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Edward F. Markquart

Series C

Pentecost 23, Stewardship Sunday     Luke 19:1-10    

Have you ever been to a parade where you couldn’t see past the person in front of you?  Perhaps the person in front of you was too tall or too wide, so you couldn’t seen the marching bands, the prancing horses, or the fire trucks flashing their lights.  So you were then hoisted up on the shoulders of your father or grandfather and were able to clearly see the parade...the bands, the horses, the fire trucks.

I personally love the Seafaire parades here in Seattle.  We never went early enough to get front row seats on the curbs.  We always came late, but carrying a stepladder.  We would position the stepladder behind the wall of people.  There would be three of us on that ladder, and we could see over their heads just fine.

Today’s Gospel story is a parade story, where short little Zacchaeus couldn’t see past all the people in the crowds.  He wanted to see Jesus all right, but he had to climb a tree in order to see him.  You and I can understand that because we’ve all been at parades where we couldn’t clearly see.  The people in front of us were too tall or too many. Today’s gospel story is easy to visualize.

I would like to offer some further background information that will help you to visualize this story even more.

Jericho.  The story happened near a tollbooth on the road through Jericho. Let me explain.  There were two major highways in Israel at that time and one of them went right through Jericho.  Let’s imagine that there was a large Jewish population in Spokane, Washington, and another large Jewish population here in Seattle, and Jewish people from Spokane wanted to travel to Seattle but in between the two cities were Palestinians or Samaritans who were hostile enemies to the Jews.  So the Jews just couldn’t take the freeway from Spokane to Seattle or they may have been mugged by their traditional enemies.  So, the Jews from Spokane went north up into Canada, safely traveled west and came down through customs in Blaine, through the customs station there.  Jericho was the customs station, and thousands of Jews came through there and they had to pay poll taxes on every cow, calf, and camel that came through customs.

Passover time.  It was Passover time which meant that tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims were coming down from Galilee, going around Samaria because it was unsafe, and coming through the toll booth at Jericho and paying their poll taxes.  Researchers tell us that two or three million people showed up for the Passover.  It was like Seafaire here in Seattle, with millions showing up.  Jesus, also, was making this trip, from up north in Galilee, coming south through Jericho to Jerusalem.

Circus time.  Jesus had become a circus star.  Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, healed Bartimaus of his blindness and turned the water into wine. If you can turn water into wine, you become a circus star, a super star.  Jesus had superstar status, and the tens of thousands of people passing through customs at Jericho wanted to see Jesus.

So, short little Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus in such a crowd; he needed to get higher, someplace higher to see over the crowds.  He didn’t have a stepladder but he saw a sycamore tree, right there on the side of the road that Jesus was traveling.

Zacchaeus ran ahead and cleverly climbed that sycamore tree.  Now a sycamore tree is like a fig tree but taller; some 50 to 75 feet tall and some 50 feet wide.  It has large leaves, like a maple or an oak tree.  A sycamore tree is a shade tree, and so Zacchaeus climbed up, took out his bag of popcorn or pomegranates, his bottle of pop and waited. 

Sure enough, here came Jesus.  Just like he planned.  Zacchaeus could see the donkey and The Man through the leaves,  coming up the road.  People were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  Wow!  What a seat.  And then the donkey stopped right beneath his branch.  What luck.  My friends will never believe it.  Ringside seat.

Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m coming to your house this day.”  You know the song from childhood.  “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I am coming to your house today.”

Zaccheus thought quickly to himself:  “How does he know my name?  ... How would he know me? ... Why me?  ... What does he want with me?”   Zacchaeus quickly slid down the tree, the buttons bursting from his shirt with pride.  “Jesus, I would be honored to have you come to my home, the loveliest villa in Jericho, right down there overlooking the river.”  As Zacchaeus sashayed to his house, everyone was gawking at Jesus and Zacchaeus too, which pleased Zacchaeus immensely.

But the crowds weren’t too pleased with Jesus’ choice of a new found friend.  Zacchaeus was the most despised man in Jericho, a crook, a cocky little crook.  Not only was he a tax collector at the toll booth; he was the chief tax collector. The big boss. The richest man in town.  He worked for the Roman government, collecting their taxes, and Zacchaeus would pad the tax, for his own personal benefit.  If there was an immoral skunk in town, Zacchaeus was the man.  A thief, a con man, but untouchable because he was protected by the Roman government.  What a poor choice Jesus made.

