Commitment Sunday – November 22, 2020
I am reminded on this Thanksgiving week, that Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday.
This year will certainly different for most of our families, but we still plan to make the best of it, right?
Whether you may be visiting with family and friends on an outdoor patio or on a Zoom or Facetime call,
we still have the opportunity to “see” the people we love, and to be “seen” by them.
We still have the opportunity to express our gratitude to God for all the blessings of God’s grace,
and we have the opportunity to express our gratitude for those whom we love.
I came across a quote this week from Roman statesman and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Cicero claimed: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
As we prepare to hear God’s Word in Holy Scripture this Thanksgiving week,
may our hearts be filled with gratitude.
May we be grateful for the grace of inclusion that we have received from God.
May we be grateful for the people around us and for the love we have been able to share.
And may the fruit of that gratitude bring us all much peace and joy in the days to come.
In that spirit, let us pray…
Holy God, by the power of your Spirit, we are grateful that you have fully seen us and yet love us still.
We are grateful for your loving grace at work in our lives, and in our families, and in our community.
Illuminate your Word of grace today that it may not return empty, but accomplish all you intend,
through Jesus Christ, our Savior, who came to seek and save the lost. Amen.
One of the great stories of transformation in all of Holy Scripture is the story of Zaccheus.
Zaccheus, a wealthy tax collector in Jericho, short in stature, climbs a tree in order to see Jesus.
After being seen by Jesus, he is invited to welcome Jesus to his home.
Then, before they ever leave the sycamore tree,
Zacchaeus announces a powerful transformation in his life
which in turn would bring an economic windfall for the sake of his community.
As a tax collector, Zacchaeus’ job was to extract fees for the Roman government.
He would charge and collect taxes from his neighboring Palestinian villagers
by whatever means deemed necessary.
Tax collectors would often collect far more than was due to the Romans
and would keep the extra for themselves, enriching themselves off the backs of the poor.
They would give harsh penalties to those who failed to pay – imprisonment, beatings, or worse!.
Tax collectors were often seen as traitors in the eyes of their people,
and many of them, though wealthy, were despised, mistrusted, unsavory.
Tax collectors were rejected socially and sometimes excommunicated religiously from their synagogue.
Zacchaeus would likely have been one of the most avoided and shunned men in all of Jericho.
Before we read Zacchaeus’ story, note two aspects of the story we do not want to miss.
First is the utter shock! to a Middle Eastern audience of a grown man climbing a tree.
Middle Eastern villagers would find Zacchaeus’ behavior outrageous and absurd.
Grown men of any means in a first century village simply did not climb trees!
The second aspect we do not want to miss is the economic implications of this story.
Zacchaeus’ promise to return half of his possessions to the poor,
and to pay back four times as much anyone whom he has defrauded
would transform the daily lives of the village and vastly improved the living conditions of many.
As much as the people may have hated Zacchaeus,
his promises of reparations would have been cause for great celebration.
Hear the Word of God from Luke 19:1-10:
(Jesus) 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 sycamore 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.’
Jesus came to seek and save the lost.
Jesus came to seek and save people like Zacchaeus,
a wealthy, corrupt, politically involved man who enriched himself off of the backs of the poor.
Jesus came to save Zacchaeus for his own sake, and for the sake of those whom he oppressed.
As a lost child of Abraham, Zacchaeus had become caught up in a system that he did not create,
a system that had greatly enriched him, but a system that had also separated him
from his neighbors, both socially and religiously.
I wonder if Zacchaeus knew that he was lost?
I wonder, as he climbed that sycamore tree, if his soul was yearning for the salvation Jesus offered?
I wonder if Zacchaeus had any idea that his entire life was about to change
when he was seen by Jesus and invited to host Jesus and his followers in his home?
The suffering we have seen around the world and even in our own nation
from economic disparities is nothing new.
Over the course of history, people have been divided one from another and wars have been waged
due to unfair access to resources, everything from water to oil, to rice and wheat,
to healthcare and education.
Jesus was and is well aware of systems of economic disparity.
Jesus knows the suffering that occurs due to unfair economics.
And Jesus knows how much these disparities separate people from one another,
so Jesus came to save both those who suffer from those systems
as well as those who perpetuate such systems. (Ched Myers)
Ched Myers, in his commentary on this story, argues that this section of stories in Luke 18-19
“succinctly articulates why Jesus is inevitably headed to the Cross.
(These gospel stories) demonstrate, in deed and word,
the economic and political character of Jesus’ ministry.”
Jesus was rightly “perceived as…subversive by the local and imperial authorities”,
so much so “that they felt compelled to execute this prophet.”
As we read these gospel narratives carefully, we recognize that Jesus makes challenging claims
not only about individual righteousness, not only about the need for us to repent of personal sins,
but also about the disparities between the rich and the poor.
