Monday, March 29, 2021

The Theology of Choice; Luke 19: 29-44


Rev. George Miller

March 28, 2021

Luke 19:29-44


Months ago we discussed Deuteronomy 30, a vital chapter in our faith.


Moses had been leading the people through the wilderness.  Before entering the Promised Land, they are given a choice- choose God or choose not to follow God.


Moses reminds them of all they and their ancestors have been through, all that God has done on their behalf.


He says- “Before you is wellness and life, adversity and decay.  Choose God, choose life, choose today so that you can enjoy God’s beautiful nahalah and be blessed.”


Choice.  It’s such a part of being an individual.


I think of a dear friend who shared the reality of being a 1st time parent to a young girl soon to be 2.


She’s discovering and establishing a sense of space, choosing which parent she prefers.


At this moment, it’s not him; and it hurts.  He’s a tall, good spirited, goofy fellow with a big heart who is used to using humor and a winning smile to endear folk.


But not his daughter.


The other day he stepped into her room.  She did not want him there. She told him so.  When he didn’t leave, she threw toys at him.


He thinks she’s misbehaving.  What I observed is that she’s trying to establish boundaries, and when he didn’t listen to her, she resorted to physically articulating what he did not hear.


I told my friend that he should be thankful that she is learning about personal space, knows how to say “no”, and it’s important that he honors her request.


We also discussed the skill of offering choices as opposed to “yes” or “no” questions.


Choice is not only part of our identity as individuals, it plays a major part in our faith.


There’s that discussion about God’s involvement in our life- does God control everything?  Is our entire life plotted out and we have zero control over what happens? 


Are we just puppets in a play that we didn’t know was already written?


Scripture tells us differently.  Scripture shows again and again how folk are free to make a choice.


Cain was given the choice to not kill his brother.  Shiphrah and Puah chose to disobey the pharaoh.


Moses’ mother made a choice to place her baby in a basket; Miriam chose to follow him down river; the Princess chose to rescue him from the weeds.


Esther made the choice to speak up, Jonah to run away, Daniel to pray.


Mary made a choice when she said “Here I am.”  The M & M Sisters made their choices, which Jesus would not take away.


We can call these “The Theology of Choice”. 


The idea that although God is active in our life, we are free to make our own choices, to experience the results and consequences, to realize that the choices of others affects us, as our choices affect them.


We see this in today’s reading.  Jesus has spent time with Zacchaeus.  Now he is entering Jerusalem.


An outpouring of praise emerges from the disciples as they lay down their cloaks and sing “Blessed is the king!”


The Gate Keepers of the faith tell Jesus to silence his follower’s voices to which Jesus says, “If they were silent, the stones would shout out” which is a poetic way of saying “I will not take away their choice.”


If we subscribe to the Theology of Choice, you can see it’s presence abound in the disciples choosing to follow his instruction, the owner chooses to let them borrow the colt, the people’s choice to celebrate, Jesus not silencing their voices.


Theology of Choice.


Is it possible that choice is what justice is about?  Allowing folks to make decisions?  Granting people the ability to have a say in their life?


Therefore, is it taking away the right to choose which makes something unjust? 


Marriage Equality was about giving folk the right to get married to who they love if they so choose.


Women’s Equity ensured women’s right to vote and make the choice who they wanted to see in office.


Perhaps the biggest example of American and global injustice is slavery, which has taken away the choice and freedom of millions.




Perhaps this is what has made COVID so painful for many.  The sense that COVID has stripped away many of our choices.


The quarrels COVID has created surrounding choice. 


What is and what’s not the right way to respond to a pandemic?


To mask or not to mask?

Distance or not to distance?

Vaccine or no vaccine?


Close church, continue worship or some kind of hybrid?


Some states have said “This is what you must do.”  Other states have said “This is what we suggest, but do what you want.”


Who makes these choices that we are expected to live by?


Politicians? Business owners?  Church Council? Individual church members?


Then there is the unexpected thing COVID has done- it’s caused folk to evaluate why they do what they do.


For example, think of worship. 


Before COVID how many came to church because they truly wanted to?


How many came cause of habit or sense of obligation?


Now that we’re back to in-person, folk wake up each Sunday and get to make a series of decisions-


Do I want to go, do I want to stay in?

Do I want to change or stay in my pjs?

Do I watch online?  If so, do I watch now, later or another day?


Is this really the church I want to worship at?


