks, but didn’t turn her head. She didn't quite want to hear what he was saying. Finally, he called her over to the couch, and she grudgingly obliged. While there, her dad handed her a glass and asked her to put it in the sink. She took the glass and placed it on a chair nearby, and asked, “here?” Her dad and I laughed, as we both knew she was very clear on the location of the kitchen sink. She had been through this same drill many times before. She just didn’t feel like going all the way over there. She was listening very selectively. Finally, her father reminded her that the kitchen sink was located in the kitchen, not on the living room chair. She looked at him, and made her way over to the sink. #2’s antics were humorous to us because of her age. Kids are so transparent when they selectively listen. You can tell by their body language and eyes when they hear and understand an outside voice. They act like they don’t hear so they don’t have to oblige. As adults, we laugh at the transparency and foolishness of these acts.

However, I often wonder whether adults are any different with their selective listening. Sure we become much more refined at the craft, but do we ever really change? In fact, I wonder if we don’t become so good at selectively listening that we ourselves don’t even realize we’re doing it. We don’t want to hear an outside voice that might take our independence away. We want to listen to our own inner voice, which allows us to trust in ourselves. We refuse to listen to the outside voice that birthed us and has our best interests at heart. Instead, like a two-year old child, we assume we know what is best and we want to follow that path.

There is precedent to this idea of selective hearing. It’s called Original Sin. We all have it, whether we like to admit it or not. In the garden, Adam and Even heard God’s voice, but selected not to trust it. When faced with the question of whether they should trust God’s exterior voice, or their own, they sided with themselves. They decided to be their own Gods. The result of this decision was a broken relationship with God. The result of that broken relationship was disobedience and separation.


Listening to our own voices gets us into trouble very quickly. We stop hearing God’s promises that he will keep and sustain us. We start listening to our own voice that worries about where we will find happiness and life. It does not trust that God will provide these things to us on a daily basis and instead looks to accumulate them through material wealth and other such avenues, even when it comes at the cost of others. We then act as though we don’t see our neighbor’s resultant pain, or explain it away through other means.

In fact, we are reminded by our Lutheran Confession, that we commit this sin of selective hearing so often, we can’t even count the times it happens. We have become blind to our surroundings, and deaf to God’s exterior voice that cries out to us through his words of law and gospel. We don’t even know that we are sinning. During the Reformation, one of the main points of contention between the Roman church and the Lutherans was the principal of confession. Lutherans believed that we were not responsible for enumerating all our sins because we are not even aware of them all! There are too many too count! Worse still, we are addicted to these sins in much the same way an alcoholic is addicted to liquor. We sin at every moment and we cannot break free through our own efforts, regardless of how hard we try or how many times we are lectured.


That is where the word of God, the ultimate exterior voice, comes into play. As we hear in our reading from Thessalonians today, this word is “at work in [those] who believe.” This word consists of God’s law, which causes us to recognize our sin. As Luther reminds us in the Heidelberg Disputation, this word calls a “thing what it is.” It pulls no punches. It tells us where, and how, and why we sin. It exposes the nasal-gazing focus of our inner voice and demonstrates all that we have done wrong to both God and our neighbor. It brings about contrition and finally the death of our old selves. This is the work of the law, the alien work of God. It comes from outside us.


Fortunately for us, God’s exterior voice doesn’t stop with our death, but also brings the word of life. It tells us that God will raise us anew. We are no longer the same, but now live in Christ and act on account of this. We have new life, even if we cannot see it through the skin of our old selves. Upon hearing this exterior voice, we are overwhelmed with joy. We react as someone on death row whose sentence has just been commuted. “You mean I’m free to go? In spite of my guilt? Someone else has taken my place?”


In our gospel for today, we hear the wonderful story of Zacchaeus. He was a rich tax collector who was part of a corrupt system that defrauded people. He was a tool of the oppressing empire that ruled over Israel, and a tool of his own ambition that encouraged him to take more than what was owed. Although we aren’t told specifically about Zacchaeus’ sins, we can make a fairly educated guess at their nature. He himself promises to pay back by four anyone he has wronged. In addition, we can see by looking back at other cases in the Gospels that tax collectors were known for committing this very sin. In Luke 3:13, a group of tax collectors ask John what they can do, and he tells them not to collect more than is required. Not only did Zacchaeus most likely cheat the people, but they rejected him for it. He was an outcast. He had to climb a tree because the people would not move for him. This could be seen as a sign that the community would not accept him.

Here is where a little conjecture must come into play. As the readers of this story, we are going to make the educated assumption that Zacchaeus feels this rejection and understands it. This rejection is that of the law. It is condemning him for his dishonest practices and his harm of the community for selfish gain. By his offer to pay back those he has wronged, he demonstrates that he has knowledge of his sin. He has heard the exterior voice of God. This voice may have come through angry people he has cheated, or maybe at the synagogue, or maybe even through non-Jewish people. He has heard the voice of God which cries throughout scriptures that injustice and oppression are not okay. Maybe he has even heard the voice of Isaiah in our reading from today. The verses which must have stung Israel with the accusation that their bahavior betrayed the fact that they did not “know the Lord.” Maybe he heard the voice that pleaded with Israel to stop bringing “meaningless offerings” and to do justice instead.


In spite of this rejection and his participation in an oppressive system, Zacchaeus climbs a tree in his effort to “see” Jesus. Even the use of the verb “to see” is not accidental in this verse. In the story right before this, we are told of a blind beggar, another outcast of society who receives sight from Jesus. Now we have a man who can see, and yet he is searching for more. Surely he has already heard of this famous Jesus. The one who performs miracles and is ridiculed because he associates with “sinners and tax collectors.” Jesus is the man who accepts people in spite of who they are.

