Sunday, November 24, 2013

Reign of Christ Sunday

Luke 1
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

These things always seem to start with a tax revolt.

No, I’m not talking about the birth of Ford Nation, I’m talking about the Jewish revolt. It all starts with the census of Quirinius, which took place in the Roman provinces of Syria and Judea beginning in the year 6.

Year 6, year 6. Your mind is no doubt racing, your heart rate is slightly accelerated, you can hear Linus reading from Luke 2 and you know something is terribly wrong here. The good news is that there was a census in Judea around the time of the birth of Jesus. The bad news is that dates are notoriously slippery in the study of biblical history, and so we make the best of it.

The census wasn’t really a census in the modern sense of the word. A census in Roman times was more like MPAC than Stats Canada, with a tally of the wealth in a given region, and the tax potential it represents. Romans loved to be organized, and budgeting based on potential tax revenue was just good sense.

The locals, however, were less impressed. The census reinforced their subjugation, and raised the possibility that Rome would claim more tax that the local governor had been claiming up to that point. It was from this uncertainty and anger that the Zealots formed: and from 6 until the end of the siege of Masada in 73, they were a key player in the conflict between Judea and Rome.

And so, it is this context that two children are coming into the world: John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. And while I’m not exactly claiming that a tax revolt gave us John and Jesus, it is an important part of the story, so here we go:

And you, child, will be called
the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go before the Lord
to prepare his ways.

The story begins at the beginning of what must be the longest chapter of the Bible, Luke 1. The first person we meet is Zechariah, a priest of a priestly line, married to Elizabeth, both in old age. They are childless, and like Abraham and Sarah, long past hoping for a child.

But God has other plans for Zechariah and Elizabeth, and so God does two things: promises a son to be named John—a son who will be a great prophet—and then God makes Zechariah mute.

Looking at the second thing first, it seems that angel messengers are a sensitive lot, and easily offended. Like the story of Abraham and Sarah, the news of bearing a child well past childbearing years is met with come incredulity. In Sarah’s case, she laughs, and when the angel messenger calls her on it, she lies like there’s a senate scandal underway. Obviously not a shining moment for poor old Sarah.

So maybe the angels are still mad about the whole Sarah-laughed-at-us episode. Because when old Zechariah says “how can I be sure any of this is true,” he is immediately struck dumb (dumbstruck?). Takeaway: be careful how you respond to angel messengers, they can be a bit snippy.

Back to the first promise: So just when we think we’re in some rerun of Genesis 12, Luke drops another name that we’re compelled to consider. Here’s Luke 1:

“He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (16, 17)

So if Zechariah and Elizabeth are the new Abraham and Sarah, John the Baptism is the new Elijah, then like Elijah he will prepare the way of the Lord. Now, we always have to sound a note of caution here, since the Hebrew Bible (we call it the Old Testament) remains the Bible of the Jewish religion, and was not written for the sole purpose of pointing to the Christian experience. We may see allusions and links in our reading, but we must continually remind ourselves that our reading is for us alone, and not some universal truth.

So, for our purposes, how is John the new Elijah, and how does this help our understanding? Well, the most direct link flows from the Book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament as reordered by the church. Malachi’s name literally means “I am God’s messenger,” so it follows that Elijah the great prophet should reappear at the conclusion of the book. This is the last paragraph of the Old Testament:

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

Essentially, the angel messenger is repeating message the found at the end of Malachi, making it a new promise for a new day. The new message reorders the original—after removing the threat of destruction—and says that John will embody the ‘spirit and power’ of Elijah.

Now, for you fans of biblical duels, your mind will first go the greatest of them all, the duel between Elijah and the priests of Baal. Very quickly, it was Queen Jezebel who brought the worship of Baal back and offended everyone, but especially Elijah (and God, of course). So always ready for a fight, Elijah invites the priests of Baal to Mt. Carmel for a duel: (Warning, rated M for mature and may trouble vegetarians)

Elijah said, “I am the only prophet of the Lord here, but there are four hundred fifty prophets of Baal. 23 Bring two bulls. Let the prophets of Baal choose one bull and kill it and cut it into pieces. Then let them put the meat on the wood, but they are not to set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull, putting the meat on the wood but not setting fire to it. 24 You prophets of Baal, pray to your god, and I will pray to the Lord. The god who answers by setting fire to his wood is the true God.”

