Friday, November 15, 2013

“Seven Weddings and a Resurrection” - November 17, 2013

Text: Luke 20:27-40

Once upon a time, Barry McNary of Harper’s Ferry and Mary McClary of Eden Prairie were married.  They looked forward to a life that would be nothing but merry, but on their honeymoon went to a wetlands sanctuary and explored an estuary that unfortunately was unsanitary, and Barry tragically developed dysentery and died.

Now the custom was that when a man died with no children, his brother took the widow as his wife.  The first born son of this union took the deceased man’s name, received his inheritance, and carried on his line of descendants.

So Barry’s brother Gary, who worked in a dairy, married Mary and their first son would be named Barry, but shortly after the wedding, Gary suffered a coronary.  The family did not tarry, but Barry and Gary’s brother Harry, who was in the military, married Mary.  Harry and Mary’s sons would be named Barry and Gary, but there was a tragic accident with an actuary and like Barry and Gary, Harry died with no heirs.  So the fourth brother, Jerry, the lapidary, married Mary, and looked forward to raising sons Barry, Gary, and Harry, who would receive the inheritance and carry on the names of Jerry’s brothers Barry, Gary, and Harry, but the stress of all this proved to be more than Jerry could carry, and he too wound up at the mortuary.

Friends advised Larry not to marry Mary, it was just too scary, but Larry ignored their commentary and like his brothers Barry, Gary, Harry, and Jerry, Larry too married Mary, but he met with an unfortunate accident involving a crazed canary, and Larry went to be with the older McNary’s.

Which left brother number six, Perry, the visionary, to marry Mary, but Perry fell off a ferry into Lake Erie and like Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, and Larry, Perry died with no heirs.

And so it was left to the seventh and final brother, Terry, to marry Mary.  Their union would hopefully produce sons Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, and Perry, who would receive the inheritance and carry on the names of brothers Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, and Perry who had died.  Not to mention any other sons who might come of the union and who would be Terry’s heirs.  He thought he might name son #7 Elmo, or Fred, or maybe Timmy.

But as he reflected on the task before him, he was overwhelmed.  His cousin Sherry asked how he felt about the coming marriage, and he replied, “Very, very wary.” And his fears turned out to be justified, because at the wedding reception he ate a bad berry, and, well, you know what happened next.

Now Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, Perry, and Terry had all been married to Mary, and all had died.  The question is, when they all get to heaven, what becomes of Barry, Gary, Harry, Jerry, Larry, Perry, Terry, and Mary?  Who will be Mary’s husband?  That is the query.

----

It’s a silly, far-fetched story, ridiculous.  The person who first told it (and yes, I’ve added just a few embellishments) intended for it to come across as silly and far-fetched.  It was absurd, and it was supposed to be.  The story and the accompanying question about “what happens now?” were intended to make a point.  The real issue was resurrection and the possibility of life beyond death.  Those who posed the question, the Saducees, did not believe in resurrection.  To them, it seemed absurd, about as silly as the story.

For the Saducees, if it were not in the Torah (the books of the law, the first five books of our Bible), then they had no time for it.  The Saducees were rich and powerful and very conservative.  They didn’t put stock in those newfangled scriptures – the Psalms, prophets, books of history.  They followed Torah – if it was good enough for Moses, it was good enough for them.  And they did not find resurrection in the Torah.

Other Jews, including the Pharisees, believed in resurrection, and as far as the Saducees could tell, Jesus believed in resurrection.  To show how ridiculous all of this resurrection talk was, the Saducees came up with this story about the woman who had been married to seven different brothers, all of whom died, and asked, what happens now?  In the resurrection, who is married to whom?

It wasn’t a sincere question.  That is, those who asked it did not care about Jesus’ answer. They did not ask because they wanted to hear his opinion, they asked it to make him look bad, to point out how fuzzy his thinking was, and if they could tweak the Pharisees at the same time, well, that was a bonus.