When the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, God sees, and God acts.
When the middle class feels the squeeze as housing costs, and college costs,
and costs of medical care continue to increase, and wages do not keep up, God sees, God acts.
As Jesus passes through Jericho, he sees and he acts.
Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. He bids him come down from his high perch above the crowds.
Jesus invites himself to the chief tax collector’s home for dinner –
a strange and unexpected turn of events.
“All who saw it began to grumble, saying, ‘(Jesus) has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’”
Zacchaeus, have been fully seen by Jesus and having felt once again the resentment
from the villagers whom he has defrauded, “stood still” (v. 8a; Gk statheis).
He stopped in his tracks. (Ched Myers)
“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor….” (19:8b).
and if I have defrauded anyone, I will pay back four times as much.”
This bold response of Zacchaeus is not simply unexpected; it is miraculous!
As Jesus said to (the rich young ruler) earlier in the gospel,
“‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
Those who heard (Jesus say this replied), ‘Then who can be saved?’
Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’ (Luke 18:24-27)
Zacchaeus knew in his heart that Jesus was interested in more than hospitality,
that Jesus was looking for more than a change of heart.
But Zacchaeus was a man of privilege and wealth. He had significant resources.
And as we all know, it can be difficult to part with our resources, to open our hands to our neighbors.
Only by the inclusive, transforming grace of God does Zacchaeus make his improbable promise.
Zacchaeus not only invites Jesus into his home,
he promises his fellow villagers reparations, according to the Torah Law, for all the harm he has done.
In celebration of Zacchaeus’ remarkable change of heart, Jesus offers a threefold response:
First, he proclaims that “today salvation has come to this house…” (19:9a) –
the restoration of a life reconciled with God, and a household reconciled to God,
has come to the home of Zacchaeus,
not at all what anyone in Jericho had expected to happen that day.
Second, Jesus says: “…he too is a son of Abraham” (19:9b).
By Jesus’ words, he restores Zacchaeus to the community of people who had despised him.
In the coming days and months, it would be up to the people of Jericho
to open their hearts to Zacchaeus, to give him a chance,
to model the inclusive grace, and love, and forgiveness of Jesus in their own lives.
Third, Jesus reminds everyone that this precisely is why he came:
“For I came to seek out and to save the lost” (19:10).
I came, Jesus said, to seek out and save people just like Zacchaeus!
Who is despised in our world today? Who is shunned?
Are there any who have defrauded others time and time again?
Are there any who have taken advantage of their station
and enriched themselves off the backs of the poor?
Are there any who may seem to us beyond the reach of God’s grace?
These are exactly the ones whom God desires to include.
These are exactly the ones whom Jesus wants the Church to “see” and to welcome.
Closer to home, are there any who typically gather at your Thanksgiving table who are difficult to love?
Are there any with whom you have disagreed, or who have disappointed you,
or who seem to live in a different world, a different mindset than you?
These are the ones for whom God desires us to extend inclusive grace.
By the grace of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, people can change; we can change.
If salvation can come to Zaccheus’ house, it can come to any house, to your house or my house.
If Zaccheus can be welcomed as a son of Abraham, so too can any of us be welcomed as God’s children.
Jesus came to seek and save the lost,
and it is precisely for the Zaccheus’ of this world that the outreach of the Church exists today.
By the grace of God, we can be transformed.
By the grace of God, the social and economic fabric of our lives can be transformed.
By the grace of God, the broken, divided politic of our nation –
that has caused so much strife and anxiety – can be transformed.
But how do we start? Where do we begin?
Elie Wiesel, the famous author who survived the Holocaust, once wrote about changing the world:
“But where was I to start? The world is so vast, I shall start with the country I know best, my own.
But my country is so very large. I had better start with my town.
But my town too is large. I had better start with my street.
No: my home. No: my family. Nevermind, I shall start with myself.” Elie Wiesel
If you have ever caught a glimpse of the face of God,
if you have ever realized that God has seen you fully, and yet loved you still,
if you have ever known the welcome of the people of God, if you have known forgiveness undeserved,
then you know gratitude. You know thankfulness.
And you know that the grace that we have received, yet not deserved, can be transformative.
And you know that this grace is meant for all humankind.
And you are aware, deep in your soul, that we are meant to share this grace,
especially with those who do not deserve it.
This Thanksgiving week, consider this quote by Melody Beattie:
“Gratitude (can) make sense of our past, bring peace for today,
and (can) create (a) vision for tomorrow.”
“Gratitude to God is not only the greatest of the virtues; it is the parent of all the others.” (Cicero)
Let us all be grateful for our own welcome, our own transformation,
and may gratitude lead us together into a hopeful future.
To God be the glory, now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church