Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sermon: "What Do You Expect?" (Luke 19:1-10)

Zacchaeus wasn’t just a tax collector. He was a chief tax collector. A ruler among tax collectors. His workspace wasn’t a little cubicle among many other cubicles. He had a corner office all to himself, and he sat there in his leather chair looking out through the tall windows at the city below, at the people below, most of whom were not rich, yet by collecting enough from each of them, he – Zacchaeus – was rich. 
His corner office was provided to him by the Roman government. Now, the people hated him for collaborating with the oppressive empire, but it made him rich. Zacchaeus collected the required taxes and gave them to Rome, but he always collected more than was required; the difference is what he kept for himself. So while Rome gave him the office in exchange for his service to Rome, he himself was able to furnish it with the nicest furniture he could; and at the end of the day, he could go home to his beautiful palace of a house, paid for by all the “extra” he collected from the poor residents of the city he looked down upon.
Those poor residents; not only were they taxed by Rome, but they were also expected to support the Temple. And they would rather support the Temple, if they were given a choice, but the penalties for not paying Rome were more severe than the consequences of not paying their tithes and offerings, so the Temple lost out. If only Zacchaeus didn’t overcharge them for his own luxurious benefit.
But he did. And more for him meant less for the people and less for the temple. By overcharging, he was robbing God as well as the people of his city.
It was all legal. Legal loopholes allowed it. That’s how Zacchaeus justified it to himself.
But legal doesn’t mean it was right or good, and oh, the people hated him. They hated the system he collaborated with, the oppressive Roman Empire.
They called him a “sinner.”
He worked against God, against the temple, and against the people, so surely he, if anyone, deserved that appellation, deserved to be called a “sinner.”
So here’s the question: could a person like that change? Is it possible that a corrupt, selfish person like Zacchaeus, who chose to follow Rome rather than God, could change? Could even he somehow experience a life-changing transformation, a complete change of heart?
The people didn’t believe it was possible. A man like that could not possibly change. It would take a miracle.
Who can imagine such a change?
Then again, who could ever have imagined that a person like George Wallace would ever change…
When George Wallace became governor of Alabama in 1963, he famously declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” As he said this, he was standing in the exact spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as the provisional president of the Confederacy a hundred years before.
Who could have imagined that, years later, George Wallace would publicly recant his views on segregation, and ask for forgiveness from African-Americans?
I’ve heard that, even after his change of heart, even after he publicly asked for forgiveness, many could not imagine it possible. People still hated George Wallace. Many did not forgive him. It was too hard; too hard to imagine that he truly had completely repented and changed.
They doubted that such a change was even possible.
So. Could Zacchaeus change? Not possible, said the crowd that day. Not possible. Not him.
So they shut the door on that possibility. They didn’t bother to hope for change. They didn’t bother to pray for change. And they certainly didn’t relate to him in any kind of a friendly manner.
Instead, they grumbled. They talked about what a horrible person he was. Perhaps they even ridiculed him. Zacchaeus, a wee little man. Ha! A wee little man, with a wee little head, wee little hands, a wee little heart…
There’s been a lot of ridiculing of people we don’t like lately, hasn’t there? In this election season especially, it has become acceptable to ridicule and insult one’s opponent. A discussion of differences is a good thing, but not when it’s accompanied by namecalling and ridiculing and bullying. And I know we’re all tired of it. Everyone says they’re tired of it.
Yet it continues.
Maybe the reason we resort to ridicule and insults is that we can’t imagine anything good coming from the person we dislike. We can’t imagine anything good in that person’s heart. Which means that change is simply not possible…
It also may be that we have such a hard time imagining that a person could change because we have a hard time imagining ourselves changing.
We’re so set in our ways, aren’t we? There’s comfort in that. You wake up in the morning, and you know what to expect – there is comfort in that. Changing our routine is hard.
Changing our way of thinking is even harder.
When you come to worship, to have an encounter with God, an encounter with Christ at the table, what are you expecting?