The intention was for it to look like a silly question, in order to reveal the silliness of resurrection talk, but the fact is, within this scenario that the Saducees came up with lies a real question – several real questions, in fact.  Presumably, none of us have come upon a situation where seven brothers were married to the same woman, but we all have some questions about what comes after this life.

People have always been fascinated by these sorts of questions, and a variety of folks have paid special attention to this passage of scripture in particular.   In the early 1800’s, various groups based a whole theology on their unique interpretation of these verses.

Joseph Smith read “in heaven there shall be neither marriage nor giving in marriage,” and he said that since we can’t get married in heaven, we better do it right on earth so that it will last, and from this comes the Mormon practice of “temple-sealed marriages.”  At about the same time, just a few miles down the road in upstate New York, John Humphrey Noyes read this passage and said that since marriage doesn’t matter in heaven, it shouldn’t matter here, either.  So the Oneida Community practiced a kind of “Free Love” arrangement that was scandalous.  It was a very different interpretation, to say the least.  Their community faced a lot of opposition, as you might expect, and it didn’t last, but they did give us Oneida silverware.

And then there were the Shakers and Mother Ann Lee, whose take on the whole matter was a rejection of marriage and a call to celibacy for believers. 

While those groups focused strongly on the marriage question, it seems clear that the real issue here is not so much marriage as it is death and resurrection and eternal life.

Now, any conversation about resurrection, any conversation about what happens after we die has to be undertaken with a lot of humility.  We don’t know for sure and no one can know for sure.  People who have it all figured out, who know all the details, kind of scare me.

In college, I was in the Baptist Student Union, the Southern Baptist campus ministry group at the University of Evansville.  We would sometimes lead services at area churches.  I remember one time there was a little church in a town about 30 miles away that was having a weekend revival.  They had an evangelist, and different students were providing music and leading worship, doing pretty well everything except the preaching.

The evangelist was young, probably around 30 years old, and very slick.  In the late 70’s and early 80’s, a lot of guys used blow dryers, but this guy could have been the poster boy for blow-dried hair.  We rode over to the church with him.  He drove a sporty car and he popped in his 8-track tape with popular Christian music.  Nothing wrong with any of that, but the sermon was another story.  The first night, he preached about heaven.  He took a verse here, a verse there, a little from Revelation, a little from 2 Thessalonians, a little from Daniel.  He added 2 + 2 +2 and came up with 147.

He told everybody exactly what would happen when we die; he told us we would all have a mansion – Jesus said, in my Father’s house are many mansions – and he told us the exact dimensions of our mansion, the square footage, computing this from various verses of scripture.  It was bizarre, and so bad that the little church, which was quite conservative and not at all what you would call a sophisticated bunch – I mean, they were the kind of church that had probably endured more than a few weird sermons over the years – this church had to decide whether or not to continue the revival or just cancel the whole thing right then and there after the first night.

Those folks knew intuitively that none of us could possibly know the stuff this guy was spouting out, and it offended them not just that he was answering unknowable questions, but that he was so darn sure about it.

Rather than speculating about what we do not know, we need to pay attention to what we do know.  In this story, we need to pay attention to what Jesus is saying.

To get a sense of where Jesus was coming from, it may help to know a little bit about marriage in Jesus’ day.  Marriage in the first century was an economic arrangement, usually initiated and concluded by the parents of the two parties.  Generally speaking, the woman had no say in the matter, and the man often had very little, especially if he were 15 or so, which was a normal age to be married.  The laws about marrying a deceased brother’s wife if there were no sons were instituted to keep the property in the family and continue the dead man’s name.  These were economic considerations.

So when Jesus says we won’t be giving people in marriage in the Kingdom, part of what he is saying is that we won’t have the economic necessities that made marriage what it was, and that people will not be treated like property.

Now, we can read this kind of odd, kind of archaic, maybe even kind of silly story, and think of it as irrelevant, but it raises a couple of questions that are very relevant.

First, what will resurrection life be like?  We all wonder what the future will hold, we all wonder about what happens when we die.  The Saducees’ mistake was assuming that the life to come would be just like earthly life – and therefore ridiculing the very idea.  We certainly don’t know the full answer to this question – even if folks like that evangelist back in Indiana think they know all the answers – but Jesus tells us at the very least that that resurrection life will be nothing like our present existence.