Well, what follows is the most humiliating defeat in the history of the Baalist religion. The priests of Baal are pleading and crying and Elijah starts to have some fun:

“Hey pray louder!” he says. “If Baal really is a god, maybe he is thinking, or busy, or traveling! Maybe he is sleeping so you will have to wake him!” (1 Kings 18.27)

Of course they fail, and then Elijah calls on God and creates the first southern barbeque in history, and the priests of Baal meet an unhappy end and the story ends. What we’re left with then is the firm impression that this is a God you do not want to mess with, particularly if your business card says “Priest of Baal.”

Back to Zechariah and his soon-to-be-born son, what we are seeing is a contrasting vision of what may come, an alternate mission for the coming ‘day of the Lord.’ We know, of course, that John uses baptism instead of calling down fire, and Jesus is the lamb of God rather than the lion, but we are still left with the angry thread and the indignities of life under Rome.

So back to taxation for a moment. Still mad about the census 30 years earlier, and now really mad that the new Emperor Caligula (yes, that Caligula) was ending the historic tolerance extended to Jews in the Roman Empire, priests like Zechariah were outraged and ready to fight. And like the situation with Queen Jezebel, Caligula wanted to put a foreign (in this case, Roman) god inside the sacred places. It was concluded that what was needed was a new Elijah who was ready to fight.

And we even see little hints of the radical program that nearly was, first in presence of Simon the Zealot, the disciple we barely hear about, and in a handful of passages that don’t quite fit our Gospel picture. Here are three, from Matthew, Luke and John:

“Do not suppose,” Jesus said, “that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Mt 10.34)

Jesus said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." (Lk 22.36)

"Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear." (Jn 18.10)

Maybe some of you are thinking lost opportunity. Think how attractive Christianity would be to 12 year-old boys if we had pursued this whole sword thing. Imagine Sword Sunday, or getting a Confirmation sword, or sacred sword play in the chancel (watch out choir!)

We didn’t follow the sword theme, although it did pop up from time to time in the history of the church. Mostly we went with a meeker Jesus, righteously indignant and not really angry, more swords into ploughshares than the other way around.

But what if we explored our inner Elijah just a little, not with swords, of course, but with some of the intensity with which he took on the priests of Baal. There is much in our world that is maddening or corrupt or just plain evil, and some time I think we need to be willing to get a little angry. Three examples:

1. According to some politicians, it’s not lying if the media doesn’t ask the right questions.

2. For every armed conflict that makes the news, there an several more we’ve never even heard of. I would blame the media, but they generally report on the things they know the audience wants to hear.

3. The Walton Family of Bentonville, Arkansas controls more wealth than the poorest 125 million Americans. This past week it was reported that some Walmart stores have food donation boxes in the back so employees can help other employees who are going hungry.

I’m going to call this “Angry Like Elijah Sunday.” And like every therapist will tell you, it don’t matter if you get angry or not, it’s what you do with the anger that matters. And so for today, Angry Like Elijah Sunday, I encourage you to do something if you’re angry: write a letter, vote, send some money somewhere, talk to your neighbour, or simply pray for a world made new.

Next Sunday Advent begins, and we begin to prepare for Christ’s coming, entering the world in a new way, beginning a revolution that remains unfinished. May God help us to prepare once more. Amen.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 21
5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

Sometimes you just need to figure out where you are.

Now, in sailing, it’s easy. Assuming you are six feet or so above the water, the horizon is 3 miles away. Or while cruising, if that’s your style, the horizon over the rim of your piña colada is 15 miles away, assuming the deck is 125 feet above the water.

Sailing Lake Ontario, of course, you generally know where you are for a couple of reasons, first being GPS, now on every smartphone. The second is the CN Tower, which is so tall that it seems to follow you around the lake like an unblinking eye. It is actually a bit annoying, since you see the tower and think “almost back” when you are still hours away.

Funny conversation: We’re filling up at Ontario Place and the dude beside us has one of those fast boats that makes you think of Miami Vice. He says: “Where you headed?” and skipper says Youngstown.

“Oh yeah,” he says, “how long does that take?”
“About five hours...and you?”
“About 18 minutes.”

