Sermon Seeds: Transforming Love/The Strength of Our Witness
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 26
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 with Psalm 119:137-144 or
Isaiah 1:10-18 with Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Sample stewardship sermon on Luke 19:1-10
Transforming Love/The Strength of Our Witness
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
One last outcast on the way to Jerusalem: Zacchaeus, whose name means “clean” or “innocent,” is, surprisingly, unclean and a sinner. (But aren’t we used to such reversals by now in the Gospel of Luke?) This little story strikes many familiar notes, especially from the previous chapter: we read of Zacchaeus trying to “see” Jesus, and remember the blind man Jesus just healed (despite obstacles, both seem to have a sense of who Jesus is); we hear that Zacchaeus is rich, and remember the rich ruler who was sad because he couldn’t part with his wealth; we hear that Zacchaeus is small and blocked by the crowd, and remember the children kept back by the disciples but recognized and drawn in by Jesus; we hear that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, and remember the tax collector praying humbly in the Temple in Jesus’ parable; we read of Zacchaeus’ persistence in seeing Jesus and hear him press his own case against the crowd, and remember the widow who wouldn’t give up pleading her case; we read that finding “the lost” like Zacchaeus is what the Son of Man came to do, and remember the twelve who failed to “grasp what was said” when Jesus tried to tell them what lay ahead for the Son of Man.
Jesus is really the main character in this story about Zacchaeus. While the tax collector is seeking him (surely it took more than curiosity to make him sacrifice his dignity by running and by climbing a tree), Jesus is seeking Zacchaeus, this “non-person” shunned and hated by the crowd. The people have good reason for their hatred, since tax collectors are traitors, instruments of Rome’s oppression, and this man is a “chief” tax collector. (We may all be sinners, but this one is a really bad sinner.) He’s also rich, so he has presumably extracted his wealth from his own people. A few chapters back, though, we learned that “the lost” are dear to the heart of God, in stories of lost sheep, lost coins, a lost son, all worth going after and looking for because they are so greatly valued by the seeker. “Not simply clever or perplexing stories,” these accounts “live at the heart of God’s purpose of salvation,” Sharon Ringe writes (Luke, Westminster Bible Companion). Zacchaeus may be hated by the crowd, but he is loved and valued by Jesus, who has come to find him. Perhaps Jesus asks around to find out the name of that fellow up in the tree. It is “who Jesus is” to seek the lost, including us: it is his mission.
This is also a story about joy, a theme that runs through the Gospel of Luke just as much as the theme of reversals. Zacchaeus is happy, not afraid, to welcome Jesus into his home. It’s a new day for the tax collector, who feels God’s mercy and love reaching him through the love and acceptance of Jesus. The gospel is certainly “good news” for him: nothing less than salvation – healing and wholeness and restoration – has come this very day not just personally to him but to his entire household (another theme in Luke). Zacchaeus joyfully welcomes Jesus, in contrast to the rich ruler who left Jesus, sad, because he couldn’t let go of his possessions even to know joy and peace. It requires the grace of God for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, we recall, nothing less than a miracle: “Zacchaeus, then, represents the miracle,” and he gives away extravagantly more than what is required, “symbolizing his independence from his money,” writes Charles Cousar (Texts for Preaching Year C). What kind of trust is necessary to offer half of our possessions to the poor? What sort of experience would inspire that kind of trust?
We might imagine many things about this story: why does Zacchaeus first want to see Jesus so badly? Do his people accept this “son of Abraham” after Jesus leaves? (I love to think about what happened to people after they appear in Gospel stories.) Perhaps the most interesting question concerns the conversion of Zacchaeus. Some scholars think that it’s Jesus’ visit, and the grace of God, that move him to promise to give away half of his money to the poor and to make lavish restitution where needed. They translate his verbs in the future tense. Others claim that a present tense is appropriate, and that Zacchaeus is honestly claiming to be an observant Jew. Richard Swanson presses this case persuasively, writing about the ritual of separation and exclusion necessary to mark off a faithful Israel, the ritual of hospitality that makes it an honor for Jesus to visit; and the ritual of caring for the poor, which is really “binding the world together.” The surprise in this story is that the outcast is the observant one. “This is a scene of revelation, not of redemption” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke). Yes, it’s the grace of God at work, but perhaps God has been working on Zacchaeus for quite a while. And John Pilch believes Zacchaeus is describing his “repeated, customary practice,” not something he’s going to start doing now: Zacchaeus “converted earlier and was misjudged by the grumbling Pharisees. Even in antiquity the only exercise some people got was jumping to conclusions” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year C).