It was acceptable - and according to the law, even expected - for a widow to marry her brother-in-law in order to have children and keep the family name alive.  Jesus said, these are concerns for this life.  They will not be concerns in the life to come.

The Book of Revelation often describes heaven by what is not there--no tears, no sorrow, no pain.  With this passage, we could add, no domination, no taking others for granted, no treating someone as if they were property.  People will not be given in marriage because people will not be things to be given.

Resurrection life will not simply be “more of the same” of what we have on earth.  It won’t even be “more and better” of what we have now.  Existence in the kingdom is beyond our describing.  In I Corinthians 13, Paul speaks of eternity and says that now, we only “see through a glass dimly.”  We cannot describe existence in the life to come because we cannot know it in this life.

Imagine a baby, still in the womb.  Assuming that child could understand what we are saying, how could we describe to that child what this world outside the womb is like?  How could we describe the sky and the air?  Or trees or grass?  Or people?  We couldn’t.  How can we describe existence in the life to come?  We can’t.  We have some clues to that existence, but we can rest assured that it will not simply be more of the same.

Jesus speaks to the Saducees’ real issue, their lack of belief in resurrection.  Conditions in this life do not constitute proof of conditions in the life to come, he says.  The realm of God is unlike life as we know it now.

The second big question this story raises for us is, Will we know our spouses, our family, our friends in eternity?  Given Jesus’ words about not marrying in the next life and the emphasis on a qualitative difference in resurrection life, this is an important question.  And whenever there is a funeral, this question is very much on our minds.  Will we be with this person again?  Will we see them again?  Will we know them?  What will they be like? 

Jesus does not address this question here, not directly.  He does not say whether we will know those who have been dear to us in this life, only that resurrection life will be different than this one.

But he does say – and here, he is quoting from Torah, for the benefit of the Saducees – Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6, where God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  It is not that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but God is their God.  To God, all of them are alive.  God is the God of the living, not the dead. 

Jesus says that there is life beyond this life, and his statement implies that relationships in this life persist in the life to come.

Still, we want to know more details.  We naturally want to fill in the blanks, like that young evangelist.  We want to know more, but as Paul says, we only see now through a glass dimly.  I don’t know the answers, none of us do, and I have probably already said more than I know. 

We do not know the what and the how.  We do not know the details.  But we do know who holds the answers, and who holds our lives.  Our faith is that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob raised Christ from death and promises to do the same also for us.  For God is the God not of the dead, but of the living.  And for now, that is enough to know.  Amen.

“Great Day of Giving” - November 10, 2013

Text: 2 Corinthians 9:6-12

Today is Stewardship Sunday, and we are talking about money.  This is not easy because we aren’t comfortable talking about money.  People will talk about religion and politics and sex and all kinds of sensitive topics – or once-sensitive topics.  People will share all kinds of intimate details of their lives through social media, but we do not tweet our retirement account balance.  We don’t put a photo of our mortgage on Instagram, and we don’t post on Facebook that we may have to declare bankruptcy.

We don’t talk about money in a personal way, especially in church, but the Bible talks about money all the time.  According to Jim Wallis, there are several thousand verses in the Old Testament alone about money or the poor – it is the second most prominent theme, behind idolatry, and the two were often connected.  In the New Testament, one of every sixteen verses is about the poor or the subject of money; in Luke, it is one of seven. 

People complain sometimes that the church talks about money too much.  But if they want Biblical preaching, people should actually complain that we don’t talk about money nearly enough.

Well, today we are talking money.  Being that it is Stewardship Sunday, I thought we might look at some models for doing stewardship.  We have a certain way we have done things around here, but maybe there are some other approaches, some alternate ways, better ways to do it. 

The first idea comes from news reports from last year.  In Germany, the state collects a levy from tax-registered believers and hands it over to three organized faiths.  Registered Catholics, Protestants and Jews pay a surcharge on their income, which is distributed to their church or synagogue.