These options will forever shape us.  They will shape choices we make as individuals, as servants, as a church.


How do we now praise God?  How do we welcome Jesus in?  What ways do we worship?


What is God calling us to be?


Post COVID, what are the cloaks we’re willing to lay down?  What are the things we refuse to be silent about?


What are the choices and boundaries God is placing before us?


The Theology of Choice.


We are not robots.  We are not puppets.  We are not mindless players on a stage.


We are individuals with our own set of gifts, our own goals, our own dreams, our own limitations, our own scars.


How do we honor the gift of choice?  How do we choose God?  How do we welcome Jesus?


How do we best say “Hosanna!  Hosanna!  Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of peace!”?


For that, we say “Amen.”

Sunday, March 21, 2021

What If Zacchaeus Is Actually the Big Bad of Luke?; Sermon on Luke 19:1-10


Rev. George Miller

March 21, 2021

Luke 19:1-10


To fully grasp the gravity, we must fully grasp the depravity….  This statement may not make sense now, but hopefully it will at the end.


Tuesday, during Bible Study, we discussed today’s reading in great length.  One of our participants shared a song they learned as a child about Zacchaeus being a “wee little man.”


It sounded cute, innocent, and fun, but, like many of the biblical stories we teach our kids, there may be nothing cute or innocent about today’s reading.


Think of other biblical stories we share with kids that are not appropriate at all.


Noah and the ark- why do we teach kids about an angry deity that wipes out the world, not to mention, there’s a part where Noah gets drunk and is sexually violated by his son.


David and Goliath- how many Sunday Schools share that after David knocked Goliath over with his slingshot, he ran over, took out his sword, stabbed him in the back and chopped off his head?


Has Zacchaeus experienced a similar fate, seen as “cute” when perhaps this story is much, much darker? 


Is he more akin to the Big Bad Wolf than to one of Mary’s little lambs?


We have Zacchaeus, described as short in stature, scurrying about, climbing up a tree just so he can see Jesus.


There’s something comical about this image, almost as if Zacchaeus is a little squirrel or monkey.


His actions seems to be so pure and earnest.  He’s heard the newest popstar is in town and he just wants a glimpse.


But what if…. what if his actions are so kinetic, so intense because Zacchaeus actually has a lot of regret, and a lot of darkness in his life? 


After all, Zacchaeus is totally despised by everyone around him. 


He’s a tax collector.  “Big deal!” we may say, but back then it was a big deal.  Tax collectors were seen as non-patriots and traitors, working for the enemy.


In this story, the Roman government has taken over the Jewish territory of Jericho.  They’ve placed idols in the Temple; they use offerings to pay for infrastructure.


Their soldiers are in the streets stirring fear into the citizens, their rulers are living lavishly off the people’s money.


Tax Collectors could charge what they want, keep the change, and toss you in jail if you don’t meet their demands.


Zacchaeus is not just a tax collector- he is THE head tax collector.  He’s the Don, the Alpha, the apex of all tax collectors in town.


Zacchaeus may have been small in stature, but he was deep in pockets, with access to an unjust court system.


What if Zacchaeus is not cute at all?  What if he really is the Big Bad Wolf, the Wicked Witch of the West?


After all, he is the last person Jesus interacts with before entering Jerusalem.  This is the last outsider we meet before going into the Holy City.


What if Zacchaeus is meant to represent all that is really bad, sinful, lost, and undeserving?


We may not fully understand just how despised tax collectors were, but would we understand better if Zacchaeus’s name was Benedict Arnold?


What if Zacchaeus was a 1990’s crack dealer on the streets of Chicago?


What if Zacchaeus made his money by trafficking children?  If his name was Jeffrey Epstein or R. Kelly?


Can we now understand why someone like him would scramble up a tree?  Can we better understand why there would be grumbling in the street?


Can appreciate what a collective shock it would’ve been to all the faithful Jews around to hear Jesus say “Zacchaeus/Benedict/Jeffrey/R.- hurry on down for I must stay at your home.”


To fully grasp the gravity, we must fully grasp the depravity.


Perhaps we have misunderstood this story for the past 2,000 years. That it’s not “Oh look at Little Zacchaeus, what a monkey of a man.”


Perhaps this story is more like “Look at Zacchaeus- the one who can put your mother and father in jail and rip your family apart in one swift action.”


Perhaps this story is more akin to “Look at Zacchaeus- the one who can have an officer kneel on your neck for 7 and a half minutes.”


