Sunday, October 21, 2018

"Called to Live Courageously." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Luke 19 during Stewardship season.

"Zacchaeus Tree." Sycamore tree in Jericho.

"Called to Live Courageously"

Luke 19:1-10; 1 Timothy 6:17-19; Proverbs 3:5-10

         The story of Zacchaeus is pure gospel.  It's a story of how a person's life was changed by encounter with Jesus the Christ.  It’s a story of transformation. 
            Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree because he was trying to see who Jesus was. What he’d heard about Jesus, we don't know.  But somehow, somewhere, he had heard something that caused him to wonder.
            Now, Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, and a wealthy person.  What he needed, he could get for himself.  What he wanted he could buy.  Zacchaeus was not a needy person-- or so it seemed. 
            Yet, appearances can be deceptive.  Zacchaeus, as a chief tax collector, oversaw an operation by which taxes were collected from his people-- his fellow Jews-- on behalf of the Romans who had conquered and were now occupying the country.  A tax collector paid a certain amount for the franchise and was allowed to collect and keep for himself an amount over above what was owed to the governments.  In the right hands, it was a lucrative racket.
            As you can imagine, tax collectors were not popular.  They were resented, not only for their wealth, but for the way they came by it.  They were considered traitors, both to their country and to their religion.  As a tax collector, Zacchaeus was ostracized as a "sinner,” regarded as one of the lost sheep of Israel.
            Yet on that day, when Jesus walked through the streets of Jericho, Zacchaeus had the courage to step out of his comfort zone, to humble himself to climb a tree so he could see Jesus. 
            When Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” Zacchaeus responded by hurrying down and was happy to welcome Jesus into his home.
            The people who were there started grumbling and saying, “Jesus is going to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
            The story gives us a glimpse of another side to Zacchaeus.  None of his neighbors saw it.  The label they had attached to him-- “sinner"--- kept them from seeing it.  The people who knew Zacchaeus saw him as a "sinner"-- unredeemable...unchangeable.  Maybe Zacchaeus had heard it so often that he thought so too. 
            But there was something-- some kind of inner discontent...  a yearning, perhaps, that made him curious about Jesus, and ultimately, vulnerable to change.
            Most people who looked at Zacchaeus missed it.  But not Jesus.  He looked past the "sinner" label and caught sight of a "son of Abraham."  
            Jesus looked at Zacchaeus through the eyes of love, and, beneath the layers of greed and selfishness, he saw a glimmer of God's image. He saw a spark that could light a fire.

            Something inside of Zacchaeus had urged him to get to where he could see Jesus.  Maybe he had heard that Jesus had a different attitude toward "sinners" than most people.  But, by climbing that tree, Zacchaeus may well have been seeking more than a good view.  It may have been his way of reaching out to something or someone who might help him change whatever needed changing in his life.  So it was that Jesus spied Zacchaeus and called him down-- not just from the tree-- but into a new life.
            The story of Zacchaeus reminds us that human beings have more capacity for transformation than we are apt to think.  And the story goes on to suggest that what transforms people is love.   
            Think about it.  Can you think of anything else that can bring about lasting change in human beings?
            I'm convinced of this:  you can't change another person or yourself by demanding it.  You can't coerce someone into a new way of life.  It takes something else-- something we can see in the case of Zacchaeus.
            The transformation that took place in Zacchaeus started when Jesus looked at him through the eyes of love and spoke to him as if he counted for something.  Jesus looked up at him in the tree and said, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today."
            It's GRACE-- love and acceptance that Zacchaeus had done nothing to deserve.
            Zacchaeus met someone who looked at him through the eyes of love...  who gave him a taste of the love of God.  And that changed him.  
            If that's going to happen today, if some of the "lost causes" you know are going to experience that kind of love-- it needs to happen through you.  God's love can become real to them if they experience it in the way you relate to them.   
            The point of the story of Zacchaeus is what the whole of the New Testament wants us to know:  only love can save us.  There is no love so strong and powerful as the love of Christ. 
            But many people today will never experience that love, unless they know it through you… through us.   