This is not new, and it’s not just Germany.  What made the news is that the German Roman Catholic bishops' conference announced that not paying taxes for the church is a grave offense, and that sacraments will be withheld from those who do not pay the 9% church tax.  If you don’t pay, you will be denied weddings, funerals, communion, and other sacraments in the church.

Of course, many Catholics in Germany are up in arms over this policy.  Many of those who pay the voluntary church tax are adamantly against this policy.  But you have to admit, this does provide some incentive for giving.

Now, the government is not going to collect our tithes and offerings, but we could institute something like this on our own.  We could only make the church’s services available to those who contribute 9% of earnings.  You don’t give at that level, no weddings, no funerals, no baptisms, and you can’t attend the annual cook-off.

That seems kind of extreme, but maybe we could go to a membership level system, which is more and more common in all kinds of organizations.  We have a regular AAA membership, but you can pay a little more and get a platinum membership with more benefits.

So here’s a proposal: we could institute membership levels.  If you give a smaller percentage of income, you get bronze level services.  You can park in the bronze parking section, sit in the first two rows – you know, where most people really don’t want to sit – and qualify for the economy wedding package.  Give enough for the silver level, say 5%, and we will throw in the newsletter, standard parking and seating, and a Music Camp CD.  And if you tithe, you are in the Gold membership level.  You get access to all church services and benefits, get in line first for pot-lucks, and you are allowed to sit in the back two rows – the really good seats.  Well, it’s an idea.

A related idea is that we require everyone to turn in a copy of their tax return.  We’ll take a look at it and then assign to each member the amount they should contribute.  Jewish synagogues operate on a structure where members are assessed dues based on their income level.  And I have heard of some evangelical churches where to join, you have to show your tax return and then they can monitor whether you are tithing.  We could all bring in our tax returns and net worth statements, and then the stewardship committee could look them over and send everybody a bill for the coming year.  We wouldn’t have to decide what to give, the church would decide for us.  What do you think?

Another possibility is the Public Radio Model.  In this program, we will call you every day for two weeks and talk for an hour.  For 20 minutes of that hour, we will remind you how much we do for you and how unfair it is to receive services you’re not paying for.  The great part about this method is we will continue to call you even after you’ve made your pledge – but of course after pledging, you won’t have to feel guilty about it.

Another method is time proven and very popular.  It is known as the “Pyramid” method, and it has worked very well for some folks on Wall Street.  Here’s how it works:  the very first person to pledge only has to pledge one penny.  That’s right, just one cent for the whole year!

That amount would double for each pledging unit to follow.  The second pledge would be for 2 cents; the third pledge would be 4 cents.  Sounds great, right? 

The really great thing is that this would completely cover our church finances.  As it turns out, the 25th giving unit would contribute $170,000.  If we had 45 pledges, which is a little more than last year, in the neighborhood of what we might expect, our pledge total would be around 17.6 trillion dollars.  This amount would not only allow us to fund all of our ministries and significantly increase our mission giving, we could also build a staff retreat center in the Swiss Alps.  We could pay for the south end zone expansion at Jack Trice Stadium – well, it would be Jack Trice Field at First Baptist Stadium.  We could also provide universal free pre-school, pay off all accumulated student loan debt in America - well, we could do that for the whole world - and we would still have most of the money left to help pay down the national debt.  And oh yeah, we wouldn’t have to have a pledge drive next year.

The other big plus would be that this method would definitely encourage people to get their pledges in early and not wait until the last minute.

Another possibility is the retail model – one size fits all.  Our proposed budget is $238,000 and we have some rental and investment income, so if we need let’s say $190,000 in pledges, we could divide that by 45 giving units and send everybody a bill for $4222.  It would be simple.  If it works for retail, it should work here.  Who sells a car based on what the consumer thinks God wants them to pay?

Finally, we could use the airline model.  You pay a modest fee for getting in the door.  The catch is, we will charge you for all of your baggage – the personal, emotional, and spiritual baggage you bring with you.  You want a seat – ka-ching.  You want some coffee – ka-ching.  You want to use a hymnal – ka-ching.  We’ll charge you for a bulletin.  We will charge per prayer, per choir anthem, per scripture reading, per communion.

