Sermon Seeds: Welcome Jesus
Sunday, October 30, 2022
Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost | Year C
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4 and Psalm 119:137–144
Isaiah 1:10–18 and Psalm 32:1–7
2 Thessalonians 1:1–4, 11–12
In and With: Keep Watch (Click here for the series overview.)
Cheryl A. Lindsay
Recently, I have become fascinated by the “Find My…” function on my smart devices. The digital connection and location services on these tools allow us to track people and things in relation to place. When on a trip last summer, my traveling companion lost her phone. She’s part of my network and so I activated the “find my phone” function on her behalf. Soon, we heard that recognizable beep and drew closer to it. We knew that the sound was leading us in the direction of finding what was lost.
I wonder if there was a sound that day alerting Jesus as he journeyed through Jericho. Did he hear the rustling of leaves on that tree as Zacchaeus shifted to gain a better vantage view? Did the crack of a branch pierce the air? Maybe Zacchaeus gasped, sighed, or exclaimed as he recognized the approach of Jesus to his location.
Zacchaeus was not attempting to be found; he desired to see. In fact, by positioning himself in the tree, he diminished the possibility of having a direct encounter with Jesus. That suggests that Zacchaeus may have even wanted to be hidden from view; he wanted to be a spectator or remote observer. At the very least, we can determine that being acknowledged himself was not his priority. He wants to see Jesus.
The text does not tell us how Zacchaeus comes to know about Jesus. By this point in the story, we know that Jesus has been attracting the attention of large crowds and individual humans for some time. His ministry went viral as news of his miracles and word of his teaching spread throughout the community and the region. His journey was being tracked by friend and foe, detractor and seeker. Zacchaeus would have fit into the latter category.
Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard Jesus associated with tax collectors. This disparaging remark would have been good, surprising, and welcome news to Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector and made his riches off of that occupation. Tax collectors were despised during this time and with cause. They not only collected the tax obligations imposed by the Roman government (a sign of their allegiance to the dreaded occupier), they exploited that position by demanding payment above and beyond what was legitimately owed. Imagine if, after paying your taxes for the year, an IRS agent contacted you and demanded that you pay them (directly) an additional, exorbitant amount or they would audit you and find that you owed an even greater amount. That’s why tax collectors were referred to as “sinners.” They were not being maliciously maligned. Some sin against God, and some sin against their neighbor. Tax collectors made a living and a fortune by exploiting their neighbors. It’s interesting to note that when Jesus called his first disciples, he promised those who fished that their skills would be redeployed in fishing for people, but that same repositioning does not happen with the tax collectors. Their former practices do not get reused; their personhood receives redemption.
Jesus attracted people in need of redemption, restoration, and repair. Zacchaeus was rich; therefore, he was good at the exploitation game. The system was designed to be broken. The incentive for the tax collector was to impose greater liabilities than justified. This insured that taxes were collected in full to satisfy Rome because the tax collector benefited unduly by their participation in the system. There was no way to appeal these unjust practices because they were sanctioned by all the beneficiaries–the state and the privileged tax collector.
How many of us participate in systems of oppression and refuse to confront them because of the benefits we receive? How often do we reject the possibility of reform out of fear of how we might be impacted by the resulting change? How many of us enter our worship spaces satisfied to observe Jesus from a distance and never seek a more intimate and meaningful encounter…because we just know that the closer we get to Jesus, the closer Jesus gets to us?
Zacchaeus was not attempting to be seen but Jesus exceeded his expectations. The onlooker becomes observed. Jesus, passing through Jericho, pauses at the place where Zacchaeus has perched himself. Jesus stops and looks at Zacchaeus. The one who wanted to be seen has the tables turned on himself. This is another instance of Luke’s account pointing out the way that Jesus employs a ministry of reversal. The lowly are lifted; the exalted are humbled. The marginalized are centered and the oppressed are affirmed. The observer becomes the center of attention. Jesus extends an invitation to himself to the home of Zacchaeus.
