A few people have asked if I could post my second sermon, preached last month while both of the other pastors were away. So I’ve copied the text here, with very little editing applied – which will lead you to observe that, yes, I’m one of those people who has every word written down before I speak. I don’t always stick to the script but I don’t have the confidence yet to work with only an outline. Or, God forbid, my memory!
You’ll also notice some loopy grammar (even loopier than usual) and italicizing and whatnot, because it was intended to be heard, rather than read. So forbear, please, and just listen to what I was trying to say. It feels very personal to me, this one. As in, I think this is what Jesus has been teaching me this summer. And given the cultural climate we’re in these days, I don’t believe I’m the only one who needs to hear it.
I want to tell you the tale of two bloggers – Tim & Ann.
Tim and Ann are real people, and this story is real. They are both very successful in the Christian blog world. Tim is a conservative Reformed pastor, published author, and speaker. Ann started as a mommy blogger – a homeschooler, married to a farmer, with a large family. She also is conservative, and Reformed in the Baptist variety. Ann became enormously popular – I’ve had many friends over the years recommend her blog – and eventually she had a book published which has sold very well.
Two Conservative, successful Christian bloggers, succeeding in parallel on the internet. And then their online paths crossed.
Tim reviewed Ann’s book. It was not a vicious critique, but it was a strongly negative one. He criticized her theology and criticized some of the influences on her writing – people that she’d quoted.
Well, Ann responded. Bloggers have voices, and her voice is very soothing, very gentle, and her response to criticism was true to her voice. She did defend what she’d written, but she did it with a gracious spirit. And at the end of her response she made a suggestion. Tim and his family live just a couple of hours away from Ann, as it turns out, and Ann invited Tim and his family to come to dinner.
Tim shared this news on his blog as part of a post in which he apologized for the tone of his review. He didn’t really retract his opinions, mind you, he just thought perhaps he’d been harsh. Perhaps he’d lost sight of the fact that Ann is a real person with real feelings, and he could have been more careful in the way he’d expressed himself. And wasn’t it gracious of her to invite him to dinner?
This was distressing to some of Tim’s readers. They worried that Tim was going soft on doctrinal error; that people would be led astray by Ann’s book, that Tim was assuming Ann was a sister in Christ, but how did he really know?
One commenter ended his response with this simple directive: “Don’t go to dinner.”
Now, that line has been stuck in my head since I read this exchange two months ago. I read that line – “Don’t go to dinner” – and I thought, “Seriously? Have we come to this? Two Christians, from the same theological stream of tradition, shouldn’t even share a meal because one of them quotes Catholics?”
We live in a partisan age, don’t we? There are a thousand reasons to divide into groups and subgroups, categories we splits into, labels we apply to each other. It happens in the church, and we know that. We have some controversy over the hiring or releasing of a pastor, over music style, or a financial decision, or who was elected to the board, or who approved some curriculum – and for a long time we remember who was on which side. Who voted yes and who voted no. Who was on our side, and who was on the wrong side.
But partisanship doesn’t end with church matters. Have you talked politics lately? Have you tried to talk politics with someone you don’t already agree with? As many of you know, Kevin and I attended the Cornerstone Festival a couple of weeks back – a Christian festival, and our friends there are, many of them, friends we’ve had for years and years. People who love each other. But we had a 2 hour political discussion, maybe 8 of us, and boy, did it get heated! The tone may be best captured by the fact that one of my friends promised he wouldn’t shoot me over politics, and I think he felt he was being generous!
So we divide over religion or politics, over social issues or just because we don’t understand the choices others make. And we stick with the people who we can get along with; who we feel comfortable with; who we feel safe with. People who are on the inside, with us.
I want to read a very familiar story from Luke 19 this morning. It’s so very familiar, and I won’t lie and say that I’ve discovered untold depths in this story. That’s good news, because it means this is not a long sermon. But I do want us to pay attention to maybe a few things that we don’t always notice or think about, and at the end I’m going to just ask you to do one thing. I’ve learned in my classes that a good sermon always includes a call for response, or a call to action. I’ve got one, but just one. And it’s simple.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
The bare details of this story are simple enough. Short guy climbs a tree to see Jesus – gets the unexpected bonus of Jesus becoming his dinner guest. It’s like going to a concert just hoping to catch a glimpse of that famous band, and then suddenly you get the backstage pass – and they let you hang out in their dressing room – and they know you by name!
In one respect we could say that this is the story of someone getting so much more than they hoped for. And the scriptures are full of stories like that. Fishermen getting so many fish they can’t even pull them in. The cripple at at gate called Beautiful who just wanted some money and got healing instead. God loves to exceed our expectations. And that is one powerful element of this story.
We could also say this is a story about the transforming power of the gospel. I understand that Sean’s sermon last week was about the power of Jesus to transform lives, just as he transformed the water to wine. And we see that in this story, don’t we? It’s a gospel-in-a-nutshell story. Someone encounters Jesus and is completely changed. That’s important to our understanding of this story.
