Transforming LovePosted: November 10, 2013
Jesus changed lives. He healed people. He gave people hope. He inspired them to become their better selves. He assured folks God loved them. News about Jesus spread far and fast. Blind beggars along the road knew who he was, when he passed by. Jesus inspired hope and sometimes just that anticipation was enough faith to make a miracle. The blind could see, the lame could walk, those were easy miracles to see. But perhaps the greater miracle was what happened in the life of Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector of Jericho, a very important and lucrative position. As the principal City of the Jordan Valley, Jericho sat astride three important trade routes and controlled the commerce in Dead Sea Salt and the famous Balm of Gilead. Salt in those days was so valuable, Roman soldiers were often paid in salt rather than currency. The collection of tolls and taxes was highly profitable. Zacchaeus was very rich. He was also very lonely. He was shunned by most of his fellow Jews, the tax collectors who worked under him were constantly scheming to keep a larger portion of the revenues for themselves, and his Roman overlords held him in contempt – a bag man who did their dirty work. Zacchaeus was alienated from his religion. Tax Collectors were scandalous sinners considered no better than loan sharks, prostitutes, and robbers. He was an outcaste.
Zacchaeus was curious about Jesus. Perhaps he had heard the rumors that this teacher ate with tax collectors and sinners. Something inside the little tax collector longed for acceptance, and maybe this Jesus could offer him a way to come home to God.
Zacchaeus was vertically challenged. He couldn’t see over the crowd to get a look at Jesus much less an opportunity to talk with him. So the tax collector ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore fig tree. The sycamore fig is sometimes called a resurrection tree, because in drought conditions the tree can go dormant and looks like it is dead. Indeed, in some parts of Africa when the desert has encroached upon sycamore fig tress they have been buried in sand for decades. But if the desert retreats and the trees are uncovered and some water finds its way to the trees’ roots, they can come back to life. It is probably no accident that the story tellers placed Zacchaeus in a “resurrection tree,” Zacchaeus is a story of a miracle. According to the narrative when Jesus arrived at the place where the little man had literally “gone out on a limb” to get a look at him, Jesus stopped, looked up and invited himself to Zaachaeus’ house for dinner.
The story does not record any of the conversation at dinner, but something profound must have transformed Zacchaeus. Maybe it was the simple act of Jesus’ recognition and acceptance of him. Maybe Jesus said something at dinner that went straight to the little tax collector’s heart. As I grow older I come to realize that actions speak far more loudly than words. The simple act of welcoming people no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey, is often far more profound than anything we could say to them. Whatever happened Zacchaeus rose at the end of the meal and announced that if he had defrauded anyone of anything he would restore it four fold, and half of all his wealth he would share with the poor. That is transformation. That is the kind of changed life people outside the church often claim they are looking for.
But how does that kind of transformation happen? Why don’t people seem to find changed lives in churches?
First, too many churches thrive on fear, guilt, and shame. These negative emotions strengthen the parts of our brains that can drive us ever deeper into our angers and addictions. Fear, guilt and shame can trigger resistance to change. We dig in our heels and resist rather than seeking personal transformation. Also, many of us in the church do not really want to change. We are looking for a generally benevolent affirmation that we are O.K. just as we are. We miss the truth of that Jesus accepts us just as we are, and he loves us so much he doesn’t want us to stay that way. He wants us to change and grow and become more generous and loving.
Another reason we often do not experience changed lives in church is a lack of intentionality. Worship and participation in the life of the church becomes habit and routine. We lack any clear notion of why we are here. We come with little preparation, and a lack of purpose for how or why God might want us to stretch and grow. We want comfort and affirmation, and that is fine, but friends we only get out of it what we put into it.
It’s like the story of the pastor who was invited to preach at a poor congregation. He took his son with him, and before the service he put four one dollar bills in the offering plate just to give people the right idea. After the service the ushers brought him the offering and there were three one dollars bills. The preacher’s son looked at the offering plate and said, “Gee Dad, if you had put more into it, you would have gotten more out of it.”
Zara Renander confirmed for me the importance of intentionality in worship. She points out that so many people complain that when they have walked a Labyrinth, they didn’t get anything out of it. But then they came to the Labyrinth without any intention other than curiosity. When we bring to worship or a Labyrinth our real spiritual concerns, our heart hungers, God will touch us. If we just show up out of curiosity, if we are looking to be entertained, we probably won’t get much out of it.
Transformation does occur when we get in touch with our real heart hungers – our spiritual needs, and we bring them to God. Of course that means allowing ourselves to feel the fear, the loneliness, the grief, the uncertainty that makes us uncomfortable. Transformation means acknowledging the broken relationships, the addictions, the obsessions, the regrets, the memories that haunt us. Sometimes we have to allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable before God can comfort us.
One of the rituals at the Sharing Table is for each person to ask the other people at the Table to pray for something for them. It means taking a minute, getting in touch with a real need, and then sharing that need with others, so they can pray with us and for us. You would be surprised the number of prayers around that Table that are answered. When we allow ourselves to acknowledge our real needs and lift those up to God miracles can happen.
Love changes lives. God waits for each of us to open our hands and our hearts, so God can give us what we need. It is not God’s will that we should live empty meaningless lives, cut off from the love of God. God’s love is free and available to all who seek God’s holy presence in their lives. Love can change the world.
Now I would be remiss if I did not point out how Zacchaeus’ life was changed by God’s love. He shared. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I share with the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” The sign of Zacchaeus’ changed life was his willingness to share. Generosity flows out of thanksgiving our appropriate response to God’s love. And so I ask you today as we offer up our pledge cards for this stewardship drive to consider what is a welcome worth. What is our appropriate response to God’s love? Has God’s love changed me enough that I am willing to share to overflow with generosity?
Today is Stewardship Sunday and in two weeks we will celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday. So as an encouragement to expressing gratitude for the month of November allow me to share a Thanksgiving Prayer.
O Gracious God, we give you thanks for your overflowing generosity to us. Thank you for the blessings of the food we eat and especially for this feast today. Thank you for our home and family and friends, especially for the presence of those gathered here. Thank you for our health, our work and our play.
Just for today, help me, God, to remember that my life is a gift, that my health is a blessing, that this new day is filled with awesome potential, that I have the capacity to bring something wholly new and unique and good into this world.
Just for today, help me, God, to remember to be kind and patient to the people who love me, and to those who work with me too. Teach me to see all the beauty that I so often ignore, and to listen to the silent longing of my own soul.
So please, Lord, send help to those who are hungry, alone, sick and suffering war and violence. Open our hearts to your love. We ask your blessing through Christ. Amen.