Do you come expecting change? Do you come expecting to be changed?
A lot of people don’t expect change to happen at church, or to come from the church. In fact, the church is often thought of as a symbol of stability, not change. Even people who don’t go to church are often happy to live near one, to hear the bells ring, to see the worshipers gather every Sunday morning, because there is consistency in that. There is comfort. It happens week after week, always the same.
There is so much change in the world, so much turmoil, but beneath that high-sloped roof, hymns are being sung that are the same ones that have been sung for centuries; and at the table, prayers are being spoken and bread is being broken, and these things have been happening for thousands of years.
On the other hand, if we don’t come to church expecting to be changed, then what’s the point? What’s the point of reading a scripture we’ve heard a dozen times before? What’s the point of listening to a sermon, if we don’t expect it to change us?
What is it we come here expecting? Do we really expect an encounter with God, an encounter with Christ, to change things? To change us?
Zacchaeus had an encounter with Jesus. Jesus actually went to his house, stayed there, broke bread with Zacchaeus.
Nobody expected that to change anything.
“Don’t bother, Jesus.” “You’re crazy, Jesus.” “Nothing good will come of this, Jesus.”
But it did. It changed everything.
And it happened over dinner.
According to the scripture, Jesus invited himself to stay at Zacchaeus’s house, and Zacchaeus welcomed him. Luke only includes this story’s highlights, condensing it, but to welcome someone meant, among other things, to host a meal, a banquet, for one’s guest.
So Zacchaeus’s life was changed because he dined with Jesus.
Change didn’t come about through public condemnation. Imagine if Jesus used social media to condemn Zacchaeus…  Imagine if Jesus tweeted out: “Tax collectors are against all I stand for!” Imagine if he had tweeted, “A friend of tax collectors is no friend of mine!” Imagine if he had written a blog post and titled it, “Tax collectors exposed: why they are evil, greedy thieves!”
But that’s not what Jesus did. Change didn’t happen because Jesus publicly condemned Zacchaeus or his behavior.
 Change didn’t happen because of a lecture or a sermon. I still hope and think that change can happen through a sermon, but it didn’t in this case. And anyway, Keith Watkins, my seminary worship professor, taught me that a sermon is merely a prelude to gathering around the table, anyway.
So it wasn’t a lecture or a sermon or public condemnation that changed Zacchaeus.
Change happened because he and Jesus had dinner together.
Change happened because they broke bread together.
Change happened because, at that meal, Jesus established a connection with Zacchaeus, developed a relationship with him.
And Zacchaeus’s life was changed forever.
A recent article in the New York Times talked about a couple – Kathy and David – and their son, Santi. According to the article, Santi had a friend who sometimes went to school hungry. So Santi invited him to occasionally eat and sleep at his house.
To quote the article: “That friend had a friend and that friend had a friend, and now when you go to dinner at Kathy and David’s house on Thursday night there might be 15 or 20 teenagers and young adults crammed around the table, and later there will be groups of them crashing in the basement or in the few small bedrooms upstairs.”
“One 21 year-old woman who was there said it was the first time she’d been around a family table since she was 11.”
The article’s author wrote that he started going to dinner there about two years ago, “hungry for something beyond food. Each meal we go around the table, and everybody has to say something nobody else knows about them. Each meal we demonstrate our commitment to care for one another.”
The article then ends with these words: “souls are not saved in bundles.” In other words, souls are not saved through huge programs or ministries. Souls are saved through love and connection. [David Brooks, “The Power of a Dinner Table” New York Times, Oct. 18, 2016]
And what better place to find love and connection, than around a table.
Every week, we come to the table. This table symbolizes all that we are hungry for beyond food. In the early days of the church the Lord’s Supper actually was a whole meal, but it’s not anymore.
However, on Wednesday evenings, we also come around a table. Then, we do eat food – a whole meal – but are still fed by more than just food.
Can a simple gathering of friends around a table change people’s lives?
No one expected Zacchaeus to change. No one. Yet, in one simple meal with Jesus, his life changed completely…

We’re about to gather around the table…
We’re about to dine with Jesus…
What are you expecting?
Do you expect to leave here exactly the same as you were when you came in?
Or will your life be changed forever?

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