Back to the horizon thing for just a moment, it is one of three aspects of celestial navigation that old-school sailors still think about (just after you drop your smartphone overboard). You have the horizon, some celestial object, let’s say Polaris for example, and then it’s position as noted in the Nautical Almanac. Put down you piña colada, sight the first two with your sextant, consult the book, and voila!

Here in the church, we have our own version of the Nautical Almanac, and it’s called the Revised Common Lectionary. It gives you your relative position in the church year, and all the corresponding data such as the readings for the day, and you don’t even need an awkward looking instrument. And the coordinates are printed in your bulletin, noted at the top: “Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost.”

Okay, you’re thinking, that seems odd. Maybe a little, but the only other measure might be ‘days until Christmas’ and that would sound too much like the Wal-Mart. So here we are, twenty-six Sundays since the last high Sunday, ready to step on a path that will take us through the next six months of frequent high Sundays. Next week is ‘Christ the King’ or ‘Reign of Christ’ and then it’s on in to Advent.

So while this Sunday does not have a formal name, we might as well call it “Destruction of the Temple Sunday,” because that’s what we tend to get the week before the week before the week we begin Advent. Think of it as biblical GPS: a time, a location, and a scan of the horizon to discover that it’s nearly time to think about incarnation.

But that would be jumping ahead. First we need to hear an ascension psalm, and imagine Jesus among the pilgrims, making his way up to the temple, reciting Psalm 121 as he goes:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord,
which made heaven and earth.

And the proceeding into the city, more words for the journey, this time the Psalm that follows:

I was glad when they said unto me,
Let us go into the house of the Lord.
Our feet shall stand within thy gates,
O Jerusalem.

And then, by Psalm 134, we have arrived:

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary,
and bless the Lord.
The Lord that made heaven and earth
bless thee out of Zion.

What’s harder to visualize, as we read and recite, is the architecture of pilgrimage. First the steps that lead to the pilgrims entrance, the double gate on the southern wall of the Temple, is reached by a long set of stone steps, with unusually long treads, making it hard to look up while you approached the gate. Through the gate, Jesus and his fellow pilgrims would have been plunged into near darkness, and then followed the interior staircase back to the light of the Temple courtyard.

(Just as an aside, when Neil Armstrong was given a tour of the southern steps and told with some certainty that Jesus walked them, he remarked that standing there was as moving as first stepping on the moon.)

Sadly for Jesus and his fellow pilgrims, the architecture of pilgrimage suddenly changes, and we encounter the things that will later bring anger and recrimination, the turning over of tables and a radical statement of destruction that begins this morning’s passage.

So what did he find? Well, we know that the Temple was filled with various creatures suitable for purchase toward the required sacrifice, and we know there were money-changers, exchanging profane currency for currency appropriate for an offering. And you can imagine that such a currency exchange would be about as fair as modern currency exchanges, yet another source of anger.

But the most alarming feature of Temple architecture would have to be the Holy of Holies, the place where God was said to dwell, and the place that was off limits to everyone save the High Priest, who could only enter once a year. So fearful was this place, and so lethal to anyone other than the High Priest, that he was actually sent in with a rope tied around his waste, which would allow the others to pull out his body should the High Priest perish or faint while inside.

The architecture of pilgrimage, indeed the whole architecture of the Temple and the Temple entrance bespeaks inaccessibility, and the kind of gulf that made God distant to most people. And the pilgrim Jesus, with a growing sense (in the early years, at least) of his unique relationship to God, would properly ponder the renovation of such a sacred system.

But driving the sellers and money-changers away would not be enough. By the time Jesus was ready to formalize the Jerusalem phase of his ministry, and begin a complete program of Temple reform, he had reached a new set of conclusions. Listen again:

“As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

Now, even the Roman General Titus couldn’t completely destroy the Temple, though he tried his best (70 CE). What Jesus was plotting was a spiritual revolution, a symbolic destruction of the architecture of faith, beginning with the Holy of Holies. No more would God be wholly inaccessible, no more would this fully transcendent God rule from a distance, but God would come closer—much closer as the disciples would soon understand.

Jesus describes it thus (Luke 17) when he says “the coming Kingdom isn’t something you can see, nor will people be able to point to it and say ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is,’—because the Kingdom of God is within you.” The architecture of faith is transformed in their understanding, stated by Jesus even before the disciples and others would understand his true nature.