Then there is the question of our response to this text and the questions it provokes. During stewardship season, we read a passage like this one with the subject, the practice, of giving to the church on our minds: giving, so that we might participate in transforming the world, so that we might “bind the world together” through the ministry of our local congregation and the whole United Church of Christ. Many, many passages in the Gospels (and the whole Bible) are about money and possessions, the poor and justice, abundance and generosity. Jesus, for one, isn’t afraid to talk about money. He uses it metaphorically and addresses it concretely: he tells the rich ruler to give it away, and rejoices when Zacchaeus shares the story of his own giving (something of an early “witnessing steward”). When we reflect on the sadness of the rich ruler who held on to his money, and the joy of Zacchaeus, who gives it away, do we hunger for that kind of joy and that depth of trust? Would we, too, like to be “independent” of our money?
There is, finally, the uncomfortable question of our role in the suffering of others because of economic injustice, our failure to share freely, like Zacchaeus. One could make a case that Zacchaeus is stuck in such a system and sincerely wants to make reparation for his gain from it. He understands that he can’t just enjoy the benefits and not do something about those who suffer from his enjoyment. Perhaps the most difficult reality is that we who live and participate in and benefit from an unjust and hurtful system (as Zacchaeus did) are not able to claim personal holiness if we turn away from seeing our complicity in such a system. “The fact is,” Fred Craddock writes, that “one is not privately righteous while participating in a corrupt system that robs and crushes other persons” (Preaching through the Christian Year C). Perhaps one answer to the question about Zacchaeus is that he responded wholeheartedly to God’s radical grace in his life, just as we’re invited to respond to our encounter with Jesus and to God’s grace in our lives with generosity, and in so doing, to experience our own lives, and the life of the world, transformed. Like Zacchaeus, we will find that nothing is the same any more.
I have always been a short person. As a child, I was one of the smallest in my class every year, so on the first day of school the nuns would always put me in the front desk, right in front of them (no wonder I was so well-behaved – by the time I got to college and could choose my own seat, I enjoyed finally getting to sit in the back of the room and see things from another point of view, and get a chance to talk to my neighbor,” too). But something interesting has been happening to me in the last two years. You know of course that women are supposed to get shorter as they age, and lose an average of two inches in height in what experts call “later life” but what I’m calling “prolonged early middle age.” Amazingly, instead of losing height, I’ve grown a full inch. Different doctors in different offices with different measuring tapes have confirmed this unusual occurrence. Yes, I feel that now, at five foot four, I tower above others at last. Against all expectations, I’ve grown, much to my delight.
You see, growing up, I envied tall people, especially tall women (“long-stemmed roses,” my mother used to call them). Tall people, it seemed to me, were seen as natural leaders, somehow more capable, more imposing, more inspiring. Life, and success, just seemed easier for them than it was for us short people. Your size on the outside affects what people think about you, at least at first, on the inside, and maybe what they expect from you. If you think that’s not true, consider this: in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, we really don’t know if the “he” in “for he was short in stature” refers to Zacchaeus or to Jesus himself. Maybe Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus in the crowd because Jesus was so short. Now, as an example of height prejudice, many centuries ago, there was a heated reaction to the idea that Jesus could have been the short one. “We just can’t be having that,” they said: “the Savior of the world couldn’t have been – gasp! – short!” (I did a little research on the subject and discovered that no one knows how tall Jesus was, but the best answer I found was, “Tall enough to get the job done.”) So, anyway, the story got passed down to us, and we hear it this way, that Zacchaeus was a little guy on the edge of the crowd, on the margins in more ways than one, who risked his dignity by running (something men just didn’t do in those days) and climbing a tree (do I even have to tell you they didn’t do that either?) to see this person everyone was talking about. Something more than curiosity must have driven him to such lengths.
