Asbury First United
Text: Luke 19:1-10
It is hard for me to tell, from this angle, which tree you are in. Given the guns of this autumn, it is hard for me to tell which tree I am in myself, day to day. Has life chased you up the tree of doubt? Or are you treed in the branches of loyalty? Is that you in the religion tree? Or are we shaking or shaking in the money tree? Jesus Christ calls us today, to come down out of the tree forts of our own making, and accept a loving relationship with Him. May measure all with a measure of love.
Perhaps the presence of unexplained wrong provokes you to doubt the benevolence or the power of God. No one can explain why terrible things happen, as they do. But if you will come down a limb or two from your philosophical tree of doubt, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you may hear faith. God can bring good out of evil, and make bad things work to good. This is not a theological declamation, but just something we can notice together.
We played golf the other day. On the last hole, I pulled out a three wood and hit a grounder, that nonetheless rolled right to the green. If I had connected, I would have smashed the clubhouse window, for it was way too much club. Sometimes a bad thing, a worm burner golf shot, interferes with a really bad thing, a $1000 broken window.
Two Sundays ago Chris and I drove late to church. I usually run early Sunday and finish memorizing the sermon along the way, as I did on October 21. I just forgot the time. We raced here, and in so doing I cut a corner, literally, and so popped a car tire. I was not happy to hear my son say, “haste makes waste”. You know, though, both rear tires were thin. I had replaced the front in August, and forgot about the rear ones. I have to admit, it was good that I had reason to replace them, before I had a blowout, in a convertible, on the highway. Sometimes it happens that a bad thing prevents a really terrible thing from happening.
Joseph was thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery. He had to find his way, as a Jew, in the service of the mighty Pharaoh. He did so with skill, and rose to a position of influence, even with Potiphar’s wife chasing him around in his underwear. Then, a full generation later, a great famine came upon those brothers who had earlier sold Joseph down the river. They went to Pharaoh, looking for food. And who met them, as they came to plead? There was Joseph. He so memorably said, as written in Genesis 50: “You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good, that many might be saved.” Sometimes it happens that a bad thing in one generation prevents starvation in the next.
In Jericho, as Jesus found the little man up in the tree, his fellows grumbled (vs. 8). Why would he take time with such a greedy, selfish person who makes his living off the sweat of others’ brows? That hurts, to see divine attention given to those who have harmed you. Why would he have a meal with someone who takes no thought for the hurt of God’s people? This is bad! And it is. We miss the power of the parable if we do not see this. This is Jesus taking up with those who have wished the church ill, who have used the church for their own very well intended but nonetheless self-centered reasons. This is Jesus consorting with sinners. But sometimes a bad thing in the little brings a good thing in the large. Zaccheus changes, and in so doing provides great wealth for others’ benefit.
Come down from this one tree, doubting Zaccheus. I know that bad things happen to good people, and as a pastor hardly anything troubles me more. Sometimes, though, sometimes-not always, just sometimes, a bad thing early averts a really bad thing late. I have seen it, and you have too. It is enough to give someone up the doubting tree a reason to come down at least a branch. Think of it as existential vaccination.
It is the labor of faith to trust that where sin abounds, grace over-abounds. Even in this autumn of terror. September 11 is the quintessence of all things bad. I want to be very nimble, careful in what I say here, so that I am not misheard. This is a bad thing. But one of the redeeming possibilities in this disaster is the chance that as a result, enough of us, now, will become enough committed to the realization of global peace and justice, that these dead shall not have died in vain, and that their demise will be a warning to us that we do not have forever in the quest for peace on earth. Sometimes a bad thing in one part of history protects us from a worse thing in another part
Let us not lose sight of the horizons of biblical hope, as improbable as they can seem. The lion and the lamb. No crying or thirst. The crooked straight. All flesh.
The divine delight comes still from saving the lost, including the forgotten, seeking the outcast, retrieving the wayward sons and daughters of Abraham. God wants your salvation. Your salvation “has personal, domestic, social, and economic consequences” (Craddock). Jesus Christ saves us from doubt
So come down Zaccheus, come down from your perch in that comfortable sycamore tree, that comfortable pew, that skeptical reserve, that doubt. Come down Zaccheus! The Lord Jesus Christ has need of your household and your money, and He responds to your doubt
Come down Zaccheus, down from your zealous leanings, hanging out on the branch of life. Idolatry comes when we make one or more of the lesser, though significant, loyalties in life to become a shadow of the one great loyalty, that which the heart owes alone to God. Zaccheus had governmental responsibility, community status, a welcoming home, a fine family, and we can suspect he was loyal in these regards. Curious as he was, up on his branch, he had no relationship with the divine. Into this relationship, Jesus invites him. More precisely, Jesus invites himself into relationship with a man up a tree. He is invited into a whole new life, a new world of loving and faithful relationships, that stem from the one great loyalty.
We need to be careful about lesser loyalties this fall. Again, I want to speak nimbly and not be misunderstood. To me, it is clear that there are times when police work, force and even the violence of some warfare tragically must be used to prevent, as we just said, even greater horrors in the future.
Our priorities, (“God, family, the Packers” as Lomardi said) become clear in a time of loss. Read with me one of the many obituaries posted in the New York Times:
This year, Sheila Scandole carved the pumpkin for Halloween, a job that had always fallen to her husband, Robert Scandole. But he is not here anymore, so with a little help, she carefully etched a spider on a pumpkin.
