Lenten Dinner April 2, 2017
Royal Oak United Methodist Church
Text: Luke 19:1-10
It is a pleasure to be here with you this evening. My wife Julie sends her regrets. She was planning on being with me this evening, but has been in Billings, Montana to attend the funeral of a beloved uncle. Her flight into Detroit arrives just before 9 p.m. so I am feeling really relaxed about our time.
The Scripture reading is from the Gospel of Luke. For many Luke’s gospel is among their favorites because only there do we find some of the most remembered teachings of Jesus – the story of the Good Samaritan, the story of the Prodigal Son, the story of Jesus reading in the synagogue at Nazareth (“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…). Luke’s telling of the Jesus story, Luke’s gospel, is among my favorites for many of those same reasons, but also and maybe especially because of the story of Zacchaeus. Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. You know it is going to be a good story!
What I would like to do is read this story with a soundtrack. I like sermons with soundtracks, and I thought of a couple of possibilities. There is the 70s super group from Sweden, ABBA and their song “Take a Chance.” But I like even better Steve Winwood’s song, “While You See a Chance.” While you see a chance, take it. There is something vitally important to the Christian life in that, to following Jesus along the Jesus way. If you don’t think so, I’ve only got about an hour to convince you!
Jesus is passing through Jericho and in the town was a man named Zacchaeus. We know a couple of things about him. He was short. The average height at the time was about 5’1” – so it is likely Zacchaeus was under 5’. I’m liking the story better already. We also know he was a chief tax collector. Already there is some irony in the story. Zacchaeus is the Greek rendering of a common Hebrew name which meant “innocent.” Yet Zacchaeus is a tax collector, and that role involved cooperation with the Roman imperial system that many Jews considered traitorous to their law. Beyond that, Zaccheaus has become rich in his occupation.
Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus, but cannot for there are crowds of people and he cannot see over them. He runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a sycamore tree. Zacchaeus takes a chance. He is religiously curious. He is doing well. What would compel him to seek out Jesus? It strikes me that an important dimension to evangelism is helping people get to the place where they are willing to take a chance on Jesus. It is not always an easy task. The church has often given Jesus a bad name. I was at a gathering the other night, a conversation about the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the United Methodist Church. Stories were shared about how hurtful the church has often been to LGBTQ persons and to their families. Over the years I have heard a number of stories told by lesbian and gay people who tried to take their lives because they were convinced that they were beyond the love and grace of God. Stories were also shared the other night about how some who hold what we might call more traditional views have been labeled and mistreated by those in the church who disagree with them. Martin Luther King, Jr. once called 11 a.m. on Sunday the most segregated hour in America – and that was when more people were in church on Sundays. Throughout history people have been enslaved in the name of Jesus, people have been killed in the name of Jesus, people have been hurt in the name of Jesus, people have been hated in the name of Jesus, people have been segregated by race in the name of Jesus.
Yet, yet there remains something beyond all the ways the church has messed up. In a wonderful new book entitled Days of Awe and Wonder, a collection of writings and speeches and interviews of the late Marcus Borg, Borg writes about why he is Christian. I think the Christian message, the Christian gospel, speaks to the two deepest yearnings of most human beings. One of those yearnings is for a fuller connection to what is…. I also think that most people yearn for the world to be a better place. These two yearnings are at the heart of the Christian message. The first is the yearning for God. The second is the yearning for a better world that is expressed in the second great commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. (189)
What yearnings of the heart compelled Zacchaeus to climb a tree to see Jesus? Did he yearn for God, and to know himself loved by God? Did he yearn for a better world? Perhaps, and he took a chance that this Jesus might be of some help. Can we help others take that chance on Jesus?
Jesus sees Zacchaeus, and invites himself to his home. “I must stay at your house today.” Jesus takes a chance on Zacchaeus. Jesus took a lot of chances on people, and the reaction is predictable. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Evangelism is about helping people take a chance on Jesus, but we also need to be willing to take a chance on them. We need to reach out, to notice, to welcome. Jesus sees Zacchaeus. He sees Zacchaeus, not just a short man, not just a tax collector, he sees Zacchaeus. He calls him by name.
Friends, you are taking some chances here. Your $4 million expansion is taking a chance on people. You want to be able to welcome others. You want to help others get to the place where they will take a chance on Jesus. You want to see people fed and clothed in the name of Jesus. You want people to discern their gifts. We sometimes use this phrase “taking a chance” rather flippantly. That’s not how I am using it here. You have worked hard. You have planned diligently and intelligently. You have made deep commitments to the mission of this church. You stayed with it in the midst of a pastoral change. This is not taking a chance like flipping a coin, it is taking a thoughtful chance to expand your outreach and mission, but it is taking a chance like Jesus took a chance on Zacchaeus.
Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house, and there Zacchaeus takes yet another chance. He commits himself to growing, to developing, to a deeper relationship with 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.” Zacchaeus has moved from curious to committed. He wondered if Jesus might be able to address some of those deep yearnings, might help him find what was missing in his life. Then he staked something of himself, committed himself to this Jesus and the Jesus way.