Perhaps this is Zacchaeus, the overseer, the racist southern sheriff, the gang lord of Haiti.


We see his scurrying around and climbing up a tree as cute, but what if those are actually the actions of someone who feels great guilt, such a sense of sin that his ramped-up physicality matches a deep pit of guilt stemming from unethical behavior, money stolen, and lives destroyed?


To fully grasp the gravity, we must fully grasp the depravity.


So, if all these suggestions are even partially true, it makes what Jesus does even that much more radical, amazing.


Instead of telling Zacchaeus he is

-going to hell

-publicly humiliating him,

-or telling him to say 10 Our Fathers and give all he has to the church,

what does Jesus do?


He says to this wretched outsider, this enemy of the people- “Zacchaeus-“


“Invite me into your home.”

“Bring me inside your life.”

“Let me spend some time with you.”


In the eyes of the people, if there is anyone who deserves the absence of God, if there’s anyone who deserves to be lost in the reeds and weeds, if there is anyone who deserves to have a house fall down upon them, it’s Zacchaeus.


But Jesus, Emmanuel, says “Here I am, Zacchaeus/Benedict/Jeffrey/R.- welcome me in.”


To fully grasp the gravity, we must fully grasp the depravity.


That gravity is GRACE.


Grace goes against all logic.  Grace transforms.  Grace goes beyond anything you, I, our Conference Minister, our General Minister, the Pope can ever manifest in our own life.


Grace, which says “No matter what, no matter who, God is going to enter into your life and be beside you.”


While others grumble against you, while others groan, Jesus says “Invite me over, let me.”


What if, what if all those parables in chapter 15 were designed to bring us to this very special moment.


What if the stories of the lost sheep, the joyful father, the woman with the broom who sweeps and sweeps until she finds that invaluable coin is really all leading up to this story?


This story of a man so squished by feelings of guilt that he just had to run up that tree, he had to see with his own eyes.


What if Zacchaeus had heard those stories of the sheep, the dad, the woman, and he said


“I’m tired, I’m tired.  I’m tired of feeling lost.  I’m tired of being in the reeds and weeds.  I’m tired of hurting others, I’m tired of hurting myself.”


What if Zacchaeus said, “I’m so tired of being tired that I’m ready to do anything I can to be found, even if it’s looking foolish, even if it’s being around people who hate me, even if its running up a tree like a monkey, a rat, or a snake?”


“If Jesus is really here to save the lost, then let him start with me.”


Friends, none of us are perfect.

None of us have hands that are clean.

All of us have done something unjust.

All of us have said something unkind.


All of us have missed chances to step unselfishly with the Lord.


But it does not mean we stop.

It does not mean we quit.


It does not mean we consider ourselves lost.  It doesn’t mean we give up on God.


It doesn’t mean that we give up on ourselves.


What it means is that we keep on keepin’ on. 


We keep climbing that tree.


We keep focused on grace that is amazing.


We keep mindful that if grace can be extended to someone like Zacchaeus, than grace can even be extended to a someone even like you, even like me.



Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Hungry To Rebuild; Excited to Restore; Luke 16 19-31


Rev. George Miller

March 14, 2021

Luke 16:19-31


Who are we?  Who are you?


The idea of identity is a hot topic in America- discussions of gender and ethnic identity, party affiliation.


Who are we?


We can answer by age if we want access to the vaccine.  We can answer by race when filling out the census.


But as people of faith, who are we?


In our purest form, we are children of God, created to be stewards of creation.


Who are we? 


We are descendants of Abraham and Sarah, bestowed with the promise to be a blessing to all the families of earth.


Who are we?


We were once slaves, set free by the God who fed us in the wilderness.


Who are we?


We are people of the prophets, the ones who remind us of what God desires.


Perhaps most of all, we are followers of Jesus Christ, the one who taught, the one who healed, the one who ate.


Ohhh boy- did Jesus eat!


The meal- Jesus was all about the meal.


“Our Father who art in heaven…give us this day our daily bread.”


“Fill these jars with water!”


“Take, eat, this is my body…”


The meal, Jesus was all about the meal.


We see this throughout Luke.  If Jesus isn’t eating, he’s on his way to eat, or talking about eating.


Levi’s great banquet.  Meals with Pharisees. Feeding the masses.  Parables about great dinners, salt, joyful fathers.


Sharing meals, sitting at table, walking through grainfields.