So the two of them went into Zacchaeus’ home.  Now, it isn’t very often that I am disappointed in the Bible, but I must confess that I am at this point.  Because we don’t hear one word of what Jesus said to Zacchaeus while in the house together.  In a few moments, Zacchaeus was going to come out of that house a changed man, and we don’t know what Jesus said to him. If we knew what Jesus said, then maybe we could say the same things and people could be changed on Stewardship Sunday.

About that time, Zacchaeus came out of the front door by himself and addressed the large crowd who finally quiet down.  He said, “I apologize to you folks. I have been cheating you for years now at the tollbooth.  You know it and so do I.  I have been a cad, taking advantage of my position.  I’ve gotten richer at your expense.  I apologize.  To make it right, I will pay back each one of you from whom I have stolen.  I will repay you back four times the amount I cheated you.  Yes, each and every one of you.  Also, I am giving half of my goods to the poor of our city.”

The crowd was shell-shocked.  Their cynical selves couldn’t believe it.  One man piped up:  “Sure Zacchaeus, we’ll believe it when we see it.  The Old Testament law is clear; you need to repay us what you stole from us plus 20%; but you say you are going to repay 400%?  What’s the gimmick, Zacchaeus?  What’s the trick?” 

Another suspicious person chimed in:  Half your goods to the poor?  You never cared a rip for the poor.  You never dropped a dollar into the alms plate.  When they rang bells for the poor at Hanukkah, you walked right on by the bucket.  You often said:  ‘let the poor go to work and not live off handouts.’ We’ll believe it when we see it, Zacchaeus.”

About that time, Jesus walked out, stood beside the white picket fence, put his arm around Zacchaeus, and quieted the crowds.  “Today, salvation has come to Zacchaeus’s house.  He has become a true son of Abraham.  I have come to seek and save the lost.  Zacchaeus has been found.”

Thus ends one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible, about a short little man who climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, a story about a man who was transformed from greedy to generous, from selfish to selfless, from a thieving heart to a thanksgiving heart.  We ask ourselves:  “What did Jesus say to him there in that house?”  If only we knew what Jesus said, then perhaps we could say similar things to each other, and we too would be changed and become equally generous.

What shall we talk about?  How shall we apply this story to our own lives?  Perhaps we could talk about the fact that three stories earlier in the Gospel of Luke, we heard about the rich young ruler who wanted to be saved.  Jesus invited him to sell all he had and give it to the poor.  The young man couldn’t do it.  Jesus said, “It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of  God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  But with God, all things are possible.”  And now, three stories later, we discover a rich man who goes through the eye of a needle and is saved.  We could focus on that, but we won’t.

Or perhaps we could talk about the fact that Zacchaeus was the biggest immoral scoundrel in town, a skunk, a reprobate, the worst of all possible sinners and Jesus ate a meal with him.  We could talk about the fact that Jesus will eat with anyone, no matter how bad of a person he or she is said to be.  And so it is with Jesus’ meal, Holy Communion.  If you are the biggest sinner in town, Jesus wants you at his table.  The worst of the worst, Jesus wants to share his meal of forgiveness with you.  Personally, this is important to me because my father never felt worthy enough to receive Holy Communion; he wasn’t one of the good church people and never good enough.  So I have this vow within myself to make sure that all people who feel like my father know they are welcome at the Lord’s table.  We could focus on this, but we won’t.

Rather, I simply remind you that Jesus loved Zacchaeus, the biggest sinner in town. Jesus loved him, and in that love, Zacchaeus was transformed.  Let me explain.  We have this temptation within ourselves to withhold love from people, when we don’t like the shape of the sinfulness in their lives. For example, a husband and wife may have some qualities that really grate each other, and over time, there is the temptation to withhold love from my husband or wife because the nature of their sinfulness irritates so much.  ... Or your teenager, going through that teenager rebellion which is so hard for everyone, and there is a temptation to withhold one’s love when the rebellion is at the worst.  ... Or when your boss is so autocratically and blindly demanding....or the person who works for you is so inept and incompetent in doing trivial tasks, over time there is a temptation to withhold one’s love because one doesn’t like the shape of sinfulness in the other person.  ... Or your neighbor with the incessantly barking dog or tall trees that block your view.  ... Or for those of us who have adult children, our adult children may make choices that disappoint us enormously and we can get so frustrated by seeing the consequences of their poor choices, that we begin to slowly withhold our love from them.  ... Or towards ourselves, the person living underneath our own skin, we may not like the sinfulness in ourselves that we begin to withhold our love for ourselves because we see ourselves as being so inept and incompetent.  So let me say is clearly, so you all can hear:  Jesus loved Zacchaeus, even though he was the worst of sinners.  When you and I are at our sinful worst, Jesus continues to love us also.  Yes, that truth is at the heart of this story.  And it is within that quality of love that a person is changed.