That, too, is part of what we are about as the church, moving from curious to committed. And, I don’t think that is a one-time movement. The Christian life, the journey with Jesus, is an on-going adventure where we are curious about the next steps and then commit ourselves to taking them. Someday this phase of your ministry will be completed, at least in some sense. Expect, then, that the Spirit of God will begin to place some curious ideas in your midst, new dreams for reaching people and caring for a bruised and hurting world. You will be able to move from curious to committed in new ways.
While you see a chance, take it. Zacchaeus did that a couple of times. Jesus did that with Zacchaeus. Allow me to put forward just a few more thoughts about the Christian life as taking chances. I would like to develop just a few more thoughts, and I really was only kidding about going until 8:30.
The Christian life is about taking thoughtful and prayerful chances. It is an adventure. One of my favorite images for that is offered by an author named Patrick Henry in a delightfully titled book The Ironic Christian’s Companion. Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow. Many people who identify themselves as Christians seem to have leap-frogged over life, short-circuited the adventure…. Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity, a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload. (8-9)
While you see a chance take it, and if we are not taking some chances, if there is no adventure, including the deep adventure of exploring more deeply the inner self, including the wide adventure of asking how God’s love affects how we think about and address pressing social issues, if there is no adventure in our journey of faith and as a faith community, then perhaps we need to climb a tree to see Jesus again. I don’t think Zacchaeus’ climbing days were over after that one meal with Jesus.
Taking a chance can be chaotic. You don’t need me to tell you that! Taking holy chance, though, is part of God’s creativity. Another one of my spiritual teachers is the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister. We’ve never met, but her writings have accompanied me along my journey with Jesus helping me move from curiosity to commitment to curiosity again. In a recent work, Between the Dark and the Daylight, which I have been using as part of my own devotional life, Chittister tells a story about the painter Pablo Picasso. Once Picasso’s home was burgled, and the painter told the police he would paint a picture of the intruder. “And on the strength of that picture,” the French police reported later, “we arrested a mother superior, a government minister, a washing machine, and the Eiffel Tower.” (83) Chittester goes on to write about the relationship between confusion/chaos and creativity. Confusion is a beautiful thing without which no greater beauty can possibly be imagined…. The marriage of confusion and creativity is the beginning of new life. (84, 84)
Imagine yourself into the scene in Jericho. Crowds following Jesus, so numerous that a short man cannot even see into the center of the gathering. Zacchaeus runs and climbs into a tree. Jesus calls to him. Did he have to shout because the crowds were so noisy? Who was he calling to? Why was this wealthy man up in a tree? Chaos, confusion – then creativity when a connection was made. Zacchaeus’ life was changed. He became as innocent as his name.
One final thought before wrapping up. When you take chances there are unexpected ripple effects that also touch people’s lives. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote about the early Methodist movement, The Methodist preachers aimed at saving men’s souls in the next world, but incidentally they gave a new direction to emotions energizing the world (Adventures of Ideas, 22). Whitehead went on to say that the Methodists produced the final wave of popular feeling which drove the anti-slavery movement to success (23). He was writing primarily about the British context. The early Methodist took chances in reaching out to people in new ways, and in connecting them more with God through Jesus, society was also changed.
As we take chances in our journey of faith, as we take chances in our ministry, we cannot know how the Spirit might use unleashed creativity to touch lives in ways we never quite imagined. How were the lives of the poor who were helped by Zacchaeus changed? How about those people who he had defrauded? Did some of them end up taking a chance on Jesus? Did any of them find new ways to be generous?
While you see a chance, take it – thoughtfully and prayerfully, but with a sense of adventure. We take chances to expand our ministry and to grow in our faith because finally God is always taking chances on us. Isn’t that at the heart of the Christian gospel, the good news that we share? God is always taking chances on us. When our love fails, God’s love remains steadfast. God entrusts to us sharing in God’s very work – treasure in clay vessels to use Paul’s image (II Corinthians 4:7).
Christian life, living the Jesus way, is a life of taking wise, thoughtful and prayerful chances. Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure – a little chaos and confusion as a prelude to creativity are at the heart of this Jesus’ life. In one of his poems, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, writes “so walk on air against your better judgement” (“The Gravel Walks”). There is something to that if we are to follow Jesus. It is just what Zacchaeus did.
While you see a chance to think in new ways about your faith, to deepen your connection to the God who is always reaching out to you in Jesus, take it. Walk on air against your better judgement.
While you see a chance to help others take a chance on Jesus, take it. Walk on air against your better judgement.
While you see a chance to reach out to the hurting, the yearning, the hungry, the least, to share good news, to share bread, to work for justice, take it. Walk on air against your better judgement.
While you see a chance to move from curiosity to commitment to curiosity again, take it. Walk on air against your better judgement.
The Christian life, the Jesus way is a way of adventure, imagination, curiosity, creativity, sometimes a little chaotic, sometimes a little confusing, but always rippling out into the world in profound and unexpected ways. While you see a chance take it. Walk on air against your better judgement and thank you for all the ways you are already doing that in the name and Spirit of Jesus the Christ. Amen.