For that, it would take Paul to describe the Jesus they experienced, such as in Colossians where he says “Jesus is the visible image of an invisible God” (1.15). God walked by their side along the pilgrim road, even as Jesus prayed daily to God, for God was in the midst of them. Immanent and transcendent, maker of sky and sea but as close as the heart beating inside you.

So what does this revolution do for us? How do we respond? First, we have each constructed Temples that have somehow become a barrier to a life with God. There is something in the structure of our lives that needs to come down, some set of stones best not left one set upon another. And with God's help, we can figure out what it is.

It seems appropriate, then, that we begin this look within on the Sunday before the Sunday before the beginning of the season of preparation for God’s arrival in our midst. We need time: time to look within, time to take stock, time to imagine a life with God as close as the heart beating in here. May there time enough for this preparation, and God find you anew. Amen.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Remembrance Sunday

Luke 20
34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’[b] 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

It remains perhaps the best epitaph ever carved in stone.

There, in the south-east corner of the crypt, the architect of the great St. Paul’s rests, along with some members of his family. Carved above the spot is a longer description of Sir Christopher Wren that concludes with these words:

Reader, if you seek his monument, look around.

It seems only fitting for the man who designed the finest church in the world—along with rebuilding another 52 churches in London alone. Indeed, while visitors to Paris will delight in catching that occasional glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, visitors to London can look for one of Wren’s 30 church towers that remain.

There is a delightful story that may or may not be true, but gave rise to the motto of St. Paul’s, carved this time on the exterior of the cathedral. The story goes that within days of the Great Fire of 1666, Wren was walking about the rubble of Old St. Paul’s trying to determine the best location for the central dome of the new cathedral, at that moment no more than a dream.

Having determined the best spot, he wanted to mark it, and needing a stone he called out to a child nearby and said ‘lad, bring me a stone.’ The boy grabbed one and presented it to Wren, who placed it on the spot. Looking down at the stone he just placed, he realized it was an old grave marker, carved with a single word ‘RESURGAM,’ meaning “I shall rise again.” It became the cathedral’s motto, inscribed under the symbol of the cathedral, the phoenix.

We have a wonderful word for stories such as this one: apocryphal, meaning ‘doubtful, thought widely circulated as true.’ In other words, there may have been no lad, or stone, but it sure makes a great story. History is filled with such stories, like Queen Victoria personally selecting a logging outpost called Bytown for our nation’s future capitol, and we delight in them. But they remain, well, apocryphal.

Even without the lad and the stone, it was common to inscribe grave markers with the word RESURGAM. Such is the resurrection hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, so convinced of eternal life that some choose to inscribe the phrase “I shall rise again” on their marker. And it’s to the resurrection we turn as we seek to understand Luke 20.

The preamble, which was not included in what Shauna read this morning, is the scenario that the ever tricky Sadducees set out for Jesus. They don’t believe in the resurrection, so they create an impossible story where a woman is widowed seven times marrying seven brothers. ‘If there is a resurrection of the dead,’ they ask, ‘which brother will spend eternity with this poor woman?’

‘Well,’ Jesus likely muttered under his breath, ‘now you’re just getting silly.’ That’s in the New Revised Michael Version (NRMV). Then he went on to say five things:

The dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.
They are like the angels.
They are God’s children.
Even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’
God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.”

Now, for the academically minded, you will see that what Jesus has done is constructed the perfect counter-argument to the Sadducees. He has defined a thesis, added some points of note, and reached a conclusion, all in four verses.

So first, his thesis: ‘The dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.’ In our service book (1985) we find these words by way of introduction: “The bond of marriage was given by God who created us to be in covenant.” But that’s on earth. Jesus is reminding us that in death (and resurrection) we become something unlike our earthly selves.

And to further this point, he gives us a simile, the first part of his argument: “The [dead] can no longer die; for they are like the angels.” Now, this is also tricky, since few of us have ever met an angel, so the simile might not be so helpful. But that’s okay, since the argument continues: “They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”

Angels may seem unclear, so he opts for a metaphor instead, saying we are God’s children. And metaphors, of course, are simply vehicles for transmitting truth. I am literally the child of Marilyn and Henk, nice folks from Mount Albert, but metaphorically, I’m a child of God. This doesn’t diminish my relationship with Ma & Pa, but they are just my literal parents. My eternal parent, the Father and Mother of us all, is God.

