Sermon October 30, 2016   Luke 19: 1-10    Branches of Compassion by Rev. June Fothergill

Rolfe Barnard tells a story about a fellow preacher  named Johnny Hilyard who was quite short.  At a conference one time he got up and said, “ Zacchaeus was short in stature and so am I.  Zacchaeus  was up a tree and so am I.  And Zacchaeus skinnied down and sat down. And he sat down.”

Have you ever climbed a tree?  The last time I remember doing so was when I was in High School at Lebanon Oregon. The Methodist church was a couple blocks from the school. In front of it at that time was a large Oak tree with a branch I could reach.  I remember running away from school at lunch time and climbing up that tree.  It was fun to be there and look down on any one passing by. To hang out with a tree. Was I looking for Jesus?  Well, maybe!  Climbing a tree at lunch time is a pretty strange thing to do for a high school student.

So I can imagine Zacchaeus. It’s not do easy to scramble up a tree.  You’re likely to get a little sappy!     So,  What do we know about him?   He was a  Citizen of Jericho, a Chief Tax collector,  Rich. He seemed to be a go getter- top of his field.  Yet, he was not liked.  In fact, like most tax collectors in those times, he was despised as someone who collaborated with the Roman oppressors.  He was rich so he didn’t follow John the Baptist’s directions to tax collectors- only collect the amount ascribed to you.   So he was rich but unrespected.  Rich but lonely- not invited to be part of the welcome team for Jesus visit.  Oh and he’s short, so short he can’t even see Jesus coming for the crowds.

So what does he do?  What’s he got to lose – only his dignity!  He climbs up a Sycamore tree.  My neighbor in Boise has Sycamore trees and they have nice big leaves.   Z could hide up there and view everything below. He’d get to see Jesus!   A grown man, a rich man up a tree! It’s a funny picture.  Luke is just possibly making a little fun of Zacchaeus.

But then Jesus does what Jesus does.  He notices the lost and the outcast.  He sees Zacchaeus in the tree, knows and calls him by name.    Jesus has a good network of tax collectors, he could have heard about Zaccheus from Levi or Simon the leper or one of the many tax collectors he has stayed with over the years of his ministry.   So He notices Zacchaeus and invites himself to his house!

Zacchaeus scampers down from the tree with great excitement and welcomes Jesus!  He doesn’t worry anymore about his dignity .  He gets to provide hospitality to Jesus.  Jesus has called him.  Him, the despised, unsavory tax collector!

As per most stories like this, the good people of Jericho are appalled!  How can you Jesus, don’t you know what a scoundrel this guy is? How can you choose him the honor of sheltering you?  Grumble , Grumble. Grumble.

Then the story changes.  In the usual story Jesus then responds to the complainers, but this time Z steps up.   Zachaeus has been changed by Jesus welcome and call. And he decides to tell everyone.  Don’t judge me on my past. Look  Jesus has given me opportunity for a new life.  Just before this Jesus had offered another rich man , not a tax collector but an upright, law abiding man a chance for a new life, but he chose not to take it.  This man, this tax collector decides to go for it.

Hey he says- today I give half my possessions to the poor. Today I pay back four times as much all those who I have defrauded.  This is a new beginning!     Zacchaeus shows the fruits of repentance.  His encounter with Jesus transforms him.

And Jesus affirms this change in Zacchaeus  He exclaims- Salvation has come this day to this household.  This man is a son of Abraham.   In other words,  For Jesus  Zacchaeus is no longer an outcast. He is now a member of the household of Israel.  He belongs.  Jesus is very happy because this is what he came to do!

So what does this story mean for us?

1.  Sometimes we are like Zacchaeus we feel lost and out of syche with our community and lives.  We are searching for meaning and purpose, acceptance and belonging.   Why are we here? Who really cares?  Jesus comes into our lives with an affirmation of our being.  WE matter to Jesus. Jesus sees our gifts our possibilities, our ability to change and grow.   Jesus wants to be in relationship with us.  Even when the world disdains us or sees only our faults, or puts us down, or tells us we are worthless.  Jesus offers a counter message- you matter, you belong to me, I have good work for you to do.  Come I’ll have dinner at your house!

I remember some lonely, discouraged times when I was in high school.  Sometimes I just didn’t know how to fit in.  So I was very grateful for the experiences I had a church camp and youth group that let me know that Jesus loved me and accepted me.  When I got down, I knew there was something more- a God who cared.  One that I could talk to up in that tree.

2.Of course, there are some people who would have been quite worried about me up there rather than in the school lunch room.   I don’t know about you but sometimes I have been rather like the towns people of Jericho.  It’s easy to put people in the boxes of our perceptions of their past or the prejudices we have learned.    So  this story invites us to join Zacchaeus and Jesus in another way.   A way of compassion. Instead of judging Zacchaeus, Jesus sensed his need to make a positive contribution and invited his to do so- come provide me with hospitality.

When we notice that we are passing judgment on others, we can instead listen for what someone might be needing.  This begins to open the door to empathy and compassion.

For example, I might be a little afraid of a panhandler on the street, but when I really pay attention, I notice that the person panhandling is also afraid- I realize that my fear means I need reassurance and consideration, I wonder is this also true for them?   The panhandling person may also have other unmet needs – of shelter or food or rest or water.  Attending to the needs underneath my fears opens the door for me to decide whether and how to respond with empathy and compassion.    One day I may chose to just smile and walk by.   Another day I may chose to stop a moment and chat.  When I lived in Berkeley Ca  I chose to take a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with me to offer folks.  Today I sometimes choose to stop and tell folks about our meals here at Ebbert.

3.For, finally sometimes we have the amazing opportunity to join Jesus in his ministry to reach out like branches of a caring tree to welcome and accept people into our community of faith.   We can let Jesus teach us to see the potential in people not the past.  To accept people so they can understand the reality of grace and acceptance, and to build relationships that allow people to grow and change in Christ.

Interestingly, our Safe Sanctuary policy which we are remembering today, calls us to not only try to prevent harm to the vulnerable in our midst but to  care for those who have been hurt by abuse and mistreatment in their lives.   To do this we have to admit the reality of the pain and trauma many people suffer, to be willing to see the Zacchaeus’s hiding  in the trees, to welcome them and to create a community of love and acceptance where they can find healing and new ways to live.  The video Tom plans to share with us at the potluck will be one small start in helping us learn how to be the branches of compassion that Jesus calls us to be.

I close with a story about reaching out like Jesus.  Chris Hoke is a jail chaplain in Washington state.  He recently realized that there are roughly the same number of churches as there are prisoners.  He got to thinking, what if every church wrote to, adopted and received just one prisoner? He started sharing this idea when we went to preach a various places.  He tells this story.

Recently Christ got a collect call from a prisoner named Alex.   He’d had some spiritual experiences while in prison and he wants to change his life when he gets out.  He told Chris, “ I wanna find my own little church in my hometown you know? I only got two years left.”  Chris told him that one of the Methodist churches where he’d just preached was in his hometown.

“ D’you tell ‘em about me?”  he interrupted, excited.

Yes, Chris said. Two people had met with him after coffee and he’s given them Alex’s prison address and photo. “ They’ll be writing you this week.” The line was quiet for a moment.

“ Ooh – I got chills when you told me that!  I feels like a fresh breeze just blew through here,” he said more thoughtfully, “ Feels like one of these prison walls just tumbled down.” ( p. 28  Chris Hoke, “ A Church for Every Prisoner.”  Christian Century October 26, 2016)












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