Well, I can tell from looking at your faces that while each of these methods definitely has something to recommend it, nobody is very excited about any of them.  So, here is the plan we are using right now:

We have tried to communicate the mission of our church through various means.  We sent a letter and a copy of our proposed budget.  The budget is not so much a financial statement as it is a plan for ministry – a statement of the ministry we feel God is calling us to.  We sent a narrative budget that attempted to go beyond the numbers to what the budget represented, a story of the ministry that we share together as a church.

We have had testimonies in worship around stewardship.  Jere spoke to us about paying it forward – about the way that others have blessed us and we are called to pay those blessings forward to others.  Sometimes we get caught up in details and minutiae, but Katherine really helped me get a sense of the big picture.  She spoke of how this church has blessed her throughout her life, how it gave her a strong foundation as she left Ames to go away to school and how we were here for her as she came back to Ames.  For me it was a powerful reminder that yes, what we do really does matter, it really does make a difference.  And this morning Jeanette challenged us that stewardship is not just something to think about once a year, but it is the way we live each and every day.

So, we have tried to communicate as best we can what our mission is and why this matters.  We have asked everyone to pray about your own contribution – how you will be part of this church’s ministry through your time, your talents, your resources.

We have thought kind of light-heartedly about the way ministry is funded, but this is really not like NPR or Delta Airlines.  We are not paying for services received; we are investing in the future, investing in building God’s kingdom, investing in what we value highly.  We are investing in the kind of world we hope for and long for.  It is an investment we make with our financial gifts, but it is also an investment we make with our lives every day.

I am so impressed with so many of you who day in, day out make a difference – through involvement in the community in many ways, through participation not only in our congregation but in various organizations that are doing vital work in Ames and beyond.  But more than that, I have been impressed with the kindness and concern and compassion and all of the ways that you show love for your neighbor, each and every day.  This is Christian stewardship.

Our theme this last month has been “It’s a Great Day.”  We had our Great Day of Service, as we worked together to make a difference in our community and beyond.  On Reformation Sunday we remembered that we are part of a Great Tradition, called continually to renew the church that we love and through which we serve.  Last Sunday, we looked at the story of Zachaeus and a Great Day of Generosity.  His experience with Jesus changed his life and he was transformed from a life of selfish accumulation to a life of open-handed generosity.

Today we come to make our pledges of support for the year ahead, and it is a Great Day of Giving.  In our text from 2 Corinthians, we read, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. “

Now, compulsion has been tried.  There are a lot of stewardship models based on coercion, but our conviction is that we should all give freely, as we are led.  This is true at a congregational level.  Our budget includes ministries beyond our church that we choose to support – we are not assessed any dues; we do this because we want to.  We strongly support United Mission, the program through which we support American Baptist mission and ministry in this country and around the world.

We are among the leading churches in mission support in our region, and we are proud of that, but the fact is that God has blessed us with the resources to offer that kind of support, and we do so gladly.  We support numerous ministries and agencies that are doing good work, much-needed work, here in Ames.  We are under no compulsion or requirement to support such mission; we do so because we believe it is important and we want to. 

As a congregation, I think that we give cheerfully, gladly, to mission beyond the walls of this church.  The same is true at an individual level.

God does not want us giving out of guilt or compulsion or threat.  We don’t give in order to get brownie points with God or because bad things will happen to us if we don’t give.  I once received a letter from the organization of a big-time TV preacher.  It said that we have been praying for you these past several months, but our finances are tight, we only have so many people and so much time, and unless we hear from you soon with a contribution, we will have to drop your name from our prayer list.  They essentially said, “Our prayers have been protecting you and we can’t be responsible for what happens once we stop praying for you.”  (I’m not making this up.) 