So we can’t die, and therefore we are children of the resurrection, and furthermore we are children of God—something that even Moses recalled when he shared the story of the burning bush. In a direct appeal to his listeners, Jesus goes back to the foundational moment of the Exodus and tells the story of Moses’ encounter with God.

“Do not come near,” God said, “and take the sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Then God said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

It is not “I was the God” but always “I am the God.” Moses’ father, along with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are very much alive, and living with God, and therefore Jesus can conclude: “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.”

So there are three things happening here. First, there is no death. Second, we can’t precisely say what that looks like, but we know that the dead are somewhere between angels and greats of the Bible, maybe saints might be the best word. And third, all are alive.

All are alive. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive. In our moral minds we quickly become preoccupied with who’s in and who’s out. Will sinners make to to heaven? Since we’re all sinners is there hope for any of us? If all are alive, are all forgiven? Yes, it would seem all are forgiven, but it hardly matters, because in the infinite and unfathomable grace of God, all are alive, forevermore.


I have to say that the memorial plaques that I find the most moving are occupational. Down at Old City Hall, just as you enter, you will find the names of city workers who made the greatest sacrifice in two world wars. They were clerks and cleaners, inspectors and bylaw officers, people who left ordinary lives to do something extraordinary for their country—and in doing so, gave up their very lives.

At Queen’s Theological College nearly the entire student body enlisted at the beginning of the Great War, and six did not return, including Prof. John Dall, memorialized in the Morgan Chapel. Even the House of Commons remembers one of her own, George Harold Baker, the only sitting Member of Parliament killed in action, near Ypres in 1916. His statue can be found in the Centre Block, parliament’s only war memorial to an individual.

For us, we have the names of members of Central, Silverthorne, Prospect Park, Chalmers, and Pearen Memorial, those who served and those who died, a lasting memorial to two unique moments in our history. Women and men from these congregations departed from homes and family to serve us, to further the cause of peace and to protect the victims of war.

Today we remember their service, and the service of all who served Canada at home. In particular we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and proclaim: “All are alive. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.”

In the infinite and unfathomable grace of God, all are alive, now and forevermore. Amen.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

All Saints-Anniversary Sunday

Luke 19
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! 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.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

I heard Linda say Zacchaeus, but all I could think was Louis De Palma.

Who on earth is Louis De Palma? TV Guide ranked Louis De Palma number one among the 50 greatest television characters of all time (1999). Played by Danny Devito, Louis De Palma was a distillation of the worst boss you ever had: rude, uncaring, and seemingly without morals.

The show, for those old enough to remember, was Taxi, set in New York, in the fictional Sunshine Cab Company. Danny Devito’s character played along such greats as Judd Hirsch, Andy Kaufman, Carol Kane and Christopher Lloyd. And along with such a rich ensemble of characters we can add more, the city itself.

Again, for those old enough to remember, New York in the 70’s and 80’s was a city at war with itself. Gone was the Mad Men optimism of the 60’s and what followed was stagnation and crime, and a growing gap between the success of Wall Street and what was happening in the rest of the city.

The show Taxi, beginning in 1978, became a sort of proxy for the struggles of the city itself. Was the city going to give into the stereotype of being rude, uncaring and seemingly without morals, or embrace the ensemble of workers who had each other’s back and had to struggle together against a common foe? For viewers, it was a delightful tension: for New Yorkers to laugh at themselves and for the rest of us to look in.

Of course, it may simply be that both Zacchaeus and Louis De Palma (as played by Danny Devito) are not-so-tall. Or the fact that Zacchaeus and Louis De Palma were both outcasts, in a sort of self-imposed exile from the rest of the community: one for being so difficult, and the other for being a tax-collector. You see, even the setting is similar, Zacchaeus up a tree and Louis De Palma up in his wire cage, seemingly safe from everyone who despises him.

Before we look at our passage in more detail, what about tax collectors? Last week it was the tax collector who was truly faithful, repenting before God. Jesus was regularly abused for hanging out with ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ and we know that at least one of his disciples (Matthew) was formerly a tax collector. The occupation looms large over the New Testament, so how does it work? I think we’re far enough from April that we won’t be traumatized by a conversation about tax collection, right?