It is human nature to try to cover up our own sinfulness, to hide the fact or diminish the fact of our sinfulness.  Let me give you an illustration.  This is an old story, so old it involves Ella Gran as our church secretary, so old that it involves a tape recorder when I used to tape record my letters for Ella to type, so old that it involves my son Joel, age 28, when he was five or six years old.  This is an old story.  As I remember it, my wife and I were having a little disagreement, some of you may label it an argument, and still others of you would call it a fight.  That is; tempers were hot and things were said in the heat of the moment.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that my little son had accidentally turned on the tape recorder and recorded our whole fight.  Thank heavens, I happened to listen to the tape before I gave it to Ella to type it up.  I would have been mortified if she would have discovered and heard what was said on that tape.  So... like Richard Nixon, I erased the crucial minutes and she never knew. 

And so it is with all of us.  We cover it up; we pretend our sinful side is not that bad; we minimize the nature of our sinfulness.  But the important point is this:  Jesus loves us in our sinfulness at its worst, even when we cover it up and pretend otherwise.

So, that is the first thing I wanted to talk about today.  But the second is equally important, that Zacchaeus was changed. Zacchaeus was changed, from being greedy to generous, from selfish to selfless, from a thieving heart to thankful heart.  How did this happen?  What did Jesus say to him when they were alone?  I mean, Zaccheus only had to pay back what he stole plus 20%; but he wanted to pay them back 400%.  He didn’t have to do that, according to Old Testament law.  He wanted to. 400%!!!  And then he volunteered to give 50% of his goods away to the poor!!!  50%!!! He didn’t have to; he wanted to.  There is a huge change in the level of financial generosity within his heart, and that is what we want to focus on today as well.

Last week, in Pastor O’Neal’s and my dialogue sermon, we talked about how Jesus wanted us to move from little faith to great faith, that little faith had little power for daily living where as great faith has great power for daily life.  You don’t want little faith; you want great faith.  Likewise, you don’t want little generosity; you want great generosity.  As Betty Lou said in her testimony earlier in the service, she and her husband had been active church members for years, but were still giving only little ... a percent a year.  But God got inside of them and they made that decision, to give one percent a year, then two, then three, and now they are at twelve percent after thirteen years.  Al and Betty Lou have moved from little generosity to great generosity, with no guilt and no pressures.  What she said from her heart was so wonderful today.  God wants to move you from the little generosity of one percent to a much greater financial generosity in your life.

In the Epistle lesson today from II Corinthians 8 and 9, the Apostle Paul encourages the church in Macedonia to excel in the gift of financial generosity, and not only to excel in the gifts of faith, and hope and love. God wants the same for our church here in Des Moines;  God wants you to also excel in the gift of financial generosity, like Zacchaeus, and not only in the gifts of faith, hope and love.  God wants you to excel in this gift also.

Today, in the bulletin, you will notice that I have included a chart that compares denominational giving.  The Catholics are the worst in the country, giving 1.2%.  The Lutheran are second from the bottom, giving 1.5%, the same as any average American who may or may not belong to a church.  The Baptists give about twice as much as Lutherans, about 3%.  The Mormons top the list at 7%.  My point is:  we should never compare our giving to other Lutherans who are some of the worst financial givers in the nation.  No, this doesn’t make any sense at all.

Rather, Jesus Christ wants us to be people of great faith, whose great faith makes a difference in the way we live our lives, great faith which makes a difference in the way we give offerings to God.  Great faith is to result in great generosity, great financial generosity.

By the way, I finally did figure it out.  You know, what was said in the house, the words between Jesus and Zacchaeus, when they were alone together.  That is, Jesus didn’t simply come into Zacchaeus’ house that day.  Rather, Jesus got into Zaccheus’ ... heart ... that day.  That’s what changed him.  No one is ever changed to be a generous person unless Jesus gets into your heart; and when Jesus gets into your heart, your life will be changed.  The exact words do not matter;  but Jesus in your heart does matter.  It is his presence, not any special words, that changes us.  When the Spirit is right, any words will do.

I love the story.  I can see it so clearly.  Short little Zacchaeus wanting to see Jesus of Nazareth, the religious superstar, but all those people were in his way. Cleverly, Zacchaeus looked down the Jericho road and climbed a sycamore tree and waited, and sure enough, here came Jesus.  The donkey stopped right underneath where Zacchaeus was perched on a limb.  Jesus said:  “ come down...for I am coming to your ... heart ... today.”  Amen.

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