And when she took their two daughters out trick-or-treating in their Pelham Manor neighborhood in Westchester County, she could not help but think about him. “He would have been right there with us,” she said. “I felt horrible, but I tried to carve the pumpkin the best that I could. I wanted to make it real special.”
Mr. Scandole, 35, a trader with Cantor Fitzgerald, doted on the girls, Emma, 4, and Katie, 2. He worked on Wall Street, but he always clung to his old neighborhood, in Breezy Point, Queens, even taking part in a basketball league with some of the guys he grew up with. He and Sheila met at Breezy Point, where their parents still live. “I lost the greatest love of my life,” she said.
Yet all of this involves a lesser loyalty than the one owed to God. We can forget whose water we were baptized into, if we are not careful.
Do you see the danger? Come down Zaccheus, come down, before it is too late. Make sure your lesser loyalties - to government, family, home, all - do not cover over, do not shadow the one great loyalty.
Let’s talk for a moment about religion, shall we? Come down Zaccheus, come down! No amount of religious apparatus can ever substitute for what Jesus is offering today, and that is loving relationship. No amount of theological astuteness can ever substitute for loving relationship. No amount of sturdy churchmanship can ever substitute for loving relationship. No amount of righteous indignation can ever substitute for loving relationship. No amount of church music, instrumental or vocal, can ever substitute for loving relationship. No amount of formal religion can ever substitute for the power of loving relationship. Jesus invites us into loving relationship with him, and so with each other. That is salvation. Are we lovers anymore?
Sometimes it is easier to see things in others. Let’s talk about Islam, shall we? I love Huston Smith’s happy review of the religion of Mohammed. We can certainly learn much from our Islamic neighbors. I commend our President for his tolerant care of our Moslem citizens, and, with some few exceptions thus far, our nation’s civility. We can do no less.
You remember your high school review of Islam. The word means ‘submission’, and Moslem is one who submits to God. The five pillars of Islam, like the ‘tulip’ summary of Calvinism, have shorthand value. You remember them: 1. One God. 2. 5 times daily prayer. 3. Tithing (2.5%). 4. Fasting at Ramadan. 5. Pilgrimage to Mecca. It is a worthy religion.
Without being critical, can we though be honest? Islam is a religion, like our own. But Zaccheus had religion, and that a good one. He even had God, the real God. But religion alone, even our own, is God without Jesus, order without freedom, authority without personality, transcendence without immanence, heaven without heaven on earth, and much masculinity without much femininity. O come down Zaccheus! Come down from certainty, whether of five pillars or five points, and walk the daily dusty path of the cross. No amount of religion can take the place of loving relationship.
Come down Zaccheus, come down, at last. Impediments to faith come through doubt and idolatry and religion, but none of these holds a candle to the harm that wealth can bring. In global terms and in historical terms, every one of us in this room is wealthy. Luke’s entire gospel, especially its central chapters, is aimed at this point. For Luke’s community, the remembered teachings of Jesus about wealth were most important. That tells me that the Lukan church had money, and so do we. This is what makes the account of Zaccheus, “one who lined his own pockets at other people’s expense”, so dramatic for Luke, and so Luke concludes his travel narrative with this clarion call: come down. Be careful as you do not to trip over wealth, power or health. We lose them all, give them all away, over time. They are impermanences. They go. Better that we see so early.
Wouldn’t you love to know what Jesus said to Zaccheus that caused him to give away half of what he had? I would. Especially on pledge Sunday.
It is in this light, three years later, that I still see my unsuccessful wrestling match with a boat hoist that resulted in a broken arm. Whatever else may have happened, at least, for once, I had the insight that comes with that kind of pain and ill health. I would wish it on no one, but there is no better way to see that this is a two handed world, than to lose one for a while. It is not only a two handed world. It is a western, white, male, educated, wealthy, healthy, heterosexual, middle class, two handed world. I need to be reminded of that. Come down Zaccheus, and feel the pain of others.
In our church, over 25 years, we have seen power pushed around from some to others, and taken by some from others, and given by some for others. Racism is not limited to whites, nor gender bias to men. It has been an important, and tragic time, both. I have seen some bitter things done, through the misuse of power. I am sure other institutions have the same troubles. The church, though, has a higher calling, and so our failings in this regard are worse. We should know better. I should have known better than to have said and done some of the things I have said and done over the years. Through the misery of black against white, north against south, male against female, clergy against laity, though, if nothing else, one insight inevitably emerges. Soon we will all be dead. Maybe we could find ways to use whatever power we have now to honor God, love our neighbor, reflect our mortality, and affirm the powerless. Come down Zaccheus, come down!
Before we left seminary, on the day after Thanksgiving in 1978, an odd event befell us. I worked nights as a security guard in those years (along with former President James Evans of CRDS, by the way), and would come home to sleep at 7am. Jan had the day off, and left to shop, but left the door to our little apartment ajar, by accident. About noon a street woman found her way into the building and up into our floor, and then into our room. I woke up to see a very poor, deranged woman, fingering rosary beads, and mumbling just over my head. Boy did I shout. She ran into the next room and I stumbled downstairs to call the police. By the time three of New York’s finest and I returned to the apartment, the poor lady was in the bathtub, singing and washing. They took her away. Jan came back at 3 and asked how I had slept. The moment has stayed in the memory, though, as an omen. Our wealth is meant for the cleansing of the poor of the earth. I think the Lord wanted me to remember that in ministry, so I have tried to. Come down Zaccheus, and use your wealth for the poor.