It was really quite structured. Tax collectors, also known as publicans, would vie for the opportunity to collect taxes in a particular region. Publicans would pay the tax for everyone for a certain period of time—a massive outlay—assuming that they could collect the amount back and more. The Roman government also paid interest on the original outlay, adding a second revenue stream to the already profitable task of strong-arming the population. Of course there were risks: If famine came you might be unable to collect from anyone, and you’ve already turned over the full amount to Caesar.

Despite the risks, tax collectors generally did quite well, but with a cost: they were hated, and it was the kind of hate reserved for members of the community who cooperated with the occupying power and made life difficult for everyone. In order to get a sense of the gravity you might imagine a tax collector in Vichy France or occupied Holland, adding additional misery to an already miserable population.

For the tax collectors themselves, they lived in two worlds. They were local, and could therefore understand the people they were exploiting, but they also aspired to some status among the occupiers, becoming Roman in a world ruled by Rome. Having money helped in this—offering protection from those who might harm you—and giving you the opportunity to impress those who liked a good show of wealth, namely the Romans.

But there was more. Aspiring to being Roman meant adopting Roman virtues, living out the values that made Rome Rome. In other words, if Zacchaeus wanted to join the club, he had to not only play by the rules but exhibit the values of the occupying power. And they were actually quite simple, and based on a single idea: honour.

To achieve honour, a good Roman needed to adhere to the principles of fidelity (to others and the state), piety (justice toward the gods), discipline and gravitas ("dignified self-control"). Taken together, these virtues would give you dignity and authority, the latter being the kind of prestige and respect every Roman longed to have.

And on top of all this, there was the traditional structure of Roman society, a society based on a complex series of patrons and clients. In this system everyone was both at once: the tax collector was a client of the governor and the patron of his own tax collecting network. And on it went, everyone somehow linked to everyone else in the society, from Caesar down to the newest slave.

This is a rather long way of telling the story of the day Jesus met Zacchaeus, the tax collector. Jesus, increasingly well-known in the region, attracts a crowd that day including our wealthy friend. Zacchaeus can’t see very well, so he heads for a sycamore tree and finds a nice perch. Jesus stops beneath the spot, and tells the ‘wee little man’ to come down at once, “since I’m staying at your house today.”

But the real action happens back at Zacchaeus’ place. Our host tells his famous guest that he will give half of all he has to the poor, and return four times the money he has stolen. “Today,” Jesus said, “salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”

Do you see what just happened there? Guests were honoured, money was shared and returned, but chiefly someone made a choice: son of Caesar or son of Abraham. The way of fides, disciplina and gravitas, or remain a son of Abraham, heir to the covenant God made long ago.

The details of the story are intentionally spare. We don’t know if there was a lengthy discussion over lunch before Zacchaeus made his decision. We don’t know if the disciples were in on the discussion. We don’t know if Mrs. Zacchaeus and all the little Zacchaeus’ had an opinion, seeing most of the family wealth go out the door. Whatever else happened that day, and whatever was said, we know that a choice was made and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was honoured instead of Rome.

I want to make a couple more points, but I know beef-on-a-bun is waiting, so I’ll make it brief. The first is that we are all faced with the same choice: do I serve myself, maybe be a little rude, sometimes seeming uncaring, or do I serve others, the people who have my back, and the people who need my help? It is a choice many make every time they go to work, and every time they see trouble, and every time they vote. But Jesus says ‘come down’ and be with others, be a son or daughter of Abraham instead.

Secondly, since the beginning of the century before the last century, faithful people here and in our sister churches in Weston and Mount Dennis were trying to live differently. They rejected expressions of religion that were only about personal piety, or place in the community, and took the risk to become Christians concerned about the social order.

It found full flower in 1925 with the formation of the United Church, setting aside doctrine in favour of creating a Christian Canada: not Christian in identity but Christian in values. But long before that, so-called non-conformist denominations had a different vision of Canada, not ruled by social betters or those with more money, but by farmers and labourers, loyalists and recent immigrants, and every person of goodwill.

Every time and place faces the same choice: deciding what kind of society we wish to have and what values will be foundational. And as always, Jesus says “come down, I must stay at your house today.” Thanks be to God. Amen.