Paul writes, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. “

The invitation to each of us is to give cheerfully, to give gladly, to give as God leads.  There is no tax or bill sent to us; we determine this for ourselves.  Now, the Bible offers some guidance.  The Bible points us to the tithe, or 10% of one’s increase.  The Old Testament idea was that the first-fruits, the first and best, ten percent off the top, belongs to God.

Jesus put a different spin on this.  The New Testament ethic is, it all belongs to God, not just 10%.  The tithe is not so much a law as a standard, a guide.  Depending on where we are in life, a tithe may be too difficult or it may be too little.  If you are starting out in giving, a good way is to choose a percentage and increase the percentage over time, moving towards a tithe.  For some doing very well, a tithe may be too easy.  Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church, the megachurch in California.  He has become a celebrity, he has written best-sellers – he’s doing pretty well financially.  It’s safe to say he earns more than the average pastor.  He and his wife Kay practice a reverse tithe – they give away 90% and live on 10%.  On the other hand, there are those living on fixed incomes, there are folks just scraping by, and the relatively small amount they give may be a much more sacrificial gift than vast amount given by a wealthy person.

Again, Paul says: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

In a moment, we will receive the offering.  We will offer our tithes, our gifts, our pledges of commitment.  And this is a time of celebration.  The offering is a celebration of God’s gifts, a celebration that we have been blessed, a celebration that we are able to give, a celebration that God’s grace that has found us. 

This morning, we invite you to give generously, we invite you to give joyfully, we invite you to give cheerfully – for God loves a cheerful giver.  Amen.


Thanks to Greg Garland for his thoughts on “creative stewardship models” which spurred this sermon.

Friday, November 1, 2013

“A Great Day of Generosity” - November 3, 2013

Text: Luke 19:1-10

If you know it, sing it with me: Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…

If you are of a certain age and grew up in the church, there is a good chance you know “Zacchaeus.”  On the Sunday School hit parade, "Zacchaeus" was about as big as "Jesus Loves Me."

There is something about the image of this guy who climbed a tree to see Jesus that has stuck with me.  I could imagine myself climbing a tree, rising above the crowd and seeing Jesus.  And I could imagine the surprise and the excitement that Jesus picked me, that he wanted to come to my house and hang out with me.

This morning, I want you to imagine with me a bit more about Zacchaeus, about how he came to this point and about the way that this day changed his life.

To start with, Zacchaeus was short.  Not just below average height, but exceptionally short.  As far as I can tell, only three people in the whole Bible are noted for their height.  There is a tall Egyptian whose name is not given who was killed by one of David’s warriors.  There is Goliath, the Philistine giant.  And then there is Zacchaeus.  The word short is used only once in the Bible to describe a person--and that person is Zacchaeus.  That doesn’t mean he was the shortest person in the Bible, but he is the only person whose short stature is mentioned.

Because of his height (or lack of it), things had always been hard.  Growing up, other kids made fun of him.  Phys Ed was especially bad.  It didn’t matter if it was a relay race or Moabite Rules Football, he was always the last one picked.

Nobody thought much of Zacchaeus, and because of that, he didn’t think much of himself.  He never thought he was worth much.  He was actually fairly bright, but he didn’t do very well in school.  He was never very popular.  He never had many friends.  But he tried to hide his feelings by putting on a tough front.  He put down others to feel better about himself.  Of course, all of this only insured that he wouldn’t have many friends.

Zacchaeus finished school and like everyone else was looking for a job.  But jobs were hard to come by.  This Roman invasion had messed up the economy, which wasn’t so great to start with.  But then Zacchaeus saw the ad in the Jericho Gazette for the tax job.  Now understand that working as a tax collector meant burning a lot of bridges.  You were choosing to work for the enemy.  You would be collecting money from your own people to give to the Romans.  To say that tax collectors were unpopular was to understate the situation.  They were despised, hated, social outcasts.

Let me tell you a story I heard the other day.  There was a Hindu priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a TV evangelist all caught in a terrible thunderstorm.  They all happened to seek shelter at the same farmhouse.  “It’s gonna storm all night,” said the farmer.  “You’ll have to stay here for the night.  Only problem is, there is only room for two of you.  One will have to sleep in barn.”