            Jesus corrects the disciples' mistaken assumption about faith-- that faith is something we can measure...  something we possess or acquire. Faith is a matter of our relationship with God, that begins as a response to God's gift.  Faith is a matter of trust and confidence in the freeing power of God's love for us and the power of God to fulfill God's promises. 
            Faith means freedom-- the freedom to give up the anxious and impossible task of keeping ourselves from falling.  Faith means freedom to stop thinking of ourselves as the source of our own life and hope, freedom to give up the struggle to control everything by our own power.  It means freedom to be at home in the presence of a loving God.[1]
            Faith means trusting that God has not given us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.  Faith means relying on the power of God who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to God's own purpose and grace.[2]

            The membership of the Littlefield congregation has been in decline for decades, since the demographics in the surrounding neighborhoods began to change and then changes in society that have resulted in fewer and fewer people affiliating with faith communities.
            The people of Littlefield Church could have given up, saying “we’re too small to make a difference.” 
            But that isn’t what happened.  Over the years, Littlefield has reached out to the community and witnessed for peace and justice in a variety of ways.   Our summer Peace Camp has touched the lives of hundreds of young people who have learned how to be peace builders. 
            Over the years, Littlefield Church has provided a place where people can come together to hear the voices of peacemakers.  And we have brought people from different faith traditions together to learn about one another and to find ways to pray and work together.

We live in a world which gives us every reason to hunker down… to say we can’t do anything about all the injustice and violence in the world.  We live in a world that encourages us to define ourselves according to how different we are from others – from other cultures, other countries, other faiths, other tribes.   We live in a world that prompts us to be full of fear-- to hold on, and to close down, rather than to let go and open up.  We live in a world that feels like it’s tottering on the brink-- a world very like the world of first century Palestine into which walked an itinerant Jewish teacher who changed history forever.
As I was looking through some of my study notes this week, I was reminded that 7 or 8 years ago we hosted Jewish activist Mark Braverman.  Mark told us that we are living in prophetic times, and that the church is called.[3]    He quoted Jim Wallis: “when politics fail, broad social movements emerge to change the political wind.  Look at the movement to end Jim Crow in America.  Look at the global movement to end apartheid in South Africa.  Where were they born, who were the leaders?  The church in the U.S. is poised to fulfill this historic calling, as it has done before in recent history.”
This is no time for us to live small, safe lives, constricted by our fears that we don’t have enough, that we’re too small or inadequate to make a difference.
The words of Martin Luther King, writing from the Birmingham jail fifty-five years ago, speak to us with an uncanny resonance today, in the twenty-first century:
The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
            Twenty-first century North American culture is presenting unprecedented challenges for the church and a new sense of what it means to practice our faith courageously. This includes our understanding of the spiritual discipline of stewardship and how we live that out through our generosity. We are called to trust in God’s goodness and abundance…to think generously… to practice generosity… and to do so courageously.
            It takes courage to follow Jesus and live a life trusting in God, especially if we’re seeking to be good stewards, or managers, of all God has entrusted to us-- including our own lives and the Good News itself.
            When people have courage, they usually show mental or moral strength to overcome their fears and to keep moving forward.   In the midst of troubling times, it takes courage to reaffirm God’s presence, power and love as the only foundation on which we can stand.
            Psalm 31:24 says, “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.”
            We can live courageously when we learn to recognize ourselves as God’s beloved daughters and sons, despite our weaknesses and whatever frightening things might be going on around us.
            We can learn to live courageously when we trust in the LORD with all our heart. When we honor God with our substance and with the first fruits of our lives, we will taste God’s abundance.[4]  When we set our hopes on God, rather than the uncertainty of wealth, we can be freed to be rich in good works, to be generous, and willing to share…and we can take hold of the life that is real.[5]
            We can trust that “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power and of love and a sound mind.”[6]
            Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 21, 2018

[1] Craig Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith (Geneva Press, 1999), p. 19.
[2]2 Timothy 1:7 - 9.
[3] Mark Braverman, “A New Thing Springs Forth.”  Sermon preached at Wyoming Presbyerian Church, Milburn, NJ March 21, 2010.
[4] Proverbs 3:5-10
[5] 1 Timothy  6:17-19/
[6] 2 Timothy 1:7.

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