Being small means more than not being able to see what everyone else can see, over the heads of the crowd, or not being elected class president, or even not being chosen for the basketball team. Being small makes it harder not only to reach things on high shelves but also harder to be seen, to be heard, to be included. That might explain why we short people sometimes feel driven to succeed and to prove ourselves. Would it possibly make a person take a job like tax collector, a job in which it was easier to make a lot of money, that is, if you’re willing to work for those loathsome Romans, the ones who keep your own people under the heel of their boot? Might it explain why a person would bear the hatred of his own people and a life lived on the fringes of society, judged and excluded even though he’s very, very rich?
What an interesting way for Luke to tell his story! The name of this latest outcast in this week’s teaching moment, Zacchaeus, means “clean” or “innocent,” but as a tax collector, he is un-clean and a sinner. By now, we’re used to such reversals in the Gospel of Luke: things are always getting turned upside down and inside out, to the surprise of those who think they know it all. No respectable person, no observant, faithful person should go to Zacchaeus’ home and eat with him. But this little story isn’t all by itself; it connects to what’s come before and to what will follow, since this is the last outcast Jesus encounters on his way to Jerusalem and his death. Read just the last few chapters of this Gospel again through the lens of this story: read of Zacchaeus trying to “see” Jesus, and remember the blind man Jesus just healed (despite physical obstacles, both Zacchaeus and the blind man seem to be more able than others to “see” who Jesus is); read that Zacchaeus is rich but gives his money away, and remember the rich ruler who was sad because he couldn’t part with his wealth; read that Zacchaeus is small and blocked by the crowd, and remember the children kept back by the disciples but recognized and drawn in by Jesus; read that Zacchaeus is a tax collector, and remember the tax collector praying humbly in the Temple in Jesus’ parable; read of Zacchaeus’ persistence in seeing Jesus and hear him press his own case against the judgmental crowd, and remember the widow who wouldn’t give up pleading her case to the judge; read that finding “the lost” like Zacchaeus is what the Son of Man came to do, and remember that the twelve failed to “grasp what was said” when Jesus tried to tell them what lay ahead for the Son of Man.
You see, Jesus the Son of Man, seeker of the lost, is really the main character in this story about Zacchaeus. While the tax collector is seeking him, Jesus is seeking Zacchaeus, this “non-person” shunned and hated by the crowd. The people have good reason for their hatred for this tax-collecting traitor, this instrument of Rome’s oppression; this guy is even a chief tax collector. (We may all be sinners, but this one is a really bad sinner.) He’s also very rich, and he’s presumably extracted his wealth from his own people. However. (There’s always a “however” in the Gospels.) A few chapters back, we learned that “the lost” are dear to the heart of God: we heard stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son, all worth going after and looking for because they are so greatly valued by the seeker. Seeking the lost was at the heart of his purpose and his life, the heart of God’s purpose and the story of salvation. Zacchaeus may be hated and judged by the crowd, but he is loved and valued by Jesus, who has come to find him. We can imagine Jesus asking his assistants for the name of that fellow up in the tree. That’s who Jesus was: he was the one who came to seek the lost, including you and me, came to notice us up in that tree in which we’re hiding, and to call us down so that he can come and be with us where we live: that was his mission.
This is one more story about joy in the Gospel of Luke. Zacchaeus is happy, not afraid, to welcome Jesus into his home. It’s a new day for this tax collector who feels God’s mercy and love reaching him through the love and acceptance of Jesus. For him, the gospel is certainly “good news” – Jesus brings healing, wholeness and restoration not just for him but for his entire household. Joyful Zacchaeus stands in stark contrast to the rich ruler who walked away from Jesus, sad, because he couldn’t let go of his possessions even to know joy and peace. It requires the grace of God for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, we recall, a miracle like Zacchaeus’ willingness to give away money extravagantly, far more than the Law requires to make restitution, because something has transformed his life and cut him loose from the wealth that had cut him off from his people. His generosity to the poor was his way of participating in the work of the community to bind the wounds of a hurting world and its broken relationships.
We hear every story from the Bible in a specific moment in time, and this morning we hear the story of Zacchaeus at an important moment in the life of our congregation. I don’t think that Jesus necessarily visited Zacchaeus’ home during stewardship season; besides, as we hear when Zacchaeus talks about giving a generous portion of his money away, every season is stewardship season. We don’t enjoy God’s gifts only in the fall but in every moment that we draw a living breath or walk upon this good green earth, in every season. Taking good care of those gifts, including the earth, and sharing them with others – that’s what stewardship is. In the fall, the church asks its members and friends to pray a lot about the gifts we’ve received, and to respond to God’s grace and mercy with generosity, just as Zacchaeus did, to support the ministry of this community of faith. Like Zacchaeus, you and I are, in a way, trapped by a system that benefits us and hurts others. To a great extent, we can’t help it. “The Roman Empire” in our lives might be
the systems and the “ism’s” that are so much greater than we are – materialism, consumerism, militarism; we feel so small and powerless in the face of them, and, just like Zacchaeus, we’re trying to make our way the best that we can in spite of them.