Meals, meals, meals.


Fish, bread, wine, beef, lamb.


Jesus didn’t care about Weight Watcher points or South Beach diets.


He walked enough, engaged enough, healed enough, lived enough, that when it came to food, sitting down with folk, he enjoyed celebrating with purpose, with all people welcome at the table-


Joe the Plumbers and Pharisees, deplorables and debutantes.


Jesus had himself a good ol’ time


Talking about and sharing a meal was Jesus’ way of saying “Taste and see just how good the Heaven of God is.  Everyone is welcome in; woe to those who feel the need to keep others out.”


Luke not only shows Jesus engaging with food the most, it is also the Gospel that shows Jesus talking the most about wealth, and the dangers of using our wealth to create a divide.


We see that in today’s story.  We have Lazarus, by the gate, hungry, ill, thankful for the scraps that he gets.


We have another man, dressed in Calvin Klein and Louis Vuitton who dines on bottomless bowls of bolognese and beef bourguignon.


It’s a familiar theme of Luke- gates and those inside or outside.


As this story unfolds, the man who dined every day while on the inside of the gate, finds himself in a place of suffering, divided by a great chasm.


He is now the one who is on the outside.


What happened: what’s the cause?  Is it all because he didn’t invite Lazarus is?


Why didn’t he provide some kind of care?   Why didn’t he at least provide a paper plate filled with potato salad, beef riblets and a slice of sweet potato pie?


Was the rich man really that bad of a guy?  Was he really that self-absorbed? 


Could it be that his big mistake, his big tragedy was that he simply forgot?


He forgot that as a child of Abraham and Sarah he was blessed to be a blessing upon others?


Could it be that he forgot that he was descended from outsiders who depended upon the goodness of God while they were in the wilderness?


Could it be that he forgot the preaching of the prophets, the teachings that made it clear that as children of Abraham, descendants of the Israelites,


He was called to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly?


In today’s story the man is suffering from a chasm he created. 


When he realizes his tragic mistake, that it’s not just Lazarus he hurt, but he hurt himself as well, he begs on behalf of his brothers.


He thinks that if they get a personal memo they’ll escape his despair.


But the truth is, his brothers already know, just as he always knew, what to do, thanks to the leadership of Moses and the preaching of the prophets.


If it wasn’t stated by Micah, reiterated by Jeremiah, it was declared by Isaiah-


What God wants; what God really wants-


Loose the bonds of injustice.

Let the oppressed go free.

Share with the hungry.

Invite the outsiders in.


In Isaiah 58, God makes it sooo clear-


“If you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.

then your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like noonday…

your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt…

you shall be called repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to live on.”


Isn’t that beautiful?


If you offer your food to the hungry, you shall be called repairer of the breach and restorer of the streets.


God really makes it easy, doesn’t God?


Take a day off to rest.

Care for creation.

Turn back when you make a mistake.

Feed the hungry.


Friends, isn’t it Good News to know that the prophets have made it so clear?


How to rebuild; how to restore?


Lord knows it feels like the world today is in a lot of ruins. Far too many needy folk are hungry and ailing.


Lord knows there has been way too much insiders vs. outsiders, haves and have nots; those barely getting by and those missing simple things like a hug.


Lord knows that right now there are far too many Lazarus’s out on the streets.


Perhaps that’s why The Shepherd’s Pantry, pre-COVID, was such a joy-


Getting to  welcome folk in, sharing a meal, eating together, side by side, across the table from one another.


So many people with so many different identities.  Everyone equal.  Everyone seen.  Everyone, for a moment, safe.


A reprieve from the dogs, the wounds, the invisibility of the world.


Won’t it be such a joy when we get to resume that part of our ministry again?


That heavenly joy of being face to face, sharing a meal, using our resources in a way that makes God smile, that allows our light to shine.


How cool it is that we have a God who says if you love me- rest, care, feed.


When we do those things, we are embracing our identity as Children of Abraham and Sarah.


We are honoring our ancestors.


We are embodying the words of the prophets.


We are showing just how wonderful the Good News of Jesus Christ really is.


We are not asked to revoke our blessings; we’re not being shamed for what we got.


We are being offered an opportunity; given a heavenly challenge-


to share with, to welcome in, to see beyond our own inner gate.


Because when we share with, welcome in, and see the Lazarus’s of the world, we are sharing, welcoming, and seeing Jesus Christ, alive and resurrected.


Amen and amen.