Our lessons today invite us – or in Isaiah’s case, demand that we choose – to live by faith, so we can find new life with God. Beautiful thought, esp beyond the prophet’s grim threats. Application in real life?
It is both possible and difficult to take on a new life with a new identity. Real transformation of identity involves changing our selves, which may change the way other people see us and think about us. It is difficult to change a habit. To begin exercising is a challenge, because I will need to structure my time differently. When we change our selves – who we are inside and out – it is more complicated! Getting sober or embracing a new spiritual orientation, any real interior change, often requires dealing with external and internal push back from the experience of the old way.
That is what happens to Zacchaeus in today’s gospel. The tax collector is looking for Jesus, and surprisingly, Jesus is already looking for him! Jesus sees Zacchaeus and he is changed.
If this were a scene in a movie, Zacchaeus might be played by Leslie Jordan to a Jesus played by Israeli actor Yehuda Levi, with ironic comedic affect. In front of everybody, Jesus tells Zacchaeus to come out of the tree, as he intends to visit. The crowd pushback targets Jesus, not because he is so cheeky but because he has chosen a host who is (gasp) a sinner. As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus has built his life on the slippery slope of paying off the powerful and squeezing the powerless, making his living by cheating his own people. He is as ethically soiled as he is wealthy. Yet at the invitation of Jesus, Zacchaeus is changed, immediately, into a man who is generous because he recognizes his identity, a true son of Abraham.
How worthy are we of the invitation of new life with God? Are we always righteous and full of faith, hope, and charity? Or do we feel “small and of little account,” in observing God’s commandments to love mercy and justice? Have we been running without stumbling? Or slogging through pandemic existential dread? In truth, it is not as if we need to earn our salvation. And, we are more likely to embrace transformation when we realize how amazing this relationship with Jesus Christ actually is!
Last week, we kicked off our capital campaign, Deep Roots, New Life, and our annual pledge process. We may each ask ourselves: how does our use of everything we have – our money, our time, our skills – reflect the way we understand ourselves and our relationship with God?
Here is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of which I continue to be absolutely certain: God longs to heal all which is broken in our lives and in our relationships. God desires the mending of the breach and the making of the broken heart whole again. I believe that God invites all of us to take part in new life. When we receive that gift of restoration and of healing, we can respond tangibly, with acts of gratitude, so others can also find new life. That is what true stewardship is all about.
How many times in the gospels does this happen, where Jesus publicly blesses someone who is broken or an outcast, either literally or figuratively? All. The. Time. There is no one permanently lost or outcast in the Reign of God. There is only humanity, either laid low by fear or lifted by spirit. Zacchaeus is lifted, first by climbing a tree, then by encountering Jesus. His response is a generous one. This is a true Hallowe’en moment: we show up, beautiful or not, odd or scary, and Jesus opens the door to welcome us without question, treats us kindly and gives us good things. Jesus always seeks and finds children of God in the most unexpected places. He has the wisdom to see through our imperfections to our hearts, which was and is where our true identity dwells. It is the love of Christ that changes hearts.
If Jesus came to your part of town this afternoon, and invited himself to dinner at your home, what would he see in your heart? Would he see fear or gratitude? What identity would you choose to embrace when you encounter this amazing sort of love?
You have already climbed into the tree, my friends, since you are here this morning, looking for Jesus.
You do not have to be like Zacchaeus, giving away 50% of what you own. You do not have to commit to a full tithe of 10%, although I commend that as a spiritual practice. Please start somewhere, so you can have a share in the amazing work of this place. Many have already considered a commitment to growing their generosity, especially to St Stephen’s. Through the ministries of this parish, lives are changed. Through our school, our community connections, and the beautiful gift of music. Be part of the transformation of someone’s life. I promise that the return on your investment will be a positive one.
Pray to remember the love, blessing, and presence of God in your life. I have found that a simple heartfelt prayer Help me is both entirely honest and quite effective. When you receive your pledge card and your phone call during the next month, please respond generously.