But I want our focus to be on Zacchaeus the outsider. This, too, is familiar. Many of us have heard in the past that the tax collectors were despised by the rest of the Jewish community. If you haven’t heard this explained, here’s the situation. The tax collectors were hired by the Romans to collect taxes on behalf of the empire, but they hired Jews to collect from the Jews. This meant that the tax collectors among the Jews were collaborates, part of the system of the occupiers. They were traitors to their own people. But it gets worse, because the tax collectors were permitted – even encouraged by the Romans – to take a fraction of money for themselves. So if Rome needed a certain amount as your land tax or poll tax, the tax collector would just add “his share” on to what he needed to give to Rome. From the perspective of Jews, then, the tax collector was both a traitor and a thief. It almost goes without saying that they were considered unclean. Remember that the charge the pharisees made against Jesus was that he hung out with “tax collectors and sinners”.
Zacchaeus has a unique distinction, though. He was a chief tax collector – the only time this position is mentioned in scripture. He was the supervisor of the other tax collectors in the region and the scriptures he was VERY RICH. Just that description: “he was the chief tax collector and he was very rich” – can you imagine the reaction that would get from a Jewish crowd hearing this story? It’s as if you were attending an Occupy protest and you identified someone as a “Wall Street CEO”. The crowd would NOT be on that person’s side.
Well, Zacchaeus is privileged, and he’s wealthy, but he’s short and that’s what puts him in the tree. He’s heard that Jesus is going to pass through town, he wants to see who this guy is, and there’s just no way he’s going to see around the crowd that’s forming. So he climbs a tree. I wonder, was this normal? This is one of those questions I have about the Bible, and I can’t find the answer anywhere. It seems very undignified for a rich tax collector, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it was normal behavior. Maybe no one thought a thing of him perching in a tree.
In any case, Zacchaeus is there in the tree just hoping to SEE Jesus when he gets that unexpected gift, the over-and-above blessing. Jesus stops. He looks up, and he calls Zacchaeus by name. This in itself must have blown Zacchaeus’ mind: He knows my name! But there’s more: Jesus says, “Come down, I must stay at your house.”
Wait. What? Jesus is supposed to just be passing through, and yet he stops. He calls Zaccheaus by name, and says he’s going to spend the night at his house.
Zacchaeus’ response is immediate: he comes down and gladly welcomes Jesus into his house.
Now, whether Zaccheaus knew it or not, this was not the first time that Jesus had dinner in a tax collector’s house. In Luke 5 we read the story of Jesus calling Levi (also known as Matthew) to be his disciple. Jesus was passing by when he noticed Levi sitting in the tax booth, minding his own corrupt business, and Jesus looks at him and says, “Follow me.” There’s no record of conversation, the scriptures just say that Levi got up, left everything behind and followed Jesus. Another one of those unanswered questions: he just got up and left his tax booth? Does that seem like a good idea? Maybe he had a partner in the booth? I don’t know – all the scripture says is that Levi got up, left his booth and followed Jesus.
EXCEPT that Levi threw a party for Jesus. “A great banquet,” the gospel of Luke calls it. And it is filled with Levi’s kind of people – “a great crowd of tax collectors and others”. And it scandalizes the pharisees as it always did, and they complained to Jesus’ disciples: Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus hears the question and answers it simply: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Jesus hangs out with people who need help, and know it. Who are glad to welcome him.
But back to Zacchaeus. Jesus visiting his home was a scandal, too. You’d think the pharisees would have gotten used to this at some point, but they never did. Here a crowd of people are muttering, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” As if Jesus has ever been the guest of someone who wasn’t a sinner!
During the dinner at Zacchaeus house we see this wonderful transformation take place. Zacchaeus, VERY RICH tax collector, stands up and promises to give half of all his possessions to the poor. AND he promises to pay back 4 times over any money he’s stolen. Anyone he’s defrauded. This is almost an admission of guilt, isn’t it? Making a plan to pay back what he “may have” stolen? I’d also point out that the proportion of repayment – 4 times – is very close to the repayment for theft required by Jewish law. Depending on what had been stolen, the law required paying back between 4 and 6 times the amount. This tells me that Zacchaeus may have gone over to the dark side, but he was once a good Jewish boy who had been taught the law. He knew what was required of someone who had stolen.
I want you to pay very close attention to Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus. He does not say, “Repayment is a good idea. When you’ve done that, when you’ve made restitution, let’s get back together and you’ll be fit to join the Jewish community again.” He doesn’t say, “Yes, give half your money away and then you can follow me.” Instead, Jesus says “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
I was having a discussion with a friend at Cornerstone about how Jesus treated sin. Jesus didn’t ignore sin, my friend said, he called people to leave their sins. “Go and sin no more,” right?