“I’ll be the one,” said the Hindu priest.  “A little hardship is nothing to me.”  A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door.  It was the Hindu.  “I’m sorry, but there is a cow in the barn.  According to my religion, cows are sacred, and one must not intrude into their space.”

“Don’t worry about it, come on in,” said the rabbi.  “I’ll sleep in the barn.”  But a few minutes later there was another knock and it was the rabbi.  “I’m really sorry about this, but there is a pig in the bar.  In my religion, pigs are unclean.  I cannot share sleeping quarters with a pig.

“That’s all right, said the TV evangelist.  I’ll sleep in the barn.”  A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door.  It was the cow and the pig.

Now that’s an old joke, of course, and it could be told on anybody.  In Zacchaeus’ day, it was told about tax collectors.  Nobody liked a tax collector.  Zacchaeus understood what he would be getting into.  But what was there to lose?  He already felt like a social outcast.  And he knew that tax collectors made a lot of money.  He would never make that kind of money anywhere else.

So he applied for the job.  This was a bit risky in itself.  Even if he didn’t get the job, if he applied for it and people found out, there would be a price to pay.
 
He was a nervous wreck waiting to hear from the Department of Revenue, but finally Zacchaeus was told that he had the job.  And the amazing thing was, this man who didn’t think much of himself, who had never really been that good at anything, turned out to be great at collecting taxes.  The thick skin he had developed over the years served him well.  He looked down the tax rolls and saw guys who never chose him for the team and girls who would never think of going out with him.  And he stuck it to them.  He took delight in taking money from people who were popular or powerful or successful--people who wouldn’t have given him the time of day.  For the first time in his life, he had a taste of power.

Tax collectors were almost universally known to be corrupt.  They overcharged people, and with the Roman army there to make sure people paid up, it wasn’t too hard to get away with it.  Zacchaeus had no problem overcharging.  He fit right in.  He was a great tax collector.

Zacchaeus’ success didn’t escape the notice of his superiors.  When there was an opening for an assistant regional superintendent, Zacchaeus was chosen for the job.  It meant more money.  They higher up you went in the system, the more you became involved in the corruption, and the more money there was.  Eventually Zacchaeus became Chief Tax Collector.  (Or as he preferred to call it, “Chief Revenue Generation Specialist.”)   It was as high as a Jewish boy could go in the system.  His boss was a Roman.  He was in charge of taxes for a wide area around the city of Jericho.

For a tax collector, this was a plum job.  Jericho was one of the wealthiest areas in the country.  There were palm forests and balsam groves surrounding the city.  The area exported dates and balsam and other products.  Jericho’s rose gardens were known far and wide.  It was a trade center.  There was a lot of money in Jericho.  Being in charge of taxes for this area guaranteed that you would be quite rich.

And he was.  Zacchaeus was successful and he was rich.  And yet, he wasn’t happy.  Money by itself wasn’t all that great.  He was lonely.  His only friends were other tax collectors, but being the chief tax collector, they couldn’t really be friends - he was their boss.  And deep inside himself, he still somehow felt like he was worthless.  Here he was, taking money from Jews and giving it to the Romans.  The Romans that he worked for thought no more of him, maybe even less of him, than the Jews did.

He had heard of this man named Jesus.  Some of the people criticized Jesus, called him a “friend of sinner and tax collectors.”  You better believe that caught Zacchaeus’ attention.  He didn’t know if anybody, especially a religious person, could actually be a friend of tax collectors, but he was intrigued enough that he wanted to go see Jesus.

Jesus was at the height of his popularity and big crowds turned out.  Folks wanted to see this man that everyone was talking about.

This was hard for Zacchaeus.  Remember, he wasn’t just short, he was super short.  He couldn’t see over the crowd.  And more than that, people that knew who he was would push him or elbow him or step on his foot or accidentally spill their drink on him.  This was one of the most hated men in town.  Zacchaeus saw a tree and decided that if he was going to see Jesus, this was the only way.  Besides, he wouldn’t have so many bruises tomorrow.