But, Zacchaeus is happy to receive Jesus. He embraces the reversal. He accepts the invitation to be hospitable. His life changes directions. Not everyone is happy for him. We hear the bitterness and resentment in the grumbling of those who observe his new connection to Jesus. It’s not clear if time or distance have passed, if they are still in the spot where Jesus calls Zacchaeus and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home or if they are now at the residence. It does not matter, because the transformation does not have to wait for them to arrive at the designation location, it happens when the invitation is accepted. Zacchaeus was lost, hidden in a tree and trapped in a life that alienated him from his siblings in humanity. Jesus finds him and saves him from that life. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus declares.
Some of us struggle with the concept of salvation. We don’t like the notion that we need saving. Or, we have been turned off from a religiosity that has been fixated on keeping us from going to hell upon death while ignoring the hell on earth trapping the marginalized and oppressed. We may perch ourselves in high or simply distant places, content with a glimpse of Jesus, when Jesus wants to dwell with us.
Salvation is a kindom principle in which the powers of this world are overcome by the power of Holy Love enfleshed. The journey through Jericho and other places will eventually lead Jesus to the cross, not because the Creator wanted the Beloved to suffer, but because humanity demonstrated the capacity to resist love to death, and the Incarnation required Jesus to persist in the journey to its inevitable conclusion. On the way, Jesus has these profound encounters where the people he meets enter the journey with him. The disciples were early adopters, the repentant thief on the cross joined in the last minutes of his life, and Zacchaeus was found on the way. Salvation does not come at the end of life but at the moment of transforming encounter.
We know that the transformation was realized in Zacchaeus through the duality of his promise to Jesus. He begins by pledging restitution to those damaged by the system in which he participated and from which he benefited. Zacchaeus offers reparations. This rich man declares that he will first give half of his possessions to the poor. These are not necessarily those he defrauded (that pledge commitment comes next); they are the ones who were victimized and harmed by the system that privileged Zacchaeus. We could simply acknowledge this as a nice gesture of personal repentance, but that would diminish its power. Zacchaeus, who did not want to be seen and wanted to see Jesus, now recognizes, acknowledges, and affirms those placed on the margins so that they can be ignored–the poor. He does this by using what he has to change their condition. Zacchaeus, chief tax collector and agent of the Roman Empire, has become an active citizen in the kindom of Holy Love. That is the work of redemption.
That is good work but not enough for Zacchaeus to be made whole. His restoration also compels him to make repair. “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Here, we witness another reversal. Zacchaeus will upend the rules of engagement and exploitation. He will impose upon himself an exponential obligation to make things right with those who he has treated unjustly. His manipulation will become their reward. His remorse will bless his victims in a tangible way. His wholeness is connected to theirs. The kindom, in his circle, will flourish.
That’s what happens when we welcome Jesus and submit to Jesus’ sovereignty to move into any aspect of our lives. When we welcome Jesus, we not only transform, we become agents of transformation. We participate actively in the kindom and flourishing ensues…on earth as it is in heaven. May Christ’s will be done.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
The black experience is existence in a system of white racism. The black person knows that a ghetto is the white way of saying that blacks are subhuman and fit only to live with rats. The black experience is police departments adding more recruits and buying more guns to provide “law and order,” which means making a city safe for its white population. It is politicians telling blacks to cool it or else. It is George Wallace, Hubert Humphrey, and Richard Nixon running for president. The black experience is college administrators defining “quality” education in the light of white values. It is church bodies compromising on whether blacks are human. And because black theology is a product of that experience, it must talk about God in the light of it. The purpose of black theology is to make sense of black experience.
The black experience, however, is about more than simply encountering white insanity. It also means blacks making decisions about themselves—decisions that involve whites. Blacks know that whites do not have the last word on black existence. This realization may be defined as black power, the power of the black community to make decisions regarding its identity. When this happens, blacks become aware of their blackness; and to be aware of self is to set certain limits on others’ behavior toward oneself. The black experience means telling whitey what the limits are.