That’s true, but isn’t it interesting that when Jesus was dealing with outsiders – Gentiles, beggers, cripples, women, prostitutes, tax collectors, adulterers – in his encounters with them he didn’t LEAD with their sin. He didn’t walk up to the Samaritan woman and say, “I know you’ve had 5 husbands and the man you’re living with now, you’re not even married to him. You really need to get your act together.” He didn’t approach the woman taken in adultery and say, “You deserve a good stoning because of your sin, but I’m going to give you a break. Now stop sinning.” He didn’t walk up to the sycamore tree and say, “Zacchaeus, you’re a crook and a collaborator and a shame to your nation. Stop sinning! Now come down out of the tree and let’s go have dinner.”
No. In a way that thoroughly scandalized the religious people of his day, Jesus befriended sinners. He didn’t treat them according to what they’d done. When the rest of the world still saw them as outsiders, Jesus drew them in.
“This man, too, is a son of Abraham,” Jesus said. The nation of Israel was the chosen people of God. It was an exclusive community bound together by the covenants, the law, and the temple. Not just ANYONE could get in, you know? And Zaccheaus had broken the law and been thrown out of the temple. He was NOT considered a son of Abraham by the the devout, law keeping Jews. And Jesus, with no temple ritual, says, “Zacchaeus? He’s one of us.” Its not surprising that the Pharisees had issues with Jesus.
But that’s still not what I most want you to hear in this story. I want you to hear what Jesus said right before that: “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Today salvation has come to this house. Why? You know, there’s a little theological controversy over this verse. Did salvation come because Zacchaeus promised to give money to the poor and repay what he’d stolen, times 4? Well, that can’t be quite right because it would imply that his works would save him. We believe salvation is a gift, don’t we? We don’t earn it with our works. So the careful Protestant reading of this is that Zaccheaus’ promise is a result of his faith. He’s saved by faith, and that produces repentance.
I don’t disagree with that, really, but I hear something else. Something important. Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Q. Who came to Zacchaeus’ house that day? Jesus.
Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house because JESUS came to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus, the very embodiment of the salvation of God. Yes, faith was a necessary response. Yes, faith produced repentance and a willingness to live differently. But that was only possible because Jesus came, because Zacchaeus met salvation, wrapped up in human skin.
And this is where you and I come in.
Where is salvation now? Jesus isn’t passing through Jericho, or Collinsville, or Maryville, or anyplace, right?
Except that he is. WE, his followers, have been given the gift of the Spirit, the indwelling Spirit of Christ. We, his followers, are His body in the world. We are the living presence of the risen Christ. If Jesus can be met incarnationally now – wrapped up in human skin – it’s in us. WE are the agents of salvation in the world. WE carry the gospel.
But where do we carry it? Back and forth to church? To home group? To Bible study? That’s all well and good, but what about the people who’ve been kicked out of the temple? What about the outsiders? What about the people that people would be scandalized to see you with? How does salvation come to them?
And this is where the challenge comes, to you and I promise you it’s a challenge to me. I’ve spent years and years using church as an excuse for the fact that I have so few friends outside the church. So busy with very important church work, you know. All my friends are church friends. All my time is church time.
Remember, Jesus didn’t invite Zacchaeus to Friend Day at the synagogue. He didn’t invite Zaccheaus to join a small group meeting at Jesus’ house. Mind you, there’s a place for that. And by the way, small group at Jesus’ house would be fantastic, obviously. But Jesus did something even more amazing: he went to dinner at Zaccheaus’ house. There is a dignity that we bestow when we let someone host us; when we let them open their house, their lives to us. When we stop acting like we’re in the power position, and we’re giving the gospel like a charity. When we treat other people – the outsiders, the sinners, the liberals, the conservatives, the feminists, the gays, the rich, the poor, the unwed mother and the corrupt CEO – when we treat them as friends, and we carry salvation to where they are, to their house. When we do that we are being so like Jesus.
So the challenge is to befriend some people who aren’t here today. Befriend some people who aren’t in ANY church today, who aren’t like you, who don’t agree with you on every social issue, who – like Zacchaeus – don’t even really know who Jesus is. Open yourself up to those people. Treat them as if they’re on the inside, not the outside. Treat them as if they have something to offer – remember Jesus telling Zacchaeus he had to come to his house? No one else’s house would do. We’re so insular sometimes, so reluctant to leave our hot house conditions. What if I visit that person who drinks too much, or lives with his girlfriend, or votes pro-choice? People will think I approve of such things! What if I’m caught in a bar, or sitting with that gay couple at a baseball game? People will think I eat with sinners.
Jesus never shared a meal with people who weren’t sinners. In fact, I’d remind you that when we share in the Lord’s supper together, that great sacramental gift he’s still giving us, Jesus is still sharing meals with sinners.
So befriend people on the outside. Not only letting them into your life, but letting yourself into theirs.
I’m sure you know where this is going. Remember the advice Tim got from one of his readers? “Don’t go to dinner?” I’m giving you the exact opposite advice, and I’m praying that God will help me to take it myself.
By all means, go to dinner.