But what a difference it makes when someone holds out hope, when bright hope comes near in the person of Jesus! No, we can’t change the whole world by ourselves – we are definitely too little on our own to do that – but God keeps drawing us back here to our church home, where we are so much greater together than any of us is on our own, so much stronger and full of so much promise. Together we can do so much more, by the power of God’s grace, to bind the wounds of a broken world, to offer good news to those on the margins, to seek out the lost and celebrate God’s love as a community because we ourselves know what it feels like to be lost and what it feels like to be found. Like Zacchaeus, we can let go of some of the stuff, the money, the wealth that we’ve been blessed with, not sparingly but generously, just as we have received generously.
Some people say we give because we have to, because God requires it. That’s about as exciting as saying we love because we have to, because God requires it. To be honest, a lot of stewardship appeals say just that – that God requires that we give to the church. I think that God longs to have our hearts, and if God has our hearts, really has our hearts, I think that giving to the church will follow naturally, just as we can’t help giving to people we love. But this is the time of year when the church, this church, your church, tells its story in such a way that draws out promises from us for the year ahead. We were up in that tree, and Jesus came by and said, “Come on down and let’s go home to New Vision Church, together.” Now there may actually be people who are grumbling (I love that word), “Why do they think they can be a church when they allow some of those people, those sinners, inside? We can’t be eating with them, let alone be a church with them! God hates them,” we hear, even this week, from a so-called minister on TV. Surprise! Jesus loves us and has called us here by name to build a home for all the lost – people like you and me – who will excitedly, happily find their way here. It’s here that every single person is told, “Don’t you ever let anyone tell you that you are anything but a precious child of God.” That’s what this church is all about.
But it doesn’t happen in any magical way, without any effort or commitment on our parts. No, it happens by a miracle: that we cut loose from the money that gives us status and security in the world, and we find our status, or height, if you will, as children, precious children of God, here at this table, and our security in the sure promises of God, the mercies of God that are new each morning. It’s a radical idea, and one that will change our lives.
Zacchaeus understood the spiritual practice of stewardship: God’s generosity, and our gratitude and generosity in return. Giving a regular portion of what we’ve received back to God through the ministry of this church is a spiritual practice that shapes us into a certain kind of person; it’s not just “something that we do,” just because we feel we have to. Giving transforms us, day by day, into more generous people.
There are many places and wonderful causes to give our money to these days. That’s a good thing. But the church is distinctive. It’s where we begin our giving and claim who we are before we return to the world and find more ways to give of ourselves. And giving to this church in particular is a brave and daring thing: we may be small, but against all expectations and norms, we can grow in the days ahead – higher in our hope, wider in our embrace, deeper in our faith. A colleague of mine sometimes says to me, “Kate, don’t refer to New Vision Church as a ‘small’ church.” I have no idea why he says that. Being small like the mustard seed with so much promise of growth – it’s a good thing, as Martha Stewart says. As you pray over your pledge in the coming days, consider that promise and be a part of making it come true through your spiritual practice of generosity. Against all expectations, this church will grow, to the amazement of all and to the utter delight of God.
This sermon was preached at New Vision United Church of Christ in Canton, Ohio, in November 2007.
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
I will stand at my watch-post,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
You are righteous, O God,
and your judgments are right.
You have appointed your decrees in righteousness
and in all faithfulness.
My zeal consumes me
because my foes forget your words.
Your promise is well tried,
and your servant loves it.
I am small and despised,
yet I do not forget your precepts.
is an everlasting righteousness,
and your law is the truth.
Trouble and anguish
have come upon me,
but your commandments are my delight.
Your decrees are righteous forever;
give me understanding that I may live.
Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
Happy are those whose transgression
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom God
imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand
was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up
as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to God,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
You are a hiding-place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.
To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfil by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
He 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. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.