Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Jesus Invites Himself Over

Liturgical Churches Union of Jersey City and Vicinity
St. Michael’s Methodist Church, Jersey City NJ
March 31, 2015

Tuesday in Holy Week
Luke 19:1-10

Jesus Invites Himself Over
            “When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’”
            First, I want to thank my friend Rev. Thomas and the people of St. Michael’s Methodist Church for inviting me – inviting us – to stay here in God’s house with you, for a time. I’m especially grateful to Rev. Thomas for sharing his pulpit with me. It is a real privilege and, with God’s help, I’ll do my best to honor your trust.
            And thanks also to our president and my friend and colleague, The Rev. Nathaniel Legay for inviting me to preach at a Liturgical Churches Union service once again.
            And I know we are all grateful to him for revitalizing and expanding the rich tradition of these Lenten services – services that I know have spiritually fed so many of us during this holy season.
            My church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, and I are new to the Liturgical Churches Union so I realize that many of you may not know much about me or our church.
            For starters, my wife and I and our four cats – yes, four cats…I know…I know… - live in the St. Paul’s rectory which is right next door to our church on Duncan Avenue.
            It’s not just next door but it has the same kind of shingles as the church and has a sign on the front door that says, “St. Paul’s Rectory” so everybody knows that this house is attached to the church – that this is the house where the priest or the minister lives.
            To be honest, this has pluses and minuses.
            The house is very nice and much bigger than my wife and I – and our four cats, yes four cats – need. (Though you might be surprised about how much space four cats can take up!)
            Living next door to church is incredibly convenient for me.  Aside from people who work at home, I literally have the easiest commute ever.
            But, I have to admit there are downsides.
            Sometimes it feels like I’m always at work.
            And, of course, since the rectory is very clearly part of the church, we do get a fair number of people coming to the door.
            I should mention that our doorbell is very old and sounds really more like a buzzer than a bell or a chime.
            So, it’s not so unusual for my wife and I and our four cats – yes, four cats – to be sitting in the living room in the evening maybe watching TV or reading or maybe even dozing off when suddenly:
            When the doorbell buzzes my wife and I jump, and the four cats - yes four cats - take off scattering to all corners of the house.
            My wife and I are sort of private people and, I’ll be honest, that when the bell rings I often grumble – I kind of resent – that my privacy is being disturbed.
            Sometimes it’s somebody who’s looking for the AA meeting or some other event that’s in our Parish Hall and they somehow think that the sign that says “St. Paul’s Rectory” must mean that this is the hall.
            More often, it’s someone – usually bleary-eyed and with the smell of alcohol on his or her breath – someone who greets me with a tale of woe.
            “My car broke down and I just need $30 bucks to get it fixed…”
            “Father, I need money for a train ticket to go to my sister’s place in Trenton…”
            “I need money for a prescription.”
            “I’m hungry.”
            “Can you help me?”
            “Please help me.”
            Today’s scripture passage – the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector – got me thinking about all these people coming to my door, in a way inviting themselves into my life, in a way, inviting themselves into my home.
            Mark, Matthew, and Luke all tell us that Jesus approached Jerusalem through Jericho, but only Luke gives us this story of Zacchaeus.
            The name “Zacchaeus” means “righteous” or “upright” but as a “Chief tax collector” he wasn’t righteous or upright – he was part of a corrupt economic system that sucked the meager resources of the poor to support the power and oppression of the Roman Empire.
            And, just in case we don’t get it, Luke tells us that he was rich.
            Well, of course he was!
            But, this chief tax collector – this rich man who was probably the least popular person in Jericho – this crook - he wants to see Jesus.
            Luke tells us, “but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.”
            The Jericho crowd must have been shocked – and Zacchaeus must have been really, really shocked - when Jesus looks up at the rich, despised, and, probably, short man in the sycamore tree and says,
            “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
            Jesus invites himself over.
            Jesus… rings Zacchaeus’ doorbell.
            And, how does Zacchaeus respond?
            He doesn’t grumble about his privacy.
            He doesn’t make excuses that he hasn’t had chance to straighten up – that his place is a mess.
            He doesn’t say this really isn’t a good time.
            He doesn’t say he’s afraid to open his house because there are so many people in Jericho who hate him.
            No, Luke tells us that Zacchaeus “hurried down and was happy to welcome” Jesus.
            As usual, it’s the crowd of busybodies that grumbles that Jesus is hanging out with the wrong people. They say that Jesus “has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
            But, look what happens when Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus into his home.