So he went ahead of the crowd, climbed the tree, sat on a limb, and waited for Jesus to pass by.  He was able to see over the crowd.  And then he saw Jesus.  It seemed like Jesus was coming right towards him.  It seemed like Jesus was looking right at him.  And then, Zacchaeus realized that - he was.  He could hardly believe it when Jesus said, “Hurry and get down from there, I’m going to stay at your house today.”

Zacchaeus thought, “Why my house?  Out of all these people, why me?”  Something happened to Zacchaeus that day.  Jesus had chosen him.  Jesus had accepted him.  To Jesus, he was not worthless.  He was not hopeless.  He was not contemptible.  Whatever he had done did not matter.  He was a child of God.

There are two main characters in the story.  And the most important one is not Zacchaeus.  The fact is, this story says more about God than it does Zacchaeus.  “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Why would Jesus choose to visit Zacchaeus?  If we were in Jesus’ sandals, would we have chosen Zacchaeus?  Probably not.  But God, thankfully, is not like us.  God is in the seeking and saving business.  God is about bringing salvation, bringing wholeness and healing and peace, right here and now.  To people like Zacchaeus, whose lives seem hopeless and meaningless, and to people like us, when our lives need hope and meaning.  Jesus wants to come home with us and stay with us and tell us that we are loved, we are accepted, we count, we are important to God.

Several years ago a school teacher who worked with children in a large city hospital received a routine call asking her to visit a particular boy.  She took his name and room number and was told by the teacher on the phone, “We’re working on nouns and adverbs in class now.  I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn’t fall behind.”

It wasn’t until the visiting teacher walked into the boy’s room that she realized she was in the burn unit.  No one had prepared her to see a boy horribly burned and in great pain.  He obviously was not in any condition to study, but she felt she couldn’t just turn and walk out, so she stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher--your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.”  That was about it and she left.

The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?”  Before she could apologize, the nurse interrupted her and said, “You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed.  He’s fighting back, he’s responding to treatment...it’s as though he’s decided to live.”

The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw the teacher.  It all changed when he came to a simple realization.  He expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”

How important it is to know that someone believes in us.  More than anyone, God believes in us.  Zacchaeus made the effort to see Jesus, but the initiative in the relationship really is with God.  God is about seeking and saving.

Despite who Zacchaeus was and what he had become, despite the grumbling of more respectable people about Jesus’ choice of companions, Jesus had chosen him.  And that absolutely changed Zacchaeus’ life.

Thomas Merton wrote about truly encountering the living Christ. He said: “True encounter with Christ liberates something in us, a power we did not know we had, a hope; a capacity for life, a resilience; an ability to bounce back when we think we are completely defeated, a capacity to grow and change, a power of creative transformation.”

By the power of Christ, Zacchaeus was changed.  He was transformed.  Until now, he had lived for himself.  He had lived for money.  He had lived to accumulate.  But this encounter with Jesus changed everything.  He was transformed from a cold-hearted man who cared mainly about himself into a changed man with a generous heart.

He had acquired vast wealth by dishonest means.  Now, half of all he had he would give to the poor.  And to any he had cheated (and clearly this was a large group), he would repay them four times the amount.  The law said that someone voluntarily admitting fraud must repay the amount plus 20%.  But having experienced the grace of God, Zacchaeus went far beyond what the law required.  Jesus believed in him and it absolutely changed his life.

It’s not just Zacchaeus.  It’s you.  It’s me.  It’s all of us.  What a difference it makes to know that someone believes in us.  But to know that God believes in us--that can make all the difference.  Knowing that God believes in us, we can believe in ourselves and we can experience a power that can absolutely change our lives.

And the change is from a smallness of spirit to a wide, expansive spirit.  From fear to joyful living.  From tightly clutching what we have to a spirit of open-handed generosity.  When we understand what we have been given, we are glad to give for the sake of others.

The testimony of Zacchaeus was that Jesus had freed him – freed him from fear and shame and freed him for generous, open-hearted living.  May that be so in our lives.  Amen.