s198g01 Lockleys Sunday 31 4/11/01

"... half of my possessions I will give to the poor ..." Luke 19.8

I always find it interesting that Zacchaeus gives his hospitality to Jesus, and it is because Jesus invites and accepts his hospitality, that he gives his money to the poor. In a similar vein, Jesus tells the rich young man not to give his money to him - to Jesus, to further his cause - but to give his money to others who need it. Charlatans and gurus most frequently want people to donate money to themselves.

And this is particularly important for us to realise this as we approach our stewardship program here at Lockleys. I have to confess it is the first time I've had a professionally run stewardship program in a parish. I have always had an annual appeal and sermon wherever I have been. So I am looking forward to our time here in the next few weeks. I take this opportunity to heartily welcome Margaret and Trevor Bartlett who are already known to you and have clearly commended themselves in the program four years ago. Clearly you, as a parish, enjoy everything you do and it is wonderful that stewardship is approached in a similar vein.

Sometimes, some people get a bit "thingy" about money - but stewardship campaigns should be a happy time - it's when we "count our blessings" - and for most of us we do have blessings to count. It is not difficult to find people, not too far away, who are much less fortunate - those for whom life is a daily struggle. Only a week or two ago I was at the "checkout" at a local supermarket and a woman rushed in wanting the staff to call the police as she was being followed and menaced by a man - it seemed most likely to be a domestic dispute.

Indeed, of course, the fact that Jesus commends Zacchaeus for giving his money to the poor, reminds us that Jesus' primary ministry was never to set up a new religion requiring large amounts of money to get it "up and running". It reminds us that his ministry was always towards others, and to remind the religious authorities that the basis of their faith was to be a blessing to others too. I have been listing "the others" recently. Certainly they include the financially impoverished, the beggar at our gate, but they also include the religious orphan and widow - those who have never known God as "Father", those who have never heard the good news - as well as those who have lost that intimate knowledge of the love of God they once had - those we used to call "backsliders".

The alien, the person who called God by a different name, was always one who deserved special care. Indeed, in the coming and offering of the first fruits, the recitation of the salvation history made specific mention of the time Israel lived as aliens in Egypt. The words are: "When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 26:1-10).

It begs the question, were the signs and wonders done in the great events of the Exodus, done because Israel was somehow specially favoured by "election", or were they done simply because they were oppressed aliens and needed help? This is a fundamental question, for if we answer affirming the former - we allow that the "chosen people" (whoever we define these to be) have a right to oppress others without sanction from God. And this is not an academic question of history - it calls me to ask - are 'Christian' landlords allowed to discriminate against tenants who may be of other religions, or people whose marital status is different from "normal"? I believe it is right that the law forbids this, and it is odd to me that we find the law more "Christian" than some "Christians".

I believe that Zacchaeus "twigged" when Jesus asked to dine at his home - that this action was not because Jesus was able to discern that Zacchaeus was rich and would provide fare suitable for himself and his disciples. Zacchaeus realised that the request of Jesus was deliberately and publicly to include him - a person who was previously excluded from polite society. He realised that this was the mission of Jesus - to invite previously excluded people - and to join in that mission too, he too had to reach out, not to Jesus, but to others who were outcasts -either through lack of financial wherewithal, appropriate marital status or whatever.

I was only thinking recently that the creedal affirmation about the Church has an element of "coitus interuptus" in it. We say "we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church" - this church which is special in God's eyes - holy - is indeed meant to be one. It is indeed meant to be sent out - to be apostolic, but it seems unclear what we are sent out to do. Hidden within the words is the adjective "catholic" which I was taught, when I was brought up, to mean "universal". Some years ago I realised that it actually means "embracing all" - which is why I used the phrase "coitus interuptus". The real climax is here in this oft misunderstood word "catholic" - as we are called and sent, not to convert, criticise, challenge or cajole others. We are sent out to embrace others.

Now I do not here mean that we are sent our to become bosom friends with anyone and everyone - that is unrealistic, a huge ask for people who are reserved and probably equally unwelcome by recipients who may well be startled if people they do not know well began invading their personal space. We may well indeed lament the lack of "community" but the reality is that individuals hide in their homes and keep to themselves, because of fear. In fact, of course, increasingly these days, people's real home and community is no longer where they happen to sleep and eat in suburbs like Lockleys and Brooklyn Park - it is where the children are in child-care and amongst people's work colleagues, where people speak the same "language".

We are called to embrace everyone in such a manner so as to respect the personal space of others in the process.

All of us are wary that another's friendship may well be proffered in an effort to gain something from us - something that we may or may not be happy to give. We are well aware that there is no such thing as a "free lunch".

Of course the change in location of where people consider their primary community has profound effects on our "parochial" system of congregations.

Zacchaeus was well aware of his status as a religious outcast, and it is this that Jesus' mission was to break down by his request for hospitality. Zacchaeus could well have responded by following Jesus and becoming a disciple, but no, he realised his task was to stay where he was, and to help (as he could) others who were outcasts in other ways.

I said in one of my last sermons at St Philip's that our success as a parish will not be measured by how friendly we are as parishioners one to another, and expanding on this - nor will it be measured by how strong our Sunday School or Youth Groups are, or how much money comes into the plate. The true measure of our success as a parish will be how accepting we are to those who will never darken our doors because they express their faith differently to us, those who live their lives differently to how we do - those who will never be "ours".

I believe it is as we share the blessing of unconditional acceptance towards others as God has unconditionally accepted us - that will be that we follow Christ. And I suspect that as we do this the differences between denominations will completely disappear and the ecumenical movement become quite redundant. I also believe that as we do this - we will find there is no shortage of money to do what we need for our task.

In fact of course, Jesus didn't ask Zacchaeus to give away half his possessions or to restore to people fourfold any he had defrauded - as he seems to ask the rich young man to sell his possessions ... and I wonder why that might have been. All Zacchaeus wanted to do was to glimpse Jesus, whereas the rich young man wanted more - he wanted eternal life.

Zacchaeus responds to Jesus' request by offering to give his wherewithal for God's purposes and I conclude, from this and from my own experience too that people do want to give their money to God. I think we would all be surprised how frequently people want to do this. As I was saying recently at my last event with the Mothers' Union, the first murder recorded in human history was committed because a person thought his brother's offering was accepted before his own.

Our task in this time of stewardship will not be to convert, criticise, challenge or cajole others into giving more, our task will be to accept the offerings which will be forthcoming, from all sorts and conditions of people. The parable tells us that those who considered themselves "at one" with Jesus were quite startled that Jesus invited Zacchaeus to be his host. So our task during this stewardship campaign too will be to rejoice as we see the risen Jesus moving all sorts and conditions of people to give and to accept those offerings.

 

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