So, Zacchaeus climbs the tree in search of Jesus, an act one might expect from a child but never an adult. And this is where the real scandal takes place. Jesus reaches the tree, and calls out to Zacchaeus. He finds this man who has humiliated himself and he tells him to come down, “immediately, for I must stay at your house today.” What an amazing statement by Jesus!! There are two important points I would like to make regarding this sentence. First, how interesting that Jesus calls Zacchaeus to “come down” to meet him. How many times do we try to climb UP to meet God? How many times do we look beyond and through creation to find the divine? It is interesting that the whole time we do that, Jesus is right here in the flesh. He is calling us to “come down” and join him where he is. He has come down in the flesh to meet us where we are!

Secondly, it is important to pay attention when Jesus says, “I must stay at your house today.” As 21st century Americans, I don’t think we have the cultural lenses to understand the gravity of this statement. Entering into someone’s house and staying there signified acceptance in the New Testament world. Jesus was telling Zacchaeus that he accepted him. Essentially, he called Zacchaeus to “come down” to earth where Jesus was present because JESUS had chosen him. Zacchaeus, having already heard the outside voice of the law through the condemnation of the community, rejoiced at this fact. He realized he was a sinner, and therefore he rejoiced at being chosen and accepted by Jesus. He received great joy, but only because he saw a thing “as it was” and recognized that he was not a worthy host for Jesus. This gift was pure grace, and Zacchaeus “welcomed [it] gladly!”


Just a few verses later, we find Zacchaeus’ reaction to his justification. Out of his joy for being accepted by God, for being chosen, he proclaims, “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." Zacchaeus has already been accepted by Jesus, in spite of who he is. He has done nothing to deserve his justification. This automatically turns him to paying back past wrongs and giving half his wealth to the poor. He’s not doing this for acceptance, for this was given to him at the tree. Instead, his giving is an outcome of God’s acceptance of him. It is the gift of someone who sees himself as he is, and exactly for that, is overwhelmed by Jesus’ call.


However, it is important to point out that if he had not heard that outside voice of condemnation and the law at the beginning, he would not have been overjoyed at the calling. If he didn’t realize his sin, he wouldn’t have marveled at the grace! It was necessary to hear God’s outside voice of the law, in order to hear God’s outside voice of gospel, which brought him back to life. The two go hand in hand, God’s alien work and his proper work.

So today, as we all sit here together and read this story, what do we get out of it? Luther often reminds all of us as pastors that our job is to distinguish between the law and gospel of God, and to apply it to people with the proper pronoun - YOU. In order to say that Jesus died for “YOU,” we must also tell why he had to die for “YOU.” To do any less, to let any sins remain unexposed would diminish our need for Christ and would take away our joy from being chosen by him! It is the job of all Christians to expose hidden sins, whether they be individual or societal!

As Americans, we commit many sins we don’t want to hear about. We hear God’s voice of law through the scriptures, through the news, and through other people in his creation. We hear God call for systemic, social justice in our interrelated world, and yet we refuse to acknowledge this outside voice. We hear God tell us that economics should be fair, that we must use balanced scales, and yet we refuse to hear! Today, I would like to tell you about one of these sins that is an epidemic in our country.


While I was working in Nicaragua, I had the chance to meet thousands of Banana workers who were protesting. You see, some major American fruit companies had been farming in Nicaragua for decades. Throughout this time, they used an insecticide called Nemagon on their banana trees. The fruit companies were aware that Nemagon was carcinogenic and affected people at high rates. And yet, they continued to use it without giving any warning to the workers. It is now estimated that 67% of the people who worked on these farms in Nicaragua have been affected. Many have been sterilized, gotten cancer, or given birth to deformed children. The fruit companies knew they were harming people and yet they said nothing. The chemical companies knew they were harming people and yet they said nothing! All the while, thousands of poor people’s lives were being taken for granted. All this happened not to keep the fruit companies in business, but to maintain their maximum profit potential. In other words, they knowingly allowed thousands of people to suffer not just to make money, but to make as much money as possible!

What’s sad is that these kinds of activities aren’t limited to one instance with bananas. Instead, we find similar sins in different shapes and colors throughout many industries. Whether it is carcinogenic insecticides or low-paying sweatshops, American industries often cause a lot of harm to people around the world. So what does this have to do with me you ask? Even more importantly, what does this have to do with our gospel lesson for today? As citizens of this country, and as beneficiaries of their profits, we must understand that we are involved in these activities. Whether you are a consumer or stockholder, you are gaining from these systems that harm many for your benefit.

Much like Zacchaeus, we are participating in an oppressive system. The question is, will we react to this information, to this outside voice of the law that exposes our need for Christ, or will become selective listeners? Will we decide that we don’t want to hear God’s law and that we don’t need Christ in this area of our lives? If we listen, then great things can happen! We will realize that in spite of who we are, Christ is calling us down from the tree. We will realize that we have a God that is gracious and compassionate, just as our Psalm for the day reminded us. In spite of all that we have done, Christ chooses us and wants to stay with us. And, as a reaction to that justification, to that outer voice, we will be amazed by our joy! We will be set free from our old selves so that we may turn to the neighbor! We will be set free so that we can serve our neighbor in every way possible.


So, as we all leave today, let us pray that God may help us to realize that we are all sinners. Let us pray that God will help us all to hear his voice – both the law and gospel, by whatever method he chooses to deliver it to us! Let us pray that as we hear it, God will allow it to work in us! Let us pray that his words will call a thing what it is and expose our sin! Let us pray that we will hear his gospel, which tells us we are saved in spite of what is exposed! Let us pray that we may follow Zacchaeus’ example and let our justification push us toward the neighbor.