The power of the black experience cannot be overestimated. It is the power to love oneself precisely because one is black and a readiness to die if whites try to make one behave otherwise. It is the sound of James Brown singing, “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Aretha Franklin demanding “respect.” The black experience is catching the spirit of blackness and loving it. It is hearing black preachers speak of God’s love in spite of the filthy ghetto, and black congregations responding Amen, which means that they realize that ghetto existence is not the result of divine decree but of white inhumanity. The black experience is the feeling one has when attacking the enemy of black humanity by throwing a Molotov cocktail into a white-owned building and watching it go up in flames. We know, of course, that getting rid of evil takes something more than burning down buildings, but one must start somewhere.
Being black is a beautiful experience. It is the sane way of living in an insane environment. Whites do not understand it; they can only catch glimpses of it in sociological reports and historical studies. The black experience is possible only for black persons. It means having natural hair cuts, wearing African dashikis, and dancing to the sound of Johnny Lee Hooker or B. B. King, knowing that no matter how hard whitey tries there can be no real duplication of black soul. Black soul is not learned; it comes from the totality of black experience, the experience of carving out an existence in a society that says you do not belong.
The black experience is a source of black theology because this theology seeks to relate biblical revelation to the situation of blacks in America. This means that black theology cannot speak of God and God’s involvement in contemporary America without identifying God’s presence with the events of liberation in the black community.
— Cone, James H.. A Black Theology of Liberation – Fortieth Anniversary Edition
For further reflection
“Sometimes in Dohnavur we, who dearly love the little children about us (and the older ones too), have looked up from some engrossing work to see a child beside us, waiting quietly. And when, with a welcoming hand held out, to the Tamil ‘I have come,’ we have asked ‘For what?’ thinking, perhaps, of something to be confessed, or wanted, the answer has come back, ‘Just to love you.’ So do we come, Lord Jesus; we have no service to offer now; we do not come to ask for anything not even for guidance. We come just to love Thee.” — Amy Carmichael
“Grace is one-way love.1 Grace doesn’t make demands. It just gives. And from our vantage point, it always gives to the wrong person. We see this over and over again in the Gospels: Jesus is always giving to the wrong people—prostitutes, tax collectors, half-breeds. The most extravagant sinners of Jesus’s day receive His most compassionate welcome. Grace is a divine vulgarity that stands caution on its head.” — Preston Sprinkle
“For the Jesus Revolutionaries, the answer was clear: Jesus would not be out waging ‘preventative’ wars. Jesus would not be withholding medicine from people who could not afford it. Jesus would not cast stones at people of races, sexual orientations, or genders other than His own. Jesus would not condone the failing, viperous, scandal plagued hierarchy of some churches. Jesus would welcome everyone to his table. He would love them, and he would find peace.” — David Levithan (Wide Awake)
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Following the sermon, offer an invitation to Christian discipleship, or altar call, with emphasis on joining the kindom of God on earth.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4 and Psalm 119:137–144
Isaiah 1:10–18 and Psalm 32:1–7
2 Thessalonians 1:1–4, 11–12
Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4
1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
2 I will stand at my watchpost,
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.
2 Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
3 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.
4 Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
137 You are righteous, O LORD,
and your judgments are right.
138 You have appointed your decrees in righteousness
and in all faithfulness.
139 My zeal consumes me
because my foes forget your words.
140 Your promise is well tried,
and your servant loves it.
141 I am small and despised,
yet I do not forget your precepts.
142 Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness,
and your law is the truth.
143 Trouble and anguish have come upon me,
but your commandments are my delight.
144 Your decrees are righteous forever;
give me understanding that I may live.
10 Hear the word of the LORD,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 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.
12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; 13 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. 14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. 15 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. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. 18 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.
1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2 Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
6 Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
7 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
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 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 everyone of you for one another is increasing. 4 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.
11 To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, 12 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.
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 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.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”