            He finally lives up to the meaning of his name – maybe for the first time in his life he really is “righteous” and “upright.”
            Zacchaeus says to Jesus, “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.”
            And, much like the father rejoicing at the return of the Prodigal Son, Jesus rejoices at the transformation of Zacchaeus.
            “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”
            Jesus invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house.
            Zacchaeus welcomed him.
            And, that invitation - and that welcome - changes everything.
            So, what does the story of Zacchaeus have to do with us here this evening?
            Well, it seems to me that Jesus is inviting himself over all the time.
            That might be quite literally like when someone rings my doorbell looking for help because their car has broken down or they need money for a train ticket to Trenton, or whatever.
            Those stories may not – and, let’s be honest, probably aren’t true – but what is true is that the person standing at the door is in need – is in distress.
            What is true is that this person with the bleary eyes and the stink of alcohol on his breath is indeed Jesus inviting himself over to my house.
            And how I – how we – respond to that invitation can change everything.
            Now, I realize only too well that for many of us, opening the door to a stranger is simply too risky in our city filled with so much violence and danger.
            Not all of us have four cats – yes, four cats – to protect us from people who might want to harm us.
            But, Jesus also invites himself over in ways that aren’t quite so literal as ringing our doorbell.
            Jesus invites himself over when a stranger or a newcomer joins us for worship.
            Do we greet that person as if he or she was Jesus himself?
            Or are we suspicious, wondering why they’re here, what do they want from us?
            Do we look at them and think they won’t fit in here – they don’t belong with us – they’d do better at some other church?
            Or, maybe even worse, do we look at them and immediately think of all the ways they might help the church by serving on committees or whatever – and through their financial offerings?
            Jesus invites himself over.
            And how we respond changes everything.
            Jesus invites himself over through all of the people who are in need all around us – even right here in this room this evening - the person who doesn’t have enough to eat or a place to stay – the person who is lonely and feeling hopeless – the person who has failed at pretty much everything they’ve ever tried – the person who is burdened by secrets and regrets – the person who is frightened by illness or death.
            Jesus invites himself over.
            And how we respond changes everything.
            And during Holy Week, Jesus invites himself over, inviting us to take up our cross and walk with him to Calvary.
            During Holy Week, Jesus especially invites himself over, inviting us to see his friends betray him, abandon him, and deny him. Jesus invites himself over, inviting us look at the faces of the people as they mock him and beat him, as they place the crown of thorns on his head, as they drive nails into him, as they kill him as if he were a common criminal.
            Especially during Holy Week, Jesus invites himself over.
            How do we respond?
            Do we turn away and just wait for the sweet fragrance of Easter or do we let the beaten, broken, and bloody Jesus into our lives?
            Jesus invites himself over all the time.
            And how we respond can change everything.
            One last story – from last New Year’s Eve.
            I know that many of your churches have New Year’s Eve services but over at St. Paul’s we’ve been having services on New Year’s Day at 10:00am.
            So, this last New Year’s Eve my wife and I were home in the rectory with our four cats – yes, four cats – dozing off on the couch when at about 10:00 when suddenly:
            Yes, the doorbell rang.
            My wife and I both jumped and the four cats scattered to all corners of the house.
            I’ll be honest. I thought, oh great, it’s probably someone already half-bombed out of their mind looking for some more money to keep the party going.
            I almost didn’t answer the door but my conscience got to me.
            I opened the door and there was a man I didn’t know standing there in the cold under the harsh fluorescent light of our porch.
            He said he had come to the church looking for the New Year’s Eve service but saw that the church was dark.
            I explained that we’d be having our service in the morning and that he was welcome to join us.
            And then he said that I should know that when he tried to open the front door of the church he found that it wasn’t completely locked.
            We had in fact been having trouble with that lock so I went over to the church with him and sure enough it wasn’t completely locked and with a good yank anybody could’ve gotten in and discovered our church all set up for the big service in the morning – and, to say the least, could have truly ruined the start of our new year.
            Jesus invited himself over to St. Paul’s that night.
            And, long ago, Jesus invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus welcomed him - and that changed everything.
            Jesus invites himself over all the time.
            And how we respond changes everything.